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When You’re Hungry, Should You Eat More — Or Eat Sooner?

Your growling stomach is waiting for the answer

After working from home for the last six months, I wish I could say my eating habits have solidified into a perfect routine. But they haven’t, and more often than not, I find myself inadvertently experimenting with the latest, somewhat-questionable diets such as OMAD, or One Meal A Day

A couple of Fridays ago, for example, I woke up craving Taco Bell, yet neglected to eat anything until I finally ordered delivery at 6 p.m. This, of course, meant I was super hungry when I placed my order, and the next thing I knew, 10 hard shell tacos — more than twice the amount I normally eat — were at my doorstep. Hard shell tacos don’t make for very good leftovers, so I ate every single one of them and felt like absolute garbage afterward

It just so happens that a few days later, I came across a viral Reddit post claiming, “How hungry you are is a measure of how soon you should eat, not how much you should eat.” Which left me wondering: If I’d had that mindset and opted to eat a normal amount of tacos — despite how hungry I felt — would I have avoided six hours of stomach cramping? Or would three measly tacos have left me unsatisfied? 

Like many “Life Pro Tips” on Reddit, the answer is more complicated than promised. Per Nicole Conteduca, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Chicago, the sensation of hunger itself can be triggered by a number of things, “including sleep, stress, hormones, environment and more.”

Since it’s hard to say that hunger definitely means one thing or another (after all, people often mistake dehydration for hunger), Conteduca says the maxim of hunger being a measure of how soon you should eat as opposed to how much is only “kind of” accurate. “Yes, hunger pains or pangs are usually our body’s way of signaling to us that we need to eat soon,” she explains. “But it’s such a broad statement considering that people may experience levels of hunger differently, which causes them to eat differently.” 

In other words, “our bodies adapt to the way we eat and send signals accordingly,” she continues. Case in point: Conteduca says she works with some clients who only get hungry around their three regularly scheduled meal times, and others who eat six meals or snacks a day who report feeling hungry at all six of those appointed times. Meanwhile, people with eating disorders “tend to have inaccurate hunger and fullness cues, so they can’t rely on those to tell them what or how much to eat.”

That said, tweaking your overall mindset to “if I’m super hungry I should eat soon, not a lot,” is better than skipping a meal and shoveling so many tacos down your throat that you feel like shit for the next 24 hours. “You don’t want to let yourself get too hungry or it can trigger overeating or binge-eating,” Conteduca tells me. “Giving yourself what you want when you want it is super important and a part of healthful eating.” In practical terms, that means being proactive and consistent with regularly timed snacks and meals so you avoid feeling hunger in the first place. 

“Ultimately, you have to learn what works best for you and what makes you feel best,” Conteduca concludes. “Our bodies aren’t machines, and we don’t need to eat the same exact calories every day. Instead, trust your body — it will tell you how much food you really need.”