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Intuitive Eating: When Are We Really Full?

Posted Jul 13 2011 4:15am

Though food, eating and rituals and traditions surrounding food and eating are around for many many reasons, I am a cheerleader for eating for nutrition. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not about counting protein grams or tracking your vitamin A intake- emotional and spiritual nutrition also count.

But there’s one aspect to eating in particular that stands out to me. I ‘get’ downing a shot of wheatgrass solely because it’s healthy. I get going to a fancy restaurant from time to time and gorging yourself in heavy gourmet dishes. I even get some old religious traditions surrounding food and eating- even though they don’t necessarily make much sense in todays culture or to others. However what constantly boggles me is how we have come to reach a point where people, including myself, eat to be full, constantly.

The Purpose of Eating is Not to Feel Full!

This may come as a surprise, but eating until you feel full is actually not a good thing (something the healthy people of Asia have figured out long time ago..). Being full, does not equal being nourished. Add to that that if you fill yourself up on foods that don’t meet your nutrient requirements, there’s no room left for those nutrients either!

Of course it’s not a big mystery to retrace where this behaviour came from. I could go into depth about war, poverty, starvation, but I think we can all imagine that at certain times throughout history, eating until you were full was either a necessity or a luxury. But as with many things that we relied on for survival in the past (like drinking cows milk…), it would be so much better for our health to let go of these habits! We have the luxury to treat our bodies better and to give it optimal nutrition, and it would be a shame not to. Don’t take this post as me waging my finger at you and go all ‘tsk tsk’. This is me pondering out loud why people engage in harmful behaviors like this, myself included!

The Purpose of Eating is to Nourish the Body!

I think that today, people overeat for several reasons. We (over)eat for comfort, due to a social setting, out of habit, or out of ignorance. (Over)eating because you’re in a particulair social setting (for instance, going out to dinner) may not the be best choice for your health, but it only occurs every once in a while and still serves a purpose, an act of togetherness. (Over)eating for comfort is a topic I’ll address a bit later, today is all about why we (over)eat out of habit and/or ignorance.

The purpose of eating it not to feel full, it is to nourish the body. Physically, this means getting in all the nutrients your body needs on a daily basis. When you eat low-quality foods, you can stuff yourself all day long (and feel very full…) yet still not really nourish your body. When you eat high-quality foods, you can nourish your body, before you even feel full.

But woah, wait! Don’t we enjoy feeling full after a meal? Aren’t we going to get hungry, not feeling full? Well yes and no. Not feeling full does not eqeal leaving the dinner table with a gaping whole where once used to be your (stuffed) belly. Not feeling full should equal feeling satisfied. And yes, this will take getting used to in the beginning, as well as practice. If you are used to leaving the dinner table feeling full, then it might feel a little odd, scary and unsettling at first, to ‘only’ nourish your body with all the nutrients and energy it needs, and to not overstuff after that point. This is how to break free from overeating out of habit. Practice and perseverence.

Now how about overeating out of ignorance? Have you ever asked yourself ‘why do I eat?’ One of the answers that might pop up is ‘to feel full’ or something to that extend. Like I said, this is very true for a lot of people (consciously or not!), but that doesn’t automatically make it right.

Overeating puts a lot of stress on the body, even when binging on purely healthy foods! This stress can manifest in indigestion, decreased efficiency of nutrient absorption, flatulence, bloating, etc. Like I mentioned before, overeating can also leave you nutrient-depleted because after a certain point your belly may be stuffed to its max, while your body long hasn’t gotten all the nutrients it needs yet. Add to the the aforementioned indigestion & decreased efficiency of nutrient absorption, and you can see a disaster about to happen. You also must realize that being full yet not nourished will make you crave even more food! Your body doesn’t care whether your stomach is full or how many calories you ate, if it still misses vital nutrients, it will induce cravings. Say hello to a vicious cycle of overeating and malnourishing! Lastly, overeating will make your digestive system have to work overhours, which depletes you of energy (digestion takes up a lot of your energy!). Now you know why overeating and feeling full are not good for you, make it a point to break free from it.

Redefining Fullness

Your body has more ways than just the one to let you know you’re full. But because we are all so focused on one (extended stomach), and perhaps out of touch with our senses, we may have lost sight of other signs of being ‘full’. When your body feels nourished and satisfied, not just your stomach, it will send subtle signals of ‘fullness’. These satiety signals come from hormones, blood pressure, blood sugar, etc, and they respons to not only quantity, but also quality of food! When we start making the quality of our food our number one priority, more so than quantity, over time we will be able to get in touch with those more subtle signals of satiety our body is giving us!


Like I said, to stop overeating takes practice. It requires you to eat more slowly and more mindfully than you have before. For one full week, let’s all practice to stop eating when you feel satisfied. When you leave the table feeling full or even stuffed, you’ve eaten too much.

Some tips:

  • Accept that it might be hard at first. A lot of people carry around emotional attachments to food (like not wanting to stop eating because the food tastes so good, or being used to feeling full, emptying your plate, etc).
  • Also acknowledge that it may take some time for your body (not just the mind) to get used to this new, healthy habit. This will probably only take a day or 2-3.
  • Eating the most nutritious foods will help the transition. If you’re not eating healthy, stopping before you’re full may be a futile exercise. You’ll keep being hungry, have cravings and your body is getting even less nutrients…
  • Don’t worry about not emptying your plate. Whatever it is you’re eating, I am sure it will still be edible two hours later of even tomorrow.

Good luck!

Do you tend to overeat? If you only eat until you are satisfied, did you have to practice this?

This post is the first in the Intuitive Eating series!



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