How to eat when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re full

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Specifically, for weight loss, here’s the intuitive eating holy grail: Eat when your hunger is at 80%. Stop when you’re 80% full, ie satisfied, but not stuffed. Let’s learn how to recognise the signs

A speedo showing hunger levels

There’s a key window of opportunity for when to eat, and when to give it a rest. Laura Lloyd 2016

Do you ever find yourself eating in ’emergency mode’?

I do sometimes, if I’m caught out without a snack up my sleeve.

I go to the gym without a banana in my bag for afterwards, and emerge hungry.

Not peckish. Really. F**king. Ravenous.

I’ll bike to the nearest supermarket (Netto) and lose my temper with my stupid fiddly bike lock, swearing and kicking the bike because my shaky hands can’t do the key.

In the supermarket I’ll grab a basket, telling myself I’m there for a pomegranate and a yoghurt drink.

But then I’ll find myself awakening from a daydream at the checkout about to put a bunch of marzipan logs and cheese croissants on the conveyor belt!

What happened? It feels like something took me over.

The starving part of my brain took me over.

My survival brain started behaving as though I had been caught in an avalanche and my life was in danger unless I found instant energy!

The aftereffects of getting this extremely hungry seem to last for hours.

Later on, I’ll still be ‘stocking up’. I’ll still be pouring bowls of cereal late at night, locked into a gear of ‘replenish’.

No wonder we fear hunger and try to never experience it.

And no wonder we think our appetite is just ‘greed’.

But learning to sense into our hunger, and catch it at the right moment (not the starving feeling), is a key skill in learning to eat intuitively.

How will we ever know when we’re full, if we don’t feel the subtlety of feeling hungry in the first place?

  • Eat when you’re 80% hungry, ie still sane and not yelling at your family
  • Stop when you’re 80% full. Relax, you can eat more later when you’re 80% hungry again, you are not a camel laying down a hump

To learn to do this, you’ll need to become an Unrestricted Eater*

That means, let go of all of your rules about good and bad food, calories, and how much you’re allowed.

(*Unrestricted Eater is a term coined by Linda Bacon in her brilliant book, Health at Every Size, by the way.)

Let go of food rules? Don’t answer the door to the food police?

Scary! Necessary.

Unless you stop pre-deciding how much you’re allowed, you’ll never be able to tune in to your body’s messages about when to stop or start eating.

That’s right. Trust your appetite to tell you when to eat, and when to stop.

Your appetite is a real chemical mechanism in your body.

It’s not just ‘greed’. Our aim is to get that thermostat working as best as it can, and you to a point when you can read it.

Here’s how you can practise.

Notice your signs of hunger

Eating when you’re 80% hungry is a collection of little habits.

  1. Equip yourself with decent food. It’s mainly a matter of having the right food to hand and not leaving it to chance (=bakery). Having food prepared and near you so you’re not making food decisions on the road when you’re out of your mind with hunger (Remember those marzipan logs in Netto? I’m not in a state where I can make clever food decisions when I’m ravenous).
  2. Don’t make meals less important than achievements. This also means not powering through because you’re busy and missing meals.
  3. At ‘mealtime’ first ask yourself if you’re hungry. Don’t eat just because it’s mealtime or your designated work break if your appetite tells you it’s disinterested. Maybe you want to wait 20 minutes and see if hunger can talk to you then. Sometimes, we never even let ourselves get near hungry.
  4. Beware of going past superhungry to adrenalised-on-empty. You know when you’re so busy you run on coffee and then you’re not even hungry any more? You’ve bulldozed over your hunger signals.
  5. Don’t be scared of hunger, be curious. We sometimes try to keep it at bay with topups and snacks, but instead, allow yourself to go on until you can feel it, and be curious about where in your body and your mind (your attention span, your moods) you can identify it.
  6. Then thank your hunger for talking to you! Your appetite isn’t a horrible hairy beast. It’s part of you that you’ve probably pushed away, sometimes been ashamed of, sometimes feared. We are built to have an appetite, to have desires, and nature has made us desire wonderful food. So befriend your yearnings and welcome your wishes.
  7. Notice how your body tells you it’s hungry. Headache? Rumbling stomach? Jitters? Floppy feeling? Sick feeling in your stomach? Know yourself and know the signs.
  8. Notice how your hunger signals alter around stress. Do you get urges to eat? (I realised I wanted icecream every time my baby cried!!) Or does your appetite retreat? I’m talking about the everyday kind of stress, like you dish up for the family and a child throws a plate on the floor just as you sit down…

And if becoming an Unrestricted Eater brings a backlash wave of teenage sweetshop indulgence, just try to move through these encounters with your new ‘no rules’ rule without self-reproach, knowing it’s part of a bigger learning.

How should you learn to stop when you’re full?

The key is to sense into your body. As you start to notice the subtlety of your hunger levels, you should start to feel nuances in your fullness levels too.

But don’t worry if you don’t right away. Many of us have spent years pushing away our hunger feelings. So getting to know them might take time.

For more support, you can join my Facebook community of people on an eating psychology journey, Sensational Eaters.

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How is this experiment for you? The comment thread is YOURS