Stopping When Full

There are many reasons that people continue eating after they are no longer hungry. Here’s the short list:

  • You don’t recognize satiation cues. You don’t recognize that you’re no longer hungry until you are past full.
  • It bothers you to leave food on your plate. The reasons for this can run deep, as you’ll soon see.
  • The food tastes good and you want to continue experiencing that. But what aren’t you paying attention to?
  • You are in the grip of compulsion. You don’t want it, it doesn’t taste good, but you can’t stop.

You Don’t Recognize Satiation Cues

When emotional eaters start paying attention to hunger and satiation cues, they’re often startled to realize that they can’t recognize when they’re hungry or – harder yet – when they’ve had enough. It’s not surprising, when you think about it. When you eat for reasons other than hunger, you ignore these cues. After a while, you almost forget where to look for them.

When you first start asking yourself if you’re hungry or if you’re full, it’s frustrating to get the answer back, "I don’t know." But keep asking. Eventually, you will know. It’s only by continually trying to reconnect with your hunger and satiation cues that finally you will. The inner cues are still there – you just need to learn to listen again.

You Feel You Must Clean Your Plate

The crux of the "clean your plate" issue is eating according to internal cues rather than external cues – stopping when your body says to stop, rather than when your plate is empty. To some extent, the urge to eat everything on your plate is related to being disconnected from your hunger and satiation cues. But there’s more to it.

As I’m sure you’ve experienced, sometimes you keep eating when you are well aware that you are no longer hungry, and in fact you’re starting to feel uncomfortable. But as long as there is food on your plate, you feel the urge to continue eating until it’s all gone. What’s that about?

This is actually a self-esteem issue – a particular aspect of self-esteem. It’s about feeling entitled to leave food on your plate – knowing you have the right to eat according to internal signals rather than external mandates, and you’re entitled to throw away food. If you’ve spent years eating according to someone else’s rules – or at least trying – then you don’t know in your heart that you have the right to eat according to your own inner directives.

Somehow, in the mind of an emotional eater, the food on the plate becomes work to complete – something you must accomplish. You can feel this way even if you’ve served yourself, put the food on the plate yourself.

An easy out, if you’re serving yourself, is to simply put less on your plate and go back for more if you’re still hungry. But the more general solution is to know that you are entitled to throw away food. Your body is not a garbage can. If you are no longer hungry, it is better to throw the food in the garbage than down your own throat. You have the right to throw away food. You are entitled to do this! You are more important than the food.

The Food Tastes Good

If you continue to eat past full just because the food tastes good, then you are in the "neck-up" trap. You are ignoring all aspects of your body and physical experience except what’s happening in your mouth.

The experience of eating isn’t just about taste. Your entire body experiences eating. What you eat affects your emotions, your energy level, and creates physical sensations in your belly and bowels. When you’re cut off from your whole body experience – and if you hate your own body, you surely are – then you focus only on what’s happening above the neck. You experience yourself as a floating head. There are taste buds, and then the rest you ignore as best you’re able. That is how you can focus on the pleasure of taste while ignoring the discomfort signals in other parts of your body.

In Stage 2 of Normal Eating I talk about being mindful when you eat. I’m not just talking about mindfulness of your mouth experience. I’m talking about your whole body experience. It’s by reconnecting with your whole body experience that you can align the drive for pleasure with your own best interest.

You Just Can’t Stop

And then there is the situation when you are eating crap and just can’t stop. Maybe you’re bingeing in the middle of the night, eating whatever happens to be available – a jar of peanut butter or cake frosting, or something even less delectable. But you can’t stop. You’re hating yourself, you feel sick and full and you don’t even like what you’re eating, but you can’t stop.

Emotional eating is not about the food – it’s never about the food. That’s why dieting doesn’t work. Dieting is all about the food – what you are eating. But emotional eating is about something else, and if you don’t address this "something else", you will continue to do it. No type of eating past full makes this key fact more clear than the "just can’t stop" situation, when you’re eating something you don’t like and don’t want, but you can’t stop doing it.

What you need to do when you just can stop is to pause. Pause. Even if it’s for five minutes. Or one minute. For however long you can do it, pause. Pause in your anxiety and discomfort and feel your feelings. Let it all bubble up and live your own truth. Stand in your own real experience and be you, living your life. Don’t be afraid. Cry, scream, whatever you need to do, but feel your own authentic self. You’ll probably start thinking about some aspect of your life that’s really bothering you. That is your trigger – the real problem that you are trying to stuff down with food. It’s almost impossible to surface what’s triggering a binge unless you pause in the midst of the craving.

