One “Trick” I Use With My Clients for Weight Loss
Not eating carbs after noon.
Not eating at all after 5 PM.
Doing cardio on an empty stomach.
These are all “tips and tricks” that are part of our popular culture, promising fast weight loss on the premise of one simple “rule” to follow.
The reality is that sustainable, healthy weight loss is often built up on lots of little details, not just one silver bullet.
But there is one small habit shift that I use with my clients to transform their eating habits, and it’s incredibly effective for lasting weight loss and a healthier relationship with food.
And it’s this simple: it’s stopping eating when you’re not completely full, while you still feel good in your body.
This habit is especially effective for weight loss when it’s practiced in contexts where it’s hard to use other “dieting” strategies, like accurately assessing calories or portion sizes. For example, if you normally use calorie tracking to help yourself manage your weight, going out to dinner at a restaurant (or going on vacation, or going to a holiday celebration) can present a big challenge to your normal strategies, causing you to go way off track.
But by tuning in to a deeper sense of what feels good to your body, you are not only helping yourself with weight management – you’re also improving your relationship with your body, by honoring hunger and fullness cues, and focusing on what authentically feels good (not what feels good for about 30 minutes and then feels very, very bad).
Plus, the caloric implications are vast. For example, if you need to eat between 1400-1600 calories per day to lose weight, it can be somewhat easy to achieve this on a day-to-day basis, but to ultimately throw the average way off with a few restaurant or convenience meals that have distorted portions. Honoring your body’s fullness signals can dramatically blunt the impact of restaurant meals, so that you can still enjoy yourself, continue to dine out socially, and not restrict yourself to a bland and repetitive rotation of meals… and still see results!
This means that I don’t have to go to an Italian restaurant and order fish and steamed spinach. I can order a pasta or a pizza, because I have strong skills to not only not overeat, but also to eat well the rest of the day.
Of course, this is one of those habits that’s easier said than done, because it means we have to change a few things about the way we approach eating, like:
- First, we have to be more aware of when we are actually feeling satisfied, which requires more attention and insight while we’re eating.
- Second, we have to build the habit (which takes repetition) of actually stopping once we have that awareness (and having the tools to follow through with it).
- Next, we have to practice, through trial-and-error, what is the “right” amount of satisfaction and fullness, and what the implications are for meal composition and how often we eat.
- Finally, we have to challenge our emotional relationship with food, including a “scarcity mindset” that can significantly drive overeating.
Let’s break down each of these individually!
Building Awareness of Satisfaction
The Japanese phrase “hara hachi bun me” translates roughly to “belly 80% full.” Other Asian traditions known for their longevity have similar principles, like the Ayurvedic advice to fill the stomach one-third with liquid, one-third with food, and to leave the rest empty.
In my work with clients, this is a huge step in improving your relationship with food, because we are culturally accustomed to overeating. Many of us don’t know what it’s like to feel “full” or “satisfied” without having our stomachs physically stretched by a large volume of food (and calories).
So this is the first step to work on: improving body awareness, so that we are cognizant of the sensations of satisfaction, and where we are falling on the “hunger and fullness scale” at any time.
If we visualize hunger and fullness as occurring on a scale of 1-10 (1 being famished and 10 being absolutely stuffed), it’s a good rule of thumb to eat when you’re at a 3-4, and to stop eating when you’re at a 6-7.
One of the challenges of recognizing fullness is that some foods behave differently than others, and our ability to pay attention can also be affected by what’s going on around us. For example, high-fat foods are very low in volume, so the feeling of fullness tends to hit us hard, but after a time lag. Also, if we’re watching TV or at a restaurant, it’s harder to tune in to the quiet signals that our bodies are giving us.
Here are some tips for building awareness of fullness:
- Eat slowly. It takes time for your body to coordinate the signal that say, “I’m full!” If you eat slowly, you give your body the time lag it needs to express itself.
- Be aware that at restaurants, the high fat content will create a major time lag for fullness. Stop sooner than you think – stopping at a 5 on the hunger and fullness scale will later feel like you stopped at a 7 or an 8.
- Try to minimize eating while driving or eating in front of screens (including your phone or computer). Distracted eating doesn’t help with building awareness.
- In social situations, take a quick break from eating to check in with yourself. Even getting up to go to the bathroom can really help, because it gives you just a second to be aware of your body without the food in front of you.
Building this skill means that you can become more aware of fullness “dawning” on you, vs. the feeling of running into it like a brick wall. This can help significantly with weight loss.
