Lesson Seven – Finding fullness.

Close on the heels of checking in, but also permission, comes the sometimes-tricky issue of figuring out when you are full.

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.

There are still spots left in the spring Eat Without Drama groups. If you’re raring to do some intensive work on the how of eating, come along with me.

Or if you just want to tell me how you figure out fullness, I’m all ears.







75 responses to “Lesson Seven – Finding fullness.”

  1. yasmara Avatar

    This was JUST what I needed to read today! Thank you so much. In a house with 2 sons & a husband who is almost a foot taller than me, I have a hard time remembering that enough for ME may be a lot less than enough for them.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Thanks! This is why I like making a double recipe, serving it family style, and having lots of containers to freeze leftovers :)

  2. Katie Avatar

    I’ve had to learn this lesson out of necessity. There were so many times I would eat until physically ill … and certain foods would make me sicker than others. (Huge weakness for plain Lays potato chips. But I think the oils, etc., really made my stomach react negatively.) Finally, I said enough is enough. I eat until I’m “comfy,” and usually stop there. This means I don’t feel uncomfortably heavy and bogged down, and better yet, my stomach doesn’t feel like it’s dying a slow death after a meal. I don’t always do it right … and like you mentioned, sometimes I want to ignore what I know is best for me just because I want more. And that’s cool, too. Permission is a beautiful thing.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Having food that makes you feel iffy definitely gives you strong motivation to pay attention to it, and figure out more comfortable ways of eating it. Not always easy, but it’s kind of amazing what people are willing to do once they make a connection between a certain food and a certain pain.

      1. Kathy Avatar

        Having food that makes you feel iffy definitely gives you strong motivation to pay attention to it, and figure out more comfortable ways of eating it. Good advice, Michelle, in the main, except for when there are no comfortable ways of eating it but maybe I misunderstand–do you mean like if the food is cooked, it doesn’t cause stomach discomfort, but raw it’s not (i.e. vegetables) or ?

        1. Kathy Avatar

          crap meant to use HTML tags for quote not bold..sorry…

        2. Michelle Avatar

          Maybe I misunderstood, but yes, I meant *if* there’s a more comfortable way of eating it, paying attention will help you figure out how that is. Otherwise, the connection to how it feels will just affect your decisions about how often to eat it, and in what situations. Not always a fun observation to make, but a necessary one.

          1. Kathy Avatar

            No worries Michelle.

            Sometimes for me “avoidance” is the only answer and I realize that is not terribly nutritionally sound but honestly some days it is just a big pain–literally and figuratively– to eat…but eat I do, don’t get me wrong. But if there was a pill I could take that would fill me up, give me all my calories, nutrients etc. so I wouldn’t have to worry about bloating up like I’m 9 months pregnant, and other fun IBS symptoms, I’d be there man, so there. I have even recently contemplated just drinking enough of those Ensures or Boosts per day to manage vs. eating “real food.”

          2. Michelle Avatar

            I think avoidance is a totally legit choice, of course.

    2. Eva Folsom Avatar
      Eva Folsom

      Katie, I just wanted to comment that I used to be totally obsessed with Lays potato chips, too! They were the most delicious thing on earth to me and (this was back way before I heard about HAES or permission to eat or anything) I’d eat so many of them that I’d get sick and I’d feel emotionally awful for being “bad” by eating so many chips. I couldn’t have any in the house without eating all of them! But after a good two or three years of really giving myself permission to eat as many damn chips as I wanted, they let their talons out of me. I still love ’em, and eat a handful or two when they sound yummy, but often half-bags will go stale in my house. (Also, I find that they don’t make me as sick if I eat them with cottage cheese, like a dip.)

  3. eatingasapathtoyoga Avatar

    OMG…. are you living in my head? I’ve really tackled my binge eating, now it’s time to address the overeating….. sometimes I feel the satisfaction point, and eat on, and sometimes I’m oblivious until it is too late. Still working on it, & giving myself grace.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I think the bigger question is…am I living in your cupboards? Because you never know.

      1. eatingasapathtoyoga Avatar

        Shudder, I will go check NOW!

      2. rebecca Avatar

        I can’t think of anything better than a small Michelle in my cupboards. I already picture a small one on my shoulder from time to time.

        1. Michelle Avatar

          That must be so creepy for you!

          1. rebecca Avatar

            No noes, it’s comforting! It’s like, she (the fake tiny Michelle) is on my shoulder near my ear, and when I’m in danger of forgetting some of the tips from this site that are so useful to me, she can help me remember!

            Lest this sound stalkery, you’re not only person on my shoulder. Ha! I’ve got a tiny version of most of my best friends and also people I don’t know personally but from whom I’ve learned something deep and useful. Each one appears on my shoulder to whisper their particular useful tip when I need it. It’s a visualization of a form — a person — who can remind me self-help things when I can’t get them from “me.” (In quotes because obvs at that moment I am getting them from me.)

