Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Eat Only When Hungry

So, at the start of this summer (2010, for the record), I lifted all eating restrictions on myself.  I would from this moment forward face all food as equally valuable in its nourishing qualities.  I would remove the judgments of "good for me" or "bad for me."  I would eat when I liked, what I liked, however much I liked.

This isn't the first time I've attempted this.  Between 1995 and 2001, I adopted a "fat-accepting" and "no-diet" stance on life.  It netted me a gain of 10 pounds per year (that's 60 pounds of pure fat, for those of you who are math challenged).  I was sure fat-accepting.  I was accepting fat to settle itself upon my hips and belly like there was no tomorrow.  I became a firm supporter of the plus-size store cause... to the tune of a new, larger size every single year.  I would try to tell myself that this was "natural fallout" from "quitting dieting."  But I knew deep down that something was seriously wrong if I was doing that to myself when I wasn't restricting what I ate.

Enter low-carb in 2001.  It did help me shed most of the gains from the previous 6 years, but I sure as heck ain't skinny from it.  Upping the ante and going all the way down to zero carb did NOTHING to help me in the size reduction department, as I already mentioned.  To preserve my sanity, I was going to have to do something else, and I decided that this time, it would involve embracing all foods as worthy partners in my self-care efforts.

But, this time, I realized I needed to approach the no-diet mindset with caution if I wanted to avoid ending up in disaster like the last time.  At first, the only logical answer seemed to be to keep tabs on my eating, using a nutritional tracking website.  Of course, it's impossible to keep track of such matters if you don't use a kitchen scale and measuring tools.  At first it seemed like I was working on a puzzle, where I could fit whatever kind of piece (food) I wanted, as long as I stayed within a certain range.  I was having fun.  But it quickly turned into an exercise in OCD, where I fixated on the numbers more and more, and was feeling hungrier and more deprived, regardless of what or how much I actually ate.

So, I ditched the measuring tools and tracking website.  I was going to have to learn to trust myself.


Seriously, the prospect of this had me cowering in fear.  The notion that I would have to learn to navigate the world of eating without training wheels made me shake in my Converse hi-tops. But I also realized that learning to balance was PRECISELY about moving forward without the training wheels.  And I also realized that I was not entirely without tools.

One of the good things I got from my time as a zero carber was the habit of eating only when hungry, and of being genuinely disinterested in food when I wasn't hungry.  When you're eating only meat, this is actually easy.  You have to be goddamn hungry in order to be willing to eat a naked steak with no sides.  Still, I noticed that this habit carried over, even as I added more variety to my daily menu.

There is the common-sense dictum: "eat when hungry, stop when full."  Seems simple enough, no?  Not really.  A large number of people (and a number of large people) have NO CLUE what hunger is, much less fullness. I felt that I had an advantage having learned genuine hunger during my year as an exclusive carnivore.

Fullness?  A bit trickier.  When I ate only meat, I would keep eating until the next bite seemed a disgusting impossibility.  This never left me feeling uncomfortably stuffed.  Only unable to face another bite (of meat).  However, it is now obvious to me that this was an inadequate way to gauge when it was time to stop eating.

The only logical thing to do was to stop eating when I was no longer hungry.  Note that this doesn't mean "full."  It simply means "not hungry."  In a hunger scale of 1-10, in which 1 is "passed out from low blood glucose" and 10 means "can't breathe or I'll puke," "not hungry" is right there between 5 and 6.  It's that neutral state between meals, in which you wouldn't stop what you are doing in order to stuff your face.

Most of us don't stop eating until we've reached a 7 or 8.  When I was a kid, I'd push it all the way to 10.5 if I could get away with it...

But it struck me that, if I was no longer hungry, I shouldn't continue eating.

Shit.  I don't want to stop eating when I'm just "not hungry."

"But it tastes so good."  Get over it, there'll be something just as awesome if not better in front of you next time you actually ARE hungry.

"But what if I get hungry again?"  Then eat again when you are hungry.  It's that simple.

"But I've already paid for it, and if I don't eat it it will go to waste."  It can go to waste, or it can go to waist.  Your choice.  Or would you prefer to do the job of the trash can?

So, here is what I have been practicing recently: eat until no longer hungry (5 or 6 on the hunger scale), and wait 10-15 minutes.  If, during that time, hunger returns. eat some more.  If it doesn't return, then I don't eat again.   Usually, I remain satiated for at least 6 hours after I do this.

If hunger returns an hour or two after dinner, then it's time for dessert.

I have to admit that the hardest part of this for me is to cease the consumption of delicious food (because I make sure everything I eat is fucking awesome) while I am still capable of enjoying it.  The only thing that helps me is the knowledge that, if I get hungry again, I can eat again, whatever I like, without feeling any fear or guilt.

