Question: What’s the difference between naturally thin people and fat ones?
Answer: Thin people eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full.
It seems so basic, this thing called eating. But obesity experts say many weight problems are simply a matter of losing touch with internal cues. People eat when they’re not hungry and continue way beyond the point when they are full.
Non-hunger eating “is the most difficult thing people have to deal with,” said Katherine Tallmadge, a Washington, D.C., dietitian. “I think it’s the crux of any weight problem.”
Everyone eats too much sometimes. But people who constantly try to control their eating rather than base it on hunger run into trouble, according to weight-loss experts. And that’s often a casualty of restrictive dieting, during which people follow someone else’s idea for when they should be full.
Fiddling with fullness begins early in life. Studies have shown that infants and young children have the natural capacity to eat until they are satisfied. But well-meaning parents often feed their infant until all the cereal is gone, prod their toddler to finish that chicken regardless if he’s still hungry, and urge their young children to clean their plates.
“As a mother, it’s very hard not to fall into that trap,” said Faye Berger Mitchell, a Potomac, Md., dietitian. “But very early on, we start messing up hunger signals.”
So, as adults, how do we straighten them out?
The first step, Tallmadge said, is simply to be mindful when you’re eating. That means focusing on the food and removing distractions such as television, books or the telephone.
The second step is to recognize why you’re eating when you’re not hungry.
“I was doing a lot of eating when I was nervous or if I was under a lot of pressure at work,” said Gary Ross, director of development for the Capital Research Center, a Washington think tank. “Then it got to be a habit. I would just kind of eat all the time.”
Under instructions from Tallmadge, Ross, who lost 30 pounds, began to write down what he was feeling when he was eating. He realized that most of the time “hunger” did not appear on his list.
So what does he do now? “Sometimes I eat,” Ross admitted. “Or I try to think about what’s bothering me. But I feel much better about having lost the weight, so I don’t feel as depressed.”
Bronwen Williams, a psychologist with the Shady Grove Eating Disorders Center, said that in a sense, many overweight people are in touch with their hunger.
“They eat normal amounts when they’re hungry,” she said. “Then they eat tons at other times for other reasons.” And they know it.
The solutions can be simple or complex, depending on how deep-seated the problem is, Williams said. Sometimes it’s just that parts of a habit, such as eating and watching television, need to be decoupled. Or, if food is being used to relieve stress, it may require “finding something else that does the same thing,” she said.