The first time I went on a diet I was in 7th grade.
I remember it quite clearly. I decided to try to lose weight because at my annual physical exam, my doctor – yes, that’s right, my pediatrician started the whole mess – told me I should. It should be noted that I was not technically overweight when the doctor told me this; rather, my weight had simply gone up more sharply during the previous year than it had in years past. The doctor told me this happened because I was eating too much and exercising too little. Looking back, I’m guessing it was actually a natural consequence of going through that little thing called puberty.
My mom, wonderful woman that she is, tried to stand up for me. She reminded the doctor that I was active in sports, and that she didn’t think that cutting my energy intake sounded like such a great idea. Unfortunately, it didn’t matter what my mom said at that point. Starting that very moment, I thought I was fat.
And so the cycles of dieting began. Restricting here, overeating there, over-exercising here, never exercising there, pounds coming off and on and off and on. The constant ups and downs were enough to make me sea sick!
There are a lot of problems with the situation I’m describing, many of which I hope to explore on this blog. Today I want to focus on just one: hunger and fullness.
All of those years of dieting robbed me of my ability to know when I was hungry and when I was full – and my desire to honor those physical signals. That’s because dieting is really the exact opposite of listening to our bodies. When we diet, we follow strict rules about what to eat and what not to eat, and about when to eat and when not to eat. Those rules usually don’t involve eating when our bodies ask for food and stopping when they are satisfied.
When I decided to stop dieting for good – and began labelling “diet” as the four-letter word I think it is – I turned instead to the concepts of intuitive eating and mindful eating. These concepts stress that the ideal way to eat is to listen to our bodies, giving them the types of food they crave in the portions with which they are comfortable. It’s also about really paying attention to our food and the process of eating. I learned so much from the wonderful book Intuitive Eating, by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. If you’re interested in these concepts further, I highly recommend reading this book.
So I began the process of getting back in touch with my hunger and fullness cues.
For those of you who haven’t struggled with yo-yo dieting, you might think it’s crazy of me to say that at one point I was unable to tell when I was truly hungry. But those of you who have struggled probably know exactly what I mean. When you spend years purposefully denying yourself food when you’re hungry (because it’s not time to eat yet, or it’s after 6 pm and your “diet” says you can’t eat at night, or you’re skipping meals to make up for “overindulging” the day before), you pretty much lose touch with your body’s most natural signals.
So I started really paying attention to my body, and re-learning how to listen to it. And I made every effort to feed my body not according to the clock or any other external cues; I fed my body when it told me it needed more fuel. Now, having been practicing intuitive eating for quite some time, I find my hunger cues are clear and unmistakable.
The other piece of this puzzle is fullness. Dieting also messes up our ability to stop eating when our bodies have had enough. For years I was either forcing myself to stop eating long before my body was satisfied, or I was licking my plate long after my stomach had said it had had enough. For the longest time I actually found eating in restaurants extremely unpleasant because I would always finish my meal, regardless of its size, and would then spend the rest of the day feeling sick and uncomfortable.
Again, eating intuitively is about turning inward instead of outward, stressing that we should stop eating not when the food is gone or when our diets tell us we’ve had our portion. Honoring our fullness means that sometimes we’ll push our plates away with food still on them, and other times we’ll go back for seconds, all depending on what feels best for our bodies at that particular moment.
If all of this sounds pretty easy…well…it’s not. At least not for those of us who have wrestled with our weight for so long. Why? Because honoring hunger and fullness is all about TRUST. It’s about trusting our bodies to tell us what they need, how much they need, and when they need it. It’s about accepting that diets don’t work. And it’s about believing that when we truly listen to our internal cues and messages, our bodies will naturally stabilize at a weight that is healthy and maintainable for our individual selves.
So how did I go about getting back in touch with my hunger and fullness? Simply by paying attention. A lot of attention.
More specifically, I utilized a very handy little Hunger-Satiety Scale. There are lots of versions of this scale; I used the one from the McKinley Health Center. Basically, the scale is a way of rating your hunger, with #1 being famished/starving, #5 being neither hungry nor full, and #10 being painfully full. I aimed to avoid the extremes, beginning a meal or snack when my body was around a #3 or #4, and stopping when I hit a #6 or #7.
I did this quite literally. I kept a copy of the scale next to my place at the table, and before each time I ate I would look at it and give my hunger a number. Mid-way through eating I would stop, put down my utensils, and check in with my body to see how far along I was. At the end of the meal I would again rate my hunger/fullness level. When eating meals with Dave (my incredibly understanding husband who has never dieted in his life and hence often has no idea where I’m coming from), using the scale became kind of fun, like a little guessing game. “Where are you now, honey? 5, 6, perhaps a 7?”
I’m at the point now where I don’t need to use the hunger-fullness scale quite so literally; I’m in touch with my body enough that I can “check-in” with myself without referring to actual numbers all of the time. And yet, just as a reminder of where I’ve been and where I am now, I still keep the scale next to my place at the table. Proof:
I should also share that the process has really changed the way that I eat, or, more accurately, reverted it back to the way I ate before the dieting craze began. You see, as a child I was always naturally a grazer – I had trouble finishing meals because I got full quickly, but compensated by eating small snacks throughout the day. When I began dieting I lost touch with my natural grazer because I thought that snacking in between meals would make me gain weight.
Now, however, I find that I naturally want to eat the same way I did as a child. I find that I get full much more quickly than others around me, and yet I get hungry again much more quickly than they do. So I naturally gravitate toward eating smaller meals and snacks continually throughout the day. Others may find that when they begin eating intuitively, their bodies crave three larger, more standard meals per day; that just works for them. That’s the beauty of intuitive eating and honoring our hunger and fullness; we don’t have to eat by a script, but rather in whatever way feels best to each of us as individuals.
Now I’m not saying that we should only ever eat when we’re hungry. There are certainly times when it’s completely appropriate to eat for reasons other than physical hunger. Perhaps because you’re celebrating someone’s birthday. Or you’re about to exercise intensely and know your body needs the fuel. Or because a piece of food simply looks delicious. I think eating for these reasons is perfectly acceptable. But for those of us who have spent years dieting, restricting, and overeating, those reasons shouldn’t be the norm. On an everyday basis, eating according to hunger and fullness is much healthier for us.
I’m not a perfect intuitive eater by any means. I sometimes eat before I’m truly hungry, or when I’m way too hungry to eat in a controlled manner. And sometimes I eat beyond the point of comfortable satiety. Yet I get better at honoring my hunger and fullness every day because I make listening to my body a priority in a way that was simply impossible when I was dieting.
Ok, I think I have made this post long enough! If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! I guess I’m just pretty passionate about this particular subject.
Do you eat according to your body’s hunger and fullness signals? Do you find that it comes naturally, or is it a challenge?