If you have been eating regular meals at regular times for a while, then chances are pretty good that you are developing regular and consistent hunger signals. This tends to happen when your body becomes accustomed to getting fed at particular times during the day, which actually makes responding to that hunger a lot more convenient, because it is predictable. I know I will be hungry around 1:00pm each day; therefore, I can plan to have food on hand before things get desperate.
In the past, I would have waited until I felt hungry before I even started thinking about what to eat, and then by the time the decision-making was finished, the food acquired and put together, I would probably be cranky and famished. Not a good way to go! So, eating at regular times for a while, even, at first, when when I am not hungry at those times, sets up the predictable-hunger system.
As a result, having predictable, moderate hunger signals seems to make it easier to figure out how full you are. After all, if you start eating in that nebulous state of not-quite-hungry, you’re probably only going to finish eating when you’re either not-quite-full, or else seriously-overfull. Neither of which are great options. We’re looking to establish a habit of both comfortable hunger and comfortable fullness.
Once you are coming to the table hungry, on a regular basis, and finding that table laden with enough tasty food, and giving yourself full permission to eat that food, then you are in a good position to start listening for the sounds of fullness.
I do this by checking in with myself when my plate is about 3/4 empty.
This does not mean I am necessarily going to stop eating or declare myself finished. A lot of the time, it might mean I actually need to get up and get seconds, because I’ve miscalculated how much food was there, or how hungry I was. The important part of this end-of-plate check-in time is permission.
Yes, that again – permission to still want the food, and permission to go and get more if I want it.
I find that it’s important to continue eating until my mouth, or my aesthetic hunger, is satisfied – not just my stomach. I have sometimes messed this up, and stopped eating when my stomach felt full, even if the food was still incredibly appealing to me. The result was simply that I was hungry again within the hour – not a tragedy, but not super-convenient, either. I need to know that I can eat enough to not feel hungry again for a few hours, because otherwise I will never stop thinking of food.
Different people choose to reach different levels of fullness, but almost everyone knows that feeling of being unpleasantly full, and almost no one wants to go there on a daily basis. There may be occasions, like holidays, where the discomfort is worth the experience, but who wants to put themselves into a state of pain regularly? Not me. But before “painfully full” there is a range of experiences of fullness, from neutral to kinda-full, to good-n-full, to really-full-but-not-in-pain-yet. And you get to decide which one you like, at every meal you eat.
This is a learning process, and one that will require you to make mistakes in choosing a level of fullness. You will sometimes leave the table under-full and be hungry again soon (but if you have a snack coming up, it won’t be a big deal.) You will sometimes leave the table feeling like you blew it, ate too much, and now will be uncomfortable for a while until it subsides – but it will subside, and you may find yourself naturally wanting to eat less at your next meal or snack. This is how self-regulation of food intake works – you take in feedback, and then you respond to that feedback in the way that helps you feel most comfortable.
Never, at any point, is there a reason to beat yourself up for what is a simple miscalculation. Getting overly full, even if it happens a lot, does not say anything about your character, your worth as a person, or your willpower. It simply says that something is getting in the way of your fullness signals, or some anxiety is pushing you to override them.
That anxiety is most often related to a fear of not getting enough to eat – and it can take time to build trust and soothe that anxiety by continuing to feed yourself regularly and give yourself permission, regardless of whether you get overfull. The anxiety might also feel like a form of rebellion or resentment, where you purposely eat too much for your own comfort because, screw the world that tells you not to eat, you want this food, dammit! But the root of the problem is the same – lack of permission, and fear of not getting enough.
The answer to both of these problems is more permission, more trust, and more commitment to continuing to feed yourself reliably.
When you are calm enough around food, you can feel the sense of fullness that Ellyn Satter terms “the stopping place.” It is more than just stomach fullness, more than just satisfaction from the food, and more than just the relief of nutrient stores being replenished – it’s a combination of all three, plus the overarching sense of well-being that comes from knowing you can, and you will, take good care of yourself with food.
When all the forms of hunger are extinguished, you will find a stopping place that is subtle but definite, and slightly different from anyone else’s. It might require a slightly different mix or amount of foods, but you will know it when you feel it.
If you trust that more food will be coming later, when you need it again, you can calmly let go of eating when you’ve reached the stopping place.
It will take some practise, permission, tuning in, and the healing of broken trust. But it will be worth it.
Or if you just want to tell me how you figure out fullness, I’m all ears.