This is the sixth post in a 10-part series looking at the principles of Intuitive Eating. Last week’s post was on Principle 5: Discover the Satisfaction Factor.

Are you a member of the Clean Plate Club? Or maybe you’ve tried to NOT clean your plate, and found it quite challenging? There are many reasons that we might have “joined” the Clean Plate Club in the beginning. However, it’s really challenging to end your membership if you’re a chronic dieter, because mealtimes are when it’s “OK” to eat. It’s no wonder that so many of my clients find “Principle 6: Feel Your Fullness” one of the more challenging Intuitive Eating principles!

Do you label some foods as “good” and others as “bad?” When you‘re eating foods that you don’t usually give yourself permission to eat (such as at holiday meals or social gatherings), it’s may be hard to stop before the food is gone. That’s true even when you feel physically full, because you’re likely in the grips of Last Supper Eating.

So what else keeps you in the “club,” or eating until you’re feeling overly full? Here’s a few possibilities:

  • Ravenous or primal hunger. Honoring your hunger helps you avoid ravenous hunger, which in turn makes it easier to stop when you’ve had enough.
  • Being in the habit of finishing what you start, no matter what it is. When you regularly eat to completion, regardless of your starting hunger levels or your emerging fullness levels, you are relying on external, not internal cues.
  • Not wanting to waste food. Reducing food waste is a worthy goal, but eating more food than you want or need isn’t the best way to go about it.
  • Having a history of food insecurity. When you have experienced not knowing where your next meal was going to come from, it can feel hard to stop eating even when food is plentiful.
Looking for comfortable satiety

I’ve had many clients who tell me that they can’t stop eating until they reach the point of feeling really, really full. When it takes an uncomfortable level of fullness to prompt you to stop eating, it may be because you have difficulty recognizing comfortable satiety. Satiety refers to the feeling of fullness and loss of appetite that happens after eating. In other words, satiety goes a step further than simply physical fullness.

How “comfortable satiety” feels is different from person to person. Most people can easily describe what it feels like to be overly full, but comfortable satiety is hard to pin down, especially for people who have a history of chronic dieting. In “Intuitive Eating,” authors Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch point out that trying to describe what comfortable satiety feels like is sort of like trying to describe what snow feels like, but some common descriptions include:

  • A substantive feeling of stomach contentedness
  • Feeling satisfied
  • Pleasant completeness

Another obstacle to stopping when we are gently, comfortably full is simply not respecting fullness. When you respect your fullness, you’re able to stop eating because you have had enough to eat biologically. This often happens when people eat on autopilot – perhaps because they’re longtime members of the Clean Plate Club – and are accustomed to not stopping until the food is gone.

This Intuitive Eating principle is linked to Principle 3 (“Making Peace With Food”). Why? Because if you don’t believe you’ll be “allowed” to eat that particular food or meal again, why would you want to stop eating? Similarly, if you haven’t given yourself full permission to eat whenever you’re hungry, then it’s hard to stop when you are comfortably full, because you might fear becoming hungry again “too soon.”

Five fullness factors

How much food you need to eat in order to reach comfortable satiety depends on these “fullness factors”:

  • Time since your last meal/snack. The more often you eat, the less hungry you will be on any given eating occasion. Just to be clear, though, research has found that nibblers and grazers eat the same amount of calories as people who eat three meals a day.
  • The type of food you’re eating. For example, fiber and protein increase fullness.
  • The amount of food is still in your stomach. If you haven’t fully digested your previous meal, you won’t need much to reach satiety.
  • Your hunger level. If you’re just a little hungry (or you’re simply trying to take the edge off your hunger when you get home from work so you won’t be ravenous when dinner’s ready), then you won’t need much food. If you skipped meals earlier in the day or simply waited too long to eat, you will need more food to reach comfortable satiety AND it will be more difficult to notice when you’re at that point, so you might end up uncomfortably full.
  • Social influence. Eating with others can prompt you to eat less, or more. Eating with a group, especially if the meal lasts a long time, can prompt you to eat more. However, many dieters eat less when they feel like someone is watching them, and even non-dieters might adjust their eating if they are dining with a so-called “model eater.”
Hyperconscious (super mindful) eating

It’s hard to know if you are in the comfortable satiety zone if you are tuned out (mindless) while you are eating. This is why practicing hyperconscious eating can be helpful when you’re trying to tune into your body’s cues that you’ve had enough. Tribole and Resch point out somewhere between the first bite and the 100th bite, there is a significant level of unconsciousness, even if we think we are paying attention.

To increase your awareness, and more easily determine when you’ve reached comfortable fullness, neutrally observe your eating as if you were an anthropologist:

  • Take a mid-meal timeout to check if the food is still tasting good. (I.e, are you only continuing to eat because there’s still food on your plate?)
  • Then, do a satiety check by asking yourself what your hunger or fullness level is.
  • Then, when you’re done eating, check in with your level of fullness. Is it pleasant, unpleasant or neutral?

As you do this, don’t feel obligated to leave food on your plate, which is a common dieting rule. The reality is that sometimes you will be hungry enough to clean your plate and maybe get seconds. Other times, you’ll reach fullness while there is still food on your plate.

Our body’s need for food fuel is not the same every single day, so there will be days (and meals) where we are hungrier than usual, or less hungry than usual. This can be a hard concept to wrap your head around if you have a history of counting or tracking calories, but sometimes we’re simply hungrier, with no obvious explanation. In other words, we can’t always point to something like eating less the previous day because we felt unwell or exercising more today and needing more fuel to compensate.

Should you use a hunger-fullness scale?

This is an example of the hunger-fullness scale used in “Intuitive Eating,” which uses a 0 to 10 scale: 0 is painfully hungry, 5 is neutral, and 10 is painfully full.

Is trying to assess your hunger or fullness on a numeric scale difficult or stressful for you — even keeping in mind that there is no right or wrong answers and rating body sensations is totally subjective? Then I suggest using the “pleasant, unpleasant and neutral” ratings I mentioned when talking about hyperconscious eating.

In this case, pleasant and unpleasant fullness are pretty obvious. Neutral would be the state you’re in where you don’t notice hunger, but you haven’t quite reached pleasant fullness yet. So, something like 0 to 2 on this numeric scale.

Have you ever had the experience of feeling physically full but still feeling like…something’s missing? You might be experiencing “fake fullness.This is what happens when you try to fill up on food that has little sustenance, such as air-popped popcorn, rice cakes, celery sticks or calorie-free beverages.

Or, you might have eaten mindlessly, so even though you ate “enough” you missed out on the sensory aspects of the meal, and so don’t feel satisfied in that sense.

Or, you might not have eaten the right mix of food for YOU. For example, one person might be satisfied with a nice big lunch salad with leafy greens, veggies, a tasty vinaigrette, and some sort of protein. Another person might not be satisfied with that lunch unless it contained some carbohydrate rich foods. For example, some cooked grains mixed in, or a piece of bread on the side.

Next post: Principle 7: Cope With Your Emotions With Kindness.

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Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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