How to Know When You’ve Eaten Enough

by | Jul 2, 2014

Photo by Wiertz Sébastien

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. 

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26 Responses to “How to Know When You’ve Eaten Enough”

  1. Julia says:

    Great advice, the key for me was definitely to take things slowly to achieve gradual lasting change, and to forgive myself when I did go overboard. Not seeing it as a failure but as me just being human. I don’t see myself ever going back to the dieting/overeating cycle. I feel free at last! Thanks to you. Keep up the good work 🙂

  2. This makes so much sense. Becoming aware of what, how and how much you eat or eating mindfully is such a powerful habit. Majority of the people underestimate the power of simple habits. I especially like the idea mentioned in this article about reducing the portion sizes so gradually (10-20%) that you don’t feel hungry – if you feel hungry, you’ve reduced too much. Given that just a 100 calorie deficit per day can help anyone lose 10 lbs per year, this can be very powerful.

  3. Cassie T says:

    Thanks for the article, Darya! It’s so encouraging to know that you were guilty of the Ben & Jerry’s binge but now have no desire to overeat.

  4. Jessica says:

    I’m working really hard to pay attention to how I feel after I eat. It’s actually incredibly difficult and I haven’t quite figured out how to override my immediate desire for sugar by recalling how sluggish I feel after (Present Me still thinks Future Me won’t care). I’m working on it by really focusing and internalizing the feeling of sluggishness after I eat sugar, and visualizing what I ate that made me feel that way as I do it. Hopefully, eventually when I see those foods in the future I’ll immediately associate sluggishness with them enough to prevent snacking.

    • Darya Rose says:

      That’s a great strategy. You may also not be eating enough carbohydrates during the day. I found that adding more beans/lentils/intact grains really killed my sugar cravings, and if I go too long without enough balance in my diet the cravings come back.

      • Patrick says:

        That must be why after 2 years of Paleo I went through an “organic artisan ice cream” phase that lasted for about 15 lbs. “Oh, but it’s still organic…”

  5. Jules says:

    Loved this article Darya!

  6. Nan says:

    I’ve noticed that I can only get a clear signal of fullness/satisfaction when I ate being truly hungry. If I start eating a meal not hungry, I have the hardest time determining if I’m full. Maybe this is a no-brainer, but this is something I’ve had to contend with, with my disordered eating.

  7. camille says:

    I’ve actually come to realize that I feel a slight satiation pang (like a reverse hunger pang!) at the base of my throat when I’ve eaten enough. I’m not always good at following suit, but I’m working on it! Another good sign that you’ve eaten enough is when the food starts to taste a bit less amazing.

    Of course, I’m currently in the first trimester of a pregnancy and feeling nauseous all the time, so it’s an entirely different challenge, but this one will pass…

  8. Dee says:

    I was pondering the same thing last week whilst on a 5h plane ride…. How to achieve portion control
    External measures – The way to be SURE that I’m not overeating by measuring and weighing food = frustrating … Impractical

    What I try to do is try hard at determining internal measures 1. stomach volume control/ stretch test – physical fullness
    2. Energy in tune test e.g I’ll know feelIng FULL if I’ve had say 500 calories from of chocolate and nuts even though it’s a small volume

    Yes, Getting really hungry helps

    Lettuce & Coffee

  9. I am so interested in this concept. I feel like I have lost the knowledge to know when I am truly satisfied. I feel hungry ALL the time, even after eating.
    Is it true that you must focus on what you are eating with no distractions,(television,reading), I do both.
    I have subscribed to your blog and I hope to learn much from you.
    Thank you.

  10. Lauren says:

    Loved this! It’s so hard to go against what we’ve been taught as portion sizes or the amount we put on our plate as kids, adults, etc. and listen to our bodies natural cues instead, but it comes with time. It can be hard in the in-between zone of relearning hunger & fullness cues and rebuilding trust in your own body. PS: A client recommended your blog, and I’ve been loving it lately!

  11. julie says:

    I learned by watching friends who maintained their weight by eating like normal people (both of them). As in people who put on weight if not monitoring, yet eating as they wanted and not being neurotic. And then, years to tweak it. I constantly have to tweak, as I move into mid-forties.

  12. Cactus Wren says:

    Camille, that reminds me of what in Weight Watchers we call “the sigh” — that almost imperceptible sensation of “Mmm”, your body’s signal that it’s had enough.

  13. Sia H. says:

    Hi Dayra,

    Thanks for sharing this article. I’m very careful with what I eat during the holidays, but sometimes feel like a boost is necessary after a week-long worth of eating foods out of my normal dietary routine. Would you recommend something similar to a fast to get your metabolism back to normal or something just to boost yourself again the following Monday? Something like eat beets that Monday to get your digestive system going, or lots of veggies and no carbs or alcohol? I wish there was some sort of refresh button we could just push. 🙂

    Thanks for all your posts. I enjoy reading them.


    • Darya Rose says:

      Hi Sia,

      Great question. I know exactly what you mean. Typically after traveling I don’t do the recalibration, but I am extra sure to stick to my Home Court Habits to a tee. That is I eat lots of veggies, cook at home, hit the gym, get my 10K steps, skip the bread and sugar until the weekend, etc. It usually feels GREAT to do this after an indulgent week, so it doesn’t take much willpower.

  14. Elaine Ryan says:

    I have learned a world of information about eating from my 2 and 4 year old grandchildren. If they have even one or two bites left, and they get full, they say they’re done and that is it. Such intuitive eating has inspired me! I think I lost this early in life, being forced to eat every bite or go to bed right after supper. It’s amazing how many perfectly natural behaviors can be stifled at such a young age.

  15. AJ says:

    Hi, Darya,

    I have a somewhat related question about when one knows when she or he has had “enough.” As I know you understand, satiety is linked to one’s emotional state, habits, and personal history/background/culture. I once used to love dessert, but after years of developing my healthstyle, I hardly ever crave what is normally considered as dessert.

    However, I do often chase a meal with food that I would consider as a snack (e.g. nuts, nut butters, dairy, starchy vegetables, grains, etc.). It’s fair to say that I treat this snack as my version of dessert. I notice that this often makes me eat past the “enough” point and I notice that I sometimes eat more of the snack and less of the meal. I’m currently working to transition to eating more of a satiating, satisfyinng meal and eating less of (or even elimating) a post-meal snack.

    My question for you is as follows: Do you have a habit of needing to consume something (snack, drink, etc.) after a meal? Is it ever a problem for you in terms of your understanding of your “enough” point?

    • Darya Rose says:

      Hi AJ,

      That was a problem that went away for me when I let myself truly eat to satisfaction in my meals. Now it only happens if I eat early and then go out for drinks after (and maybe have a couple too many––haha). I eat way more meat (fatty meat) now than I did when I started this blog, and I think that has had a big impact.

      • AJ says:

        Thank you so much! I’ve been trying to incorporate fattier meat into my diet, but it certainly requires a psychological adjustment period. =]

  16. Elena says:

    Hy! Great article!
    I am a waitress that usually ends her shift at 00.00 or even 2.00 am. I usually eat before I start work(sometimes I start working at 19.00 pm or 20.00 pm), but when I finish my shift and come home, I feel hungry. My question is: what should I eat at that hour to avoid low blood sugar during the night (not a diabetic, but have had some episodes of hypoglycemia) , but also avoid over-eating that may cause weight gain.
    Thank you!

  17. Katie says:

    I’ve been practicing eating mindfully, and while now chewing my food thoroughly comes more naturally & I do it without thinking about it, I find that sometimes my jaw starts to hurt from all the chewing! What can I do about this?

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