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.
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