BIG Nutrition: What to do when feeling hungry and it’s not mealtime…


BIG Nutrition: What to do when feeling hungry and it’s not mealtime…

My most recent blog reviewed hunger—a complex concept that is part physiological and part psychological—when it is a problem and when it is appropriate, like a hunger rating of 3 or 4 on a 5 point scale (with 5 = hangry) before meals. Understanding the concept of hunger is part of the equation, knowing what to do about it, is the other. Sorting out hunger cues, what to eat, and when to do so between meals is the focus of this blog.

Sorting it Out

Because hunger is so complex, it may not always be clear if hunger is real or related to something else (e.g., boredom, habit, stress). If you feel hungry between meals, first, drink some water. It is anecdotally reported that the signals for hunger and thirst may be confused.  Second, try distraction—return a few emails, text a friend, get some fresh air—then reevaluate the situation. Again, because hunger is complex and can be driven by factors, such as, seeing, smelling, or thinking about food, sometimes it is difficult to be sure that you are hungry.

What to Eat

If you believe that you are hungry between meals, then there is solid research to support including two food components in meals and snacks to help you feel satiated or satisfied—fat and fiber. Research is ongoing to determine whether protein is satiating because current study findings are not clear; perhaps some people feel satiated when consuming protein when others do not or certain circumstances are needed for protein to be satiating.

Foods that have fiber are whole vegetables and fruits, and foods with fat are nuts and avocado (these also offer fiber). Whole grains or starchy vegetables (e.g., rolled or steel cut oats, sweet potato, butternut squash, Quinoa) can also be good foods to eat that offer fiber. As you may have noticed, these all contain an abundance of other nutrients too. Routinely eating more nutrient dense can help you achieve more consistent athletic performance, but it does require some regular attention to food choices.


Of course eating this way is simple, but why isn’t it easy? During peak hunger, preference for energy dense foods (sweet and salty foods, meats) can occur, meaning that the body may prioritize higher calorie foods when hungry. So this is where a bit of planning for meal and snack options is extremely helpful.

When to Eat

Timing can be another factor when it comes to hunger. For example, someone eats lunch at 11:30 am and supper at 7:00 pm. It is not surprising that this person may be extremely hungry at supper. Shortening the length of time between meals or including a snack mid-afternoon helps avert extreme hunger in the evening.

Dealing with hunger can involve many considerations, but reducing unexpected hunger is well worth the effort.

Happy and healthful eating,

Donna G. Pertel, MEd, RD, LDN

If the blogs on hunger have you puzzled and still hungry, contact me at [email protected]