          2. Carolyn Avatar

            Rebecca –

            This is a totally awesome thing! I have a little Michelle on my shoulder too! :) It’s actually something my therapist recommended to me. You’d be surprised at how many “people” we carry around with us (usually internalized, negative ones that tell us we’re bad). But being able to consciously connect with a loving source of advice like a Michelle on your shoulder is top notch! You figured out something that took me years & a lot of therapy to figure out. Way to go! :)

  4. Kathy Avatar

    This is a tough one for me in part because one of the symptoms of IBS is feeling uncomfortably “full” even when I’ve only eaten a normal (or less) size meal – which doesn’t happen all the time. Once I get that full feeling, I generally stop eating, as I’m nervous about having an IBS flare. So I don’t always know what true “fullness” is.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Oh, that is a tricky one – do you find that if you keep eating past the point of fullness (even if it’s like faux fullness) that it actually causes or exacerbates a flare?

      1. Kathy Avatar

        Hi Michelle, Not necessarily, although figuring out what causes an IBS flare is often like trying to nail jello to the wall. Was it eating too much? not eating enough? this food? that food? alcohol? coffee? ad nauseum

        1. Jewel of Toronto Avatar
          Jewel of Toronto

          Kathy, the same thing happens to me at lunch hour every day, no matter what I eat. I have two tactics (not solutions); eat slooowly and drink mint tea immediately following.

          1. Kathy Avatar

            Thank you Jewel.

  5. Jamie Avatar

    My issue is that I reach “mouth” fullness before “stomach” fullness. So I only really get to a place of stomach fullness if there is a big variety of different foods to eat – which is difficult for me to manage on a nightly basis, as much as I would enjoy eating enough to satisfy my stomach.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I’ve noticed this thing about needing a variety of foods, too – I get bored very soon if it’s just one type of food, and may not get to the point where I’m truly full for a few good hours. I try to give myself at least two or three components to each meal to get around this, but it’s not always practical.

    2. G Avatar

      Oh, this happens to me too! If I don’t have a range of foods I never get properly ‘satisfied’ and tend to fill the void with food that doesn’t make me feel very good. I try to get around this by cooking several dishes for the week at once and sticking them in the fridge, so I have a nice variety to choose from without a whole lot of effort.

      It feels like some of my weird eating behaviors are my body saying “Hey! You’re not giving me what I need. Go find something else and see if that’s it.”

  6. Raven Avatar

    I’m currently working on the “permission” aspect of this with my wonderful therapist (who is an expert at treating binge eating disorder). It’s such a slow process! I still struggle with beating myself up over every extra bite/calorie eaten, and I’m thinking this is because I haven’t TRULY given myself permission to binge or overeat yet. But anyway, it’s great to see the things I’m being taught in therapy explained in detail elsewhere. Always a pleasure! :)

  7. April Avatar

    This reminds me so much of something that happened last summer. My boyfriend and I were bike-touring for four months, we’re vegetarians, and we were on a strict budget. This meant that our food choices were often lacking when we were in rural areas–either nothing at all was appetizing, or we couldn’t afford it. I ate a lot of pancakes and noodles and chips and cookies and whole wheat bread with margarine. Every now and then I’d buy one of those bags of shredded cabbage and carrots that’s intended for coleslaw and just eat it in huge handfuls because I craved vegetables so much. If there was a Subway we were thrilled, even though it wasn’t much more than a salad on bread!

    When we arrived in Edmonton, everyone we met said, “I heard you two are vegetarians, you *have* to go to Padmanadi.” So on our next-to-last night in Edmonton, several folks, plus me and my boyfriend, went to Padmanadi, a vegan place that serves Asian fusion. And I decided, screw the budget–this is the best food we’ve had, or will have, in weeks. Everyone ordered several items and everyone ate a little of everything and we even got dessert. And I was so stuffed it was borderline unpleasant. And it cost a whole week’s food budget. And it was SO WORTH IT. That meal is one of my favorite memories of the trip, even though I can’t remember what I ate! I just remember that the people we ate with were great folks and that the food was amazing and that afterward we all rode our bicycles around parts of Edmonton Shawn and I hadn’t seen yet, but all of us were slow on our bicycles because we were so full!

    1. G Avatar

      I love this story! And the bike tour sounds fantastic!

      Once I was on a ship for 6 weeks doing research. After a week or two all the fresh stuff was gone and we were eating canned or frozen. When we got back to land we all gorged ourselves on a salad bar like it was the best thing we’d ever seen.

  8. BakerGirl Avatar

    April, I love those types of food memories! In June 2009, our condo flooded from heavy rain. While our condo was being cleaned up and repaired, my husband and I were stuck in a crappy motel for 10 weeks, with a microwave and a hotplate. It was 10 brutal weeks of the worst eating and stress of my entire life–way too many frozen meals, canned soups, and take-out, with the occasional salad, and way too much fruit (I love fruit, but since it was practically the only fresh food I was getting because it didn’t need to be refrigerated, I gorged on it, which made me feel pretty crappy a lot of the time). The first meal I made when we moved back home was pot roast with all the trimmings and a nice, big, fresh salad. Wow! I still to this day never remember food tasting so good. :) We ate ourselves silly that night, and we don’t regret it one bit! :)

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I love these memories too. My big one is the first meal I ate after several days of being horribly sick with food poisoning, when I finally got my appetite back again. I spontaneously made a Thanksgiving dinner (except I made teriyaki pork instead of turkey – surprisingly it went REALLY WELL with stuffing and sweet potatoes) and ate two enormous platefuls one right after the other. It was FANTASTIC.

      1. Kathy Avatar

        That reminds me of the time I had to have a medical test that required a prep for three days of “eating” nothing more solid than Jello, drinking horrible tasting stuff, and other liquids. After the test, I went out to a steak house for lunch and had a steak dinner w/ all the trimmings..nothing ever tasted so good.

