Plate with a bowl of hummus, cut peppers and cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and baby carrots. Background: creek with sailboat. Houses on other side and tall grasses on this side.
Intuitive Eating

Intuitive eating and how to find satisfaction in your meals

Hi everyone! I hope you’re enjoying summer and all of the foods that go along with it. Watermelon really seems to be everywhere, but I’m a stone fruit kind of girl, personally. It’s been busy, since I’ve started my Anatomy and Physiology summer course, but there have also been some birthdays around here- and even I’ve managed to get in a few getaway weekends. Anyway, today I’m talking about a key tenet of intuitive eating: satisfaction. I’ll be sharing my best tips for feeling mentally satisfied after a meal.

An older teenager with long red hair, laughing. In front of her is a rectangular birthday cake with 8 blown-out candles. The cake has white frosting with red and white trim, round rainbow sprinkles, and Happy Birthday Ava in blue letters.
Ava is 17! She wanted a cookies and cream ice cream cake, and the only one they had was 4th of July themed which actually had a layer of pound cake and a layer of ice cream. Not bad! (Ice cream cake is the best birthday cake, change my mind.)

What is satisfaction?

Why is this important? Principle #6 of intuitive eating is “Discover the Satisfaction Factor.” Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch go on to say, “When you eat what you really want, in an environment that is inviting and conducive, the pleasure you derive will be a powerful force in helping you feel satisfied and content.” But to many people (including me!) this can sound absurd. What you really want? How do you know what you really want? What does it even mean to feel satisfied?

Although it may be difficult to tell if you’re hungry or full, most people understand what those terms mean. Satisfied  is a little more complicated. It’s sort of like mentally full. Your brain is done eating for the moment and does not want any more food.

Perhaps you feel like you’ve never felt completely satisfied after a meal. You always feel like you would want eat more if you let yourself, even if you’re already full. That’s a normal response to restriction or restrictive thoughts (i.e., you eat X food or X amount of food but feel guilty about it.) Over time, as you incorporate the principles of intuitive eating, you learn what it feels like to be satisfied without feeling overly full. (For instance, after Thanksgiving dinner, you may feel satisfied but completely stuffed, but you probably don’t want to feel uncomfortably full every day.)

This week, I wanted to talk about what I feel are some useful ways to build a meal experience that satisfies you physically and mentally. Being satisfied is not the same as being full. Not every meal is going to be satisfying, and that’s okay, but to me personally, a satisfying meal can make a difference in how your day feels. On the other hand, an unsatisfying breakfast can leave me snacking and feeling distracted all morning.

A light blue bowl of oatmeal with a large dollop of yogurt and a handful of blackberries, with a mug of milky tea on the top left corner. Everything is on a marble background.
For example, even though I love oatmeal, this breakfast on this day (with milk, Greek yogurt, cinnamon, and maple syrup) left me unsatisfied and prowling the kitchen. The blackberries were not ripe enough and the quantity of food was not enough for my hunger levels. Learning from that, I have since increased the quantity of yogurt and started to cook the oats partially in milk instead of water.  I had almost the same breakfast today, minus the maple syrup/blackberries and with almonds/banana, and it was both filling and satisfying.

You don’t have to follow all these suggestions every time. They are not meant to be followed 100% of the time, and I certainly do not. Some may be impossible at certain times or in certain locations, like when you’re in the car or have limited food options.

Anyway, you may really value eating your breakfast while reading the newspaper, for example, and find that to be a really nice way to start your day. My grandfather has done that his whole life, and I would never want to take that away in the name of some philosophy or book. You might love to eat popcorn while watching a movie, or eat an ice cream cone while walking through the park. These are separate types of joy.

(You don’t have to follow these steps at all, actually, but that goes without saying.)

