Chances are you’ve heard of intuitive eating. One of the biggest advantages of this approach is that you can use internal hunger and fullness cues to help you decide when you’ve eaten enough. Often, this is done via a hunger scale helps people avoid overeating. But exactly how to eat until you’re satiated (not stuffed) isn’t always clear. Here’s how nutrition pros recommend structuring your meals so that you can use hunger as your guide.
“If you don’t feel hunger until it is too late, it can be difficult to eat your meal with mindfulness of your satiety levels,” explains Kelsey Lorencz, RD. Set yourself up for success by beginning your meal when you’re feeling hungry, but not ill or irritated. That said, many of us are not so great at knowing when we’re hungry until it’s too late. “Planning meals every 4 hours can be a great place to start if hunger is a difficult feeling for you to measure.”
It might sound weird, but we often experience cravings that have nothing to do with hunger. “Do you ever find that you have enough room to eat another cookie after a full meal but, the idea of eating a nutrient-dense snack, such as an apple and nut better, sounds unappealing?” asks Brittany Modell RD. In this case, you’re probably not truly hungry, she says. “The next time you want to reach for a snack, ask yourself if you are hungry enough to eat a whole apple. If the answer is no, think about when you last ate and if you are experiencing real hunger.”
It’s always a good idea to have a drink before you start your meal, says Kristina LaRue, RD. “Filling your stomach with a glass of water or tea can take the edge off of hunger so that you don’t rush into your meal and eat too fast.”
“Prior to the start of a meal, think about where the food is coming from, the different components that make up the meal, and all the work that went into its creation,” suggests Kylie Ivanir, RD. This can help you feel more connected to and mindful of the food you’re eating. “These moments can also help us make healthier and more sustainable choices.”
Really tune in to the first few mouthfuls. “Your taste buds desensitize to food within the first few minutes, which make food not taste as good after that last bite threshold,” explains Stephanie Grasso, RDN. “Chewing slowly during those first few bites will not only delay overeating, but also allow you to appreciate the flavor of food at its peak.”
Relatedly, it’s useful to tap into all five senses during meals. “Does your food have visual appeal?” LaRue asks. “Notice the colors and arrangement of the food on the plate. What does it smell like? Does it remind you of anything? Enjoy that moment. Take a bite, and savor the taste, flavor and texture of the food. Make mental notes of the experience, or even talk about these qualities with the person you’re dining with. It makes the meal much more enjoyable, and you’ll find that you begin to notice fullness more easily.”
“Turn off the TV, get away from the computer and turn your cell phone on silent,” LaRue recommends. “It’s hard to tune into your body’s quiet cues with digital distractions making noise and taking our focus off of the task at hand: eating. Sit at the table with a chair and a plate to put yourself in a good environment and mind-set for eating intuitively.”
A meal that includes a mix of carbohydrates, fat, and protein is more likely to satiate you faster and keep you full longer. “When our meals are balanced, we get shorter-term energy from starchy veggies and grains and longer-term energy from healthy fat and protein,” says Randy Evans RD, consultant for Fresh n’ Lean. “Healthy fats and proteins slow digestion, giving our satiety hormones a chance to increase, signaling us we are getting full.” For carbohydrates, aim for a mix of whole grains, starchy vegetables, and non-starchy vegetables.
“During the meal, pause and put your fork down,” suggests LaRue. “This gives you more time to pace yourself and check in to gauge how full you are. Engage in conversation if you are with someone. Take several deep breaths, and drink some water. Repeat this several times during the meal. It may be smart to give yourself visual reminders, after you have finished a quarter of your food, to set the fork down and so forth.”
“When you are finished with your meal, rate your level of fullness,” suggests LaRue. If you’re more than satisfied or overstuffed, assess the cause. Did you just really love the food? Were you overly hungry, and you ate too fast? “If you’ve finished your meal and you don’t feel physically satisfied, assess if you had a balance of nutrients — carbs, fats and proteins. Give yourself permission to get more food if you’re still hungry, and trust that as long as you are eating what your body truly needs you are not overeating. The only caveat is that you make sure your hunger is truly physical and not emotional.”
“Strange as it sounds, eating is not just something we do when we are hungry anymore,” Evans points out. “Much of our eating is stress eating, which can lead us to eat too much, too often, and the wrong foods.” By taking steps to reduce stress through exercise, spending time in nature, practicing mindfulness, or enjoying time with loved ones, you can reduce your chances of overeating.
“Whenever we create a food restriction, it makes us susceptible to binge later on,” says Mallory Gonzales, RD. In other words, if you forbid yourself from eating certain foods you are highly likely to overindulge in them while you still can, a phenomenon also known as the “last supper effect.” This can also carry over after you stop eating a given food.
By not placing any food off-limits, you give yourself permission to have them, which can make it feel less urgent to overeat them. “For example, if you want a cookie, you get one,” says Gonzales. “You know that if you can have another one tomorrow if you’d like, so you may not even finish the cookie. And you don’t have the thought of, ‘I don’t know when I’ll have another, so I must finish it.’ By taking away restrictions, you can enjoy your food and let it be satisfying, which helps prevent overeating.”
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