You might be thinking this is an easy one. But personally I think it is pretty tough. Easy is “Thanksgiving” full. There is no doubt there. But of course this is usually over full. Comfortable fullness is a whole different concept.
Eating for comfortable fullness is eating an amount of food that abates your hunger but doesn’t leave you feeling physically over stuffed. I say comfortable since the goal is to feel physically good when you are done eating a meal.
Stopping eating is difficult for many people. There are many reasons. Perhaps food waste is difficult for you. You remember your mother telling you about starving children. Or maybe you think Aunt Mary will think you don’t like her dinner? Maybe your friends will worry something is wrong. And of course it is easier to eat the whole serving then to wrap up the little bit left after your meal. Perhaps it just feels “right” to eat the whole thing. I mean who eats a half a cookie? Maybe you are overly hungry. That makes it real hard to stop. The reasons could go on and on. But the bottom line is that this eating is typically done with your mind and your eyes, NOT with your internal physical cues.
To listen to your physical cues of fullness it requires you, first and foremost, to be hungry. Next you have to be super conscious of your eating. So you must limit all distractions: turn off the TV, put down the book you’re reading, put down your phone, and turn off your computer. Eating while doing other things makes it next to impossible to notice your fullness. Over time you won’t have to maintain this level of super consciousness. It is only for beginners.
Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD and Elyse Resch, MS, RD, FADA, CEDRD from the book Intuitive Eating have a fullness scale of 1 to 10 (intuitiveeating.com). They define comfortable fullness as around a 6 or 7 level. But what does this fullness feel like? For me it feels “average”. I feel content. I do not think I can actually describe the feeling – maybe – “not expanded”? Figuring out what a 6 or 7 level of fullness feels like in your body is a challenge. When I first started I did a lot of guessing and was off fairly often. Some meals I stopped but then felt over full later. Other meals I was hungry and eating in an hour. I realized I had to stop a bit before I thought since my body would still get a bit more full even after I ate. It is a bit like learning to drink alcohol but not too much. But after a while I figured out what that feeling was in my body. Now it is easy to know when to stop.
Now – one of the hardest things is that I get disappointed when I am comfortably full and the food is so good and it would be so yummy in my mouth to eat more. I also have a hard time, even as an experienced intuitive eater, at fun social meals when I am chatting away and get distracted. I have to stop, take a breath, and make an effort to check in with my body and level of fullness. Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch who wrote the book Intuitive Eating recommend stopping about half way to do a fullness assessment.
I hope this gives you an idea of learning comfortably full. Intuitive Eating is a process of learning about your body and noticing how it feels and like all new skills takes time. I wish you all the best of luck.
When I tell people that I try to eat when I am hungry and stop when I am satisfied, the typical response is “of course”. That idea is so simple. And yet as simple as it sounds IT IS NOT EASY and most people don’t eat this way.
Eating when we are hungry may be how our body works but not how our society is set up. The structure of our days can be inflexible. Our meal times may not be when we are actually hungry. And when we get hungry there may be little to no time to eat or perhaps the food that is available is often high calorie and low nutrient density. And it is EVERYWHERE: the gas station, the card store, even the clothing store. Mindless eating is so easy in our society. I challenge you to come up with a place you frequent that doesn’t have food available. And there is often FREE food available: at the secretary’s desk, the lunch area, and even the car fix it place. Socializing also typically includes food and the portion sizes have gotten so big they are laughable.
So as simple as it sounds eating when you are hungry is a challenge. I think it may be like climbing Mt Everest or if not that hard at least as hard as getting up on time on a Monday morning. Before I tried to notice when I was hungry I ate according to the clock: 7:30 breakfast, noon lunch, etc. When I actually noticed my hunger it was overwhelming – I felt nauseous. I was a busy person and didn’t listen to my body. In order for me to start listening to my body I had to get really “quiet” with myself, be super conscious, to actually notice how my body was feeling and what it was “saying”.
I felt like I was learning a foreign language. If my body made this feeling – what did that mean? Hunger? Gas? Nothing? Maybe my hunger would show up as a headache, or being grouchy, or tired? Maybe I would feel weak? Maybe I would be hungry+angry=”hangry“.
After a bit I figured out my hunger would show up in my stomach area as very small pains. It was like my hunger signals were polite neighbors who might knock lightly but leave quickly if there wasn’t a response. The neighbors would come back again and again but were really polite until they got so mad they would try to break the door down. It was an awesome moment when I actually figured out how my body was talking to me! I felt empowered. I also learned that listening to my body for hunger also gave me feedback on lots of other things: like stress and feelings. But that is another blog.
I also had to learn when to eat. Do I eat when I first feel a hunger pain? Or right before the door is going to fall in? I learned that for me I wait until the second or third knock since my hunger is clear but I am not so hungry I am going to eat everything in front of me until I am overfull. But this took time. Getting clear takes a lot of noticing and energy. The good news is once you get used to listening to your body it becomes second nature. It is like learning to use your new phone. At first it takes a bit of learning but then it is easy.
My challenge to you is to try to listen to your hunger. How does your body tell YOU that you are hungry?
I love being able to fix things. There is something so satisfying about repairing things that aren’t working well. Therefore, it probably wouldn’t surprise you that I have a toolbox. Actually, I have two toolboxes. One toolbox is in my garage and the other is in my kitchen. The second toolbox I use far more often - this toolbox is for intuitive eating.
