Listen to Your Body
Awareness will allow you to change what you eat without willpower. If you notice when you’re satisfied, you’ll want to stop eating. It doesn’t feel good to overeat (surprisingly). Also, eating healthier foods versus eating sugary foods becomes easier as you notice how your body feels afterwards. This may take practice to get good at, so give yourself a break if you aren’t perfect. This is #4 in The 15 Brainy Habits and Mindset Shifts to Autopilot Health and Weight Loss series.
The Magic of Listening to Your Body
What if you left several bites of dinner on your plate just because you were satisfied? What if you started craving salads? What if you ate only half a cookie—on purpose? I know it sounds like fiction, but all of these strange phenomena have happened to my clients.
By cultivating the skill of Listening to Your Body, you can eat less, feel more satisfied and prefer all the foods your mom made you eat. You can pass up dessert or leave it partially eaten without relying on willpower. Its happens for my clients, it happens for me, and I promise— It can happen for you too. Let me explain how.
Eating Awareness Training
When I was in college, I was always trying to lose weight. One day while reading Shape magazine, I found an article with the most audacious claims.
It said that if you paid attention to your hunger signals, ate when you were hungry, and stopped when you were satisfied, you could lose weight naturally without changing what you ate.
I was intrigued. I had to get a copy of the book the article cited! My college bookstore, said it was an older book, but they could order it for me (back in the pre-internet days). I waited patiently for weeks until the book called Eating Awareness Training (EAT) by Molly Groger showed up. The book only had about 150 pages, but, boy, was it powerful!
As I started implementing the book's strategies, I miraculously lost weight without effort. And the strategies were so simple. I can sum up the whole book in three sentences:
Eat only when you are hungry.
Stop when you are satisfied.
Let your body guide the process.
Eating Awareness Training was the first book that I had ever seen espousing this common sense or what I like to call “stomach sense” approach of paying attention to your body’s hunger signal (now you can find lots of books teaching "Mindful Eating").
Molly Groger explains that our bodies have the wisdom to know if we are hungry and when we’re satisfied, but we don’t pay attention.
Email from your Body
I like to explain it like our body sends our brain emails with status updates on our hunger and satiety level. But, there are too many other emails coming in.
The stomach’s messages get routed to the spam folder, or they have a boring subject line so we never pay attention.
With the simple skills I teach, you can designate your stomach as a VIP message sender and start paying attention to it again.
Innate Body Wisdom
I say “pay attention again” because we have this innate wisdom when we are born. Researchers have found that kids up until the age of about five will naturally eat if they are hungry and stop when they are full—much to the annoyance and amazement of their mothers. One day your toddler won’t stop eating, and the next day he takes two bites at each meal.
What happened to us? Why do we need someone to tell us to pay attention to our hunger signals and eat when we are hungry and stop when we are full?
I had to learn to listen to my body, and I bet you do too. But, I still feel ridiculous sometimes teaching this to my clients. It seems like common sense.
And it still is common sense for some cultures. Researchers did a study to see what drives Chicagoans versus Parisians to finish eating a meal. They got very different results. The Americans gauged when they were done by when their TV show was over or when their plate was empty. While the French used internal body signals—like they felt satisfied—to signal when they were done.
You may notice I often use the French as an example because of what is called the “French Paradox.” The French have lower levels of obesity and lifestyle related diseases like high cholesterol and high blood sugar despite unapologetically indulging in richer foods than Americans. That’s the true American dream—to be able to eat delicious foods and easily maintain a healthy, comfortable weight. You can do it, but you have to start paying attention to your "stomach sense."
The Hunger Scale
When it comes to "stomach sense", it’s a very simple process. I teach my clients to use The Hunger Scale. The Hunger Scale is a continuum that helps you rate your hunger using a scale of 1-10. Hunger and satiety is assessed, given a number, and that number helps you to know whether its time to eat and when to stop eating.
