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Help! I never know when to stop eating!

Posted Sep 24 2010 12:00am
So you’ve been paying more attention to what’s happening in your body (see last week's post, How can I tell if I’m hungry? ). You gotten better at distinguishing the sensation of true hunger from anxiety, boredom, and those other unpleasant feelings we often eat to distract ourselves from.

Good work! Your next challenge is knowing when to push back from the table.

This is a problem for many people, not to put too fine a point on it. Our confusion about whether or not we’re hungry pales beside our misunderstanding of what it means to be full.

Some people solve this conundrum by simply eating until whatever’s on their plate is gone. Or they polish off whatever the package label or restaurant judges to be a serving. That’s how they know the meal is over.

What’s wrong with that? Well, you’re letting external circumstances dictate how much you eat. Portion sizes, as determined by food manufacturers or diet experts, are completely meaningless to your body. Who decided that a six-ounce cup of yogurt is one serving? Why, the same company that once called eight ounces a serving, but has now changed its definition in order to improve its profit margin.

If you’re starting to suspect you need to tune into your physical signals in order to know when to stop eating, as well as start, you’re right.

Being full is a physical sensation, just the way hunger is. As with hunger, the information is right there for you to access; all you have to do is pay attention.

Therein lies the challenge: you need to listen. We’ve all had occasions when a quiet voice in our stomach told us we’d had enough, but we ignored it and kept on eating. For many people, in fact, it’s a daily experience. If you make a habit of overriding your fullness signal, you may no longer be consciously aware of it, but believe it or not, it’s still there.

This week, choose one meal and eat it slowly, without distractions. No TV, no magazines, no computer -- not even any conversation, if you can arrange it. Eating in this manner isn’t always possible or necessary, but try it just once.

Focus on the experience of eating. With each bite, check in with your body. Notice the small “click,” or shift, when your stomach becomes full. Do you want to keep eating? There is no right or wrong answer here. Maybe the food is really delicious and you don’t want to throw away the rest. Maybe you won’t get a chance to eat again for the next five or six hours, and you don't want to get hungry in the meantime (in my family, we call this "eating defensively"). On the other hand, maybe you’re about to make a presentation at work and you want to feel light and energetic, not weighed down by a big meal. Or maybe it’s almost bedtime and you don’t want a full belly because it interferes with your sleep.

The majority of the time, I aim for a middle ground. At the end of a meal, I like to feel satisfied, but not stuffed. Being satisfied means I’m not fighting the impulse to help myself to a bit extra. I could eat more, but I don’t want to.

You say you don’t ever feel satisfied until you are stuffed? You’ve just described a classic sign of malnutrition. In studies of starving populations undergoing re-feeding, people often describe feeling hungry even after very large meals, even though they’re physically unable to ingest any more.

As you know, it’s entirely possible to be malnourished, even if you’re overweight. This is why you can eat thousands of calories’ worth of junk food and still feel unsatisfied. Likewise, after you’ve been eating good-quality real food for a while, you stop wanting to eat past the feeling of fullness. You could physically fit more food into your body, but it’s not worth the discomfort.

Skeptical? Don’t be. I’ve seen it over and over again in my clients. They say things like, “Everyone else was having dessert, but I was too full. I just didn’t feel like it.” And then they stop, amazed to hear themselves uttering such a sentence.

Do you ever experience the urge to keep eating, even when your body tells you you’ve had enough?
© 2010 Make Friends With Food
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