Your hunger is a mystery. Some days you eat what's on your plate and move on, while others it's like your stomach is an empty pit.
Yes, it can be confusing. That's because you're grappling with your hunger (a physical need to eat) and your appetite (a desire to eat). Often, one can be mistaken for the other—and that can make all the difference if you lose, gain, or maintain your weight.
To help you decode what your body and brain are really saying, you've got to learn the difference between the types of hunger—from real to boredom to stress. Here's how.
Real hunger is the most important type of hunger—it tells you when you must eat! Real hunger makes you feel physical signs like shakiness from low blood sugar, a headache, low energy, or a grumbling stomach, says Susan Albers, PysD, author of EatQ. Seems simple enough, but often we wait to eat until a hunger emergency rises and we scarf whatever is in sight. So be prepared: keep snacks in your bag, glove compartment, or in your desk.
What goes better with The Bachelor than a bag of something to munch on? Too bad you'll be elbow deep before you realize it. Call it eating amnesia. One 2013 review of studies in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating when distracted prompted people to consume more calories in the moment—as well as hours later. Albers suggests thinking about how hungry you are before you turn on the TV. As you watch, busy your hands doing something else (like knitting or paying bills), and skipping past commercials so the ad for Papa Johns doesn't bring on a pizza craving.
What to do? Well, let's see what's in the fridge, you say to yourself. "Boredom eating is something we all do," Albers says. "One thing we have to work on is being able to better tolerate boredom instead of a knee-jerk reaction to try to fill our time with something." Reframe boredom into relaxation time. If you need help figuring out what to do, list five easy ways to relax (read a magazine, pet your dog), five places you can go that you feel at ease (your porch swing, a quiet room), or five people you can connect with (your sister, a best friend), she suggests. When boredom strikes, pick one on your list—and find your zen.
If you're not familiar with the term, it's a combo of being "hungry" and "angry." It happens when your blood sugar takes a dip, causing fuzzy-headed thinking and irritability. And it's worth getting control of: recent research form the Ohio State University found that married people who had lower blood sugar levels were more likely to act aggressively toward their spouses. When you're hangry, you might reach for a sugary snack, since it'll give you a quick pick-me-up. But for the sake of your relationship and your waistline, recognize what you're feeling and then eat a healthy carb, like a piece of fruit or a few whole grain crackers, to restore blood sugar levels.
Here's a thought: 3 p.m. should be renamed "vending machine hour" because it's the time we're starting to think about how those Reese's would be so good. "Your energy's dipping and you're anticipating the end of the work day," says Michelle May, MD, a mindful-eating expert, not to mention you may actually be a little bit hungry if it's been a few hours since lunch. The best thing you can do is plan for it. Make a snack drawer at work filled with protein-packed choices, since one study in Appetite found a higher-in-protein snack helped tide people over longer until dinner and reduced the amount they ate at their next meal. Try nuts or cheese and crackers, or stash a few Greek yogurts in the office fridge.
"We're less picky about what we eat when we're stressed," says Albers. So it's more likely that you're dipping your hand into a bag of Skittles than reaching for a container of Greek yogurt. One trick that can help: stop and focus on the future health benefits of your chosen snack, like losing 5 pounds or lowering your blood pressure. That can help your brain "override" its natural urge to make indulgent choices when in a bad mood, according to 2014 research in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. And while finding a different go-to stress reduction technique, like exercising, is a smart move, don't worry if you feed your feelings on occasion. Another study in 2013 found that stress eaters may eat more when times are tense, but they naturally tend to eat less when things are good. The end result? No weight gain. So take a deep breath and relax.
Your resolve to follow a healthy diet gets knocked on its head when you're PMSing, a time a few days before your period where hormone changes may ramp up appetite and cravings. "You don't have to deprive yourself. If you have PMS it makes perfect sense that you may want more to eat," says Dr. May. Pay attention to hunger cues and eat a bit more if they're actually there. "Soon, the symptoms will fade away and you'll find balance again," she says.
You don't feel hungry or tired, but you want to eat something. "Ask yourself, ‘what am I asking the food to do for me?'" suggests Minh-Hai Alex, RD, of Mindful Nutrition Seattle. Maybe you're actually trying to procrastinate on a work project or you want to take a break and eating at least feels productive, she says. Use that eureka moment to decide if you really do need to snack on something.
Also known as "because it's there" hunger. You walk into the break room and there's a tray of cookies left over from the lunch meeting. Might as well take one, right? The key, says Alex, is to pause before you do anything. This short-circuits the automatic habit where you take a treat and eat it without thinking or enjoying. Then make a decision: skip it or eat it. If you do take one of those break-room cookies, give yourself permission to enjoy it. "Feeling guilty often makes us eat things really fast to get it over with—and then we want more to soothe those thoughts," she says. Remember: one cookie won't make you gain weight, but scarfing down three out of shame on a regular basis may.
Eating with friends and family for a dinner out or a special occasion is a good thing—birthday cake, pizza, and all. "There's nothing wrong with that! Food has an amazing ability to connect us with others," says Dr. May. You only get into trouble when indulging is the sole way you celebrate a win. Instead of automatically meeting a friend for happy hour where you drink wine and share appetizers, plan a walking date and window-shop your way through your town. Celebrate your sister's birthday with a pedicure instead of a big meal out. You're feeling better already!
This article originally appeared on Health.com.