  9. Daniel Avatar

    Fullness and hunger are probably two of the biggest things I struggle with. Given my history of anorexia I’m often told that my stomach has shrunk and that I need to eat more even when I do feel full in order to stretch it back out a little so that I can intake more food – all of which seems kind of counterintuitive at the same time. I want to eat more, and I know that calorically dense foods would make it easier, but sometimes it’s just slightly scary to do so. On top of all of that I’ve been having stomach discomfort after eating anytime after lunch for some reason and it doesn’t make my newfound desire to gain weight any easier.

    I also thought it was kind of neat that you find yourself “bored” with certain foods while eating a meal. Often times I’ll only eat half of my dinner and make something else because the food I made for dinner just isn’t as appealing after so many bites.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      My mom used to give me guff for still wanting dessert after claiming I was full of dinner, and I would patiently explain (as a 6-year old) that I was merely “tired” of the food and needed a change, haha. It worked, too.

      Feelings of fullness can be really scary when you’re no longer accustomed to them. I wonder if sometimes they are intensified by being anxious about eating in the first place – if you’re a bit anxious, your abdominal muscles might be tightened a bit, unconsciously, which can exaggerate the feelings of fullness in your stomach.

  10. Lindsay Avatar

    Really interesting post! (They always are, btw. I am a big fan).

    I remember getting to this place back when I was therapy that I didn’t know how full I was “supposed to be” after a meal. And my therapist just said “Well, that depends. How full do you like to feel?” And I like to feel good n full, for the most part, especially with regards to lunch and dinner. Over time I’ve learned to trust myself, my choices, and even my mistakes. If I eat a lot and feel more full than I would like, all it means is that I’m going to be less hungry later on or the next day. Likewise sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night or early morning starving and thinking back I will realize I probably didn’t eat enough during the day. And it’s okay…it ends up all working out and my body is self regulating just fine.

    I also really like that you highlighted asthetic hunger too. I think sometimes the eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full rhetoric from a weight loss frame tends to pressure you to eat purely when your stomach is physically not hungry anymore. There’s just a difference between the stomach being physically filled enough to diminish the actual hungry feeling and actual complete satiation. Also eating for fulness can be strategic too I think. I might be hungry after a small portion of cottage cheese in the morning but if i know I’m going to be out and about I know i better either bring a snack before lunch or load more in before I go :)

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Okay, I’m sold. I’m going to have to try it now.

  11. Ylva Avatar

    I think I have a kind of healthy relationship to food normally. I love food and try to eat what feels right in any given moment. My issues with food are most visible when traveling or visiting other people. I was always hungry as a teenager although I ate A LOT, so my fear of not getting enough food lingers. It was 10 years ago that getting enough food really was an issue, I generally don’t need as much to get satisfied now, but as soon as I’m not home or another safe place my brain instantly tells me “EAT WHILE YOU CAN”. I forget I am this way and come home feeling weird, like I didn’t really experience much since my biggest focus was getting food, and food I like.

    It’s scary how the brain/mind reacts, and how old fears never really go away. Reading this blog has helped become more aware of fears I never thought of.

    1. the_apricot Avatar

      I also end up overeating and feeling anxious when I travel because I know I’m not in control of what or when the next meal will be. I find that it helps A LOT if I pack a bag of food in order to give myself back some control over what food is available and when I can eat it. Sometimes I do need to eat that food, and sometimes it turns out that what my hosts serve is enough and I just need to know the extra food is there.

  12. Jasmina Avatar

    I really love the lessons you post on this site.

    After I got sick with a lifelong disease, certain foods were off limits to me. As you can imagine, that created a denial, followed by anger, allowed by mourning, followed by panic (omg! what will I eat?) followed by acceptance and now I’m at the stage where I am confident that I can recreate things, but it still has an huge impact on my social life. So I make up for that by creating really interesting things and always trying new stuff in the kitchen.

    I have been working through them one at a time until I master them, and it has been so helpful. Thank you so much and please continue to post!

  13. Dominique Avatar

    Dear Michelle, what a wonderful post – I’m happy you’re back at regular posting. Your serie is amazing, it is so helpful…

    On my side, fullness is still pretty screwed. (hunger is not. I know when I’m hungry.)

    I had problems with compulsive eating and night eating a couple of years ago. I am fat since always, doctors made sure I knew it so – long history of effing diets behind me, exercise to lose weight, always regaining it back –

    When I underwent treatment for my compulsive eating, I passed from restrained – compulsive eater to … eat whatever. This includes a LOT of pizza, chocolate, cake, everything that was deemed BAD. I went from 170 to 240 pounds in what felt like two weeks lol. Im frightened because it’s been three years now, and my «junk rage» doesn’t seem to wear out! It has a bad impact on my health. (BP and cholesterol) What I noticed is this pattern:

    1- I try to give myself permission – deep breath, «it’s okay»

    2- I keep on thinking that I have to eat balanced meals because I’m jeopardizing my health

    3- I start feeling anxiety towards my weight and wish I’d be thinner

    4- And I forget – ignore my stopping place even if I know that I’m full.

    Sometimes, I feel like if I was eating too much in a kind of… rebellious, fuck-it way. I get so angry and stressed out when I hear any «watch what you eat» discourse, it triggers me incredibly!

