Note from GGS: High-level athletes or people looking to go from “very lean” to “extremely lean” may benefit from tracking macronutrients. However, the overwhelming majority of the population could greatly benefit from simply getting in touch with what their bodies are trying to tell them, and they are the intended audience for this article
A few years ago when I was working toward getting a little leaner, I started tracking my calories and macronutrients. I allotted myself a daily amount of the three macronutrients—protein, carbohydrate, and fat—and I did everything in my power to consume that exact amount every day. In order to do this, I was measuring and logging every morsel of food I consumed, using a food tracking app on my phone.
It took a lot of work, and I erroneously believed that anything so involved surely had to be effective. At first, it was new and interesting, but any excitement I had about tracking and logging foods wore off after about a week. Soon, I saw it for exactly what it was: nothing more than a huge hassle.
I was spending a ridiculous amount of time each day hunched over my phone, trying to figure out what I could eat that would fit those numbers, and then meticulously planning meals around those foods and numbers.
In fact, my thoughts revolved about foods and numbers practically all day, every day.
Tracking foods quickly exacerbated my already-problematic scarcity mindset around food. I panicked as I watched my “allowed” daily caloric intake decrease with every food that I added into my app. I lived in a perpetual state of worry that I would still be hungry but not be able to have any more food that day because an electronic program said so. Seeing which foods I could “fit” into my daily macros was like playing a bizarre game of Tetris; one that I could never seem to win.
I was eating when I wasn’t hungry, and I was refraining when my body needed additional nourishment, all for the sake of hitting the right numbers. If I went over, I felt like a failure. If I came up short, I ended up eating strange amounts and combinations of food simply to fill the appropriate slots. Things like two almonds, a half ounce of chicken, and three leafs of spinach at 11pm just to get in the remaining few grams I was supposed to have before the stroke of midnight, which was the magical hour at which my macro budget would reset.
At the time, I viewed all of this as being committed to the process. Looking back, I see how this approach was destined to fail.
How did I get to that point? How did I become that person? Not surprisingly, my macro-counting stint was extremely short-lived. I can think of dozens of things I’d rather be doing (like watching grass grow, or paint dry) than spending almost an hour on my phone each day playing math games with different food combinations, yet still feeling stressed out and unsatisfied.
I finally ditched my food tracking app in lieu of a much better system that was right in front of me all along. A system that, once I learned how to tune in, has never led me astray, stressed me out, or caused me to measure, weigh, or track any food.
This system isn’t top secret (or secret at all), or reserved for fitness professionals and celebrities.
We all have access this system without a membership fee, payment plan, or special requirements to meet. This system is hard-wired into each and every one of us; no download, data entry, or math required.
With this beautifully simple system you have full power over how much food you eat, based on the single most important thing: how you feel. All that you need is a little self-trust and the willingness to tune in and then heed the valuable signals that you receive.
So, what is this system? Tell me already, Jen!
In a nutshell, with this system you eat only after you’ve experienced belly hunger, and stop when you’ve had just enough.
When you put forth the effort to learn more about this incredible energy-balancing system that comes as a standard feature with your incredible human body, it will be a complete game-changer. Here is why it works so well.
Your energy expenditure ebbs and flows depending on what you have going on during the day. When you depend on your hunger and satiation signals to take the lead, your food intake will naturally adjust as necessary to coincide with your energy output, or how many calories your body is using (but we’re not going to talk about calories here. No numbers, remember?). Your body will do all of the work for you once you learn to notice its signals telling you what it needs. You have all of the tools within you. No food scale or phone app necessary.
Here is an overview of how to use the hunger + satiation system for every meal you consume:
Sounds too simple to work, right? Before you write this off, please take a moment to reflect on your eating experiences over the last few days (or as far back as you can recall):
Like so many people, you've probably gotten used to eating before you actually feel hungry (your body’s message telling you that it requires nourishment); perhaps because the clock says it’s time for a meal, or because you’re bored, or for myriad other reasons—but not actual hunger. You then eat more than your body truly needs, which often leaves you feeling over-fed, tired or sluggish, or physically uncomfortable (your body’s messages telling you that you ate too much).
While it sounds simple in theory, if you’re like most people in this regard, your hunger and satiation signals have gotten muffled after years and years of you constantly overriding them. The more you eat when you aren’t really hungry—and continue to eat beyond satiation—the harder it is to “hear” these signals.
Here are a few sure-fire ways to get you back in touch with your amazing energy-balancing system.
The first step to using your hunger + satiation system is to wait until you experience true belly hunger before eating. It’s important that you are able to distinguish the difference between hunger and appetite.
Hunger means that your body needs food. Hunger is a sensation that comes from your stomach, and can be described as an empty, hollow, or uncomfortable feeling. You may hear your stomach growling.
Appetite stems from your mind, and means that something sounds appealing to eat, even if your body doesn’t necessarily need it. Appetite can kick in when you are bored, trying to distract yourself, or attempting to make yourself feel better emotionally. It can show up when you see a food commercial or even just smell something yummy. Appetite is that sneaky trickster that convinces you to order chocolate cake for dessert, even though you are stuffed to the gills from your dinner.
People often joke about their “dessert tank,” which is a basically a way of saying that there is always room for sweets, regardless of how much they’ve eaten. That dessert tank is owned and operated by your appetite, not your hunger.
Here is a quick test to help you determine whether you’re experiencing true hunger, or appetite:
Ask yourself, “Am I hungry enough to eat a chicken breast and some steamed vegetables, or grilled salmon and a side salad?”
If the answer is “no,” what you’re experiencing is most likely appetite, and your best bet is to move away from the opportunity to eat and find something enjoyable to do that doesn’t involve food.
