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.