One of the common questions that I get a lot in my practice, is: “How much should we eat?” or “When should we stop?”
My clients are usually shocked and taken by horror when I deliver the news “I will not tell you how much to eat for the moment, rather, I will guide you through developing a healthy eating lifestyle. The first thing is to start by eating slowly and stopping at 80% full, all of which by following your own internal indicators (body cues)”.
I have already written in the previous articles that the other option to this would be counting on other “External indicators” (Counting calories for example) which is unsustainable and usually fails. (Check “To Count or not to count: The Endless Calorie Counting Debate")
The first step to healthy eating is to slow down, as I have explained previously. Slowing down will give you the time to notice what is going on with your body and mind. It will give you the awareness necessary to regulate your appetite.
When do we stop eating?
In his book “The Mindless Eating”, Brian Wansink - who happens to be a big fan of the topic, and who dedicated most of his research in understanding the factors that lead us to eating or not eating - describes that our eating decisions has nothing to do with how hungry or full we are. In fact, he found out that people eat for all other reasons but real hunger or fullness.
Here is what he found to affect our food decisions (either the amount or the quality):
CUES FROM OUR DIRECT PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT
For example, how big or small are the dishes you’re using, how close the food is to us, etc. One study found that people ate more from a candy dish right in front of them but much less from a candy dish 6 feet away. They also ate more from an uncovered candy dish than a covered candy dish.
CUES FROM OUR ORAL SENSES:
- We like certain tastes and textures.
- We like creamy textures and crunchy textures.
- We also like multiple tastes and textures together, such as sweet-salty.
CUES FROM OTHER SENSES
“You eat with your eyes first.” We like food that looks tempting, and we prefer certain colours (ever seen chocolate with boring gray packaging?). Our smell is closely bound to our appetites as well as our memories and emotional associations.
CUES FROM OUR SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT
Family, friends, colleagues.
( “let’s go out for ice cream night” or “Let’s order food at the next coffee break”)
CUES FROM OUR EMOTIONAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL ENVIRONMENT
- Desire for comfort
CUES FROM OUR FAMILIAR HABITS AND ROUTINES:
- Morning coffee in our special mug with that piece of biscuit, or “the usual” at the coffee shop.
- Being rushed in the mornings, so stopping at “On The Run”.
- Friday brunches in the sun
- Snacking in front of the TV while watching our favorite shows
- Cake at birthday parties
- Mom’s special dish at holidays.
You will notice that all of the above signals for determining our food related decisions, has nothing to do with how hungry or full we are.
This means that we could keep on eating if there are no real signals to make us stop. (Wansink literally proved this in one of his studies, where he made a group students eat soup out of a bowl secretly connected to tube under the table that kept filling the soup, while another group of students ate for a normal bowl. After 20 minutes, he measured how much soup they had consumed and asked them how full they felt. He found that the participants with the self-refilling bowls ate 73 percent more than those with the normal bowls—but didn't report feeling any more full. Why? Because they are convinced that they haven’t eaten anything since the plate is still full.)
How can we identify real hunger?
You could do this by any of the following methods:
- Eating slowly
- Trying out a half day fast and noticing how real hunger feels like (Good news for those who are fasting Ramadan!)
- Noticing that real hunger is usually felt in the belly region and is usually associated with growling feelings and sounds (hence the famous Egyptian saying “3asafeer batny b-tesawsaw!). The feeling goes away once we eat.
- On the other hand fake hunger aka “cravings” are usually felt in the head region and are never satisfied no matter how much we eat.
When is enough?
Since our bodies and lifestyles are different, and also our energy needs are different, it is easier to depend on what each of our bodies tell us. One great way to do so, is by practicing the traditional Japanese Hara hachi bu. (Don’t worry I won’t teach you black magic!)
Hara hachi bu is a Confucian teaching that instructs people to eat until they are 80 percent full.
The word literally means "belly 80 percent full" in Japanese.
Try to make your own definition of “stuffed” or “100% full” and then aim at less.
Here are common definitions that I come across in my practice:
I feel full…
- “When I need to un-buckle my belt or unbutton my pants in order to breath”
- “When I put my hands on my stomach, I feel it distended like a balloon”
- “When I get nauseous”
- “When I get really tired and sleepy right after eating”
- “When I feel the food coming up my throat”
- “When I can’t eat my next meal within 3-4 hours”
What about you? What does it feel like to be 100% full?
Once you know your 100%, aim at stopping at 80%, which is usually when you feel satisfied.
There are so many things in our environment that tell us what to eat and how much of it. Focusing your awareness on your body signs and internal signals by eating slowly and by stopping at 80% fullness will automatically regulate your overall energy intake and your body composition. So start learning more about your own body cues and by practice you will get better.