I frequently talk to people about food and eating, sometimes because I am a dietitian, sometimes because we live in a culture that obsesses about food and eating. Often I’ve heard this: “I don’t have a limit when I’m eating. I just won’t stop if I don’t force myself to. ”
To this I say: bunk. It just feels like that.
Everyone has a stopping point*. You might not think so because maybe you, like I did at one point, have stood beside the cheese tray at a cocktail party scarfing ungodly amounts of mediocre cheese cubes fearing you’ll never stop. Maybe you did eventually stop at that “I’m gonna burst!” point and regretted the whole ordeal. And maybe you simply don’t know your stopping point, as I did not, because you are hungry much of the time…so very, very hungry.
Here’s a little secret: dieting and calorie and food restriction create a false impression in your body that you are a bottomless pit. That you are a well that will never be filled, especially when you are confronted by a favorite or particularly delicious (or sometimes even mediocre) food. Maintaining a body weight lower than what is natural for you will also cause your body to constantly crave food, large amounts of it.
On the flip side, honoring your appetite has the opposite effect. Once you begin to eat satisfying amounts of food when you feel hungry and your body weight adjusts toward its natural set point, your bottomless pit starts to find its bottom. As you practice honoring internal cues more often, you may start to find that your stopping point is not, in fact, stuffed but satisfied. You may even find yourself easily leaving food on the plate, or turning down the offer of a homemade brownie if you are simply not hungry for it.
My bottomless-pit acquaintances are incredulous when I suggest that they do have stopping points. They don’t trust their bodies. Some are invested in maintaining a certain external appearance and don’t feel their natural appetite will support their desired size. I sympathize. I was once a bottomless pit too. But I became sick of being ruled by food and by fear of the cheese tray. I became tired of living my life solely to support a certain body size when there were so many other interesting things to do. When I started truly honoring my internal signals of hunger and satisfaction, I no longer had fearsome insatiable cravings. Yes I gained some weight, but I began to lose the fear that had driven my need for a smaller body size; honoring my appetite came from a place of love and, for me, was the truest act of self-care.
If you, too, have become weary of being ruled by food, you can take some baby steps now toward honoring your hunger and eating more intuitively:
- Make a delicious meal for yourself. Make sure there is enough of everything for seconds if you want them. Before the meal, give yourself full permission to eat as much as you desire…which may or may not include second helpings. Stop to occasionally check in with your gut – do you feel satisfied? Hungry for more? Be curious, not judgmental, with yourself in this exercise.
- Stock one of the foods you are afraid of overeating in your cupboards. Buy enough that you feel confident you won’t run out and then give yourself permission to eat as much of that food whenever you want. People have expressed disbelief to me over this one; they think they will never be able to stop eating that food. Trust me, you might eat a lot at first, but even the best ice cream gets tired very quickly.
- Try using the hunger scale to assess your readiness to eat and to explore your satisfaction point. I love this one from Green Mountain at Fox Run. Aim for 3 to start eating and 7 to stop.
Eating what you want and as much as you want may feel scary at first. As your body adjusts, that fear may turn to comfort as you realize you are taking care of yourself and your needs and you no longer have to fear your own bottomless pit.
*Sufferers of Prader-Willi Syndrome excepted.