Like many dieters before her, my client Jill was having trouble sticking to her food plan in the evening. She told me that she would usually eat what she had planned but then would wind up taking seconds and eating more. In order to figure out what was going on, I first asked Jill whether or not she thought she was hungry when she took more food. “Is the desire for more food coming from an emptiness in your stomach, or more of a desire to eat stemming from your mouth or head?” Jill thought about it and reported that she wasn’t entirely sure, but thought it was likely that, at least some of the time, it was coming more from her mouth than from her stomach.

I discussed with Jill the difference between physical satisfaction and psychological satisfaction. The fact is that most dieters feel physically satisfied well before they feel psychologically or emotionally satisfied. After they’ve eaten a reasonable amount of food, physically they’ve had enough and their bodies don’t need more. But they often want to keep eating more for a variety of different reasons: because they enjoyed the taste of the food, they didn’t pay enough attention to the food they did eat, they want to continue being social at the table, they’re trying to procrastinate getting on with their next activity, they’re thinking about a stressful situation and want eat to calm themselves, and so on.

Jill and I also discussed that if she finished eating and wanted more food, it could also be because the food she did eat hasn’t yet registered in her stomach. To help with this, we decided that every time Jill finished her planned meal and wanted more, she would set a timer for twenty minutes. During those twenty minutes, Jill would first do the dishes and then leave the kitchen and read a magazine or play a game on her phone until the timer went off. Once it did, she would then ask herself if she still wanted more food, and, if so, where the desire for more was coming from. Was it coming from her stomach or from somewhere else?

Because Jill thought that sometimes the desire for more food really was coming from her stomach, I then discussed with Jill what level of fullness she thought she was shooting for. Was she trying to feel pleasantly full and no longer hungry, or was she actually trying to feel stuffed? Jill thought about it and realized that she often was aiming for a level of fullness that meant that she couldn’t fit in another bite. I discussed with Jill that that was likely overfull, and that what actually might need to change is her concept of what reasonable fullness entails. Jill agreed to closely monitor her level of fullness over the next week and make an effort to stop when her stomach felt full but not stuffed.

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We discussed the fact that, at least initially, it might cause her some discomfort to have to stop eating before she wants to, although she can train herself to get used to feeling only full instead of overly full. I reminded Jill that being overweight is hard too, (it’s hard not fitting into her clothes, feeling heavy in her body, having knee and back pain) so either way she’s going to experience discomfort. Jill knew she’s rather try to put up with the very momentary discomfort of not eating more food as opposed to the completely pervasive discomfort of being overweight.

With these new things – paying attention to the difference between physical and psychological satisfaction, setting a timer for twenty minutes after she finishes eating, shooting for full instead of overly full, and reminding herself that either way there’s discomfort – Jill had a lot of new strategies to help her keep her evening eating under control.