Au Revoir, Hunger! What the French Language Can Teach Us About Intuitive Eating

By Katie, 5:45 am

Ah, the French. They have given us so many wonderful things.

Like French toast.

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And French onion soup.

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There’s the French horn.

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And the French press.

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Can’t forget the French kiss.

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And, of course, French fries. ;-)

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Our culture has often admired envied the eating habits of the French. “How can they eat all that butter and still stay so slim?!?” we exclaim. I won’t go into that question here – considering a whole book has been written on the topic – but I will propose that the actual French language has something to teach us about intuitive eating.

More specifically, about how to stop eating when satisfied – after the sensation of hunger but before the sensation of stuffed.

In Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, he notes the interesting fact that English speakers and French speakers use different wording when they push their chairs back from the dining table. We tend to say the phrase “I’m full,” while the French say, “Je n’ai pas faim,” which translates to “I do not have hunger.”

It’s a subtle but extremely insightful difference: “I’m full” versus “I do not have hunger.” It’s the difference between eating to quell a physical need for fuel and eating to fill ourselves up to the brim.

I’m not trying to imply that there’s anything wrong with eating to the point of feeling full. I’m saying that when I eat for the purpose of being filled, it’s often because of an emotional need rather than a physical one. But when I eat for the purpose of eliminating hunger, I know I am in tune with my body’s cues.

I’ve found that, when I sit down at the table with the intention of eating intuitively, thinking about the French phrasing is a helpful way to judge when I am satisfied but not stuffed. I don’t ask whether or not I’m full (because for me, that usually means too full), but whether or not my hunger has been abated, whether or not that sensation is still present.

And when I follow that guideline – stopping at the point of “Je n’ai pas faim” - I am able to pop up from the table and go about my day. I feel energized, and I welcome movement. When I’ve ignored that guideline in the name of filling myself with food rather than whatever it is I really need, I feel tired and sluggish, and the couch looks much more appealing than anything else.

I find it amazing how that small change in wording can connote such a different mindset toward the eating experience. It’s enough to make me want to up and move to Paris! Just kidding, Mom, don’t worry! ;-)

Bon appetit!

Do you ever struggle with the fine line between eating until satisfied and eating until stuffed? Do you think reminding yourself of the French phrasing could be helpful?

AND, just for fun…

Do you speak any French? I studied French in high school and college, but what I remember is really hit-or-miss at this point.

48 Responses to “Au Revoir, Hunger! What the French Language Can Teach Us About Intuitive Eating”

  1. Great post! I definitely struggle with that fine line, especially around holidays – I’ll try to keep this in mind this year!

  2. Lovely post, Katie.

    I don’t really spend much time focusing on my hunger and fullness signals any more, thankfully. They are pretty much ingrained at this point but I do think the notion of just not being hungry anymore and being filled to the brim is an important one. I do still overeat from time to time and know that when I am craving that full feeling, as in over full, it is because of emotional need rather than physical need.

  3. Candice says:

    It’s easy to eat proper amounts when it’s healthy food. It’s harder when it’s unhealthy foods. For those, I usually portion out very small amounts, ones that won’t fill me up. But I should focus on eating them intuitively as I do healthy foods.

    I like your comparison of the two cultures. It is very true that a large reason for obesity in this country rests on the cultural aspects of food more than the actual quality (fat, caloric content) of our food. Most countries have foods that are less than healthy, but we are still one of the fattest, if not the fattest, countries. It’s not really about McDonald’s and all the other fast food.

  4. I remember reading that too and having an AHA moment about it. I’ve totally forgotten about that so thanks for bringing it to my attention. I’m going to write it on a notecard or business card and keep it with me during occasions where I’m likely to overeat :)

  5. Such an interesting distinction!! I’ve never thought about that before!

  6. oh my gosh i WISH i spoke french! that would be amazing :) seriously though, i’ve practically studied French Women Don’t Get Fat and I love everything that is said in there. it is basically all about eating intuitively but more importantly SAVORING what you eat. if you don’t like it, don’t eat it! i think that this distinction just adds even more perspective to this as well…thank you!

  7. Tina says:

    How interesting! The Spanish say the same thing…”no tengo hambre” or “I don’t have hunger”. I never thought about how it does send a different message.

  8. There is a book that I came across once called “French Women Don’t Get Fat” and it talked about all of the cultural issues as well. Like the French eat much later meals, everything is bought fresh from the markets. But it also talked about a lot of the social stigmas french women must live up to. How they look is just as big of an issue on the other side of the pond.

