21 micro habits that make weight loss stick #12: Redefine ‘full’

This is probably the biggest, most controversial, most brilliant thing I’ve learned since I became a food psychology coach: How to make eating just a little bit less feel ‘right’, without sending yourself into restriction mode.

Here, food psychology coach Laura Lloyd explains how to snap out of the yoyo dieting cycle, and make less gradually feel like your ‘new normal’ without restriction mentality and without activating binge eating.

When you go on a diet, you eat a lot less food. For a while. Then, you don’t. 

You diet, you burn more calories than you consume, and you lose weight.

Then, you stop dieting. You add go back to eating the amount that feels nice to you. Which is more than while you were dieting. It’s not that you’re deciding to eat more – it just unconsciously feels about right, and you’re not weighing out grams of rice any more, or counting points or calories. 

So you regain the weight.

And you can’t understand it – when you’re not dieting, you’re eating ‘normally’. But one problem with this is, we all have a different idea of what ‘full’ is. And your feeling of being full might be more than you need. 

Still, the solution is not to count calories for the rest of your life – that’s not sustainable. 

Don’t worry – there’s another way, and I’ll show you. 

This is probably the biggest, most controversial, most brilliant thing I’ve learned since I became a food psychology coach.

And I’ve learned it over many years, and I’ve learned it because I really really needed to for myself.

For some of you, what I’m about to say may sound completely obvious, like common sense in fact. That’ll be either because it comes naturally to you, or because I’m about to explain it so darn well (emoji).

For some of you who’ve studied intuitive eating, or tried intuitive eating, what I’m about to say might sound problematic – and I’d be interested any discussion that arises.

But for those of you caught as I was, in the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t aftermath of binge eating or yoyo dieting; where you can’t restrict or diet without without wanting to binge eat, and yet if you eat ‘normally’ for you you still gain weight – this might be news you’ve needed to hear for a long time.

Here’s the thing:

If you want to lose weight without dieting, you’ll still need (ultimately) to eat less.

The difference is, with an eating psychology approach, you don’t make what you’re eating your focus. Eating less is a happy byproduct of losing your overeating habits. 

So please, please don’t freak out and start trying to deliberately eat less, and think “Oh My God, I’ve got to eat less, I should eat less, I shouldn’t eat as much, it’s going to be horrible like all the diets I’ve done in the past”.

That is restrictive, deprivation thinking, and it will aggravate your inner rebel and make you have bingey thoughts too.

I was a binge eater as a teenager, so I have to make a clear distinction in my mind between restriction and loving having a little less.

Trust me, I’ve had a backlash to restriction thinking enough times in the past, and I teach unrestricting your thoughts in my mindset reset programme Food Psychology Savvy, which gives you the foundational psychological tools for a lifetime of eating at ease and finding your best natural weight.

And on that, I’d utter a note of caution – if you haven’t done any psychology work on letting go of the beliefs you got from years of dieting, it’d be much much better to set down all that emotional baggage and have a big mental clear-out before you start trying to get used to eating a different amount of food.

Nonetheless, the science is there – if you want to lose weight, you’ll need to overeat less.

But in my approach, you don’t have to set out to eat less, which is what most diets gun for.

Instead, I work to end your overeating.

What is overeating? How do I know if I’m doing it?

(And by the way, many clients come to me wanting to stop these behaviours because they make them feel obsessed and depressed around food, without any agenda of working on their weight).

But just for now, let’s say it’s weight.

Overeating – the thing that made you put on weight to begin with – has various forms.

There are all the ways we eat little bits of extra food that add up to a total of too-much food:

  • You eat lots of little extra bits and bobs that aren’t really on your radar and you tell yourself ‘don’t count’ – snaffling up leftovers as you clear up, biting things while you chop and cook them, drinking alcohol and losing track of it, sampling things that happen to be on the counter or in the communal area of the office.
  • You eat distractedly or emotionally, especially when alone, for example non-stop snacking while watching Netflix, eating while working, night eating.
  • You use food to keep yourself going emotionally – reward yourself, alleviate boredom, relax, to deal with anxiety etc.
  • You eat your favourite foods, and don’t feel like you can stop once you start. You don’t feel like you can leave them alone when you have them in the house. You could call these cravings or indulgences.

And then there’s eating more than you need at meals:

  • You binge eat – you eat industrial quantities of food at one time in a kind of blur.
  • You systematically eat more than you need, at meals – eating until your belly is full, or even stuffed – you know you do that, and that just feels good to you. Perhaps you systematically clean you plate, or hate to waste leftovers.
  • You eat more than you need at meals, but you aren’t really aware of when the stopping point could or should be.
  • You sometimes knowingly eat (and drink) much more than you need to, for example because it’s the weekend, a meal in a restaurant, a celebration – and these occasions come around often enough that it’s crept up on you.

Most of us do some of these overeating habits, and have done for our whole lives.

We don’t notice we have an overeating pattern, and wouldn’t label ourselves ‘an overeater’ necessarily.

But it’s the last four, where you overeat at meals, that really have the most to do with being accustomed to feeling really full.

When I work with clients, we work to understand and outsmart all of these kinds of overeating. Changing these eating habits for life leaves you with what you need to maintain your best natural weight – the weight you are when you eat normally, to satisfy hunger, and not ‘over’ eating for any of these reasons ‘over’ and above that.

So how do you stop overeating at meals? If it was easy, we’d all just do it.

The trick is to very gradually, over time, redefine your sense of ‘full’.

Let me tell you how that felt for me, because I NEVER ask clients to do something I haven’t guinea-pigged on myself. 

A snippet from my story:

I used to love getting really full.

