Your Questions About Eating Just Enough, Answered

Aug 03, 2019

There are 16 habits in my book Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss, and several dozen other actions I regularly use with clients as assignments or “behavioral test-drives”. They cover everything from eating disorder recovery to sports nutrition, communicating, finding joy, boosting fiber intake, and managing sleep. And this one is (according to my clients), the hardest one: Eating Just Enough.

It’s Chapter 3 in the book, and from here on you’ll see the abbreviation we often use in my Facebook groups, EJE.

It’s the one most often that people say they work on for a long time. 

It’s the one people revisit most often after they’ve gone through all the other skills.

It’s also the one that, on average, people just entering my world have the lowest skill in. (Most of them report the highest level of skill in Eating Mostly Whole Foods, if you’re curious).

Here’s an example, because we like data, right? Look at this graph. This is the results of a survey of people who have not yet taken our courses:

The most popular answer, given the options of 1-10 (1 being total beginner and 10 is it’s already easy) is 1.  [Hat tip to the one person out of 810 who selected 10! You, sir or madam, are a special type of individual, please preserve your DNA so we can one day study you.]

For the rest of us, me included, this one is a grinder. Achieving a higher level of coaching on this one is one of my constant professional aims. And it’s going to stay there, I have zero doubt. 

I’d confidently say I talk about EJE more than Tiger Woods talks about golf (in no small part because his job is not to talk… but that’s beside the point). I just thought I’d do the math to estimate how many hours I’ve discussed this, but no, I instantly realize I don’t want to go there because my brain will explode or I will cry that I’ve not yet perfected it.  And then when you tack on the hours I’ve spent thinking about this, we’re talking incalculable.

I think about it at night when I can’t sleep.

I think about it when I’m eating.

And just after I’ve eaten. 

I think about it when I watch other people eating. 

I think about it when I watch my dog eat. 

And I think about how my clients are experiencing it as they describe it to me in emails and phone conversations.

I try to envision how my hypothetical readers are thinking about their own memories of satisfaction signals when they are reading the articles I’m writing for future blogs, which is so many layers of abstraction I can’t even.

While my research into EJE is going to be a work in progress ad infinitum (like my all-but-dissertation PhD status … hahahaha... sob), the good news is, I’ve come a long way in uncovering what it is we humans go through when we eat. What we physically feel (or don’t feel), how our emotional state shifts the dynamic, what we are doing with our attention, what our stomachs, mouths and brains are contributing; we consciously and unconsciously are influenced by so many factors when it comes to stopping the act of eating. And it’s different between people, and different for any individual meal-to-meal.

Let’s break this down.

When we smack it with a hammer, Eating Just Enough first breaks into 2 major sub-skills.

One chunk is “Sensing Enough”.
The other chunk is “Stopping”.

Breaking these down further, we can take Sensing Enough and divide that into 2 more sub-skills:

1. Paying more attention to sensations that make up satisfaction (which we want to notice).
2. Paying less attention to the stuff that prevents us from noticing those sensations.

We can work on each of these separately. That was the easy one.

If we look at what it takes to achieve “stopping”, once we know we are satisfied, there are SO MANY factors which can affect our success with actually heeding that signal or not.

  • Prediction of the benefits of stopping
  • Prediction of the benefits of continuing
  • Considering the costs of stopping 
  • Considering the costs of continuing
  • Confidence in self-efficacy (can I do it?) 
  • Coming to a decision, i.e. stopping the deliberating
  • Actual physical movement (putting down the taco)
  • Not going back on the decision amid a period of temptation (restarting eating while food is still in front of us) 
  • Subconscious drives to keep eating (parental imprinting like “clean your plate”)
  • Scarcity. (This might not be available tomorrow.) 
  • Ingrained habits (Our eyes used to seeing an empty plate, doing what we always have done) 
  • Moral licensing (I was so good earlier)
  • Poor memory of prior eating due to distraction (Watching Youtube during lunch = more food intake at dinner) 
  • Beliefs (I shouldn’t waste food, I’ll sleep better if I get really full, I’ll have more energy for tomorrow’s workout.)
  • Social cues to keep eating if others are
  • Lack of something pleasant to do after the meal 
  • Avoidance / permission to not do something (getting overly full can be an excuse to avoid sex, socializing, being productive)
  • Worries about the future (how long will I be full?)
  • Nutritional Reasoning (did I get enough protein, etc)
  • Temperature moderation (I’m chilly and this hot soup is warming me up)

And I’m sure if I keep digging, this list will get longer. And therein lies the problem most people come across: overanalyzing this too much. I considered undertaking the project of writing something specific to help with each of the above topics, but I feel like I can do better. I think (hope) I can help a few more people’s EJE light bulbs go off without requiring them to read an entire book on it. 