    And, I CANT leave something on my plate even if I was never pressured to clean my plate as a child. However money was tight so it was FORBIDDEN to toss food in the garbage except if it went bad. This phenomenon is worst when I,m in the restaurant (hey I paid for this I must not let anything) I don’t know how to cure this.

    When I stop eating quickly my boyfriend says I’m restraining, so sometimes I keep on eating because it’s like he was telling me it’s okay to overeat. It’s all so weird.

    Plus, I know that I LIKE to feel slightly stuffed, I find it comforting, and I feel frustrated if I dont feel it so I end up eating crap all evening.

    So, I guess your stopping place post is REALLY helpful for me, I have to think this over I guess!

    1. Kathy Avatar

      A suggestion if you find you are over eating at restaurants could be to take some of the food home for later.

  14. Maggie McFadden Avatar
    Maggie McFadden

    Thank you for writing – I feel guilt no matter WHAT I put in my mouth – thanks for helping me have a better life!

  15. Virginia Sole-Smith Avatar

    Thank you so much for writing this — fullness is a concept I struggle with All The Time, so this was a fascinating and supremely helpful read. I am going to try that 3/4 of the way through check-in and I love your point about how that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll stop eating — in fact, it might mean it’s time to get seconds. I often finish lunch and find myself back at my desk unable to concentrate on work because I’m thinking about wanting a granola bar or something that I think I “shouldn’t” be hungry for because that’s the kind of thing you aren’t “supposed” to eat until it’s 4 PM snack time or whatever. So thank you for reminding me that my body actually knows what and when I’m supposed to eat!

    1. Virginia Sole-Smith Avatar

      Also, here’s a slightly random question: Why is it that I can eat something for dinner and find it very satisfying (more easily identify and reach the kind of fullness you’re talking about here) — but when I eat the leftovers for lunch the next day, I’ll inevitably end up needing to “round it out” with something else?

      Is there some reason I’m hungrier in the middle of the day vs. dinner time? Or maybe there’s something about dinner (which I’ve taken the time to cook and am eating with my husband, even if it’s usually in front of the TV) that sets me up to better pay attention to my hunger/fullness cues than lunch (usually by myself, all I’ve done is microwave it)?

      I don’t think there’s anything especially problematic about it, but it’s sort of curious since the meals are often identical (down to portion sizes). And I do often find I hit that post-lunch energy brick wall and I’d love to figure out if there’s something about the way I’m treating that meal that’s contributing…

      Okay then. Love your blog. Thanks so much!

      1. Michelle Avatar

        Well, maybe this is going to sound really basic and dumb, but I think you are just hungrier in the middle of the day than you are in the evening. This could be for many, many reasons – the size of your breakfast, the size of your dinner the night before, and how depleted your glycogen stores are by midday. It could even be related to your chronotype – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronotype But I think the bottom line is, if you consistently feel hungrier at that time of the day, your body is telling you something loud and clear. That thing is: “Please eat more for lunch, I need the energy. Thank you.”

        1. Virginia Sole-Smith Avatar

          Well yes. That makes much sense and doesn’t sound at all dumb. I will eat more for lunch. Problem solved! And much more easily than trying to fix something that isn’t really broken… Thank you again. (And that chronotype stuff is super interesting, too.)

  16. L. Avatar

    I feel a little backwards compared to most of the comments. I find myself eating past full too often, just because I enjoy the taste of food so much. I don’t have any real history of eating issues–though I’m not issue-free, because in our culture what woman is?, but my weight has been within the same 25-pound range for forever, I’ve almost never restricted eating in any way, etc. and these days avoid weighing myself, as I believe with all my heart that restricting eating causes disordered behavior and doesn’t even work.

    I am definitely self-critical; although average size, I’ve always been felt that I would like to have less fat on my body and more muscle and strength, as I’ve never had even average muscle definition, have never felt very fit or like I had a lot of stamina, etc.; however I have been trying to focus on addressing these concerns through exercise. I’m in my mid-thirties and have had two children, so it’s hard to get in shape like I’d like.

    But I don’t get bored with food. I love salty, rich, fatty, carby food and it never seems like I’m done with the aesthetic hunger for sensation, e.g. tasting and chewing and swallowing (it can’t just be taste that I crave, as I would not enjoy chewing food up and then spitting it out, like a wine tasting!). I’ve noticed this more and more recently and it’s been an emotional challenge because I just don’t know what to do about it. I don’t enjoy feeling stuffed and at some point it does make me feel guilty. But permissive eating doesn’t seem to be helping.

    As I write I am thinking about how my physical condition has bothered me more than usual in the past year or two–I have gained weight more than usual, my clothes haven’t fit, I don’t feel at home in my body–and I suppose there is at least part of the answer; I am giving myself permission on one level but I am truly not happy on another about my physical self or its condition, so it is not thorough permission, maybe not “real” permission. I don’t know what to do about it, though.

    Um, well. I don’t know that there is exactly a question here to answer, and this is getting very long, but thank you for listening!