The different ratings on the Hunger Scale can be described as
5—Neutral--Neither hungry or satisfied
4—Hunger Pangs; Hunger is awakening
A 5 on the Hunger Scale is described as neutral—neither hungry or satisfied. Numbers from 1-4 on the Hunger Scale indicate hunger with 1 being ravenous and 4 starting to get some hunger rumblings. Numbers from 6-10 indicate fullness. Fullness ranges from 6 as satisfied and 10 being passed out on the couch in a food coma.
How To Use the Hunger Scale
Now I mentioned that using the Hunger Scale is simple, but it may not be easy. That is because most of the time, we are in habit, sub-conscious mode when it comes to eating. You'll have to start paying attention if you're going to use the Hunger Scale.
Eating from a level 3 to a level 6 will be a learning process. Remember what I said in this post, and have compassion on yourself. Realize it will take some practice to learn how much food you need to eat to get to a 6.
Some days it will be easy. Other days you will over shoot the mark. All totally normal. But if you're patient and keep trying, your brain will relearn what it knew when you were a child—when to start eating, when to stop, and how much to eat.
Here is the process that I've developed to help my clients practice paying attention to hunger signals once again.
1) Take a deep breath before you eat. This is a signal to switch your body from fight/ flight mode to rest and digest mode.
2) Ask yourself what level of hunger you're at—using the scale above.
3) Serve yourself the amount of food that you feel is the right amount for that hunger level.
4) Serve your food, then estimate at what point you will be 1/2 done.
5) Eat your food, and at the 1/2 way point, rate your hunger/ fullness again. With that new number in mind, estimate how many more bites to get to a level 6.
6) Keep checking in with your body until you have one more bite left to get to a level 6.
7) Savor that last bite. Then, push your plate away, cover it with a napkin, or bring your plate to the sink. You don’t want to subconsciously nibble while still at the table.
8) Rate your fullness level again. Notice if it gets higher 10-15 minutes later.
What to Expect when Using the Hunger Scale
There are some things that seem to happen universally when you start using the Hunger Scale. All my clients seem to discover the following as they practice this method:
* You'll eat a lot less than you have in the past--maybe even less than you think humanly possible at first.
When you start paying attention, you realize that it does not feel good to overeat— not even a single bite. You don’t have to use willpower to eat less or stop eating. In fact, you will notice that foods are less exciting and start tasting more and more bland as the meals goes on.
* You'll want to eat more, but it doesn't actually feel good.
When you want to eat more than your body needs, it may be because you're eating either for an emotional state change, you're eating as a habit, or you're eating just because the food tastes incredible. You will be disappointed at times because you want to eat more, but it isn’t worth feeling stuffed. You'll learn that it is ok to be disappointed, and there will always be another meal.
* You'll find that you enjoy and crave “healthier” foods because they feel better.
You will notice how processed or sugary foods feel in your body. They may start to lose their magic as you find that you feel more vibrant, lighter, and more energetic with healthier foods.
* You'll start magically eating slower.
Eating slower is Shift #6 of the 15 Shifts to Become a Real Loser, so I'll be addressing this in-depth later. But for now, know that you will eat slower for two reasons—you'll want to check-in and rate your fullness level during a meal and that takes time. Also, you'll find that you want to savor the small amount of food that you do eat.
Experiment with the Hunger Scale
Try it. Have fun being a scientist and experimenting with using the Hunger Scale. Try and guess how much food it will take you to get to level six. I'm surprised by how often I overestimate how much food it will take.
I'm giving you a printable card or a pdf you can put on your phone with the Hunger Scale Process. You can print out the small card and put in your wallet for easy access, or you can save it and pull it up on your phone.
I use this card with my family at dinner. We go around the table and say what number we are at the beginning of the meal.
Half-way through the meal, I ask my kids what number they’re at again. I then ask them to guess how many bites they have until they reach a 6.
When the kids are satisfied and have reached a 6, I encourage them to take their plates to the sink and then come back to the table while we all finish our meals.
Paying attention to your body is a beautiful skill to give yourself and to teach to those that you love.
Until next time,
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