Personal Health

Do You Know When to Stop Eating?

We all come with internal "full" meters. But many Americans have been conditioned to ignore theirs.
I asked my son, when he was about 6, how he knew when to stop eating. He said, "My tummy tells me, because, I can't actually see in there." I have raised him on as much healthy food as he will eat and let him have some sweets as well. I have allowed him to dictate when he is done with his meals and how much dessert he will have. He is 11 now and normal-weighted, and in touch with his sense of hunger and satiety.

I grew up during a time when adults told you to eat all your food if you wanted dessert. All your food was often what was put on your plate by an adult. Not only were we being taught to disregard our body's "full" meters, but also that the reward for overeating was more high-calorie, yummy food. Not the best message to grow up with.

Our tummies may have been telling us to stop, but our parents were telling us it was good to keep going. If you override your natural "full" meter often enough, it tends to go into a coma. It can take years of normal eating to revive it too. Not only does the "full" meter go to sleep, but you can get used to that overstuffed, almost drugged, feeling you get from overeating. It is amazing what the human body can get used to and then begin to crave.

If you have ever smoked cigarettes, you understand this concept. That first inhalation should have been enough to stop all of us from taking the second. It hurt, it made us cough, we felt light-headed, even nauseous. It was truly disgusting. How that disgusting first drag could turn into a two-pack-a-day habit is amazing to me.

When it comes to food and health, we know that we should eat only when we are hungry. Eat only until we are 80 percent full, not too full. Make sure our diets consist mainly of fresh fruits, vegetables, lean protein and whole grains. Get some exercise. The end.

If we could all do that, obesity would be a nonissue. We would all be at a healthy weight. We wouldn't all be skinny, as we do vary in our body types, but we certainly wouldn't be morbidly obese either. The problem for many of us is that we don't know when we are full until we are stuffed and/or we keep eating even though we know we are full. Couple that with the high-fat, high-calorie foods that many of us have become accustomed to eating, and the obesity problem we have today is no wonder.

So if you acknowledge that your full meter is broken, how do you know when to stop eating?

The answer to this question is that you don't. You need something outside yourself to help you with that, and that is where keeping food records and counting calories comes in. I know, you don't want to hear that, but it is the truth. Maybe one day there will be a pill, or magic, but until then, this is the best we've got. When you weigh 300 pounds and have gotten used to eating 3,000 calories a day, you will be hungry on 2,500 calories a day. Even though 2,500 calories is a binge day for most women, you will be hungry on that because of what you are used to. It is best to lower your calories slowly so as not to experience too big of a backlash.

Keeping food records and counting calories will also keep you awake to what you are putting in your mouth and how much. Many of us are asleep at the wheel when it comes to what and how much we are eating. If you want to change your weight, you have to pay attention.

So, once your "full" meter is broken, can it ever be repaired?

The good news is that, yes, it can, but it might take a very, very long time. I was heavy for years and lost a significant amount of weight 18 years ago and have kept it off since. After 16 years of maintaining my weight loss, I noticed that my "full" meter had been restored. I now know when I am 80 percent full and am happy to stop eating then because that means I get to eat more soon. If I do overeat now and get too full, I hate it. I can't stand the feeling and can't wait until it passes. This motivates me not to do it again. It's almost like if you don't smoke for years and years and then take a drag, it feels like the first drag all over again. (I don't recommend trying that, by the way.)

If you want to lose weight, repair your full meter, or just get more in touch with your hunger and satiety, and try writing down what you are eating for a week. You will be amazed at what you learn about yourself. During the weight loss phase, I recommend keeping food records the entire time you are losing and then for enough time following the weight loss to be able to maintain it without the records. It works!
Irene Rubaum-Keller is a licensed psychotherapist who has been in private practice in the Los Angeles area for over 20 years.
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