Pausing in the midst of craving is a crucial part of recovery in Normal Eating. I wrote more about this in a previous blog post, The Importance of the Pause. And of course I address it at length in my book, Normal Eating for Normal Weight.

Something to Try

Here are some skills to practice so eventually you can stop eating when you are no longer hungry:

  • Eat mindfully. By this I don’t just mean pay attention to your mouth experience. Pay attention to your whole body experience. Notice how eating makes you feel throughout your body, and emotionally as well. Keep asking yourself, "Am I still hungry?"
  • Monitor your thoughts. If you feel like you "should" clean your plate, remind yourself that you are more valuable and important than this food, and you are entitled to throw it out.
  • Pause in the heat of the moment. When you are in the grip of compulsion and craving, notice it and pause. You may very well continue eating after the pause, but even a pause of one minute or five minutes strengthens your "emotional muscle", preparing you to be able to stop in the future. A baby doesn’t learn to walk by leaping from the crib. First, it crawls. Similarly, you can’t stop emotional eating until you are first able to pause.

    So practice pausing, and feel proud of however long you are able to do it. Even if you end up eating afterwards, you have made progress. Those minutes you paused are minutes of genuine recovery.

Please post your thoughts and experiences! I’d love to hear from you.

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17 Responses to Stopping When Full

  1. avatar Lea says:

    I have found that I have been eating based on someone else’s rules – i.e. you have to eat three meals a day. I am realizing that back when I maintained my weight, I only ate twice a day with a couple of small snacks. I have started back in that pattern and I can feel myself already losing. I also discovered that I should stay away from unfermented soy, because I have thyroid problems (e.g. Kashi Protein bars). In my investigation I found that in some people with thyroid problems, the soy can interfere with the thyroid hormone I take. Since I stopped. the ankle swelling is completely gone, and I have more energy. I have also lost some weight, and it has seemed effortless, and I am not craving the sweets I was craving before. I am on my way to recovery.

  2. Sounds like you’re doing great, Lea! I don’t eat three full meals a day, either. My body doesn’t want or need that much food.

    I’ve heard about problems with soy. Good for you for being willing to do some experimentation and do what feels best for your body.

    – Sheryl

  3. avatar Sundara says:

    Sheryl, this is a great. I really love your powerful words about pausing (feeling one’s authentic self etc.) and enjoyed rereading last year’s blog post about that subject.

    Pausing is so crucial, and it is so easy to sneak around it, “forget” to do it, or just think it won’t help so why bother? I still find myself doing that here and there. It is really great to get *any* new input from you about pausing…gives a fresh burst of energy to this whole process.

    Again, THANKS for this an dfor all your good work. best, Sun

  4. avatar Kay says:

    Great blog post, Sheryl. I’ve found that it’s very helpful to review the basics. For me, normal eating is all about re-ordering my relationship with food. Stopping when full (and the other side of the coin, starting when hungry), has been the key to changing.

  5. avatar Lisa Bee says:

    Hi Sheryl,

    I would really like to hear more about the whole body experience. I think in the book there is alot on mindful eating but not as much on how does the stomach feel, the bowels, the other internal organs and so on. This would certainly help me as when I have thought about mindful eating in the past I have certainly just concentrated on sensations on the mouth.

    So, more on this please!

    Lisa Bee

  6. I don’t know what more there is to say about that. It’s just an issue of being conscious and focused on your internal physical experience. I can’t think what more is there to say beyond “be aware”? What did you have in mind?

  7. avatar Lisa Bee says:

    Hi Sheryl,

    I mean – I don’t know what sensations to look out for. IN the mouth it is all about chewing, swallowing, savouring the tastes and all of that stuff. I guess for the rest of the body it would be sensations like fullness in the belly, feeling tighter in places, that sort of thing. Its hard to break “full” down into sensations other than full, actually. Oh well, maybe its just those few sensations to look out for then. But thats where I was coming from, a wish for more specific sensations to look out for.

    Love the stuff about the disconnect head from body thing. Very thought provoking

    Lisa Bee

  8. avatar Beth says:

    I am so disconnected from my body. As I read these posts and think about the food plan I am afraid I can’t do it. I am a vegetarian and soy is not really good for you. I have grown bigger each year I abstain from meat, but I don’t agree with eating meat and am torn. What can I do?

  9. Beth, what is the reason you don’t eat meat? I know some people see eating meat as unethical. With all due respect to people’s moral choices, I have to say that I personally disagree that it is unethical. First, humans are biologically adapted to eat meat:

    http://normaleating.com/blog/2009/10/good-nutrition-myths-and-facts/

    If it is how we are made, how can it be wrong?

