When I’m counseling clients, one of the major things we work on together is scoping out unknown overeating. Many people struggling to slim down don’t even realize where they’re eating too much: A lot of clients tell me they only eat when they’re hungry, and stop when they’re full, yet they still aren’t seeing results for their waistline—or their health.
I see this pattern frequently, and the culprit is often a skewed sense of what hunger and fullness really feel like. A new study, published recently in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, adds some nuance to my work with clients: In a nutshell, the Cornell University researchers found that the perception of how “healthy” a food is can influence perceived feelings of fullness.
The researchers conducted a number of tests with 50 young adult volunteers, and when foods were portrayed as healthy the study participants ordered larger portions, thought of them as less filling, and ate more. And here’s the kicker: this included people who said that they disagree with the idea that better-for-you foods aren’t as filling.
If you’ve ever finished an entire bag of “skinny” popcorn, and thought, “Hmm, I could still keep eating” (despite having just consumed over half of your daily calorie needs) you’ve probably experienced this effect. This is just another example of how the way we think about food can matter just as much as our food choices.
But you can outsmart it. The one thing that I’ve found really works: keep a hunger/fullness journal. Now I know you’ve heard about the positive impact of keeping a food dairy before, but many food trackers simply log calories, or grams of carbs, protein, and fat. I ask my clients to add another layer and also track how hungry or full they feel before and after meals, based on a 0 to 10 scale.
The key is to really focus in on your body’s sensations, not your mind’s perceptions. For example, a 0 means mild-moderate hunger that has physiological symptoms, like a growling tummy; 5 is the absence of hunger signals and a “just right” level of fullness and energy. And 10 rates as miserably stuffed and sluggish.
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When people aren’t used to tuning into their bodies in this way they’ll often write down a 0 pre-meal, even though they actually had no physical signals that indicated hunger, or a need for fuel and nourishment. In many cases this false sense of hunger is triggered by emotional or social cues, like boredom, seeing someone else eating, or simply feeling like it’s time to eat, even though you may have just polished off a snack an hour ago and aren’t actually hungry yet.
If you have a tough time distinguishing true body hunger from “mind hunger” think about other body sensations you tend to trust, that aren’t generally affected by your thoughts and feelings. For example, take body temperature. If you’re too hot or cold you’ll experience physical symptoms, perspiring on one end of the spectrum, or shivering on the other. Those signals generally prompt you to get back to an ideal temperature, by doing something like turning on a fan, or putting on a sweater.
But it would seem pretty odd to do those things if the temperature already felt “just right,” right? In the same way try to connect with what it feels like for your body to guide your eating thermostat—without being influenced by anything but that.
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Once you start keeping track, you’ll learn some pretty amazing things, like what a normal level of hunger really feels like (hint: there are body-driven signals, but it’s not the same as feeling starving, or overly hungry). You’ll also notice which foods and meals help you feel appropriately full, meaning the physical signs of hunger have gone away, and you feel satisfied and energized simultaneously.
If you’re like most of the clients I work on with this, I bet you’ll find that the meals that allow you to feel this way are nutritionally balanced, and not excessive (jackpot!).
One of my clients told me one of her go-to dinner meals was a veggie burrito made with a whole wheat flour tortilla filled with beans, rice, cheese, salsa, and guacamole. Because she perceived it to be “healthy” she felt pretty good about eating it. But when we talked about what her body was telling her after eating this meal, she realized that she actually felt a bit overly full and sleepy. When she ditched the burrito wrap and the cheese (but kept the guac!) and started serving the contents over a bed of leafy greens she ended the meal feeling like a true 5 on the scale.
Not only did her energy shoot up, but she also started losing weight. And best of all, she finally learned how to connect with her hunger and fullness signals accurately and trust them, no matter how a food was labeled, or what anyone else was doing.
Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Yankees, previously consulted for three other professional sports teams, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Sass is a three-time New York Times best-selling author, and her brand new book is Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.