Clean your plate… Kind of

I am willing to bet that some of you (me included) have finished a meal even though you weren’t really hungry anymore. A lot of us have probably done this, as it’s really easy to just finish all the food on your plate even if you are already full.  You might have heard about “starving children in Africa” and felt the need to finish a second helping of french fries for their sake (because that makes a lot of sense…).  I would even go a step further and say that some of us don’t even recognize our own body’s signals for satiety, causing us to overeat at most of our meals.

This isn’t a new concept. In 2006, 6 of every 10 Americans said they ate more than they should. As a country, Americans know very well that they are overeating and that it is contributing to our ever-expanding waistlines and health problems. There have been countless studies and research that has gone into showing us that we are eating too much, but I think the more important question we need to address is when did we start overeating? I don’t mean as a nation, I mean you as an individual.

For the most part, you were not born eating too much food. In fact, if you look at children’s eating habits they are some of the best intuitive eaters. When they are hungry they will eat and when they are full they stop eating. If they don’t eat a huge lunch, they will usually eat more at dinner. They don’t obsess over certain foods or meal times. Trust me, they will let you know when they are hungry. I’ve worked as a nanny for the past two years and gotten to watch this first hand. It fascinates me how easy it is for a 2-year-old to grasp the concept of being full and being done with a meal. It doesn’t bother him if there are still five green beans left on his plate, or three graham cracker bunnies he didn’t eat. When he is done eating he is done eating and happily goes on with his day. Where did adults, the supposedly wiser and more sophisticated group, go wrong on this concept?

While there are many factors that contribute, one of the biggest influences is that of the parents, but I don’t think they are doing it on purpose.  Most parents want their child to lead a healthy and happy life.  They want to make sure that they are providing nutritious meals that will help their children grow.  It can be really frustrating and even worrisome to have a child that seems to never eat.  I know the struggle that can occur when you just want your kid to eat one bite of their meal because they haven’t eaten anything all day.  But I also believe that sometimes parents need to be open to having their child guide their own eating habits.  When parents stress over getting their children to eat, or force them to finish all their food on their plate, they could be setting their child up for future eating problems.  Over time, if a child is cleaning his plate even though he is clearly not hungry, he will begin to lose that sense of satiety.  He now knows that in order to be done with a meal, the plate needs to be empty, whether he is full or not.

Losing our sense of fullness can lead to other bad habits later on as well.  Adam shared a study with me last week about teens not paying attention to how many calories they ate in a meal.  While I am not a big supporter of religiously counting calories, it is interesting to see that most teens ignored the calorie count completely.  I don’t know if there is a definite link between being aware of how much food you eat and our sense of fullness, but I think that they probably do affect each other.  I know that there used to be many times I would be eating and I had no clue why.  I wasn’t hungry, but somehow I was downing crackers like it was my business.

How do you regain your intuitive eating skills?  It’s tough, but you can retrain your body to its childhood eating habits.  Don’t expect the change to happen overnight and don’t expect to be perfect all the time.  There will be days that you slip up and that is totally ok, just move on and do better next time.  These are a few of the tips that I use to help me really tune in to my body’s signals.

Make sure you’re actually hungry.  When you get the urge to grab a bag of chips or chow down on a huge meal, pause for just a second.  Ask yourself a few questions, when was the last time I ate?  Am I really hungry or am I bored/sad/depressed/around a bunch of other people eating?  Will I feel better about myself after eating this meal or will I look back with regret?  Once you answer those questions, you can better decide if you are actually hungry and ready to eat a meal.  To take this a step further, drink a glass of water before you eat anything.  Many times, we misread thirsty signals as hunger signals and immediately dive into a snack.

S L O W  D O W N.  When you are eating a meal, take your time.  This can be a key factor in reading your “I’m full” signal.  Sometimes we have a tendency to rush through a meal in ten minutes and not realize we had way more to eat than we really wanted or needed.  Take a few bites, put your fork down, sip some water, and enjoy the flavor of your food.  By giving your body those few extra minutes in between bites, you are letting it register the food you have already eaten and allowing you to know when you are full, before your plate is totally clean.  Also, eat until you are pleasantly full, not bursting at the seams.  No one likes that feeling of your waistband cutting in to your stomach after a huge chow fest.

Eat foods that will fill you up.  You’re probably thinking, “Uh, Katie?  Any food can fill me up.”  Let me be a bit more specific.  Choose foods that have a low density of calories, but high quantity.  Caloric-Density1

400 calories of oil, from say your fried mozzarella sticks, will not fill you up as much as 400 calories of salad.  You won’t feel full from that 400 calories of oil, so you’ll continue to eat until you do feel full, possibly taking in more food than your body really wants or needs.  I am not saying that you have to ONLY eat vegetables in order to know when you’re full.  What I am saying is that you need to choose foods that will fill you in the healthiest way.  Including vegetables in your dinner of grilled chicken and brown rice is a very easy way to add bulk that won’t bulk you up.

Be patient, and kind, with yourself.  Like I said before, it isn’t easy to retrain the way you eat or tune into your body.  Don’t get frustrated if you slip up more than once.  Realize that this is a process and it is OK to have setbacks, you’re human, not Superman.  Just make sure that your slip ups don’t make you abandon everything and fall back into your old habits.  Acknowledge that you had a setback and move on, vowing to make your next choice healthier.  Constantly beating yourself up will not help you get to a healthier state.

Remember, we all started out as some of the best intuitive eaters out there.  One way or another you might have lost that sense, but you CAN gain it back.  I think that a lot of eating problems begin with our lack of awareness of our own bodies, at least that has been the case for me.  Just because someone puts food on your plate, does not mean you absolutely have to eat all of it.  I promise that eating every single scrap of food on your plate just because it’s there will never lead to a feeling of satisfaction.  Knowing you have eaten exactly what you needed and the exact amount your body required will make you feel much happier and healthier!