And, I can say that it is working.  I can eat when I am hungry, and I can eat whatever I like.  In the few months that I have been doing this, I have been slowly digging clothes out of the "too small" box, rather than enduring the misery of ever tighter clothing, holding out until the blubber was spilling over my waistband, like the last time I tried "not dieting."

A freakin' miracle.


  1. I'm afraid that I'm in the "By God-I paid for it and by God, I'm gonna EAT it!" category.

    I did the low-carbs for 3 years and it worked as long as I was willing to write down every fat, every carb, every protein that I put in my mouth.

    As you know, that gets old. I stopped writing all 3 measurements down and figured I could just track the main number (total daily calories). My next and last mistake was saying "Well, I'm only 5 pounds over..." As I'm sure you must know, those are famous last words.

    I still weigh daily and have managed to "only" gain 15 pounds, which makes me feel as if there's still hope.

    The frustrating thing is that, the day before I die-they will most certainly invent a magic fat pill. I know it as sure as I'm sitting here...

    I've lost and gained enough freaking weight in my life to have replaced myself on earth at least three times over. Sigh...

  2. Wow! :)

    I love this blog piece. Inspirational.

    I had already noticed on a couple of occasions that if I stopped eating when I wasn't hungry I would only eat a couple of mouthfuls. I wonder how long that would carry on for? ... for the foreseeable future, until my body had finished resting/fasting/whatever?

    It sounds like a very interesting new discipline, a very different one from the old exclusion style one, which I too have become somewhat of an expert at.

    Sounds like a sort of yoga, focussing on eating like you focus on postures and breathing in a normal yoga session ... which makes me think maybe that's the way for me to frame meals from now on ... as "yoga sessions". Wow!

    Thank you for the idea.

    Can't post on DC anymore, been banned, but am bookmarking your blog and looking forward to reading more about your journey here. :) :D

    Best wishes

    ouinon :)

  3. It seems like the whole world, except those who are naturally slim, are trying so hard with every imaginable method to get slim. This includes eating only when hungry and stopping when had sufficient. I have tried and tried and tried until I am totally fed up with diets, weights, scales and everything to do with fat and food. Yes, I too have tried eating only when hungry which seems to go well for a while, but something always sneaks up on me such as a stress bout and there I am eating something nice again. No, I am not enjoying it, I am loathing it and myself for being so weak. One unkind comment can lead me into eating too much. I am ok until I put the first tiny piece of food into my mouth, then I can't stop. This is binge eating of course. I thought I had mastered binge eating long ago and I no longer binge like I did. However, eating when not hungry is still binge eating. So, I eat when I get upset, I eat when my husband wants to eat. It seems that I fall in with everyone's eating pattern but my own. Surely, it should be so easy just to eat when hungry, but no it certainly is not unless you have always been this way. The only people I know who eat this way naturally are natural skinnies. I know several of these people, in fact quite a few of my relatives are like this. They eat what they want when they want and they are slim. They don't eat when they feel upset or anything else, they only eat when they are hungry. What on earth is wrong with those of us who cannot follow this simple rule of eating only when hungry and stopping when we have had enough? What is wrong with us when we eat because we are upset about something? Are we daft, stupid, too easily hurt, not being true to ourselves. I have searched and searched within myself to find out what I am doing that makes me eat when I am not hungry. I have given up on diets because they simply do not work. The scales are redundant. I am going along nicely when, wham, along comes an upsetting comment or something like that and all my resolve takes a nose dive. The food jumps into my mouth to soothe me. No, good, healthy food won't do, it has to be junk that will make me fat and uncomfortable. It certainly doesn't feel good. I know what has upset me and I try to rationalise it, but this stupid thing within me takes over and I eat. Wish I could stop.

  4. I so agree with the last comment of really wanting to stop eating, feel good, look good and just be plain healthy, but i won't allow myself to do so. also tried the eating when hungry method, your'e so right why do our brain's react to always wanting to eat, never get enough, eat until we're really stuffed until we just can't take it any, help! I really want to try this eat only when hungry method and make it work this time....never want to give up, but tired of trying at the same time. any suggestions?

  5. Just came across this blog after Googling "eating only when hungry." I found it very interesting and inspiring, and would love for you to post more on your success/failure with this way of eating.

    I'm currently in my 4th round of HCG, and definitely need to figure out a long-term plan for maintenance. After reading the book "Weight Loss Apocalypse" I am trying to learn more about eating only when hungry, but more importantly, stopping when satisfied. That seems to be the hard part, and where I don't really trust myself. Thanks.

  6. Oh my gosh, what a great post. Thank you!!

  7. Great topic. I have recently started this practice and it isn't as difficult as I originally thought it would be. None of it wouldn't have been possible had I not read Alan Carr's "Easyweigh" to loose weight book. I can't recommend it enough. 5 effortless pounds dropped in 2 weeks.

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