The goal is not to deprive yourself of food, but to prevent excess intake, and to know that “just enough” sensation while you still feel good in your body.
Build Your Stop-Eating Skills
This second step can be much more nuanced!
If the first step is to become aware, the second step is to change behavior. What do you do to stop eating, once you realize you’re getting full?
There are so many things you can do! You can experiment and play with habits, to see which ones work best for you in different situations. But here is a “starter kit” that I suggest:
- Ordering less (or putting less on your plate to start)
- When you feel you’re done, getting up and clearing your plate (or having a server clear your plate)
- If you can’t get up, putting your napkin on your plate
- If possible, eating the bulk of the protein and vegetable portions of the meal first, to create more “volume” fullness first
- At home, immediately put food away for later (which can reduce anxiety about food waste)
- Switching to drinking water instead of eating
- In social situations, pushing yourself a little, challenging yourself to sit with unfinished food and focusing on the company and conversation instead of the food
Putting this habit into practice requires a lot of repetition and behavior change! Even though I’ve referenced restaurant meals several times, it’s important to note that this applies to home-cooked meals, as well. If you’re getting full when you’re 75% into your breakfast oatmeal, it’s still worthwhile to stop and clear your plate.
Practicing with Trial-and-Error
Next, it’s essential that we not only focus on the hunger and fullness scale, but also that we have the “big picture” of our eating nailed down. This means that we build strong eating skills in general, so that our eating habits aren’t de-railed by the challenge of a restaurant meal or a holiday celebration.
This is important because the practice of “eating until 80% full” will naturally create some trial-and-error! There will be times when you accidentally under-eat with good intentions, and end up very hungry later.
Here are some tips for setting yourself up for success in general:
- Eat a high-protein, high-vegetable, high-fiber diet in general, so that dining out can simply be a nutritional blip on the radar
- To the best of your ability, take time to think about your “eating day” in advance, predicting when you might be the most hungry and what steps you can take to take care of yourself
- Be sensitive (in advance) to situations where you might be the most vulnerable to overeating triggers, and determine if you can take preventative steps
- Eat regular meals, without skipping or “saving up calories,” so that you don’t go into challenging food situations extremely hungry
- Think about when challenging food occasions will take place – is it at a strange time, like 10 AM or 3 PM? Think ahead about swapping meal and snack times so that your food intake is intelligently set up overall
By getting the big picture right, we reassure ourselves that even if we’re hungry later, we can eat again, once we’re hungry again.
Challenging Our “Stuck” Narratives Around Food
Finally, you’ll probably notice that when you work on stopping eating when you’re satisfied, you’ll experience a lot of internal dialogue around food, which can include:
- Anxiety about food waste
- Feeling like you’re not enjoying yourself if you can’t overeat
- Heightened awareness of what other people are eating or not eating
Ultimately, it’s this internal narratives that reveal a lot about our relationship with food. When you keep practicing and improving your skills, you’ll find that these “stuck” scripts improve, as well, because you increase your internal trust in your body, which naturally leads to changes in thinking. When you experience, over and over again, that you can be fully satisfied with a smaller portion, that you can eat what you want, that you feel physically great when you don’t overeat, and that you will eat again soon (i.e., you are not deprived of food), you get used to the concept of honoring your body’s fullness cues.
I think this can be especially powerful for people who generationally come from a background of food insecurity. Food scarcity can have a powerful impact on overeating – when we’re not sure where our next meal is coming from (or how complete it will be), we tend to eat more at each meal. Even if we haven’t personally experienced food scarcity, it’s common that just a few generations ago, our families created traditions of cleaning our plates, not wasting food, or “feasting” when the opportunity presents itself. Now, these scarcity attitudes don’t help us – they’ve outgrown their usefulness, and are keeping us stuck in food anxiety and overeating.
Ultimately, what many of my clients find is that when they follow this principle, they don’t need to strenuously diet or impose external restrictions on their eating (like not eating carbohydrates, or not eating at certain times). Most of my clients don’t even track calories or weigh foods. Instead, they build the skill to eat many different foods with a confident feeling of self-control and enjoyment, and can see wonderful improvements in body composition without formally “dieting.”
It takes practice and mindfulness, and it’s important to remember that habits don’t necessarily change in the cliche 21 days. Sometimes, it can take two months or more of consistent repetition. But the good news is that eating habits give us many opportunities to practice, because we have meals and snacks multiple times a day.
Want to talk more about your nutrition and weight loss goals? Shoot me a message and we’ll talk.