    1. maggiemunkee Avatar

      i’m in a similar boat. very often my stomach hunger will be well met, but my aesthetic hunger is still there. i am very fat, probably the fattest person in my extended family, now that i think about it, but it’s a sensation we almost all share. any shared meal, holiday or just because, includes countless statements of “i’m sooooo full, but this is so GOOD!”

      i usually give myself permission to satisfy my aesthetic hunger, but nothing ever seems to do it. i might have to contemplate that my mouth will always be hungry and wanting to eat. (no, gum or mints or hard candy don’t work. i have terrible tmj and having something in my mouth all the time is painful, especially gum.)

      1. Michelle Avatar

        I’ve been thinking about this, and I think an answer to this dilemma might go two ways – one, you may have to come to a compromise about coming to a comfortable level of fullness for your stomach, even if it leaves your aesthetic hunger not-totally-fulfilled. If you can at least sort-of address the aesthetic desire, AND still be relatively comfortable in your stomach, that may be the best you can do. Second, it might be worthwhile to assess whether you are paying good attention to your food, and whether you are consistently getting enough to eat on a regular basis in the first place. If you are missing out on either of these, it can lead to a heightened sense of being unsatisfied, even when your stomach is physically full.

        It’s a bit complicated to sort out, but with practise, I think people with this particular conflict could come to find a reasonable level of satisfaction. And, as you point out, maggie, it’s not just fat people who have this issue. One of my small-sized friends seems to experience this, and her answer is that she has just become comfortable getting very, very full physically, every time she eats. Her weight is stable and she is okay with that.

    2. Fromthefuture Avatar

      I don’t know anything about anything, but what you are describing sounds kind of like me before my period, as well as me when I was on a particular birth control pill back in the day. The insatiable mouth-hunger thing is something I have only experienced when my hormones are doing whatever it is they do right before I menstruate, or when artificial hormones are doing whatever they did when I was on the pill. There are other medications that make food way more desirable as well. My boyfriend was never into food, even before he became depressed enough to be prescribed an antidepressant. He is WAY more interested in food now. Not physically hungrier, just, interested. I know this isn’t helpful, and I’m NOT inquiring as to whether you are on medication or whatever, or even guessing that you are, but simply using it as an example… my point being that it has always seemed to me that, just as physical hunger waxes and wanes for whatever reason at different times in life, mouth hunger seems to as well, for a variety of reasons, I guess. My shrink claims that hormones and such shoot up/die down in response to stress, season, sleep, what-have-you. Some of what society might shove under the umbrella of “emotional eating” could be, according to her, attributed to natural rises and falls of all the stuff that make up all kinds of desires, be they for sex or sleep or cake. (But then, she is VERY food-positive and reminds me all the time (because I am a young woman in a messed up society) that my brain uses carbs and fat and the like to make the kind of chemicals that decrease crazy. I’m still super messed up about food, but I try to remind myself that if a woman said “I’ve had sex twice today and I just want to have more sex!” Society would stand up and say “brava!” but for some reason we aren’t allowed to have had one cupcake and want a second one.)

      1. Fromthefuture Avatar

        I’m not the nutritionist here though, so it’s really likely that none of that is accurate and my psychiatrist just wants me to chill out.

    3. Bex Avatar

      I try to always have a bunch of different frozen appetizer-type things on hand, so if I’m comfortably full but still mouth-hungry I can heat up one each of however many I feel like and get a bunch of different extra flavors without necessarily adding an enormous/uncomfortable amount of food to my stomach. Sometimes I just do that to start with, actually! The other day dinner was a corndog, handful of tater tots, two of those trader joe’s mushroom pastry bites, a filo tart with onions and blue cheese, and something else I’m forgetting, and then a pile of green beans on the side. (Of course, I can afford to buy and keep that kind of spendy food on hand, I know that’s not an option for everyone.) I’ve also done something similar with leftovers for lunches – sometimes instead of one or two larger containers my lunch bag will have half a dozen little ones with bits and pieces of whatever dishes I’ve made in the last few days.

      Of course, some days all my mouth really wants is to dive headfirst into the pint of creme fraiche gelato (omg) I found, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that!

      1. Rae Avatar

        That sounds like a really cool way to eat! It’s nice to discover what one’s needs and quirks are, and come up with options that work perfectly :)

  17. Tori Avatar

    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.

    Loard and a half. This is where I am consistently.

    I do have a history of restrictive eating (though not officially diagnosed as disordered), and I get these Ideas in my head about what constitutes a portion and a serving size. And a lot of the time, I will try to tell myself that I should feel full because I have eaten one Official Serving of whatever-it-is food.

    Now. If I can call BS on that and be like, “No way, I am still hungry!” I have no problem giving myself permission to eat more food. However, I often have difficulty distinguishing between “should” feel full and do feel full — at least until it’s too late. (I work at a job where I sometimes need to go 5-6 hours between food opportunities.)

  18. […] a fabulous series on eating without drama that is a must read. She published the seventh lesson, Finding Fullness, the other day. If you haven’t read it, I suggest doing so now… as well as the other […]

  19. […] Michelle talks about listening to your body and finding fullness. […]

  20. Rapunzel Avatar

    I have actually gotten much better at this in the past year or so. Until a few years ago, I’m not sure I ever left anything on my plate (unless I didn’t like it–I’m a picky eater). I always felt like I wanted to finish it–that I needed to finish it–if only because I paid for the damn food and it’s not going to go to waste! But instead, it’s going to go to waist! How is that better? I’ve gotten better at the get-over-what-you-paid-for-it thing.