My intuitive eating toolbox doesn’t look like a standard toolbox. It is a bit smaller, cardboard, and decorated with cutout magazine pictures. I had such fun making it, since I love being creative, but there is no rule for how to decorate your toolbox. It could be a favorite Tiffany box or something papered with your child’s coloring artwork. It just needs to be something that makes you smile. However, the outside is just frosting, what really makes it special is what is inside.
Before I tell you what is inside I must digress a bit and explain that I used to be really great at stress eating. On a bad day I would catch myself with my phone in one hand and a cookie in the other, standing in front of the pantry amidst a stressful conversation! This process could happen so fast that I wasn’t even aware of it until the cookie was long gone. Cookie eating was one of my favorite ways to deal with stress. If I was eating I was distracted from the hard thoughts or emotions of the day. So, you might ask, how is this related to my toolbox?
Inspired by my desire to deal with stress eating, my toolbox was born! It works so well I wanted to share the story of how it works with you.
When I got to the point in my intuitive eating journey that I was ready to deal with stress eating I felt a bit lost. I had learned on my intuitive eating journey that I ate in the afternoon to “reward” myself for a day’s hard work. However, I was rewarding myself even if my day’s hard work only consisted of walking downstairs in my pajamas and taking a nap in the afternoon!
How did I break this habit? I needed to reward myself in a non-food way. What did that mean to me? I started by making a list of what I like to do: read, dance, journal, and laugh to name a few. Knowing that visual reminders work for me, I tried putting things I love into the kitchen so I had them ready to try instead of eating. But when I found myself tripping over yarn and getting food on my coloring book pages I realized that this particular format wasn’t going to work. However, I wanted a visual reminder to help me break my stress eating habit. So I made my toolbox! I put it in the spot of my kitchen close to where I normally stand – on the counter by the pantry. Inside, I put things that would positively remind me of my goals, inspire me, make me smile, and suggest things I could try instead of food. I have some personal goals written on papers. I have inspirational quotes that make me feel understood. I have pictures that make me smile. I have comic strips that make me laugh. All together, my toolbox makes me happy. I get to deal with my stress and issues later when I have time but in the moment it reminds me that I have other things that make me happy in my home besides food. It only takes a few moments to look in my toolbox but that is distraction enough for me to remember to get out of the kitchen and go find the other things I love to do in my home. That is my reward. To make my soul happy – my body doesn’t need to be fed. My soul wants to be happy.
Here is a picture of my toolbox.
What would your toolbox look like? What would you put in your “toolbox”? What makes your soul happy?
Intuitive eating is a journey. At first it takes time and commitment but once you are used to your new lifestyle it will feel natural and take little time. The rewards are not only when you “finish” but are realized in every step you take along the way.
In the morning you wake up and don’t have to judge yourself by a number on the scale. You look in the mirror and smile at yourself just as you are. You remind yourself you don’t have to be perfect to be awesome. You ask “am I hungry?” as you go downstairs. You feel a smidge but not just yet. You start your day but pretty soon feel your hunger kick in. You ask yourself what you feel like eating. Do you want something hot/cold, sweet/sour, crunchy/soft, filling/light? Today you want something warm and soft and sweet so you decide on oatmeal with raisins and walnuts with a little coffee. Every day is different. Once you are ready you sit at the table and take a moment to center yourself. You have set up a nice place to eat. Somewhere you can sit comfortably without distraction and just enjoy your food and company. You let yourself be present and enjoy your meal. You really taste and enjoy the food. Once you feel satisfied you stop. You don’t have to finish all your food if you are feeling full. If you finish but want more you eat a bit more. Your body tells you when you are satisfied.
You pack a lunch for work. You pick something that sounds good to you. Today you decide on something soft and sour: Chinese food, with some crunchy baby carrots since crunchy foods feel good for when you get stressed at work. You pack a water bottle and put some lemon slices in it since you like that tangy flavoring. You love a bit of sweet so you ad some chocolate kisses in a baggie. You no longer beat yourself up for enjoying a sweet treat. You haven’t “broken” your plan. You like something sweet sometimes and that is fine. All foods are fine. When your lunch break starts you ask– am I hungry? If not you might wait a bit. You honor your hunger. Some days you have to eat at a set time and you don’t get too upset since you know that that can happen. Life is not perfect.
After a difficult day you destress by taking a walk, journaling, talking with a friend, or perhaps yoga. You have learned the ways that work for you to handle issues without using food.
At some point in the day you choose to exercise since you know your body feels good when it is active and it helps you reach your health goals. Maybe you take Zumba or boxing or Tai Chi or walk outside. You do something you love so much it doesn’t even feel like exercise.
Since you are satisfied with your meals you don’t spend lots of time thinking about your next meal or counting calories or deciding which food fits on your set “plan”. The time you used to spend thinking about food is now free to think about things that enhance your life. You have learned that you can be trusted to feed yourself well. You don’t have to get advice from a plan to tell you what is “right”. You feel empowered to make choices that are appropriate for you. You take care of your health and your eating behaviors and lifestyle allows for all foods. You enjoy a feeling of health and empowerment and eating is natural and enjoyable.
Sarah Gold is an intuitive eater, dietitian, chocolate lover, and dog lover,