Emotional eating is easy to fall into if you're stressed out. Taking a moment to assess your hunger level with a simple tool can help establish more self-aware behavior.
CNN  — 

Eating when feeling stressed has become a reality for many of us during these unsettling days, even among people who don’t usually reach for food when feeling anxious.

Whether your stress stems from anxiety regarding your children attending school in person, concern about getting sick as we spend more time indoors this fall, the ongoing fight for social justice or a not-so-distant US presidential election, it all makes sense that we’re stressed. Uncertainty is not a favorite human emotion.

Food can be comforting, and there is nothing wrong with that, experts say. Sometimes you might turn to food intentionally, as it can be soothing. Other times, you might be craving something other than food but find yourself impulsively reaching for sweets or mindlessly nibbling on chips. At mealtimes, you may simply wish to figure out what it is you want to eat based on how you are feeling.

That’s where the hunger meter – a tool to help create space between you and the fridge or kitchen cabinet – can come in handy. By taking a sacred pause and asking yourself where you are on the hunger meter, you can increase your awareness, which can allow you to make an informed decision about eating. And it can be especially helpful if impulsive or stress-related eating has become more frequent.

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“The hunger meter is one of our most helpful tools for getting back to what the body already knows how to do, in case you’ve found yourself off path and off in the weeds a bit during this stressful time,” said Signe Darpinian, a certified eating disorders specialist and the coauthor of “No Weigh! A Teen’s Guide to Body Image, Food, and Emotional Wisdom.”

“There is a lot of collective anxiety at this time, which can lend itself to more emotional eating, which makes perfect sense,” Darpinian said via email. “But feeding a body that’s not asking to be fed on a regular basis can lead to preoccupation and more emotional headspace than what is ideal.”

Instead, when you create a pause to become aware of what you are doing, that awareness in and of itself is a very powerful motivator for change if you realize a particular behavior no longer serves you, explained Wendy Sterling, registered dietitian and coauthor of “How to Nourish Your Child Through an Eating Disorder” and Darpinian’s co-author on “No Weigh!”

How the hunger meter works

“When you feel a pull toward food, create space between you and the food to see where you are on the hunger meter,” Darpinian said.

Here are what the numbers on the hunger meter equate to:

1 = Starving, ravenous, dizzy, cranky, can’t think clearly, low blood sugar

2 = Very hungry, rumbling stomach

3 = Manageable hunger; a happy place where you want to arrive at mealtime; calm and mindful about eating

4 = You could eat, but you’re not that hungry; snacky

5 = You’ve probably just eaten, and aren’t hungry

6 = The dreamy stopping place; your stomach feels happy and at peace, it’s not overly stuffed

7 = Your taste buds lose interest much beyond this point

8 = You are on the path toward full and feel anchored by your food

9 = Thanksgiving day stuffed

10 = Uh oh. Time to unbutton

The key is to match your fuel to your hunger level. For example, if you are a “4,” you might need a small snack, like a fruit with a small handful of nuts. If you are a “1” on the hunger meter – that is, basically starving – you might need a full meal. Just an apple will not do.

“You likely will need something more substantive, like a turkey sandwich with fruit and chips,” Sterling said. “As your blood sugar comes back to normal, you should ask yourself, ‘Why was I so hungry? Did I miss something that day? Was my lunch not filling enough?’”

Whether it’s time for a meal or snack, experts recommend eating when arriving at a manageable hunger, what is called a “3” on the hunger meter – a place that is somewhere between not too hungry and not too full.

“You feel calm and mindful about the decision to eat. You’re not ravenous, but you may feel a little twinge in your stomach, a little emptiness telling you that your body wants food. It’s been a few hours since you had your last meal, and you feel ready to find food so your brain and body can perform at an optimum level,” Sterling said.

Factors including what taste, texture and temperature of food you are in the mood for – like sweet, smooth, creamy, crunchy, hot or warm – can help you figure out what to eat.

If you pause and identify that you are on the fullness end of the hunger meter – say an “8,” “9” or “10,” you might be curious why you’re placing a few cookies on a plate.

“If you are a ‘9’ on the hunger meter – meaning you are pretty full – you’re likely not physiologically hungry at all,” Sterling said.

Between “8” and “10,” “the focus is not so much on whether or not you end up eating the food or not … but strengthening your ability to create the space and cultivate curiosity about why the food is there if you’re not hungry,” Darpinian said.

Sometimes, a simple question and answer with yourself can help you to see what’s really going on. For example, if you are not hungry for food, what is it that you’re actually hungry for?

“Maybe it’s a nap you really want, or possibly a day off,” Sterling said.

Then again, you may just want cookies, even if you are full. And that’s OK.

You can certainly have dessert without hunger, and in that case it may be fulfilling a need for pleasure. “But if it happens chronically or habitually, in a way that makes you uncomfortable, you might want to ask yourself, ‘If it wasn’t about the cookie, what would it be about?’” Darpinian said.

“If you determine that eating the cookies grounds you in this time of stress, maybe you switch it up a bit and sometimes it’s yoga or writing in your journal as a way to anchor your thoughts on paper,” Darpinian said.

Other activities you might consider include taking a walk, calling a friend, painting or taking a shower.

“I coach my clients to add in more foodless fulfillment – things that really excite them – to fill them up from the inside in a way that food without hunger never could,” Sterling said.

All foods and occasions fit

It’s important to remember that all foods fit as part of a healthy diet, experts say, and it’s not so much about what or how much you choose to eat or not eat.

“It’s about becoming more self-aware,” Sterling said. “Awareness gives you a choice. Only you can know what you’d like your stopping place to be, it’s very personal.”

At your favorite restaurant, for example, you may wish to feel a bit more anchored by your food, and stop at say, an “8,” whereas on a workday, stopping at a “6” at lunch may help you feel more energized.

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And it’s not about judging your choices. “Diet culture likes to demonize (choices) – but I teach my clients to truly accept all foods. You might grab cookies one night and cucumbers and hummus the next night,” Sterling said.

“The goal is for a cookie to get back to being a cookie again, not a way to feel good or bad about yourself,” Darpinian added.

Lisa Drayer is a nutritionist, an author and a CNN health and nutrition contributor.