Before the meal

  1. Try not to get overly hungry before eating. It’s difficult to enjoy your meal calmly when you’re starving. You may end up eating too fast and/or overeating (eating to the point of overly full)- or, if you’re anything like me, tired and hangry. On the other hand, eating when you’re somewhat hungry (versus full or not hungry) increases satisfaction. This does not mean you should only eat when you’re at the perfect hunger level: first of all, there’s no such thing, and secondly, there will be many times where you need/want to eat while not hungry or accidentally get a little too hungry.
  2. Choose foods you like and for which you are in the mood. Forcing yourself to eat kale when you actually hate it is not going to satisfying you. On the flip side, if you really want a burger and fries but you choose grilled chicken and veggies, you are not going to feel satisfied. This is the problem with “healthy swaps”: if you want strawberry yogurt, but choose plain yogurt with fresh strawberries because it’s “healthier,” you may feel less satisfied. The classic situation with this is diet ice cream like Halo Top or Enlightened, where they print the number of calories for the whole pint on the front, almost like you’re expected to eat the whole container in one sitting.
    • If you don’t know what you want, think about whether you want something savory or sweet, spicy or mild, heavy or light, crunchy or smooth, hot or cold. Just because you normally like something doesn’t mean you always will want it. (For example, I like shrimp, but I never want it first thing in the morning!) Usually, I like oatmeal (rolled, not steel-cut) for breakfast. It was my go-to childhood breakfast, and I think I will probably always love it. Still, I try to remember to take a second to think about whether I really want oatmeal each morning, and about how hungry I am. Sometimes, I find I want something entirely different, or that I’m going to need a bigger bowl, or different toppings.
    • Also, do not be afraid to take a bite of something, realize its not actually what you wanted, and move on to something else. You can always save the first thing for later.
  3. Ideally, include carbohydrates, protein, fat, and fruits or veggies in your meals . (If it’s a snack, you don’t need to include everything, but pairing 2 or more macronutrients (carbs, fats, proteins) will increase staying power.) This doesn’t have to be “perfectly balanced,” or complicated, or another rule to follow. You can play around and see if doing this actually improves your satisfaction level. I want to emphasize that this is not a rule, and that even though a chocolate croissant might not fit that guideline doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t choose it on a Saturday morning coffee date (which is a whole ‘nother type of satisfying)! But when I choose to apply it, it definitely helps me figure out what will leave me full and satisfied. (And helped me realize that there is nothing wrong with my appetite just because an omelette without toast or potatoes never did the trick for me!)
    A glass container of cut watermelon.
    For example, watermelon by itself does not really fit the bill for a satisfying snack for me, but to tide myself over until dinner which was soon), it was perfect in that situation. (And I ate this on the couch, not at the table. Again, these are guidelines, not rules.)

     

  4. Clear and set the table. This might be easier if you’re feeding a family, but when you’re cooking for one, it starts to seem superfluous. (Our table is always cluttered. I never clear the whole thing for just me, but I do clear out room for a placemat and “set” my place. It’s a compromise.)

    A table outside with a patterned blue cloth tablecloth and place settings, with white benches and chairs.
    The makings of a satisfying meal (with Astro, my favorite Italian grandfather, at the head of the table.)

During the meal

  1. Sit down. We’ve all heard this one before. The classic explanation for this is that it’s better for digestion than standing up. (Differences seem to be somewhat minimal in this regard, but pay attention to your body, and see if you notice a difference.) However, it does seem that sitting down makes a meal or snack more satisfying. Essentially, when you eat your lunch over the kitchen counter,  your brain is more likely to see it as a snack than a meal, and goes looking elsewhere for satisfaction.
  2. Present your food semi-attractively, either in serving bowls or on your plate. (My mom has always understood the importance of this.) Heat/cool it to your preferred temperature. Essentially, take a second to make your food just the way you like it.
    "Brookie" (chocolate chip cookie brownie) with some ice cream in a white bowl with a spoon
    What I could have done (and have done in the past! There is nothing wrong with doing this and learning from it): eaten the brownie out of the box while standing up at the counter, then followed up with ice cream out of the carton when I wasn’t satisfied. What I did: decided to have a brownie with some ice cream, since I like something cold and refreshing with brownies and don’t love them on their own. Heated up my brownie in the microwave. Scooped ice cream into a bowl. Sat down at the table (or perhaps on the couch- I can’t remember) and ate it.

     

  3. Create a positive eating atmosphere. Essentially, enjoy the dining experience. Try not to argue at the dinner table. This matters! Just like culinary traditions matter! Satisfaction is about more than the food. I find that eating with people and truly engaging with the meal and conversation rather than scarfing down our food helps a lot. A leisurely meal, while not always possible, is lovely.
    Plate with a bowl of hummus, cut peppers and cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and baby carrots. Background: creek with sailboat. Houses on other side and tall grasses on this side.
    I was eating carrots out of the bag and hummus out of the container. My friend’s mom took them away and came back with this. And it makes a difference, just like setting does (not a bad view, right?)- but of course sometimes convenience wins out.

