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I bet you’re hoping there is a solid, clearcut answer to this question. Unfortunately, the answer is not quite that simple. Fortunately, the answer is right in front of you if you are willing to look a bit deeper, listen, and explore.
When looking at how much you should eat, you want to look at what you are eating most of the time. Ask yourself if you are listening to and hearing your thoughts and beliefs around food. Lastly, ask what is missing or could be added.
Is There a Right Amount of Food?
To answer this question, each of us must bring more awareness to influences and habits. How much we eat can be influenced by learned behaviors, beliefs, and emotions.
As children, we have an innate ability to listen to our hunger and fullness, but as we get older the reasons for eating get a bit complicated.
We may be taught to finish our plate before leaving the table or that you can only have dessert if you finish your plate. Rewards or punishments may be centered around food.
This teaching places a wedge between you and your body, sending the message that there is an amount that must be completed despite what your body is signaling. This may lead to an uncertainty or a belief that you cannot trust your body’s signals.
The answer to the question, how much should I eat, involves exploring a few more questions first and challenging the current distortions you may have related to food.
Portion distortion is becoming familiar with larger or smaller portions sizes and perceiving that as the new normal .
Does Your Body Need a Personalized Amount of Food?
Knowing how much to eat involves understanding that your body is unique. There is not one answer to how much you should eat, because many factors impact how much food you need. These factors include:
Each of us have different energy needs and these needs may vary day-to-day. The challenge here is not to compare how much you need to someone else, but to honor that your body requires nourishment based on you and you alone.
What Influences Your Eating Habits?
To start ask yourself a couple questions:
- How do I feel when I start eating?
- How do I feel when I’m done eating?
- How do I know when to stop eating?
- Do I have guilt throwing food away?
- Do I need to finish what is on my plate?
- Do I need to leave food on my plate?
With each question explore physical and emotional responses. Ask yourself why you physically or emotionally feel this way and is this something to explore?
Awareness is key. If recognition can be brought to what influences eating habits, then change can start to be made and hungers, desires, emotions, etc. that aren’t calling for food as the answer can be addressed.
Building awareness around food influences and habits will also support the age old question of often I should eat?
- Foods That Will Make You Feel Good
- How Does Your Metabolism Work
- Hunger and Satiety Cues
- Dietician Recommended Meal Plans
- Regaining Weight During Recovery
- Misconceptions of Healthy Eating
- Mindful Eating and Appetite Awareness
- Nutrition Care Process and Assessment
- How Does Your Body Use Nutrients
What Kind of Food Should I Eat?
In order to know what you can add to round out your meals or snacks, first ask, what kind of food am I eating? If you take a moment to reflect on a couple days meals and snacks, do you notice anything?
- Are any food groups missing?
- Are there a variety of foods and colors?
- Do you enjoy the food you are eating?
- Are any foods eliminated or off limits?
When making changes to the food in your life, it’s important not to build food rules or take foods away, but to focus on what can be added to provide nourishment and pleasure. Remember that all foods play role in optimizing the body’s daily function.
Macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, proteins) provide necessary energy for cellular processes and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are needed for normal growth, development, metabolism, and physiologic functioning .
So, what kind of food should you eat? The kind of food that is either missing or has been eliminated. Today, start by adding one missed or eliminated food to your next meal or snack. Small additions practiced over time, lead to lasting change.
How Often Should I Eat?
There is no right or wrong eating pattern, but there is a goal to consistently nourish and fuel the body. Can you tell when your body is running low on fuel? Do you experience any of the following?
- Hunger pangs
- Stomach growling
- Mind wandering to food thoughts
- Feeling fatigued or tired
- Irritable or hangry
These are just a few examples of how you may experience a sign that the body needs fuel. The next question is, do you experience these and ignore them?
It is easy to get busy and delay eating, but that also causes our bodies to lose trust. Your body is a creature of habit, so what happens when it doesn’t get fuel at times it’s expecting it? Your metabolism may slow down to preserve and protect the body.
To start regaining trust and appropriately fuel your body try not to go more than 4-5 hours without eating. You may be thinking, but my friend just eats (fill in the blank) number of times per day and they are functioning just fine.
Try to challenge these thoughts through asking supportive questions. Do you just want to function, or do you want to thrive, allowing for a long-term greater quality of life?
Helping your body to thrive may mean having a snack between breakfast and lunch, because you know a meeting or obligation will get in the way. This also may include planning ahead and having a meal or snack ready to eat or eating ahead of time.
How Should I Eat and Where?
If we return to the idea of listening to and being present with our body, we can see that distraction can disconnect us from hearing what our body is communicating.
Where do distractions show up in your life?
- Eating while you are working
- Eating in front of the TV, computer, phone
- Eating on the go
The question is, can you explore how you eat most of the time and begin to create a mindful environment?
Can you start practicing being present in the experience of eating? Start by:
- Eating in a place without distraction, example: kitchen table
- Putting your phone away
- Turning off the TV or computer
- Checking in with how you feel physically and emotionally
- Checking in with your senses
How much you should eat comes full circle when we examine the way and where we eat. The more disconnected we are from our body and the experience of eating, the less likely we are to know when we are hungry or satisfied.
No matter what or how much is on the plate, mindfulness will allow you to understand how much energy or food your body is asking for.
Citations: Cena, H., & Calder, P. C. (2020). Defining a Healthy Diet: Evidence for the Role of Contemporary Dietary Patterns in Health and Disease. Nutrients, 12(2), 334. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12020334  Hetherington, M. M., Blundell-Birtill, P., Caton, S. J., Cecil, J. E., Evans, C. E., Rolls, B. J., & Tang, T. (2018). Understanding the science of portion control and the art of downsizing. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 77(3), 347–355. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0029665118000435
Author: Raylene Hungate, RDN,LD/N
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