How Full Should I Be?

pizza
I now know when to stop. Even when it’s sooooo good!

I get asked this by people quite a bit, and those of you also in your non-diet, internally regulated eating journey might be struggling with the same question: “How full should I be?”

I answer this question, sometimes perhaps infuriatingly so, with, “Well, that depends on how full you want to feel.”

Pause. I read my questioner’s mind. Not helpful.

This answer, though, rescues you from the pat solutions that diets try to offer and don’t work. Think of the last diet you can remember – did it ever mention anything about respecting fullness? Or honoring your hunger? Probably not. It was likely much more concerned with teaching you how to trick your body out of feeling hungry and craving satisfaction (which never worked).

I know your frustration; after all, I was the person, back in my dieting days, who could not stop eating my favorite food, pizza, until I was absolutely uncomfortably stuffed. I had to work my way through this process, too.

So, a while back I wrote about experimenting with my fullness, having learned that there was a difference between being “no longer hungry” and the varying levels of fullness that one can experience. I decided to see what “no longer hungry” felt like as a stopping point.

I experimented and experimented. It took so much experimenting in the year and a half since I wrote that post. Here’s what I learned:

It’s not enough for me to be just “no longer hungry.” I do hit that spot while eating, I recognize it, but it does not satisfy me most of the time.

I also learned I don’t like to be really full either. So somewhere in between “no longer hungry” and “really full” is a sweet spot that I like. The beauty of this is that I get to decide what level of fullness satisfies me most.

What I figured out is that if I stop at “no longer hungry,” I’m hungry as hell in an hour. When I’m at work, I really need a meal to satisfy me for at least a couple of hours, because I don’t enjoy snacking every hour (though sometimes in my woeful lack of preparation for lunch at work, this is the reality).

If I go to “really full” – the kind of fullness that puts me on the edge of discomfort – it ruins my appetite for the next meal. That’s no fun at all.

It also depends on the meal I eat. If it’s an especially good meal, I might eat a little more than I usually do, if I feel like it. If it’s a meal that turned out just meh, then I’m probably going to eat just enough to get by to the next meal or snack.

I discovered that, as I progress through a meal, how the food tastes in my mouth works in tandem with how my stomach feels to tell me when to stop.

All of this I found out through, as I said, a lot of experimentation. Mindfulness, intuitive eating, internally regulated eating, normal eating…whatever you want to call it – that’s what I practiced. Paying attention to my meal, to my body, over and over again.

I wouldn’t have needed this experimentation if we lived in a world without diets and I’d grown up with structured family meals, if we lived in a world that had no particular expectations for the way women’s bodies looked and I had never tried to lose weight to meet them. But we don’t live in that world, so experimentation it is.

This is the hard part for those of us moving away from the diet mentality — learning to negotiate the gray areas of “What do I like?” “How much do I want?” “How hungry do I want to be?” “How full should I get?” And the hardest one: “How do I let go of judgment around food and my body?”

The answer to all of that is to keep practicing. Just keep being curious with yourself. Intuitive eating isn’t magic; we’re just learning skills, and skills just take practice. A lot of frickin’ practice.

And then one day, it isn’t intuitive eating anymore; it’s just eating. It’s not hard. You’re not thinking all the time about food and what to eat and how much to eat. You plan a bit. You feed yourself. Then you do other stuff.

It’s a beautiful thing.

So anyway, that’s how full I want to be when I eat. A little more full than “no longer hungry;” less full than “really full.” It’s hard to describe it in words but it doesn’t matter because it’s the thing that works for me and I just have to know it when I feel it. You’ll have your own thing, and even if you’re not there yet, eventually you’ll know it when you feel it too.

Tired of struggling on your own?

I’m launching a group coaching/online course in February to help you get free of diet mentality and further along toward normal eating. I’ve created this very affordable option because so many of you have wanted to work with me one-on-one but just can’t afford it. Make sure to get on my newsletter list as this will be the first place I send out more detailed information about the course, and enrollment will be limited. Get on my list here.

Dietitians Unplugged News

Missing us? No fear! We’re just on a little end-of-year hiatus until January. In the meantime, catch up on all our episodes on Libysn, iTunes, or Stitcher.

I’m Hungry…So My Body Must Be Broken

Stomach_diagram_feedme
It’s actually pretty simple.

“I’m so hungry…there must me something wrong with me.”

“I’m so hungry…it makes me want things I shouldn’t eat.”

“I’m so hungry…it’s really sabotaging my weight loss.”

I have heard all of these statements, and variations of them, A LOT. The only one I rarely hear among the general population these days is, “I’m so hungry…I really must eat now.”