     

  4. Turn off the TV, podcasts, or radio. Put down your phone, book, computer, and newspaper. Some background music is okay, in my opinion, if is not distracting.
  5. As you go, think about how the food tastes and what its texture is like. Eat on the slower end of a normal pace (no, you don’t need to sip water between every bite or chew X number of times.) Does it taste the same as when you started to eat it? Is your brain getting the same “reward feeling” as it initially was? Put your fork down once in awhile and think about your fullness level and about your enjoyment of the food. Are you hungry? Are you getting full?  Are your taste buds bored? Would you rather be eating something else? (Sometimes I find that my taste buds are done with the chicken, but want to keep eating the rice. Or I might be done with everything on the table and want something else entirely, at which point I decide whether to keep eating to fullness based on practical considerations.) Are you eating because you’re still not full and/or satisfied, or because you’re procrastinating, bored, or sad? Are you using food to fill some sort of gap? Consider your answer to these questions without judgement. (This is heavily drawn from the principles of mindful eating.)
  6. Eat until you’re comfortably full (this does not mean overly stuffed). Or, choose to stop eating before that to save room for dessert, or because you’re eating a snack and know that dinner is in 2 hours. The choice is yours. Know that if you’re hungry again, even if it’s within the hour, you can eat again. Know that you are allowed to have pizza/ice cream/cookies/mac n’ cheese/whatever food whenever you want it, whether that’s in 20 minutes, tomorrow, or a month from now.
A bowl with falafel, pickles, tomato sauce, tahini dressing, hummus, and Israeli salad on top of lettuce. Next to it is pita bread.
This was post-Zumba dinner with a friend at Bite NYC, a local fast-casual chain. I got a falafel salad. The experience was super satisfying, and the food was attractively presented and good, but I just wasn’t that hungry. So, knowing if I got hungry later I could always have something else (which I did later that night), I got most of it wrapped up for lunch the next day. (So I got to have dinner with a friend *and* I didn’t have to pack lunch- two birds with one stone.) If I knew I couldn’t eat for a long time after, I would have chosen to eat more.

After the meal

Evaluate. You can do this directly after the meal and then a little after (like 30 minutes or a hour). How hungry/full are you? How satisfied are you? Is there anything you can change next time in response to this information? (For example, if you were comfortably full at the end of the meal but are overly full now, you might note that it takes you longer to feel full with that particular food.)

What happens when we don’t find satisfaction?

Here’s a scenario. It’s dinnertime. You’re pretty hungry. You make your daughter a bean+cheese quesadilla which smells amazing, but you eat a salad with beans and quinoa because flour tortillas are unhealthy and you’re trying to lose weight before your friend’s wedding. You use olive oil and vinegar to dress the salad, but carefully monitor your oil usage because it’s calorie-dense.

You want dessert after, so you have an apple with peanut butter, and then an hour later some popcorn you find in the back of the cupboard and some carrot sticks. But you still feel a little hungry, so you take out a pint of ice cream, have one bite while standing at the counter, and put the container back in the freezer. For some reason, that doesn’t do it, so you go back and forth to the freezer four more times before bedtime. You go to bed feeling like you have no self-control around food and can’t keep ice cream in the house.

This is theoretical, and maybe you don’t do this, but I definitely have, and it leaves me feeling out-of-control and guilty. When you undereat and avoid or restrict satiating and satisfying foods, you crave calorie-dense foods like fast food, refined carbohydrates and sugar. Those aren’t bad foods, and “fun foods” are a part of my diet. But if you are wondering why all you crave is french fries and brownies, part of the reason could be that you are not eating enough. (And also that you have a restrictive mentality around those foods, even if you eat them.)

Furthermore, a slice of cake that you cut for yourself, put on a plate, and enjoy at the table without guilt  feels different than a slice you eat by opening the box six separate times and sticking your fork in for a bite, resolving every time that this will be the last time. That guilt part is hard to control- but the other parts, you can control. As I’ve said before, if you have a history of chaotic eating experiences around certain foods, I would eat them in a structured way at first- like a piece of cake with friends after a satisfying meal and when you’re not in a vulnerable place emotionally.

Finally, a meal or a snack is not a failure if it doesn’t satisfy you! First of all, it can be a learning experience. Secondly, it’s just one eating experience out of thousands- there will always be another one. There is no “perfect level” of satisfaction. And you can always eat something else until you’re satisfied. Personally, I usually have at least one snack between dinner and bedtime.

