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One of the first clients we ever worked with was struggling to lose a lot of weight, and she was an admitted emotional eater. During one session, we introduced to her the concept of mindful eating, and encouraged her to follow some of the mindful eating guidelines: checking in with herself before and during a meal to decipher the sensations between feeling hungry and full, chewing more, putting her fork down in between bites. We thought it would be a useful experiment, but not necessarily a life-changing one. Turns out, she had a powerful and rather emotional experience with this practice. “I must have been swallowing my food whole,” she said the next time we talked.
Getting used to this relatively simple habit can help people lose weight as well as digest and absorb their food more effectively and efficiently. It can also greatly support people in managing their portion control. It takes our brains about 20 minutes to recognize when our bellies are full, so if you’re scarfing down your food, by that point you’re often overly stuffed and it’s too late. But if you’re eating intentionally and slowly, you have time to check in with yourself to see if you’re really hungry for more, or if you can stop eating sooner. Many of my clients find that they are able to cut down on their portions when they practice mindful eating techniques–some estimates say you can even cut down on your food intake by up to 1/3 by being more intentional.
Of course, sometimes we eat not because we’re physically hungry, but out of boredom, anger, loneliness, fear, sadness, etc. If you find yourself going back to the kitchen shortly after you’ve eaten, looking through cupboards, opening the fridge, feeling like you just need “a little something,” ask yourself what you’re really hungry for. Can you call a friend, take a walk, play an instrument or spend time with your pet, soak in a bath, watch a funny movie or read a magazine instead?
Here are some nuggets to consider about the science behind some of our hunger and fullness sensations and cues:
Fiber keeps us full, but how?

There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Insoluble fiber is found in things like the skins, seeds, stems and stalks of fruits and vegetables as well as the outer layer or whole grains or bran. Soluble fibers is contained in some fruits and vegetables, seeds, legumes and grains. Soluble fiber mixes with liquids in your digestive system and creates a gel-like substance that helps to maintain healthy blood sugar levels by slowing down the rate of carbohydrate digestion. Good sources of soluble fiber include beans, oats, apples, berries, broccoli and spinach. Insoluble fiber works a little differently. Instead of dissolving in water, it absorbs water and adds bulk and moisture to our stool, which also produces a sense of fullness. Insoluble fiber can be found in prunes, bran, whole grains and the skins of produce. Foods that contain a lot of water and fiber, like fruits and vegetables, are considered to be “high-volume” foods: they are low in calories but fill you up. They’re also nutrient-dense, so you’re ingesting much of the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants your body needs, keeping it happy and healthy. It’s the opposite of the “overfed, undernourished” concept. Fiber also stretches the stomach and slows the emptying process, keeping us satiated for longer. The recommendation for women is at least 25 grams of fiber daily, 30 to 38 grams for men.

Protein

You’ve likely heard to eat protein at your meals to keep you full and satiated, but why? Scientists have discovered the peptides, the products of digested protein, send your brain signals that are relayed back to your gut; as a result, your gut releases glucose, a sugar that provides energy to our cells, making you feel satisfied and giving your body the message that it doesn’t need more food. Protein also helps reduce the body’s levels of grehlin (dubbed the “hunger” hormone), and works to increase the production of leptin, a satiety hormone. Aim to eat a high-protein breakfast and include protein at meals and snacks.

Fat

As fat moves its way into the small intestine, it reduces feelings of hunger and prolongs digestion. Stick to healthy fats like nuts, avocados, coconut and olive oils, and fatty fish (think wild salmon and sardines).

Sugar

Do you find yourself back in the kitchen, poking around for a little something else soon after eating sugar-laden foods? There’s a scientific explanation, and you’re not alone. Blood sugar levels are tightly regulated in the body. When you eat something high in sugar or refined carbohydrates (which your body perceives as sugar), your blood sugar levels increase, and your body releases a lot of insulin to help control them. Insulin helps shuttle the sugar inside the cells, where the energy can be used, but if too much sugar is plugged into the cells, your blood sugar might drop too low. This blood sugar spike, then crash, can keep weight loss efforts at bay.

Alcohol

In addition to the added sugars contained in many mixed drinks, cocktails or wines, a 2015 study found that drinking alcohol before a meal increases food consumption and decreases ghrelin levels. A reason for this effect, dubbed the aperitif phenomenon, may be due to activity in the hypothalamus, a brain region that plays a role in hunger cues.

For most of human history, one of our main struggles was not having enough food at the ready. Now, throughout the Western world and beyond, one of our biggest challenges to balanced eating is restraint.

Moderation with food can be as difficult to manage as addictions like smoking, social media or gambling. We need food for survival, which makes avoiding the trigger almost impossible. We can, however, remove trigger foods and stock the kitchen with foods we feel good about consuming. Complicating the matter is our history and beliefs around eating and the way we see ourselves. What’s a health-minded foodie to do?

Below are five steps you can consider to feel more empowered about how you nourish yourself:

1: Be kind to yourself, and make choices that make it likely you’ll succeed.

Set up your environment so that healthy food options are around and the ones you’ll reach for most easily. Aim to avoid purchasing and bringing foods that you don’t want to eat into your home.

Eating at a dining room table, ideally with others, sitting down–this is most conducive to having a relaxing connection to food, supports your digestion and also supports your decision to eat until about 80% full, which is our highest recommendation–it leaves a little room for digestion! Other healthy habits include bringing your own balanced lunch to work, eating at home before heading to a party, and focusing your energy on conversations rather than the buffet table.

2: Shift your self-talk.

Rather than saying to yourself, “I can’t eat that cookie” or “I shouldn’t eat that pizza,” use words that express empowerment and choice. Some examples: “I choose not to eat processed foods. I am deciding to eat whole foods because I cherish myself. I feel good when I am feeding myself nourishing meals.

3: Take your time and take deep breaths.

Slowing down when you’re eating makes it easier for you to notice when you’re satiated. Take a breath before you dive in, and between bites, if possible. Put your fork down, and maybe even try eating with your non-dominant hand (this one is fun!). This will help you create physical and mental space to make your eating habits and choices more thoughtful, and brings awareness to the experience.

4: Check in with yourself.

If you’re craving a processed food or something you know your body doesn’t respond well to, or you to continue eating past the point of comfort, look inward. Breathe, have a little chat with yourself as if you were your own child. You can even say to yourself, “You can always eat that food in a moment, but I want to understand you first.” Drink some water and wait 10 minutes or so. If you still want the food, see if you have a small amount. You might find that the craving passes.

5. If you eat something you don’t feel good about, let it go afterward!

We are so used to feeling guilty if we eat something “unhealthy.” Did you enjoy the food while you were eating it? We are hard-wired through our limbic brain to want to eat as much of the good stuff (sugar, fat, carbs) as possible, and it’s hard for our modern bodies and brains to fully grasp this. Eating for pleasure’s sake is okay–and we all do it. Enjoy the food, let guilt go and know that you’ll choose mostly high-quality foods tomorrow.