One of the most common questions we hear while working with clients is:
“What should my portion sizes be?”
Believe it or not, this is not a black and white answer. Although the portion plate is a great guide to get us started, that’s exactly what it is – a guide. The absolute BEST indicator of what portions we should be eating is from listening to your own body!
Part of rejecting diet culture is learning to listen to what our body is telling us instead of external diet rules such as “you can only have ½ Cup of rice at a meal” or “you are not allowed to eat after 7PM.” One aspect of listening to our body is honoring our hunger and fullness cues. Our bodies are SUPER smart and know what they need. Therefore, if we honor our hunger and fullness cues, our portions will be exactly what our bodies need that day.
Keep in mind these portions may vary day to day. Our bodies are not robots and our needs change daily. For example, if you did an intense HIIT workout, it is likely you will need more energy, and therefore be hungrier, the next day to help you replenish your energy stores lost during the workout. Same goes for when you are on your period! Our bodies expend a LOT of energy during that time shedding our uterine lining so it makes sense that we would need more food during this week.
Understanding Hunger and Fullness
The first step to learning to honor your hunger and fullness cues is to understand what hunger and fullness are. Let’s dive into some science!
Our bodies have two main hormones that regulate our appetite: Leptin and Ghrelin. Leptin signals the feeling of being full and ghrelin signals hunger. If we are honoring our hunger and fullness cues, these two hormones work in complete homeostasis. When you need more energy, ghrelin increases. When you have replenished your energy stores and no longer need fuel, leptin increases. Unfortunately, constant dietiting often throw off this homeostasis by ignoring biological hunger.
Diet culture teaches us that being hungry all the time is “good” and feeling full is “shameful.” We do things like chug water or chew gum to distract ourselves and suppress our hunger. Overtime, this can throw leptin and ghrelin out of sync. After years of dieting, we can lose our ability to feel hunger and fullness entirely. Additionally, the more we ignore our hunger, the more our hunger hormone (ghrelin) increases. This makes your body think it is in starvation mode, stressing it out and causing it to hold on to fat stores to compensate. In our practice, we talk primarily work with clients on eating MORE to reach their goals – not less!
In order to reach our goals, it is key to build back our trust with your body’s natural cues.
Keep in mind that there are many different ways to feel hunger and fullness. Everyone is different and there are not right or wrong ways to experience it. Here are some common signs of hunger and fullness:
Common Signs of Hunger
- Stomach growling
- Feeling panicked/stressed
- Dull ache in throat
- Cloudy thinking, unable to concentrate, headache, thoughts about food and eating
- Sleepiness/lack of energy
Common Signs of Fullness
- Fewer thoughts about food and eating
- Decreased desire to eat
- Pleasant and relaxed mood
- Energy changes: Either re-energized or for some, drowsy for others
As we are learning to look for and honor these sensations, keep in mind that there are a lot of aspects that can get in the way of feeling and responding to hunger and fullness cues. These are called attunement disrupters. Attunement disrupters may include distractions, thoughts, rules, beliefs, and a lack of self-care.
Attunement Disrupter Examples:
- Eating while multitasking (watching TV, on phone, reading, driving)
- Food rules (“I can’t eat after 7pm”)
- Working through lunch break
- Skipping breakfast
- Not controlling stress levels properly
- Not getting proper amount of sleep
If you are struggling to recognize hunger and fullness cues, reflect on these disrupters. Are you getting enough sleep? Are you overly stressed? Are you skipping meals? In order to re-regulate hunger and fullness hormones, we recommend eating every 3-4 hours and engaging in daily self-care activities.
Using Hunger and Fullness Cues as a Guide
In order to use hunger and fullness as a guide to portion sizes and meal timing, we recommend clients practice ranking their hunger and fullness levels after each meal and snack using the hunger and fullness scale below.
When you are getting ready to eat a meal or snack, ask yourself, “Where am I on the hunger and fullness scale?” Ideally, you’ll be between a 3 and a 4. When we drop below this, we tend to overeat as a natural body response to extreme hunger.
Halfway through your meal, pause for 10 seconds and check in with your body. Ask again “Where am I on the scale now?” You may choose to stop eating or continue based on what your body is telling you. Eat until you are comfortably satisfied at a 6 or 7.
“What if I fall below a 3 or eat to the point I am above a 7?”
It happens to everyone and this is very normal! The hunger/fullness scale is NOT a rule – so start with showing yourself compassion. Shame is not a helpful emotion and does not promote progress. Avoid beating yourself up. It’s about progress not perfection!
Take this time to reflect with curiosity instead of judgement. Did dropping below a 3 impact your food choices and your hunger and fullness the rest of the day? Could you have done anything differently to avoid getting overly hungry such as packing a snack or prepping lunch that morning? If you overate, why do you think that happened? Could you practice being more mindful at meals and slowing down in the future?
Instead of dwelling on the fact you got too hungry or overate, acknowledge it, reflect with curiosity, and then move on to your normal routine.
*You deserve to have dinner even if you overate at lunch!* There is no need to “compensate” or “make up” for overeating.
Diet culture praises hunger and shames fullness – leading us to ignore our natural body cues and eat according to external rules. This not only leads us away from our health goals but also can damage our relationship with food. The truth is our bodies are super smart and tell us what they need through mechanisms like hunger and fullness hormones. Practice using the hunger and fullness scale and keep a log to help you see if you are getting too hungry or too full throughout day.