    Also, it’s the pattern of the natural world – the circle of life. Everything eats everything – that’s just the way it is. I always liked the native American approach of deep respect and giving thanks, but accepting the natural order.

    Last but not least, YOU are important. If you are aware that you do not feel good eating as you’re eating, I think that should matter.

  10. avatar Beth says:

    My whole life eating meat has made me uncomfortable, and I don’t like to touch it or prepare it. I did so for years wen my children were small. Now they are grown I no longer put myself through it.
    I recognize that my body does crave it, but I feel a strong aversion to eating it. I understand we are omnivores and there are more balanced approaches to cutting it out altogether. I’m wondering if there is some middle ground as you suggest in the native american tradition.

  11. avatar Jeanette says:

    I find myself mostly being in the throws of a compulsion and not being able to stop until I see it all the way through. Its an awful feeling but of course while its happening Im not thinking of anything else. Im in my own little fog. I get resentful if my phone rings and Im interrupted. I know I have lots to work on and Im doing it day by day. I really like what you said about pausing to reflect for a moment or 5 on what is really going on. I will try it but hopefully not for a while..

  12. avatar Tara says:

    I just wanted to add a bit about mindfully eating and being aware of the whole body experience. I agree that it is almost impossible to tell when you’ve had enough, if you never stopped to notice whether or not you were hungry when you started eating. I’ve come to really enjoy the full body “thank you” I feel when I fuel my body when I’m hungry. It really does seem like I can feel my body recharging – I don’t know if it is real or my imagination, but I’ve experienced this feeling several times recently. It feels like true self care. It’s like an extra bonus when I notice textures & flavors and eat yummy food – that also makes my body happy. When I’m paying attention, I do notice that full body sigh of contentment and that is usually my first sign that it is time to quit. Often I’ll still take another bite or two – just to be sure, but so far, it is always right. I’ll be proud of myself when I can trust that sigh & stop contentedly right then.

  13. avatar Susan says:

    Thanks for the info about being aware of how your whole body feels while eating. I have always paid attention to how my mouth feels and never even thought about the rest of me. It’s interesting though that when you leave the table and stop eating, it’s the feelings in your body that stay with you. I’ve really begun to be aware about how my whole self feels during eating.
    Thanks Sheryl for all you do.

    Sue

  14. avatar Fruity says:

    I come from a family that gorged on food at home and at all-you-can-eat buffets. So gorging on multiple entrees, junk food, and soda were all that I knew. As a result, I developed no sense of a “normal” serving size. For people like me, overeating is a learned behavior. I eat a lot of organic fruits and vegetables now, so eating healthier products is not a problem; but I still struggle to relearn how to eat normal serving sizes because gorging has been ingrained in me for years. I’m not referring to occasional overeating during the holidays. I am talking about gorging on food every day on large quantities of junk food, soda, chips, etc. What amazed me was that other people were able to eat a NORMAL quantity of food and feel full, but I was used to eating three times the amount.

  15. avatar Lana says:

    I’m a teenage girl (typical, right?). I’m a vegetarian, and I’m also going away to school next year and will be eating cafeteria food every day. Very recently, I’ve gained this habit of just eating and eating no matter what it is. I can eat well for the entire day, and then when I’m alone at like 9:00pm, decide that I want a small bowl of ice cream and then end up eating half the carton, then half a box of cereal, then a candy bar, etc. I keep telling myself that when I go to school and I’m around people 24/7, I’ll be too embarrassed to eat like that, but I’m scared that I might continue it. At any rate, I would love to stop as soon as possible because it’s extremely unhealthy. I don’t feel like I have any emotional issues. I’m not a sad person at all. I have great friends, no family issues, and I don’t feel nervous about school. My issue is that now, I don’t feel full. I go from hungry (or just “wanting” food..) to feeling disgusting, and I don’t FEEL my stomach being stuffed until the next morning. I usually don’t eat all of the junk food that’s available. There are a bunch of candy bars in my parent’s pantry, yet last night I found myself eating cereal, peanut butter on a hamburger bun, spaghetti sauce…strange right?

  16. Hi Lana,

    This is definitely emotional eating – sounds almost like binge eating. Something is going on with you, for sure. Emotional eating serves the purpose of hiding from you what’s bothering you, so it’s not that much of a surprise that you don’t know what’s bothering you. Maybe you have feelings about going away to school next year. Are you scared about that, or have other ambivalent feelings about it?

    What is your weight like? Are you overweight? And have you been gaining weight since you started doing this?

    – Sheryl

  17. avatar desirae says:

    Hi sheryl.i know this blog is a few years old but i would like to say thankyou for all the good information you gave.im definitly try this.

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