Monday, February 28, 2011

Who or What Decides How Much You Eat? Taking Back Control of Your Eating.

Last weekend I attended a diabetes conference in NYC (Yes, that explains the delayed post!). And although most of you don't have diabetes, there's so much valuable info to share with you.

First, I learned these experts know nothing about the feeding needs of the sedentary. Yes, sedentary program attendees, myself included, get hungry while simply sitting in a chair for a span of many hours. So with breakfast at 7:45, I was ravenous by the 10:15 coffee break. Now usually, when we say coffee break, we mean something more than simply a caffeinated beverage. Like, maybe we’d expect a mini pastry or muffin, or some fruit? Perhaps the Diabetes Association was using us like lab animals, exploring the impact of low blood sugar on us.

Yes, these are them! My sustenance 'til break time.
In any case, I was shocked, and unprepared, for the absence of adequate, calorie-containing snacks to accompany my coffee. And so I relied on the tiny hard candies to get me through until lunch. How ironic. My point? Just because someone else thinks it's okay to not stop and eat between meals, doesn't mean you have to go along with the plan!

Similarly, just because someone else tells you how much you should eat, doesn’t mean that’s right for you. What do I mean? Just because Quaker oats now says that the serving size is either ½ cup dry oats or ¾ cup for their “heart healthy portion” doesn’t mean that that is right for you. Several years ago, Quaker increased their portion from 1/3 cup dry oats, 2/3 cup cooked cereal. Maybe that amount worked just fine. Just because they’ve adjusted upwards doesn’t mean you have to!

Amazing sandwich from Eataly, NYC which I ate too
much of, having not had an adequate snack at break.
Have you ordered a sandwich out lately? Just half of many sandwiches (take Panera, for instance) more closely resemble a full sandwich most of us would prep at home. And eating only half of most burritos filled with rice and beans and guacamole would likely satisfy—except that once we’ve unwrapped it, we’re doomed to finish it.
And if your spouse or mother-in-law usually plates your food, take charge and plate your own food! Then you can’t blame anyone else for how much you’re eating.

Because we eat what’s put in front of us, without regard to how full we are in the moment, and without delaying to see if we really needed the full amount.

Brian Wansink, PhD, presented a fascinating session on his research findings at this conference (see for more info). This creative researcher developed a strategy to evaluate what factors regulate our food intake, telling us when we’ve had enough. He cleverly designed a feeding study where half the participants were served a bottomless bowl of soup. Yes, the soup was secretly pumped into their 22 oz. bowl, keeping it filled. And what did he find? That people just kept on eating! They ate 73% more soup than those with a finite portion. Yet they didn’t think they had eaten more.

He also interviewed Americans in Chicago, and Parisians, about when they know they’ve eaten enough. Parisians reportedly stopped when they felt full, and when their food no longer tasted good. The Chicagoans, however, made no reference to physical sensations, stating they stopped when their plate was empty, or when their TV show was over. Maybe that’s the answer to the French Paradox. They enjoy their food, including rich pastries and processed breads, but they stop when they’ve had enough.

It’s not that hunger sensations can’t work for us. It’s just that we don’t tend to give them a chance. Remember the titration example? (see ) We don’t allow our bodies enough time to take note and acknowledge fullness. Instead, we eat mindlessly, quickly, consuming more calories than we need before putting on the brakes. Then we blame it on the carbs, or the fats, setting rigid rules about what’s acceptable to eat.

The solution? Take charge of your environment, and of your body’s signals. Even if you need to gain weight, you’ll feel better if you are aware of what you eat. It’s not enough to gain weight, but to learn to regulate a healthy weight.

First, find your voice, and negotiate change, when necessary. If you’re out with others and feel hungry, eat a snack you’ve brought or stop for something. Yes, even if you’re the only one who needs to.

Plate your own food, and take responsibility for your own eating. If you're struggling with being overweight, start with a smaller portion than usual, giving yourself permission to have more after 45-60 minutes—if you’re hungry. If you are struggling to gain weight, consider having your grains on a separate plate, which some find less overwhelming.

Use a smaller plate. The size of bowls, glasses, plates, popcorn containers dictate how much we end up eating. Such a simple trick really works! And Wansink and others have the study results to prove it.

Eating out? Have them cut your sandwich or wrap in half, and package each half separately. If you need the second half later, it’s yours to eat then—if you need it! That’s where listening to your signals comes into play.

Limit eating to the kitchen or dining room. Then leave that room and use distraction to avoid the temptation to mindlessly eat.

Control your surroundings. Keep food off the kitchen counters. And keep fruits and vegetables in glass bowls in the fridge where you’ll see them and think to eat them.