So, I asked people directly what questions they have about Eating Just Enough, and the many excellent inquiries fell into these general categories: 

  1. People asked various versions of “how do I tell when I’ve had enough?” (not sure what feeling they are looking for.)
  2. People asked about timing/scheduling/meal planning. (Not wanting to get hungry too early, too late, etc)
  3. People asked “what about (insert situation), does it change?” (What about different foods being in front of me, or different contexts). 

Note: Nobody asked how to actually stop, once they notice they are at the satisfied point. I don’t know if this means no one is having that trouble, or if they just haven’t realized it. Or if they just don’t want to ask. But I'm off the hook for the moment in deciphering that. 

Questions only came up about Sensing Enough. So, luckily, these queries can all be answered by a discussion of what you’re supposed to feel, and how to logistically make that work well with schedules and overall nutrient needs.

I'm in. Let’s do it.

1. The Feeling We Are Going For

Yes, there is a continuum of emptiness to fullness - no brick wall or signpost which obviously smacks you in the head and clues you in. STOP HERE! However, rather than think of the thing you are noticing as a straight line (how full am I? or how much have I eaten?), try to think of it as a bell curve (how good do I physically feel?). Clearly, this is NOT a straight line, where the more we eat the better we feel.

Important: It’s key to focus on physical feelings here, not your emotions.

I can’t tell you how many bites that is, and if you try to count, it will be different tomorrow. But you have been doing this thing (eating) for years. You have a good idea of how it goes! You feel better and better and better, then it feels kind of the same for a while, then you start to feel worse and worse. When it stops getting better, that’s satisfied. That’s enough. There’s nothing more to gain after you feel as good, physically, as food is going to get you.  There are some bites which don’t do anything in terms of feeling better or worse (coming back to those in a moment), and after that, each bite is making you feel worse. 


So if you consider stopping before satisfied, you’d feel better if you ate more. And I encourage you to do that. (It’s great! If you haven’t done in a long time, you’re welcome!)

And if you consider the downslope, stopping when you are feeling worse and worse with each bite, I suggest limiting your own discomfort as early as possible once you realize you are doing it. (In life, in general, noticing when we are creating our own suffering  -- and stopping -- is a strategy of which I am fond).

So you hit “enough” at some point. There’s some bites after that which won’t make you feel worse, but if you want to lose weight, consider that they are not making your body feel any better, they are less enjoyable than previous bites, and they contain the same calories as all the bites you had before. You are getting a worse and worse deal as you go. Diminishing marginal returns in action. 

Hence, eating just enough is the most efficient way to reap the maximum benefit.

2. How The Timing Shakes Out  

I’ve written extensively about the human appetite systems and how meals can be designed to offer the greatest satiety per calorie. In a nutshell, 30% or more calories from protein, ample volume from fresh fruits and vegetables to create a low overall calorie density, close to 30% calories from fat, preference for solid foods over liquid and complex carbohydrates high in fiber over processed ones, and in doses at least 400 calories at a time. If that nutshell leaves you wanting more detail, pick up Lean Habits. 

Assuming you are making your meals that way, Eating Just Enough typically lasts people 4-6 hours. Can it be more or less, yes, but the vast majority of the time, 4-6 hours is a trustworthy rule of thumb. 

If you are feeling hungry after only 2 or 3 hours, you likely 1. did a mammoth training session (2 or 3 hours running or other cardio? Sure, you can be hungry again that fast) or 2. Had a meal that was too low in fat, too low in protein, was liquid instead of solid, or you stopped before Just Enough, which happens when we are scared of overdoing it out of an overabundance of caution.

Other stuff which can interfere: If you drink too much water along with your meal, it will lower the calorie density of the whole meal so you might hit Just Enough without taking in adequate food. That can make you feel hungry soon. The easiest way around this is to stop drinking once you start eating, and let the food be the thing that gets you to Just Enough.

If you get more than 6 hours before you feel hungry again, that’s 100% fine. More time to go play outside. If you WANT to get hungry sooner for scheduling purposes, try reducing the amount of fat in your meal slightly, since this has the biggest impact on the longevity of the satiety. 

The Speed of the Signals

That sense of physically feeling better and becoming satisfied as we eat is the collaborative effect of several different pathways (again, read Lean Habits for the full discussion, as I’ll just summarize two of them here.) And they operate on different time courses.

The fastest one we have is a stretch receptor pathway, which is a direct nerve connection between the stomach walls, up the vagus nerve to the brain and as close to a “volume sensor” as we have. Drink a big bottle of club soda and boom - you feel that belly bloat. It doesn’t give you an “aaaaaah, satisfied” feeling on it’s own, it’s mostly just feeling full. If it is followed up by the other nutrient-sensing pathways, then you will feel actually satisfied, and an alleviation of hunger. But if you just downed some bubbly water, false alarm, your hunger will return.

