Calories – Hunger to Fullness Scale
Calories are the energy that our body needs to survive. In Part 1, we looked at the chemistry behind calories and talked generally about how many we need to survive. Yet everywhere we look, we see calorie counts and suggested food amounts.
Instead of looking at our calorie count as a magical number, if we continue to look at calories as energy, then we can start to figure out just how much fuel or energy we need on a given day.
So how do we gauge intake?
If you are concerned about eating too much or too little, it’s best to talk with a registered dietitian to create a personalized plan based on your unique needs. I do not universally recommend tracking food (or calories) in an app, website, or journal because the practice can cause harm if not done with care and a thorough understanding of its role in guiding nutrition goals.
Instead, especially for high school students, it’s more valuable to pay attention to signs from your body that you’re giving it enough fuel.
Signs you’re not eating enough energy:
- Low energy / fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- Bloating and/or constipation
- Stalled training
- Missed menstrual cycles
- Constantly thinking about food
- Hair loss / brittle nails
- Constantly getting sick
Weight and body shape are not great indicators of whether you’re over or underfueling. Growing bodies are designed to change. They gain weight to grow taller, increase bone density and length, develop muscles and organs, etc.
And the body shape changes as hormones dictate what’s necessary for life. Restricting energy in an attempt to control weight can get in the way of growth and development.
Finally, underfueling sacrifices athletic performance – limited fuel leads to poor training leads to minimal strength and endurance gains.
Nutrition is one piece of our fitness journey. See how schools use PLT4M to take a holistic approach to fitness and training.
WHAT ABOUT TOO MUCH?
Determining whether or not you’re eating MORE energy than what your body needs is a bit trickier. Weight itself is not a great indicator because on any given day, a body can change 5-8 pounds based on water shifts alone – it has nothing to do with weight gain.
Instead of focusing on overfueling, I prefer to focus on signs someone might not be eating in a way that makes them feel unsatisfied and, in turn, regularly eat beyond the point of physical need. These include
- Going more than 5 hours without eating
- Feeling extremely hungry by the time they eat
- Constantly thinking about food
- Feeling anxious around food
- Rigid food rules (e.g., foods you can eat and foods you cannot)
- Making up for foods you’re “not supposed to have”
- Having “cheat” days
- Feeling out of control around foods
- Eating in front of the tv, phone, computer, books
- Feeling “full” but still wanting more / different food
- Regularly eating to avoid feeling emotions
- Feeling guilt or shame around food
One tool to help gauge energy needs is your body’s hunger signals. (DOWNLOAD THE HUNGER TO FULLNESS SCALE PDF)
When the body begins to run low on fuel, it sends signals to the body that increase interest in food. Those signals make you think more about food and notice clues of food around you, such as the smell of a bakery or the advertisement on social media.
Your stomach may feel a little empty, and the thought of food is appealing. As hunger grows, so does the intensity of the symptoms. The stomach growls louder and often gets upset. We have difficulty concentrating, feel irritable, dizzy, or light headed and may develop a headache.
When we wait until we’re ravenous, we are more impulsive around food and tend to eat quickly. We eat anything and everything. We are particularly driven towards foods that give us energy, quickly, and in large amounts.
When we are in this state, we are more likely to eat beyond our energy needs and until we’re uncomfortably full. This is a natural and normal reaction to going too long without food because our body is “making up” for lost time.
LISTENING TO OUR BODIES
You see, eating is a biological need, just like breathing. You can hold your breath as long as you’d like, but the longer you try, the greater the gasp you’re going to take when your body can’t stand the oxygen deprivation anymore. The longer we wait to eat, the ‘gasp’ we take comes in trying to consume too much food.
The “right” time to eat is when we are just beginning to feel the desire for food. It’s the “I could eat” point of hunger. In this place, we can be thoughtful about what we want to eat and what our bodies need. We are more likely to enjoy the experience and feel more satisfied.
Have you ever felt full, but not satisfied? Like you were “stuffed” from eating the foods you were “supposed” to have but still wanted to have “the treat?”
Consistently eating “enough” energy is the first step to fueling the body. But the chemistry of the foods makes a big difference in your hourly energy levels as well as the enjoyment of the food experience itself.
In our next post, we’ll look at the different types of energy and how they affect our energy, health, and performance in the gym or on the field.
Meet The Author: Rebecca Toutant, MA, RDN, LDN, CDE
Rebecca is a registered dietitian, personal trainer, and certified diabetes educator living and working in the Boston area.
Learn more about Rebecca and her background here: Fuel 4 Fitness – Rebecca Toutant