    So I guess fairly recently, I’ve gotten better at pausing half way through the meal and recognizing how full I am. It actually wasn’t as hard to learn as I thought it would be and the greatest challenge is remembering to do it! Sometimes I go too far and before I know it I’m pretty darn full. Oh well!

    I’ve also learned some tricks to help myself stop (these are more often concerned when eating out rather than making food at home). First I usually try to choose something on the menu that I can take home and will be tasty as leftovers. We all know all food isn’t good as leftovers!

    Secondly, I have this slightly OCD issue with my hands/fingers being greasy. I’m paranoid about touching my face with dirty fingers (>>zits<<) so anytime I eat something where I use my hands (breadsticks, pizza, fast food, etc…), once I decide I'm full and finished the first thing I do is go to the restroom and wash my hands. That usually deters me from reaching for more food after I get back.

    Thirdly–and this is more helpful if I'm eating something that doesn't require me using my hands to touch the food–I give my leftovers to my husband. He's one of those obnoxious people who can eat like a bottomless pit, so he usually takes me up on my leftovers if I'm not taking them home. It gets them out from in front of me so I'm not tempted.
    Otherwise, asking the waiter/waitress for a box as soon as I'm done to put the leftovers in is a little more helpful too. Hiding in a box gets the food out of sight and out of mind. Mostly.

    As far as eating at home is concerned–I have a tendency to overdo it on my plate (as my grandmother says–"my eyes are bigger than my stomach!"), but I use the same tactic and give my leftovers to my husband, or just dump what's left and put my plate away as soon as I know I'm done. And I try to put all the leftovers in the fridge ASAP rather than letting them sit out or else I might be tempted to pick at them (pizza is the worst for this when I make it at home–I almost always eat another slice or half a slice when I'm putting it all away!).

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I always felt like I wanted to finish it–that I needed to finish it–if only because I paid for the damn food and it’s not going to go to waste! But instead, it’s going to go to waist! How is that better?

      I try to remind myself that I am not a garbage disposal, and as such, it is not my job or responsibility to clean plates of unwanted food. It won’t necessarily make me smaller to stop eating when I don’t want the food anymore, but it will make me feel like I have more choice and autonomy about what and how much I eat.

      I agree, though, that having someone who is happy to eat leftovers does assuage the guilt somewhat. But mostly I have gotten really good at dealing with leftovers, or even just throwing food away when I don’t want it now and also know I won’t want it as leftovers.

      It can be helpful, like you say, to put extra food away if it’s distracting or pre-occupying to you – but I also have to remember, while doing this, to give myself real and true permission to go back and get it if I am hungry again, or even just really want to eat the food again (aesthetic hunger) because it tastes great.

      The more permission we have, I think the less likely it is we’ll feel out of control with food, and as though it’s bossing us around.

  21. Ellie Avatar

    Man, this is something I really struggle with, for a couple reasons:
    – it seems to take me a really long time to sense if I’m getting full. I don’t seem to feel not-hungry for least half an hour after I start eating. If it only takes me ten minutes to eat what I set out, there’s a lot of “agh but still hungry but wait but listen to your body but you’ll regret it if you keep going but want.” So I’ve been trying to use more external cues for it — “this amount of food made me feel pretty full last time I ate it, so even though I’m still hungry, I’m going to wait an hour and check back in then.” This works when I’m eating something I’ve had before, but of course the first few times I eat any other combination/permutation/variation, it’s back to trial and error.
    – with my diabetes (gah, all I ever talk about is my stupid beeeeeetus) I have to give myself insulin for most meals, so even if I should magically (hey, it happens every once in a blue moon) start feeling full while I’m eating, I still have to eat all the carbs I planned for or risk a blood sugar crash.
    – I have an absolute terror of eating all the food and then still being hungry. I don’t know why this scares me so much, but it really does. (Oddly, I also find it very anxiety-producing to eat enough at one meal that I end up being full for hours upon hours afterwards. I’ve actually had meltdowns because I wasn’t hungry enough to feel like eating physically, but I mentally wanted to eat — I’m a huge stress-relief-grazer. Like, I’ve been known to eat packets of Sweet ‘n’ Low or scoops of fiber supplement just because I was so desperate to put something in my mouth without filling up too fast.)
    – despite all these confounding factors, I still beat myself up severely whenever I find myself in that “ugh-pain-overfull” state.

    This got pretty far afield of the topic, so I apologize for that, but I’ve been whining to my husband lately that I rarely read about people dealing with my specific issues, and he’s been saying, “Maybe lots of people are but nobody is willing to post about it — just like you.” So, blah, here’s all my weird stuff.

  22. Telle Avatar

    After dieting a number of times a few years ago, I’ve found that I’ve developed a major fear of feeling hungry. Especially feeling hungry and not having access to more food. So to compensate for this, I’ll often eat past the point of being both physically and aesthetically satisfied. I’m having a really tough time dealing with this and finding a way to not consistently eat more than I really want or need. I don’t know how to get past the fear so that my eating can become more balanced.

    And the thing is.. it’s not even a rational fear. I keep snacks at work so that if I get hungry I can have something to eat.. and there’s a ton of food at my house.. so the odds of me getting hungry and not being able to eat are actually quite low.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Hi Telle – I suspect this might be a permission problem, as well as an “eating regular meals at regular times” problem. It can be a slow process, rebuilding trust with your body after denying it food for a while, and it requires a commitment to eating on time, every time, and to giving yourself explicit permission to eat every time you sit down to eat…and permission to mess up and get overfull sometimes while you are still figuring it out. Over time, with enough repetition, you may start being able to trust again and relax.