    • Katie says:

      Yes! That’s actually the book I linked to in the post (though I didn’t write the actual title, so you wouldn’t know unless you clicked it).

  9. I think this is really interesting. I’ve been trying to really pay attention when I eat and stop when I’m about 75 – 80% full (there’s that term again!), but it’s not easy! Tackling it with the French’s approach, however, seems to make more sense. Do I have hunger? Yes, then keep eating. No? Put down my fork!

  10. Shawnee says:

    You caught me! I am in the earlier stages of Intuitive Eating. I totally did some emotional eating last week and I totally kept eating until I was full. Even though in my mind I could say to myself, “You’re full and you’re emotional.” It didn’t matter. I just kept going and going and going and… when will the maddness end!? :D I am so glad that phase of my hormone cycle is over and I am back to normal eating. That is a note to self for next week.

  11. Sam says:

    I do struggle with this. I feel like the one thing in my journey right now that may be holding me back – is this! I have had some a ha moments about it last week though, so it seems to be going better this week. Thank you for this post. It’s one more tool I can use to help myself know the difference. Thanks!!!

  12. That is such an interesting difference in our wording! But for me, I think intuitive eating *is* eating until I’m stuffed. Otherwise I’m hungry about an hour later. I’ve really increased my activity rate over the past few months, and although I’m not perfectly in tune with my body, I think it needs the extra food.

  13. I really like Michael Pollan’s Food Rules– most of them are easy to remember and actually helpful.

    I sometimes have trouble with eating until I’m full versus until I feel satisfied. Usually I’m aware when I pass satisfaction and step into fullness, so it’s a conscious thing. Thinking about the French phrase may actually help me– thinking about not having hunger instead of not feeling full kind of makes everything completely different.

  14. Jill says:

    I majored in French in college, but could I carry a conversation today? Probably not. Unless the person I was talking to was a first grader.
    There is a site called LiveMocha that lets you take free beginner language lessons. I signed up for the french lessons just to brush up, but haven’t started any yet. You never know when you’ll need to ask “where did you get those fabulous shoes” in French!! ;)

  15. It’s very interesting how a slight change in wording can make a big difference.
    I don’t speak any French, but I wish I did!

  16. Josie says:

    it’s like i go to the table with the fear of starving. i often have to remind myself that if i eat until i’m full(which also means too full for me), i’ll regret it soon after when the feeling sets in.

    on sunday somebody asked me if i’d taken a foreign language in school. i truthfully told her i took french but have nothing to show for it!

  17. I actually spent some time in Strasbourg, France living with a host mom over the summer. She taught me that saying “Je n’ai pas faim” actually means “I’m pregnant!” Haha. Yes I was a little disturbed too. She told me that when french people want to say “I’m full” they say “J’ai bein mange” which translates in English to “I have eaten well.” I’m not sure if this is true all over France or just something particular to the Alsatian dialect of French, but I thought it was interesting to share!

  18. I took french in high school too and can get by in france ordering food/tickets.. that kind of thing.. but my french has gone downhill :P

    I’ve gotten a lot better with my hunger cues and knowing when I just need a little snack or eating dinner and “not eating that last bite!”

  19. This happened to me just yesterday. I was eating a big bowl of oatmeal and instead of trying to eat it all I just decided to save the rest for today because I wasn’t hungry anymore and didn’t want to stuff myself.

  20. Heather says:

    I studied French in high school and college as well. I wish I remembered more.

    I have an issue with over eating when I sit down to dinner and I am starving. My eyes become bigger than my stomache and I eat so fast my brain does not have time to catch up. It is annoying, but I am working on it!

  21. I love this and it’s a great reminder. I will put this into practice today :)

  22. I love this! It’s very true, and I never thought about it before. I do speak French (or I did – I have forgotten a lot but it comes back quickly). I also speak Italian and a wee bit of German. I’m hoping to take Japanese this fall (we are going next year – can’t wait to learn about intuitive eating in Japan).

  23. Mo says:

    Haha yeah. I think we’re bred to clear our plates and eat until we feel like we’re supposed to puke. Sometimes I still do that. :S I’ve definitely gotten better at it, though! Great post! :)

    I’ve been learning French technically since preschool, and the experience is something I wouldn’t trade for the world because it’s amazing how many foreign words (non-French, mind you) I know how to pronounce just because of knowing how to pronounce things in French. It’s kind of ingrained in me. I never quite got the grammar down, though, so I can’t say I speak it fluently. I can understand it for the most part if I’m being spoken to in French or reading, but it’s difficult for me to reply without sounding like an idiot. :P

  24. McKella says:

    Oh man, when I’ve got something delicious sitting in front of me, that fine line goes out the window. For now I’m working on not taking seconds unless I’m still hungry and not picking at stuff while I’m cooking or cleaning up.
    I like this phrase because I can also say it to myself if I’m about to eat when I’m not hungry. In English of course. I do not have hunger.
    And my French is about as good as Miss Piggy’s. I’ve never bothered to learn any because I don’t like the way it sounds, but I’d love to go to France.

