When I was in college I was pretty much always on a diet. Except when I wasn’t.
The way it worked was I’d grab either a protein bar or diet shake from my kitchen on my way out the door in the morning. At lunch time I would hit one of my favorite three salad places near campus. In the evening I’d either get another salad or make a chicken and vegetable stir fry at home.
I should have weighed nothing, but I was nearly 20 lbs heavier than I am now. Or, more accurately, I’d fluctuate between 10 and 20 lbs heavier, depending on how long I’d be able to go without having a burrito or ice cream meltdown.
My problem was that I was basically starving myself as much as I could, then would periodically eat a 15″ tortilla filled with rice, beans, cheese, guac and a mountain of carne asada. Or maybe in my weakness I’d buy a pint or two of Ben & Jerry’s and eat the entire thing during The Simpsons.
So much wrongness.
I could point to dozens of reasons my actions were idiotic, and I have. But today I want to focus on one of the long-term consequences of restricted eating (then overeating) that recovering dieters need to learn to overcome: knowing the amount of food you really should be eating.
I’ve written before about the benefits of mindful eating, but that is only the first step in getting your portions right. The issue was summed up nicely by a recent comment:
“What advice do you have for the situation when one practices mindful eating, employing strategies such as thorough chewing, taking smaller bites, and listening to relaxing music, but then feels un-satiated at the end of a meal. It’s difficult sometimes for me to know if I am hungry for more because I “need” more food or if I just want more food because it’s so delicious.
Do you set a portion meal size for yourself? How does one know when he or she is ‘done’?”
When you’ve trained for years to either leave the table hungry or stuff yourself silly, you probably haven’t developed an intuitive sense for the amount of food your body needs to feel nourished without overdoing it.
Eating mindfully is certainly the first step. Slowing down and chewing more thoroughly can sometimes be enough to show you that you’re eating far more than you need. Mindful eating is particularly effective for those who never dieted much, and who aren’t accustomed to leaving the table wishing they could eat more.
For former dieters getting portions right is trickier, because the middle ground is such unfamiliar territory. Mindful eating is necessary to help you slow down enough to stop and question your behavior. But if you don’t know what you are supposed to feel, it can be hard to identify what is “right.”
There are a few strategies you can use to develop this skill.
You have to start by eating until you’re satisfied. It’s important to know what this feels like. Focus on Real Food, especially vegetables. Use the foodist plate as your guide, but don’t worry about portions yet. It is okay to use the strategies to eat less without noticing if you think it will help you feel more satisfied, but if you notice what you’re missing you’ve gone too far.
Pay special attention to how you feel 30-60 minutes after you finish eating. Do you feel stuffed? Do you feel good? Do you feel tired? You will use this feedback from your body to determine how to move forward.
The goal here is to understand what your body needs to feel satisfied without feeling sluggish. If you find that you can reach satisfaction, but at the cost of overeating (feeling icky afterward), only then should you develop strategies to reduce portions.
Again, if you don’t feel satisfied you need to eat more, not less.
If you’ve determined that you can feel satisfied at the table, but often feel overly full or sluggish after the meal, then you can work on strategies to eat less. Start by cutting back on portions slowly, reducing your “normal,” satisfying portions by only 10-20%. You shouldn’t be able to notice this when you’re sitting at the table. If you do notice, you’ve likely cut back more than you should. Shifts to smaller portions work best when implemented gradually.
Another strategy you can use is to shift proportions on your plate. For instance, try to reduce least healthy foods first, like bread and pasta, and replace with more vegetables or beans.
Through trial and error you will eventually learn what “the right amount” of food feels like for you. It’s taken me years, but I now know the feeling for myself.
It is difficult to describe, but I can say with confidence that my desire to overeat has almost completely disappeared. I could be eating the most delicious plate of food, but if I’ve had enough I have no desire to keep eating. Even one extra bite is enough to let me know that I’m overdoing it, and I immediately start to feel uncomfortable.
I no longer feel the sense of loss or FOMO that I had when restricting myself was the norm. I know that if food is that good, I can save the rest for later or even cook or order it again in the future. I’ve also lost the fear that I might overeat and undo all my healthy efforts, because just a bite or two over “satisfied” is no big deal in the grand scheme of things. It’s a sense of satisfaction and freedom, and it’s awesome.
Are you a recovering dieter who has learned to eat intuitively? Please share your story and inspire others.