It was a huge source of comfort, growing up. Emotionally, it made me feel steady, and like I could zonk out and go to sleep – after a whole day of being striving to be an A+ student (my own self-expectations were sky high – I had to be the best, or it wasn’t worth living) and be free from trying any more, free from responsibility.

But also, as I grew up, it was just my normal. I’d expect to eat a big warm meal each night.

And during the day, when the weather is cold or I have the urge to escape from some work or study pressure, I can feel the urge to just eat more than plenty, and have a big siesta.

I have always known I ate a lot. When I lodged with a family in my teens, they were shocked to find I ate as much as the adults.

In my marriage, I have always at least matched, if not out-eaten, the quantities my husband served.

It just felt normal for me to be really ‘properly’ full. Not binge eating full. Just really ‘can’t comfortably eat any more’ full.

Stopping at ‘satisfied’ was totally new to me.

At first, it was really disappointing – the meal was over rather quickly – I wanted more from the experience. Also, a little sad – if I liked a taste, I wanted to continue with it. I told myself over and over, taught myself, that I could have more later. That was a reminder to me to really dive into the enjoyment of the food I have.

As an exercise (I’m not recommending you do this, it’s just a coach thing), I counted the bites of each meal. I realised I maybe have 20 bites at a whole meal, including dessert, before I’m satisfied. The reason I did that, was to awaken my consciousness to the need to treasure the experience of each bite.

If I need less food, I don’t want to ENJOY food any less.

I don’t want to have less pleasure from food.

I don’t want to have short, over-too quick eating experiences!

But after a while, it felt really good. Freeing. Lighter. I felt like I had more energy after meals. I felt ready for my next activity. I felt less avoidant, less sluggish. It felt right.

I also noticed that if I overeat, or eat late, I sleep badly.

When I do eat to the point of being full, and I haven’t planned to (for example, at Christmas I already decided I’d get full at one meal), I try to turn my attention towards the physical sensations of that, and really explore how it feels and how comfortable/uncomfortable it is.

Without regret or self-judgement. I think what I’m learning is, I tell myself I like the feeling of being full, but actually, it doesn’t feel that great in my body. If I’ve only slightly overeaten, I can still do my day, and even still do movement afterwards, but I do have a slight emotional hangover – for example I might find that I’m moody or impatient with the kids. I’m just a little physically uncomfortable!

Learning to stop at ‘satisfied’ has also brought me face to face with my emotional eating and resistant thinking.

Sometimes, I notice I don’t want the meal to end because my brain knows that means going back to work, or clearing up. That’s an emotional eating pattern – procrastination and self-doubt about the next task.

To alter this habit, I have to find a way to reward and reinforce the behaviour of moving on from the meal. Do something nice after the meal for a few minutes. It’s practical too – I have to allow a few more minutes to do something nice or relaxing for myself.

Laura Lloyd

Eating psychology coach, School of Food Psychology

How do you get used to eating a little less at meals?

  • Make a mental distinction – instead of aiming to be ‘full’, aim to feel pleasantly satisfied, or to have had ‘enough’. Of course, it’s really subjective, and you have to tune into your body while you eat to find the sweet spot – and you’ll probably overshoot many times before it feels better to stop at satisfied.
  • Notice when you think you might be satisfied. Be curious. Take a little pause.
  • Leave a couple of bites behind each time. That’s all. I don’t mean as rule (that’s diet thinking: “I have to leave 2 bites on my plate!”.  I mean, the amount you leave can be very small: This adds up to weight loss, believe me.
  • Serve yourself 2 bites less – telling yourself you can go back for it at the end if needed. When it’s time to go and get those two bites, you’ll have to get up and consciously choose to go and get them, so you’ll check in with yourself: Am I still hungry? Have I had enough? Again, watch what your mind wants to do. It may create thoughts of unfairness and deprivation – “I’m not having as much as everyone else”, “Why am I not allowed those two bites till later?”, “I must try not to go back and get those bites”. All these thoughts are your old diet thinking. You’re not deciding you’re allowed or not-allowed something. You’re learning to become conscious of your choices and to check in with your body.
  • Stop cleaning your plate. That’s a doozy – brings up all your old beliefs about wasting food, competing with siblings, and more. Great if it comes up – deal with those thoughts in your journal, they aren’t a reason to get stuck.
  • Play with a half-time check-in: When you feel yourself becoming satisfied, or about halfway through your meal, look at the clock so you can see where you’ll be in 10 minutes’ time. Just engage with the conversation for ten minutes. If you’re in a restaurant, take a bathroom break. Afterwards, see if you really need more, or if you’re actually OK. Never deny yourself or promise yourself you won’t eat more. Allow the decision to arise voluntarily as those 10 minutes allow your body to adjust to the food arriving, and your mind to get unstuck from the excitement of one bite following another.

Just one note of caution- don’t try to do this one habit in isolation. 

I’m talking about it, so you know what you’re aiming for. But I don’t want you to pick this one habit and take it out of context, as if you can force weight loss to happen just by changing the amount of food you’re consuming. 

You can try to rush ahead like that, but any change you create won’t be sustainable unless you actually start to address your overeating in more sophisticated terms than just trying to eat less. 

What I’m trying to say is: You can take anything I teach you and use it to punch yourself in the face.

Or you can approach your eating with love and compassion, learn to have a different quality of conversation inside your head, and learn to feel your feelings – now THAT’s what I call sustainable lifelong change.

Sustainable weight loss goes deeper than just fixing the eating – you fix the reasons you want to eat when you’re not hungry. 

So make sure you check out the rest of the 21 micro habits series and think about the whole picture of you as an eater. 

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