  25. awesome. LOVE that idea. Excellent insight!

    ~Missy

  26. Well said.

    For me there is a fine line between eating until satisfied and eating until full. I like the idea I’m eating to remove hunger, instead of eating until I’m full. When I eat until I’m full, I am very very full.

    I’m very sorry, even with the seriousness of this post, I got a Better Off Dead vibe. “For dinner we have fraunch Toast, fraunch bread, fraunch dresing, and fraunch fries.” I hope I wasn’t the only one!

  27. I studied French for over nine years, through high school, minored in college, and beyond. I took a class last fall to keep up my skills but now I don’t have enough money too. I felt like I was pretty fluent when I left college and can still read and write most anything but my speaking skills are going down. :( Definitely want to get back in to classes!

  28. Forgot to add that I like this post. When I stopped eating to fullness and really just followed what the Okinawans say “Hara Hachi Bu” (eat until 80% full), I have felt so much more energized and healthy. You kind of half to believe you can eat again whenever you really get hungry again, and just follow the same principle again.

    • Katie says:

      I can’t believe I forgot to include the phrase “Hara Hachi Bu”!!! I love that one! Thanks for reminding me of it.

  29. amanda says:

    I am really working on getting those hunger signals down. It is hard to push food away when I do not feel hunger anymore. Something about the need to eat what is on my own plate. I do love the phrase though…it might be a good reminder.

  30. homecookedem says:

    I’m so far from eating the french way. I am such a volume eater. I really do want to work on being able to be more satisfied with the real thing in a smaller portion. I think it’s such a lovely way to live!

  31. At times when I am really ravenous, I find that it is often hard for me to stop eating before I feel really full, even well knowing that I will feel sluggish and most likely unproductive for the next few hours or so. But when I eat when I’m slightly hungry, I find it much easier to pace my eating and stop before I overwhelm myself with food. So now I’ve learned to carry around a light snack with me and I think it really helps me to maintain in an Intuitive Eating mindset.

  32. I studied French in high school, but not after that. I’m pretty sure I lost all ability to speak the language. So sad!

    I have a hard time stopping before I’m stuffed. I have a problem of eating far too much. I find that it doesn’t matter if I’m satisfied or full, I’ll still feel hungry again in the same amount of time. So why put my body through feeling stuffed at every meal if it isn’t going to ward off hunger for long periods of time?

  33. Emilee says:

    I studied French in high school and college too. And studied abroad in Paris in the summer of 2000. It was the best time of my life. I could most certainly live there!

  34. Hayley says:

    I love this!!! I’ve never thought about the words, “I’m full” versus, “I’m satisfied” or “I no longer have hunger” but that simple difference is actually quite powerful. I’m really glad you wrote this – it certainly makes me think twice about when I’ll stop eating at my next email. Will I feel “full” afterwards or just “without hunger”?

    I have to admit that is the hardest thing for me…I have no problems deciphering hunger but figuring out when to stop eating so I’m not past the point of comfortable poses a big challenge, especially since I tend to drink a lot of water with my meals and I often wonder if that fills me up sooner than the food!

    Thank you for this!

  35. coco says:

    I studied 7 years of french but haven’t really speak/read it for 4 years now. I love how french language sounds but never thought about how it might help us with intuitive eating. Very interesting! :)

  36. Kristine says:

    I loved this post. It’s amazing how profound the difference is between “I’m full” and “I do not have hunger”.

  37. Meg says:

    What a fun post! I took French for a year when I went to college in Canada– from a sweet little French lady. I surely don’t remember much though. :(

  38. If you literally translate the English “I am full.” into French, it actually means you are pregnant! LOL!!!!

  39. Suzette says:

    Just thought I would add in my two cents…I am bilingual and I wanted to clarify:

    Je n’ai pas faim = I am not hungry – this is what you would say when you do not want anything to eat
    Je n’ai plus faim – I am no longer hungry, or literally I have no more hunger – this is what you say when you have finished eating and do not want anything more.
    Translating “I’m full” would be “Je suis plein(e)” and that would mean “I’m pregnant”, though that is not said.
    Hope this helps.

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