And remember. Slips happen! This approach may be new to you, and other factors besides your awareness may impact your eating. Address your stressors and boredom, if they trigger you to overeat.

And set realistic goals. Work on one change at a time, before setting another goal.

As always, I look forward to hearing what you think!


  1. Great post, per usual. The idea of reclaiming our power when it comes to making decisions about our food (and other aspects of our health) is a useful one. And I'm endlessly fascinated by Brian Wansink's research... Post coming soon on that!

  2. I love this! I was just recommended your site and now I'm following. I wrote a post on this very thing just last night. It's so true. Thanks for your wisdom and for a fabulous site. xx

  3. Ashley-Not only is Wansink a brilliant researcher, but a dynamic presenter! Catch him when you can!

    Kymmie- So glad you're a "follower" now! Please spread the word. It helps me feel like I'm not writing to an empty room!

  4. Great points. Interesting how things differ culturally/regionally. I love the suggestions for people like myself who have never said NO to a full plate. I'm telling myself often to slow down, taste the food. I'm working on the trying to FEEL whether or not I AM TRULY HUNGRY signals, which I certainly did not have. Being cognizant sure is a good first step! I know it will take time to relearn what has been taking place on "automatic pilot"! Thanks for your post, as always!

  5. This is something I've really struggled with during weight restoration, because all of my hunger/satiety cues are completely haywire. I think a big issue in recovery is self-consciousness during weight restoration when you sometimes need a hella lot of calories. That has been my experience, at least, the most common reason for me to slip in my meal plan is that I'm in public eating situations in which I'm embarrassed to eat as much as I should. My energetic requirements right now are way beyond what I'd eat if I actually stopped when I quit feeling hungry...and sometimes I feel very hungry shortly after eating a substantial meal. Drives a person crazy sometimes!

    One thing a former RD had me do was to record my hunger level (on a scale of 1-10) before and after each meal/snack as part of my food journal for her. This made me actually stop to attempt to figure out what my body was telling me, instead of just preparing/consuming the prescribed amount and not giving my own physical cues much thought. I'm still in the mode where I pretty much prepare as many calories as I know I am supposed to have and consume everything on my plate, but I know that those practices obviously change at different stages of a person's journey to healthy eating.

    Fantastic post!

  6. It certainly takes time, but try to appreciate what your body is telling you--even if it doesn't make sense in the moment! At some point in recovery from an eating disorder, signals do fail you, and you need to follow a plan, just to get things working again. If you trust those professionals you're working with, try to trust the plan. Ultimately, you will, appropriately move away from it and trust yourself.

    As for how much you feel you're eating--if it's easier, avoid challenging social situations, to help with recovery. Just a short term solution.

  7. This post is so wonderful. I have been on and off diets for many years and never stuck to them. The points Lori mentions here are very relevant and realistic and are helping me to hopefully change my eating habits for life. In additon, I have learned that I am much more likely to continue working at my eating if I try to vary my food. I used to make a dish and eat it until it was gone instead of cooking, parceling and freezing for a later time.
    This one is so appropriate to all of us that I have shared it with a friend who is trying to do things on her own.

  8. That is HUGE! Dividing the portions. I used to eat about a half a bar of cheese. Shocked to learn that each was actually 8-10 servings... So now I slice it up and wrap each serving. Just did this with nuts, dividing into "snack bags". I know this is very helpful to me! Also, in the past month, I have not ate in front to the t.v. I have to sit at the kitchen table and that helps a lot too! One can never be reminded enough until these things become ingrained... Habits are hard to change, but I see they can be unlearned! There's HOPE!

  9. P.S. Just went out to lunch and used the reminder to divide meal. Asked for a box first and put half of it away! Admittedly, something I wasn't doing. I belonged to "the clean plate club"! This made me feel in control of my eating. However, I could have done better with the salsa and chips that were on the table non-stop! But at least I didn't polish off the whole meal too.

  10. Am going to a day long conference tomorrow and you've encouraged me to "pack my snacks"!

  11. Smart move! And make a point of stopping to eat them--even if they don't declare it's snack time!

  12. I learned from your experience. My breakfast was at 6:30 a.m. and lunch was noon. They just had coffee (nothing to accompany, in terms of food, at conference I went to at well). In the afternoon, they had a variety of sodas along with the coffee and water (again no food). So I was really happy to have packed those snacks which gave me the energy and attention span for day long conference! Must be a "no frills" move not to have these "extras" anymore? Though the conferences cost enough! Thanks for sharing your experience! (It made mine a whole lot better!)