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Our bodies send clear signals telling us when to eat and when to stop—but are we listening?
I was talking with a new client the other day, and I asked her to describe her appetite. She thought for a minute and then told me, “I can’t really say that I ever get hungry.” She ate frequently throughout the day (maybe a little too frequently), and on a fairly set schedule. So, she relied on the clock, not her hunger, to tell her when it was time to eat. When I asked her how she knew when she had enough and that it was time to stop eating, she was completely stumped. “I don’t have a clue,” she said. “I’ve never really thought about it.”
When I ask questions like this, what I hope to hear someone say is that they eat when they feel hungry and stop eating when they feel satisfied—not stuffed—and their hunger is gone. But when clients tell me that they don’t get hungry, or that the signal to stop eating is that “there’s no food left,” it tells me that when their body is speaking to them, they’re just not listening.
Your body sends clear and unmistakable signals when it needs attention. You know what it means when your mouth is dry, your eyelids are heavy or your bladder is full. While you might be able to ignore those signals for a little while, sooner or later you’ll be driven to drink something, get some sleep, or make a trip to the restroom.
If you think of hunger and fullness as clear signals from your body that it’s time to eat or time to stop, it can really help to regulate how much food you eat. To be fair, not everyone feels hunger quite the same way. Most feel a little rumble in the stomach, but some get a little lightheaded or their thinking gets fuzzy when their blood sugar dips between meals. But these are still very clear signals coming from within. Your body is telling you that it’s getting low on fuel. When your stomach begins to fill, nerve impulses are sent to the brain that tell you that you’re satisfied, at which point it’s appropriate to stop.
When you’re thirsty, you’ll generally drink until your body tell you that you’re not thirsty any more. But when you eat, do you stop eating when you’re not hungry anymore? Do you stop because you’re stuffed? Or, do you stop because your plate is empty, or because you’ve scraped the last helping out of the serving plate?
Learning to recognize your body’s natural hunger signals and sense of satisfaction—and responding to them appropriately—are skills worth practicing. Try keeping a food diary for a couple of days. Each time you eat, rate your hunger on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 means you’re weak and starving, and 10 means you’re so stuffed you almost feel sick). Do this before you start eating and after you’ve finished. Ideally, you want to start eating when your hunger is at about a 3 or 4—when your stomach is growling a little and you feel ready to eat. And you want to stop when you’re at about a 5 or 6, which means that you’re satisfied and pleasantly full.
It’s amazing how this little exercise can help to put you back in touch with your body. When your body starts to tell you it needs fuel, don’t ignore these hunger signals. If your usual habit is to let yourself get too hungry (1 or 2 on your hunger scale), you’re likely to overeat (hitting a 9 or 10). Train yourself to eat just enough so that you’re comfortable, satisfied and no longer hungry—not until you’re stuffed.