By the time I turned 40, I had gained and lost 40 pounds at least ten times. It started with the “freshman fifteen” plus another twenty-five in college. In medical school, I was introduced to sweetened coffee beverages, and I snacked on pretzels and candy to stay awake while studying. I got through overnight call during residency by using my meal tickets to buy chocolate-covered ice cream bars. And once I was an attending, the pharmaceutical rep-sponsored lunches meant that there was almost always something special in the lunchroom that I could use to reward myself after a difficult patient encounter or challenging afternoon.
While I was always able to figure out a way to lose the weight once my largest size work pants felt too snug again, I couldn’t keep it off for the life of me. Every time I approached my goal weight and began thinking about maintenance, I promised myself that I would just loosen the reins a little bit, not feeling the need to be quite so strict with my food choices anymore. But what really happened was that I went back to my old way of eating. And that way of eating created weight gain.
It was gradual, of course. I’d allow myself a bite or two of a brownie after lunch. If I felt particularly hungry after a busy afternoon in clinic, I’d munch on a few animal crackers (which were meant for our toddler patients when they needed a snack) while I finished my charting. Then inevitably, a vacation would come along, and I was right back to my old eating habits. I’d eat until I was full. Often, until I was too full.
Medical training exacerbated my overeating habit. On my medical school surgery rotations, I took the common advice to eat when I could, sleep when I could, and to never mess with the pancreas to heart. Food kept me awake and gave me energy while I admitted patients throughout the night during residency. The free donuts in the residents’ lounge every morning seemed like an acceptable reward for the toil I had experienced the previous night. The idea of hunger determining if and when I might eat was a foreign concept to me.
It wasn’t until I was ten years out of training, still struggling with the same 40 pounds, that I started to find the solution to my overeating. By this point, I had three children at home and witnessed them eat their meals every evening. One day I had a revelation: children eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’ve had enough. This does not need to be taught to them — it’s innate. On many occasions, I watched my son start eating a cookie for dessert, only to put it down after a few bites and declare that he was finished. This seemed like such a strange concept to me. I couldn’t think of one time in my life where I couldn’t fit the rest of a cookie into my belly, no matter how full I was when I began eating it.
At this point, it became abundantly clear that how I was eating wasn’t working for me. I had to find a new way of approaching food. I decided to only eat when I was hungry and to stop when I was satisfied. While that plan may sound obvious, it hadn’t been to me because I had forgotten (or possibly never known?) that my body had the answers to how much food I should eat. No weight loss program was ever going to know better than me how to fuel my body.
If I woke up and didn’t feel hungry for breakfast, I didn’t force myself to eat something. If I wasn’t hungry once I got home for dinner because I had eaten a snack while finishing up my charts, then I sat down at the table with my family but didn’t eat. I worried that this might become an issue with my children, but when I explained that I was only eating when I was hungry, and I wasn’t hungry just then, they looked at me like it was most the logical thing I had ever said.
Within three months, I lost ten pounds — without trying to lose weight, I might add! I simply consulted my body before deciding to eat something. If I was hungry, I went ahead and ate. If not, I saved it for later. In addition to the welcome weight loss, I also experienced better digestion, better quality sleep, and more energy throughout the day. Eating only when hungry is the simplest and easiest way to get started losing weight.
Katrina Ubell is a pediatrician and hosts the podcast Weight Loss for Busy Physicians.
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