An older man wearing jeans, a blue button-down, and glasses. He is holding a cup marked Hagaan-Daaz with a plastic spoon. The background is greenery and he is sitting on a bench.
My grandpa Irwin, eating Haagen-Dazs strawberry and coffee ice cream at 91 years old. So much more satisfying than guiltily eating at the counter. I love the experience of going to an ice cream parlor and sitting outside with friends or family to eat it. And by the way, he eats muffins and/or bagels for breakfast and is in good physical shape. (I’m not saying they are the key to perfect health, but they don’t prevent health, either.)

Why is a satisfaction important?

Here’s the upshot: we think of food intake as something completely physiological, but there’s a large psychological component. We think of what we eat as something we can control if we have enough willpower when really it’s more complicated than that.

When you feel like you’re never going to able to have a certain food again, you may eat more of it. When something is forbidden, you may crave it. When you “eat light” all day in preparation for a meal out, you may end up eating until uncomfortably full at that meal (especially if there are foods there that you normally avoid). Not because you have no self control, but because you were feeling hungry and/or deprived. This, of course, “confirms” that you need to restrict your food intake again the next time you go out, to compensate for the fact that you’ll inevitably eat too much that night, too. This is a normal physiological response to restriction. The realistic solution is not to stop going out (what, you’re going to miss all birthdays and holidays and weddings?) or letting yourself have a bite of X food, but to stop restricting it.

Just in case you still think I’m making this all up, I’d like to leave you with some findings from a 2009 Cornell University/New Mexico State University study:

For environmental cues, eating with family is the strongest indicator of a meal, whereas standing was the strongest indicator of a snack. Across all variables, the environmental profile of a meal would involve eating with family for 30 min while sitting, using ceramic plates, and cloth napkins. In contrast, the profile of a snack would involve eating alone for 10 min while standing, using paper plates and napkins…Whether a person perceives an eating occasion as a meal or a snack may influence what and how much one eats, and whether they decide to eat later…For example, serving a food off a ceramic plate with cloth napkin could lead a person to code a light snack as a meal, thereby, reducing the likelihood of a later meal. (Wansink et al., 2010)

To be clear, I am not advocating that you try to trick yourself into eating snacks instead of meals; however, meals are so much more than what you eat, and the trend of eating on-the-go is undoing years of culinary tradition and makes it so hard to truly find satisfaction in food. You may not care about this so much, and that’s fine- not everyone does or has to. However, for me, food is important (not the ONLY thing that’s important, but one of many things), and I like to feel satisfied after eating.

Still not finding satisfaction?

This post may be confusing, or it may seem like there are contradictions. This is not black-and-white. The problem is that diets tend to have fairly clear rules, and in that way, they’re a lot easier to follow than your internal cues. If you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments or by using the Contact Me form or direct messaging me on Instagram.

If you do choose to try out these suggestions and still find yourself unsatisfied, please note that this is not going to work overnight, and also that there are 9 other principles to intuitive eating. (Also, you may want to seek out other resources or read the book or workbook.) If your body is used to being on and off of diets or “programs,” it’s going to take a while before it truly trusts that it will be able to eat as much as it needs, or that it can have pie whenever it wants. If you’re used to eating to deal with your feelings, it’s going to be uncomfortable to find new ways to deal with those feelings. Intuitive eating is not going to “work” if you try to incorporate some of the principles for two weeks. This isn’t a “lose X pounds in four weeks” plan. It’s a messy process in a lot of ways, and the principles are meant to work together over a long period of time.

Anyway, what works for me may not work for you. After all, all people are different and have different responsibilities, priorities, and values. However, I also believe that everyone who wants to can incorporate intuitive eating into their lives in some way that works for your life, no matter how busy you are. (Barring certain situations of strict institutional life, severe food insecurity, etc.)

As always, if you are suffering from an active eating disorder, this advice does not necessarily apply, and you should consult an eating disorder specialist. I am not a dietitian, therapist, or medical professional. If you are having a mental health or medical emergency, please dial 911 or your country’s emergency number. Here is the contact information for the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline (phone, text, or click-to-chat) and here is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website (phone or online chat). Although I am a volunteer for the National Eating Disorders Association, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of NEDA. 

 

References:

B. Wansink, C.R. Payne, M. Shimizu. “Is this a meal or snack?” Situational cues that drive perceptions.
Appetite, 54 (2010), pp. 214-216.