We’ve attached an enormous amount of guilt to eating and worse yet, to hunger. We think our hunger is to be distrusted, that there is something wrong with our bodies when we experience hunger, and that we must do everything to thwart our hunger: ignore it, fill it with unsatisfying air food, quench it with copious amounts of water or coffee or tea or zero calorie soda (or worse yet an ungodly “master cleanse” concoction of water, maple syrup, lemon and cayenne pepper. Cocktail of champions.). We see our hunger as a symptom of a broken internal system…and that we would only be thinner if this hunger thing would just go away.

Back in the day, when I started dieting, I thought it was just us fat people ruing our hunger in secret. It probably was people of all sizes but everyone had somehow decided to keep it to themselves. Now that everyone, simply everyone, must share the intimate details of their latest weight loss regimen so they can be deemed good and worthy citizens, we know all about it. And because we know all about it…we think it’s the right thing to do. Everyone is suspicious of their hunger…why aren’t you?

I’ve heard it from fat people trying to lose weight and thin people who are secretly terrified to put on weight…I’m so hungry, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Well, as a very smart person once said on the internet, hunger doesn’t lie (Was it you that said this? Please take credit for it in the comments if so!). If you’re hungry, that’s your body telling you one thing: FEED ME!

It’s so basic, so obvious, you’d think we’d understand this. Even if, on an intellectual level, you didn’t know that hunger means “eat,” it kind of tells your body exactly what to do. If you were raised by wolves in the wilderness and never spoke a word of human, and you got hungry, your body would figure out what to do – it would directly you to eat. It would make even the most unappealing foods – raw badger, or whatever wolves eat – totally appealing. And then you’d eat and your life would be go on.

But back in the “civilized” world (where we are generally not being raised by wolves), not only do we instinctively know we should eat, we have all the science at our fingertips to know that hunger means EAT…and yet we resolve to not eat. Yay, civilized world.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that, at least in part, all this started from a collective sense of body dissatisfaction, the idea that our bodies are innately wrong and must be solved (brought to us by the people who have benefited in one way or another from the body insecurity of others). Then came the misinformation that we can not only solve our bodies, but that we should and we must! So if we think our bodies are a problem to be solved, and the solution is possible, and the solution is to eat less, and this means less than we are hungry for, then yes, of course you would learn to see your hunger as the enemy.

And I get it: if you are in one body but feel you should be in another body, you may indeed feel betrayed every time you feel that pang of hunger that tells you to eat just when your diet tells you not to.

But guess what we’ve finally figured out? Our bodies are not something to be solved, and the solution doesn’t even work for very long anyway. Upon starving to lose weight (because simple “lifestyle changes” didn’t accomplish the task), our bodies learn how to use energy more efficiently and store more as fat. They learn how to gain weight on the little we feed them while we are actively ignoring our hunger. You might be able to outrun your hunger indefinitely, but your body will take its revenge down the road, either in the form of weight gain or more intense hunger – take your pick.

To all of those who lament their hunger…your hunger is most likely not malfunctioning*. Your body is not broken. Consider honoring that hunger pang with some food that you love, or that makes you feel good. See what happens. Will you eat until you literally explode? Unlikely. Only the guy in Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life” ever did that but that was just mean, fat-shaming fiction.

It’s time to admit that the body has wisdom. The body decides its own weight, not the wishful-thinking part of the brain that is coerced daily by messages that profit from your body dissatisfaction. Make friends with your hunger, learn how to truly honor it, and it won’t lead you astray.

*Yes, there are some diseases and conditions that can cause excessive hunger. Most of us don’t have those diseases, and that’s not who I’m talking about.

Podcast!

Check out the latest Dietitians Unplugged podcast in which we discuss the misconception that intuitive eating is for weight loss.

Diving Deep Into Intuitive Eating

EATI have been reading Fiona Willer’s excellent book, The Non-Diet Approach Guidebook for Dietitians, which provides a structured approach for dietitians teaching normalized eating (aka attuned eating aka intuitive eating aka mindful eating). I can’t recommend it enough for dietitians who want to work from a Health At Every Size® perspective with their clients. I’m really enjoying the material and it made me think about how I teach this approach.

My shorthand for intuitive eating has always been, “Eat when you are hungry, stop when you are full.” But reading Willer’s book alerted me to something very important: there is a difference between full and satisfied. Satisfied is the absence of hunger that we need to pay attention to in our eating. The absence of hunger is actually the biological signal to stop eating – not feeling “full.” The difference may seem small, but it is in fact profound. It can be the difference between eating more than we need and eating just enough. Stopping when we are no longer hungry and waiting 10-15 minutes will take us to that comfortably full feeling, because it takes at least that long for our body to recognize fullness.

