Learning to trust my appetite

For most of my life, my appetite was a terrible guide as to how much I should eat: If I ate until I felt full, I gained weight; if I ate few enough calories that I would lose weight, I’d feel hungry all the time.

Late last summer, this changed. It happened like this.

I had managed to lose quite a bit of weight over a period of about three years, and was nearly down to what the National Institutes of Health consider “normal” weight. But just at that point—only three or four pounds above that threshold—my weight loss suddenly slowed.

This was kind of discouraging—especially so, because it seemed there would be no easy way to push on through those last few pounds. I was already eating a good, healthy diet. It was summer, so I had already ramped up my physical activity. I had already cut way back on things like snacks and deserts.

I thought pretty hard about my options, and came to the disheartening conclusion that I would have to resort to “portion control.”

Although the only thing I could think of, this seemed like a terrible idea. I had spent most of my adult life trying to “eat less,” with roughly the same degree of success that one might have trying to breathe less—I could do it for a while, but only through total focus. It never worked for longer than I could maintain that focus.

The next step would have been to ask Jackie to provide smaller servings. But before I got to the point of actually doing so, something very strange happened: All of a sudden, I didn’t want to finish my meals.

This was a very different feeling from what I used to think of as feeling full. I had always been able to tell when I was about to eat too much—the point where, if I had any more, I’d be doomed to hours of feeling overstuffed. Learning to pay attention to that signal had been a key step in the weight loss I’d managed to this point, but this was something different. Long before I’d eaten that much, I was suddenly feeling like I’d had . . . enough.

After a couple of days of this—of leaving a third or more of my meal uneaten because I really didn’t want any more—I did ask Jackie to provide smaller servings. But instead of a desperate and unlikely measure to lose those last few pounds, it was just a recognition of how much I wanted to eat.

I paid attention to this new feeling of how much I wanted—how much was enough. Sometime in the next few months—as I lost those last few pounds, and then continued losing weight at a slow pace—something occurred to me: This was what it’s like to be normal.

Although there’s a lot of obesity these days, even now most people are normal weight. This is—I had always assumed, and now was experiencing first-hand—because most people have a good sense of how much food was enough.

It was easy to start trusting this feeling when it came to eating less. Now that my experience with it stretches back most of a year, I’m starting also to trust it when it tells me I’m still hungry even after eating a normal amount of food.

This used to happen all the time—unless I was eating too much, I’d always be hungry. To lose weight, I’d had to come to terms with this, come up with strategies for not eating as much as my body thought I ought to have.

That was a hard habit to break, but I’m starting to trust my appetite.

Part of what’s letting me do this is that I’ve been tracking my weight for years. Over the past nine months or so, I began to see a pattern: My weight was declining very gradually—on track to fall to the mid-point of the “normal” range in a year or two.

When I’d eat what I thought was an appropriate amount of food and still feel hungry—when I’d stick to what I thought was appropriate and not eat more just because I wanted more—my rate of weight loss would spike up toward the rates that I saw during the previous three years.

Upon reflection, I decided that the basic trend was probably where I wanted to be. I probably ought to lose some more weight—I suspect that the mid-point of the normal range would be an excellent weight for me—but there’s certainly no rush to get there. In fact, a very gradually declining weight is probably extremely healthy, in terms of blood sugar and lipid chemistry.

I’ve about come to trust my appetite—to have some confidence that it will guide me to an appropriate weight and keep me there, if I just eat right, get plenty of exercise, and pay attention—but I’m in no hurry to put it to the test. I’m actually quite happy staying on a slow downward track toward that point, and feel little inclination to sprint for the finish.

What a luxury it is, to have my body tell me when I need to eat more, and then tell me when I’ve eaten enough.

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