That “hotline” or fast signal is followed by pathways communicating to you brain information about the nutrients in whatever is putting pressure on your stomach walls. Understandably, it takes some time for your digestive tracts to start dismantling what you’ve eaten and figuring out things like “Are there amino acids in here? How much?  Do we sense some fats? How about carbohydrates, and how much total energy have we gotten at this point? This is all going on while you are eating, giving a stream of information to the chairman in your skull (the brain) who determines how satisfied you feel.

Fats are the slowest things to register in this scheme. It takes time to begin breaking down the triglyceride molecules, which then trigger chemical messengers called hormones to be released into circulation and make their way to the brain. Fat also slows down the other signals, because it delays the pace of carbohydrates and proteins from leaving the stomach and entering the top of the small intestine, which is where carbohydrate and protein digestion gets going. The digestion and absorption of protein and carbohydrate molecules starts the initial “accounting” for other satisfaction hormones to be produced and send signals to the brain. So fat slows down everything.

This is why if you eat meals very low in fat, you can absorb things more rapidly and easily, and be hungry again pretty soon. Low fat meals also tend to be low in calories.

So if you eat a higher fat meal, it might take 30 or 40 minutes to notice you are full instead of 20. You can eat a lot of extra pizza or fettuccine in that extra 10 or 20 minutes, right? This is why when you are focusing on EJE, it’s a great idea to eat extra slowly when you are having something with a higher amount of fat. You’ll get satisfied, but it’s delayed, so if you plow through at your normal pace, you’re likely to keep eating until you some satisfaction signals but then the delayed signals will catch up with and make you feel beyond full, into the uncomfortable downslope of our “Feeling good” hill. And you will have taken in enough calories to not be hungry for a long time. Which isn’t a good or bad thing, I just mention it for planning’s sake.

Which brings us to the last question category. 

3. What About (Insert Situation)?

Potential situations which make people wonder if they should be adjusting something deliberately include what if I got really hungry, what if I was really active, what if I was totally inactive, what if it is more food than yesterday or less food than yesterday?

And the answer is…. As long as you don’t speed eat, nothing changes. You likely need to focus on not inhaling your food if you have gotten ravenous because, let’s face it, most of us become human Hoovers if we got desperation-level hungry. Based on the information above, you can see that speed eating does not allow the system to work the way it’s designed to. So if you want your body to be able to accurately assess what it needs, try to eat slowly.

There’s no reason ever where your best choice is to continue eating until you are feeling worse.
Eating to less-than-satisfied is not ideal (because it’s uncomfortable) but sometimes is unavoidable if you plan to eat again soon (along with choosing something low in fat). Stopping before satisfied (or at least pausing) may be a good idea if you notice you are downing your pizza really fast (which I often can’t help but do) and want to let your body catch up.

Other than that, don’t let your brain get involved with chatting about whether you should or shouldn’t take xyz into account, your body will adjust beautifully to more and less active days, and that’s why it’s FABULOUS that it seems like more food some days than other days gives you the satisfied feeling. That’s the system working!

A Final Note: When It Seems Like It’s Not Working 

Many people ask if it’s common to lose this ability to feel physically satisfied. Yes, it is. Being able to sense when you are hungry and full is dulled by using external means of food control for a long time, like counting calories, dieting, or eating what you are “allowed” by any program. Hormone and nerve function can also be disrupted by binge eating and purging. The signals can be blunted and muffled if instead of having clear meals with gaps between them a person grazes all the time (because you never actually are fed or fasting, you live in the middle), a place I call Hunger Purgatory. You don't feel hunger or satisfaction when you never GET all the way hungry or all the way satisfied. 

The good news: It comes back. It comes back through eating regular meals on a consistent schedule, with spaces between them where you don’t eat, letting your body heal from past abuses like binge eating and purging. But most of all, sensing these signals means listening, and practicing listening for a period of time, so you get better and better at hearing it. 

The biggest interference for most people is their emotional reactions from restrictive eating. You can't tell how good you feel physically when emotional pain/comfort/shame/pleasure has the starring role in determining your food intake. Food takes on an enhanced reward value when it is restricted, and chronic wanting screams louder than physical satiety.  Taking back the reins means giving your physical body the chief say in how much is enough, and it's a separate (and worthwhile) skill to maximize the enjoyment you get within that. 

Summary: 

In closing, practicing Eating Just Enough can seem mind-exploding because it’s an art. Just like coaching it, we’ll never be “done” with perfecting our ability to do it. The beauty is in the communication that results from our efforts to do it as well as we can, and watching how we get better with time.

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