If I hadn’t given this a lot of thought before, I had to ask myself: Am I truly an intuitive eater?

When I first quit dieting, I decided to give myself a break and just eat. I hadn’t heard of intuitive eating yet, only HAES®, and was doing my best to figure out how to eat normally for the first time in my life. For the most part I didn’t binge – that was something I did when I was restricting – but I didn’t have a clue of how I wanted to feel before, during and after I ate a meal. I did become more of an intuitive eater as I learned more about it, but it’s a process that takes time and practice, especially after so many years of restrictive, regimented eating. Lately my efforts at eating well have concentrated around trying to find ways to get more vegetables into my day, but now I’d like to back up a bit and make sure my IE skills are where I want them to be.

So, because I will never ask my clients to do something I could not or would not do, last week I vowed to really start paying attention to my body’s signals around eating.

Hunger is not a problem for me – I recognize hunger like it was an old pal (although I as a dieter I considered it more of a frenemy). I generally do try to eat when I’m hungry but there are times when this is harder to do – like at work. I’m sometimes a poor planner around snacks, so I occasionally (all right, several times a week) find myself starving and without food at hand. Allowing my hunger to go on for so long – either because I am too busy or too lazy to get food – probably leads me to eat more than I need when lunch time rolls around. Thus, task number 1: make sure I have sufficient snacks throughout the day and access to a lunch I want in order to properly honor my hunger.

I realized last week that I have another hungry-habit that is a holdover from my dieting days. Never a morning exerciser, I like to work out (either at the gym, or by going for a walk) right after work and before dinner. But that means we sometimes don’t eat until almost 8 pm, some nights even later. No good – my significant other (S.O.) and I are both starving and miserable by then and a late dinner means trouble for my acid reflux problem. No to mention we tear into our meal like wild dogs at that late hour, sometimes holding our bellies in distress and dismay at how we ate more than we needed just because we were so hungry.

Task number 2, then: we’re going to eat dinner when we are hungry, which happens to be right after we get home from work. We don’t want snacks then, we want to make dinner because we still have the energy for it. I’ve avoided this because I didn’t like exercising on a “full” stomach after dinner…but exercising on a “satisfied” stomach should be fine…once I get there.

Which brings me to discovering my stopping point. The truth is, I’m often stressed and rushing when I eat, either at work because I’m busy or at home because I’ve waited too late to eat. I’ve also always been a fast eater, speeding through meals as though I’d had to compete with ten siblings for food growing up (I’m an only child). So I’m not actually sure at what point I am stopping these days. I have noticed lately that I feel fuller than I want to at times, and I’d like to remedy that.

(Incidentally, I asked my S.O., who is a very well-self-regulated eater, “Do you stop eating when you’re full, or when you’re no longer hungry?” He honestly didn’t know. He sometimes professes to be a member of the clean-plate-club, but nearly 10 years of watching him eat has allowed me the secret knowledge that he is not – quite often he’ll leave behind food that he is no longer interested in, even if it’s just a few bites. Now there’s an intuitive eater. Except when it comes to pizza, his personal kryptonite, and then all bets are off. Hey, we’ve all got something.)

Over the years I’ve participated in mindful eating exercises in which one bite of food is experienced with all the senses. The Non-Diet Approach… also has a script for this kind of exercise. As you eat slowly and with attention, your body and mind have time to recognize that magic moment when the food tastes suddenly less delicious, your hunger is gone, and you know you are done. While you do want to try to enjoy every bite of food, you probably wouldn’t want to eat quite so deliberately every single time; the idea is for you to practice recognizing the signals of hunger/satiety so that eventually, heeding them becomes automatic.

Again, I have to be honest; lately I’ve been eating at my desk, while working. It’s not the best environment for enjoying my food or recognizing body cues, so I’m determined to make eating a priority not only at home, but at work too. Task number 3: I will step away from the computer, I will put down the pen, and I will be one with my meal. I will eat slowly and mindfully and wait for “not hungry.”

I’ve been practicing all of this the last few days: enjoying my food, honoring my hunger and satiety signals, noting the difference between satisfied and full, eating slower. And I’ve been surprised to find that I am eating less than I thought I would at meals and avoiding that unpleasant, too-full feeling I often get when eating out. The whole point, however, is not to trick you into eating less. Eating with the intention to eat less is just another diet. Checking in often with your body means you get to decide if you want to eat more or not based on what your body is feeling, not a misguided sense of how much you think you should eat.

I’ve got my work cut out for me. But after several years of being diet-free, I finally feel ready to really listen to my body and let it be the boss of how I eat.

For more reading on how to normalize your eating, I recommend these books:
Intuitive Eating
Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat
The Diet Survivor’s Handbook
Overcoming Overeating