If you are still unsure whether it’s hunger or appetite, wait 15 minutes, and then re-evaluate. If it’s appetite, the desire will have likely passed by that point. If it’s hunger you will surely know it by then.
The second step to using your hunger + satiation system is to slow down once you’ve started eating. Everyone seems to be in a hurry these days, and eating is treated no differently. Most people gobble up their food so quickly that the brain barely even has a chance to register that the body is receiving food, much less figure out how much it needs and how much it’s already had.
I understand that you may have a ton of things to do throughout your day, and not everybody has time to hang around and chill at the table for an hour for each meal. However, it’s important that you take the time to eat your meals slowly while you work on getting in touch with your satiation signal.
It takes around 20 minutes for the brain to register that you’ve had enough food. An informal poll of my clients, friends, and family members revealed that most of them are eating their meals in less than nine minutes!
Have you ever eaten something extremely quickly, and you feel alright at first, but then several minutes later you notice you are miserably stuffed? That is because you ate so fast that your stomach didn’t even have the chance to tell your brain, “Whoa! Slow down there! That’s enough!” Instead, you got the uncomfortable signal when it was already far too late. With few exceptions, I think it’s safe to say we’ve all experienced this at some point. We’re only human!
Here are a few strategies you can use to slow your roll at the table, which will help you “hear” the signal that you’ve had enough food.
Step three to using your hunger + satiation system is to commit to eliminating distractions—at least the majority of the time—during meals. Now that you understand some of the reasons for eating slowly, it’s crucial that you tune in to your body during your eating experience in order to “hear” your body’s message that it’s had just enough to eat.
As mentioned above, it’s all too easy to override this signal. If you’ve been doing it for years, there is a good chance you don’t even notice it anymore. If you eat slowly and eliminate distractions, you’ll be able to start noticing the signal that your body has had enough food.
So many people eat in front of the television or the computer or with their phone or a book in their hands these days, that to eat without these distractions might feel like a foreign experience! Though you might say it is relaxing, it’s also incredibly distracting. You can get swept away by the plot of your show or by a discussion happening on your social media newsfeed, and before you know it your entire plate of food is gone and you haven’t paid a bit of attention to how you’ve been feeling.
In order to notice what your body is trying to tell you, you have to start tuning in.
Having meals without electronics or books may feel uncomfortable at first. Some people rely on those things with the intent of removing themselves from the eating experience. If going your entire meal without an intentional distraction seems too daunting, commit to only eating for two minutes, and then you can distract yourself for one minute, and repeat throughout the duration of the meal. But be sure that you’re using those two minutes of distraction-free eating to truly experience your meal. Pay attention to the smell, taste, texture, and how it’s making you feel both, physically and mentally.
If you typically have to work through your lunch break, enjoy the practice of distraction-free eating at breakfast and dinner. If you’re too busy multi-tasking in the mornings for this practice, be sure to do it at lunch and dinner. Removing distractions at some meals is better than not doing it at all. The TV and social media will still be there once you’re finished.
You’re waiting until you’re actually experiencing belly hunger to eat, then when you do eat you’re eating slowly and without distractions. So, what should you be eating? The next step in using your hunger + satiation system is to consume foods that are as close to their natural form as possible. Eat whole, minimally processed foods, the overwhelming majority of the time.
Foods that are highly processed are usually hyper-palatable. They are created that way to make you want to eat more, more, more. The perfect combination of carbohydrate, fat, and salt or sugar can throw anyone’s taste buds into a wild frenzy, overriding the satiation system and making it nearly impossible to stop when your body has actually had just enough. Instead, you are more apt to eat until it’s all gone, regardless of how much food that may be—and you’re likely to find yourself craving more!
Examples of these types of foods are things like pizza, fast food, cheesy pasta, potato chips, and cookies. Foods like these are downright “scarfable.” It’s not uncommon to hear someone say that they ate far too much of these types of foods before they even knew what had happened.
However, it’s quite difficult to over-eat a beautifully grilled piece of chicken, a baked sweet potato, and a pile of steamed or roasted veggies.
If you’re working hard at getting in touch with your satiation signals, whole foods as close to their natural form as possible are going to set you up for success. On top of that, you’re probably going to get a much more nutritious meal that makes you feel great.
Now for the biggest question of all—how can you tell when you should stop eating?
As I mentioned above, it’s important to listen for your satiation signal. You’ll receive that signal from your stomach to your brain once you’ve had enough food, and that will likely look a bit different at every meal, each day. This is another reason why it’s so helpful to use this system as opposed to a fixed meal plan.
If you are having a difficult time figuring out when you’ve had enough, it may help you to stop eating your meal when:
I know that for me about three to five bites is the difference between feeling great and overeating.
Try dishing up your usual portion, minus about three to five bites, and see how it makes you feel. Then adjust accordingly while you work on getting in tune with your satiation signal.
With practice, you’ll hear your body’s signal loud and clear soon enough, and you’ll be able to go by feel.
Food can be celebratory, social, and indulgent, and there is certainly a time and place for all of that. But food is also sustenance, and your body deserves the very best. Not only does that mean giving it the right types of food, but also eating in a way that honors your best self which means providing for it when it is in need, and stopping before you overdo it, so that you always feel great.
Take back control of your food intake by giving the hunger + satiation system a try. It will take some practice, but it will put the most important person in the driver’s seat of your body: YOU.
Important final note: As with most things in life, there are exceptions here. If you are dealing with blood sugar issues or a health condition that requires close monitoring of your nutrition, or you are healing from restrictive dieting or an eating disorder, these suggestions may not be the best approach for you. Please follow your doctor or care provider’s recommendations.
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