  23. Michellers Avatar

    Fabulous post!

    For me, the aesthetic hunger is only satisfied by the “perfect bite”–that combination of salty, sweet, crunchy, chewy, or whatever I’m hoping for in that meal. And for so many years I ate everything else on my plate before finally eating that last perfect bite. Who know why–as a reward? penance? For whatever reason it often resulted in eating past comfortable fullness for me.

    These days I often eat the perfect bite (or bites) first. People might think I’m strange for unrolling a cinnamon roll and eating the center first, but once I eat the best part, then my stomach can decide how much to eat of the rest.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      OMG the middle of the cinnamon roll………………..slobber.

    2. Ellie Avatar

      My husband always saves a “perfect bite” or two for last. I don’t think there’s any emotional reason for it; he’s just very very odd and particular about food and this is one of his things. Woe to anyone who nibbles off his plate and takes the Special Fry.

      1. Michellers Avatar

        The Special Fry–that’s hilarious!

        Actually I think one of the reasons I started eating my perfect bites first is having a kid who often nibbles from my plate. Defensive perfect bites!

  24. Vera Steine Avatar
    Vera Steine

    Reading this, I realise I have very little awareness of these signals, and I’m still at Lesson Two, and that’s okay.

    Michelle, I’ve been reading your site for a while now, on recommendation of a friend, and yours are the most useful lessons/answers I’ve found in a long time. I’m underweight and it’s related to low energy levels and mental health issues, but gaining weight is a medical neccesity for me. Long story short, I have had some screwed up lessons about food and nutrition over the course of my life, and your site is the first time in a long time I dare to try to commit to something, because you break it down into components that work and solutions that can be tailored to my needs. So, thank you, seriously, from the bottom of my heart. I will eventually get to this lesson, too, and for now I’ll go back and reread some of the earlier ones.

  25. Janine Avatar

    I learn a lot about food from watching my toddler naturally eat. He almost never eats all of what is on his plate and then stops. He either leaves some food or clears his plate and then asks for more. Sometimes he stops short halfway through his seconds, other times asks for thirds. Same goes for snacks. Some days he eats a lot more, or more at different times. There is no self-image linked to how much he eats and he has no concern with wasting or saving food for later. Just eats normally and biologically. One of my biggest goals as a parent is to keep that going and hope that society doesn’t mess up that natural ability to self-regulate his eating habits.

  26. Sarah Avatar

    Thanks so much for this post; I come back to it every few weeks, just as a reminder, because I always seem to forget…

    I’ve been trying to give myself that permission and make stopping a good thing, not an anxious-nervous thing…and, at the dinner table, I can usually stop myself at that point, though I usually overshoot a bit from where I’d like to be.

    The problem comes when I pack up the leftovers. I always volunteer to do the packing up, so much so that it’s become expected that I’ll do it; and as I’ll do, I’ll shovel little stray bits from the meal into my mouth, skim from the tops of the leftover containers, use my fingers to soak up the sauce from the sides of the pans…it’s gross, frankly.

    But I can’t seem to stop. No matter how much I tell myself I’ve already reached a good level of fullness, and I know I’ll only feel uncomfortable later, I keep shoveling, in that revert-to-primate sense of anxiously overriding reason, letting my hand-to-mouth coordination take over.

    Is there anything else I might be able to do to combat this?

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Hi Sarah – I guess the easy answer would be to ask someone else to pack up the leftovers for you. When you’re dealing with a bit of food pre-occupation (which it sounds like you are, and which most of us are dealing with while going through this process) it can be useful just to get away from food when you’re not actually eating meals. Otherwise it’s hard to stop thinking about it.

      But I would also want to make damn sure that you are truly getting enough to eat during the meal, otherwise you are understandably going to want to pick at leftovers.

      The last option would be to calm yourself down in the moment – remind yourself that you are allowed to do this if you want to. There is no law stating that you are no longer allowed to eat once you are full, or that Thou Shalt Never Get Overfull. Apparently this is something a part of you feels the need to do, and there is no shame in it – food is alluring, sometimes even when you’re not hungry. We’re all naturally attracted to it.

      You might want to decide that, if you’re going to take little bits of leftovers, instead of putting them directly in your mouth, you’ll put them on a plate set aside for this purpose. Once all the food is packed away, and you’re left with a nice little plate of tidbits, sit down and eat it if you want to. You’re allowed to have the food still, but you’re making one small change in the way you’re eating it – you’re going to pay more attention to it, and actually give yourself permission to eat it, instead of furtively grabbing it mid-stride.

      Give it a try and see what happens.

  27. Jenn Avatar

    You need to really be careful when telling people that you can eat until not only your stomach is full, but until you are “aesthetically full”. This is the key component to many binge eating disorders, and biologically is just wrong. The feelings that are sent to your brain from your stomach that say “i’m full” are meant to be listened to, not put aside and ignored because you “feel like” eating more. I understand everyone has the moments where they just can’t stop because something is delicious, however to give yourself permission to satiate your aesthetic hunger EVERY meal is not healthy or right. Additionally, eating at the same time everyday slows your metabolism. The key to healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle is to keep your body guessing, and therefore constantly burning.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I think you wandered into the wrong place. Eating until you are truly satisfied is one of the core skills of eating competence, a.k.a. What I Do Here.

      If you’re more interested in keeping your body “constantly burning” through some kind of theory about confusing your metabolism to lose weight, then we’re not going to have a lot to talk about.

      Eating until you are truly satisfied is actually not a key component of most cases of binge eating – if you’re interested in binge eating disorder, I’d suggest you read Overcoming Binge Eating by Christopher Fairburn, who is one of the premier researchers in that field. It might surprise you to learn that attempting NOT to satisfy oneself (i.e. restrained eating) is often the precursor to binge eating.

      Additionally, eating at the same time everyday slows your metabolism.

      This also sounds like BS of the highest order to me. The things that really have the power to slow one’s metabolism significantly are starvation, hypothyroidism, certain medications, severe temperature changes, hibernation, etc. I really doubt it’s that easy to throw one’s metabolism off, certainly not by eating regular meals at regular times.

  28. Barbara Avatar

    Thank you so much for this site. I stumbled upon it a few days ago, and I’ve spent the last few days reading through pretty much all of the archives.

    I have a history of dieting, and getting into some pretty disordered eating (not to the point of a diagnosable eating disorder, but still pretty darn screwy). I’m done with that crap. I think I’ve gotten reasonably good at identifying when I’m sated. But, I basically never eat to satiety late in the day (dinner or evening snacks). It took me a while to realize why I’m doing this. It turns out, I can’t fall asleep if I’m not mechanically hungry. If I’m full (or even not actively hungry), I just lie there awake until my body gets through enough of the food that my stomach feels empty enough for me to sleep.

    I’m betting that its a holdover from some of the more stringent diets I’ve done in the past, but I really don’t know how to address it. Any ideas? I realize that it’s kind of presumptuous for me to expect you to act as my personal, unpaid, nutritionist/therapist. I was just wondering if this might be something you’ve encountered before and could point me in the direction of some good resources.

    Thanks again for putting this blog and all of the information out there.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      That’s interesting. I don’t think I’ve had anyone tell me this specific thing before, although I’ve definitely heard from people who had disordered eating where they started to feel rewarded from the feeling of prolonged hunger, instead of finding it uncomfortable.

      Now, this is not to say that hunger in and of itself is a bad thing or always uncomfortable. I find there are many levels of comfortable hunger and they help me to enjoy my food more. But when people start to feel rewarded from hunger in a way that causes them to prolong the hunger instead of feeding themselves, I think it can be a slippery slope to disordered, restrictive practises.

      There’s also a fine line to draw between needing to be actively hungry at night to sleep, vs. not wanting to feel overly (or even noticeably) full. Some people need to sleep on a neutral stomach, or at least avoid over-fullness to be comfortable. I think that makes perfect sense. But I would say there might be something off about needing to be actively hungry.

      Your body does actually use fuel while you sleep, to help keep your blood sugar stable. You will draw on the glycogen stored in your liver during the night to allow your body to continue repairing and remodelling your cells and going through its nighttime cycle. So it does make sense to have some fuel in the tank, so to speak, when you’re asleep, or you run the risk of your body tearing down some of your lean body mass to fuel its needs. Which is generally not a good thing.

      It might help to do some mindful eating with a food journal to rate your feelings of hunger and fullness before, during, and after eating, and then also noting what feelings (emotional feelings) you associate with those sensations. Perhaps your need to feel hungry at night isn’t just long-standing habit, but also a way to deal with underlying feelings (like anxiety or sadness or anger) by distracting yourself?

      I don’t know whether this book addresses this specific issue, but it might be worth checking out – http://www.amazon.com/The-Food-Feelings-Workbook-Emotional/dp/0936077204/

      Linda Bacon also has a printable eating journal you can download – http://lindabacon.org/HAESbook/pdf_files/HAES_EatingJournal.pdf

      1. Barbara Avatar

        Thanks for the resources! I’ll definitely look into them.

        At the moment, it’s not as big an issue as it has been in the past. I’m (voluntarily) unemployed, so I can simply eat until I’m sated at dinner, and then, if I can’t fall asleep until 1 or 2, so be it. I’ll sleep in later.

        It’s mostly frustrating because it does seem to be this extra roadblock in the way of learning my own hunger and satiety cues and acting on them in a way that convinces my body to trust me. I guess I just have to accept that everyone has their difficulties in coming to eating competence. Mine are much less onerous than a lot of people’s, but they are a little unusual.

        Thanks again for the info and suggested resources.

  29. Marie Avatar

    It’s so odd to have to learn how to eat as an adult but that’s exactly how years of dieting and disordered eating has left some of us. I’m still weeding out the “but will this help me get thin” thoughts occasionally and the residual guilt when I’ve gotten to the uncomfortably full place. I really do like that feeling of comfortably full and creating regular eating times (and making sure one of those is breakfast) goes a long way to making that happen more often than not. Thanks for all of the great reminders of how to get there.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      You’re welcome! I agree that it feels odd, but that’s exactly how I felt too, after giving up dieting. And I don’t know why this old post got mailed out from my RSS feed this morning, but I’m glad if you’re seeing it now for the first time!