How much food "should" you eat?



Stack of banana pancakes on a plate with a coffee mug on the side
How much food is enough?

Episode 20: One of the most common questions I get from new clients when it comes to eating carbs, protein, fat, or anything, is "how much?"


If you've been trying to follow a healthy eating lifestyle for any length of time, and especially if you were doing so to shrink your body size (aka weight loss or fad diets) - I'm guessing you've probably had a question or two pop into your mind - like this one:


"How much carb, protein, and fat am I supposed to eat to have more energy, better moods, and be my healthiest self?"


(in other words...how much food can I eat and still lose weight?)


Let's unpack that statement for just a minute. It's a valid and valuable question. But more importantly, why you're asking it is heavily influenced by diet culture.


Meaning, if you ask a toddler how they know how much Gold Fish to eat or should be eating, they'll probably look at you confused - not because they don't understand the concept of amounts, but because they don't think about how much, they just eat until they're satisfied and full (those two points don't always come at the same time BTW, more on that in a minute or 2).


We're all born Intuitive Eaters, but diet culture has robbed us of our innate wisdom to trust our bodies around how much food we should eat. The concepts of how much, too much, and enough all get tangled up in ideals about weight, body size and shape, healthism, ageism, beauty, etc. once you get to be an adult.


For many of us, it started during puberty. This week on the Savor Food and Body Podcast we're continuing the Getting Started Series by giving you more strategies to help you figure out how much protein, carb, and fat to eat by listening to your body's cues rather than diet culture noise.


Listen to the episode now...


Re-learning how to feed yourself as an Intuitive Eater, takes a deeper understanding of hunger. It's a nuanced topic and defining the different types of hunger (physical, emotional, and soul or life) could be another episode/blog post all on its own. For now, since you're just Getting Started, we'll focus on physical hunger.


I'm a visual learner so pictures, charts, and graphs have always helped me make sense of more innate concepts. When I learned about the hunger fullness scale from Evelyn Tribole MS RDN and Elyse Resch RDN, the original authors and creators of Intuitive Eating, so many aha light bulbs went on for me.


However, there's an important caveat anytime we're using a scale when it comes to food.


There's no hierarchy or moral superiority when it comes to the numbers on the hunger fullness scale. The numbers are 100% for visual purposes only. Please don't judge yourself based on where your hunger falls on the scale or even your ability to practice using it. There's no failing with Intuitive Eating, only learning opportunities and practice. Clear?


Great!


The hunger fullness scale is numbered 1-10. The numbers 1-5 are the hunger side and 5-10 are the fullness side. This is how I typically explain the hunger ratings to my clients:


  • 5: neutral, not thinking about food, going about your day, living life


  • 4: interested in food, maybe thinking about what you'll have for your next meal or snack, but still continuing on with your present activity.


  • 3: you've decided what you want to eat, you notice some physical signs of hunger in your body like a little twinge in your stomach, you're ready to stop whatever you're doing to go get the food.


  • 2: you're feeling increase physical sensations of hunger, stomach growling, headache, light-headedness, unable to concentrate on anything else other than food. You don't really care what kind of food, you just need to eat ASAP! This can also be called hangry.


  • 1: you're totally ravenous and don't care at all what or how much food you eat, you need to eat NOW. This is pull a chair up to the fridge or pantry and start feasting kind of eating.


I'll bet you know what a 1 or 2 on the scale feels like in your body. How would you describe your own sensations of ravenous hunger?


You're more likely to know this type of hunger because that's what diet culture encourages - waiting until you're absolutely sure you're hungry (aka starving). This usually happens because you second guess how often you need to eat or should be eating. It also happens because life gets busy, the unexpected comes up, and that's normal!


But having unexpected primal hunger occasionally is way different than having it most days because you're "trying to be good" and not eat enough to satisfy your body's needs. We'll get to more about satisfaction in a sec. Let's look at the fullness side of the scale first.


White bowls filled with colorful vegetable salads
The hunger-fullness scale is meant to a guide

The fullness side of the scale goes from 5-10 like this:


  • 5: neutral, not thinking about food, living life


  • 6: you notice that you have food in your belly, and you're still enjoying the taste of the food or might even want to move on to dessert or something to finish the meal off with.


  • 7: you feel a pleasant sense of fullness in your belly. The food is starting to taste more neutral, but you still might enjoy the last finishing bite or two and be satisfied.


  • 8: you're feeling a little overfull, maybe wishing you had some stretchy pants on, maybe feeling like you need a nap or a gentle walk around the block to help your food settle. This is an easy spot to get to when the food tastes SO GOOD!


  • 9: you're feeling uncomfortably full, maybe evening wishing you hadn't eaten whatever you ate last during the meal. It's easy to end up here if you haven't been giving yourself permission to eat whatever food you were enjoying (thanks to diet culture). It tasted so good, and you might end up in Last Supper Eating mentality - "if I eat it all know, it won't be there to taunt me tomorrow." This is also when self-compassion towards your body starts to fly out the window.


  • 10: you're super uncomfortable and you're bargaining with your diet mentality. You're beating yourself up for getting this full and you might be making plans for how to "get back on track" tomorrow.


When it comes to answering the question of how much, using the hunger fullness scale as a gentle guide can help you learn how to start eating when you're around a 3 for hunger and stop eating when you're around a 7 for the fullness.


But hear me when I say this! This isn't an exact science and you aren't failing at Intuitive Eating if you eat outside of that window. This is where practice, compassionate curiosity, and self-reflection become super important.


For example, you might notice that if you wait until you're a 2 or a 1 on the hunger scale, it's easy to blow right past a 7 on the fullness scale and end up at a 9 or 10. In a way, the scale is also a visual of the restrict binge cycle.


Restricting food (or even a type of food when you really want it) until you're a 2 or a 1 will naturally push you to eat until you're a 9 or 10. That's your physiology saying, "I'm SO hungry, get all the food in me NOW and don't stop to consider taste, pleasure, or satisfaction, I need fuel or this body is done for!"


In other words, there's no way you'd be able to mindfully find your last bite threshold if you start eating when you're ravenous. Maybe you've experienced this before?


People eating around a tall bar table
If you're starving, there's NO WAY you'll eat mindfully

Let's wrap up this conversation with a bit about satisfaction and the last bite threshold, another term coined by Evelyn Tribole MS RDN and Elyse Resch MS RDN in Intuitive Eating.


Satisfaction and fullness don't always line up when it comes to food, but they can. Satisfaction is another one of those nuanced topics that we'll dive into in greater detail another time. When it comes to food, satisfaction is at the intersection of the food still tasting good, but not amazing and your belly being physically full. You've enjoyed what you ate and now you're ready to move on with life.


Fullness might happen at the same point as satisfaction, noticing that you have a belly full of food, and if you put more in, you might feel uncomfortable. But fullness can also get tangled with diet mentality, convincing yourself that even if you're still enjoying the food you should stop eating because you should be concerned about your weight.


Or diet-wellness mentality might try to convince you that you should stop eating because you'll be bloated or have other negative digestive side effects if you keep eating. These scenarios might have you eating until you're only a 6 and not fully nourishing your body let alone finding true satisfaction with the eating experience.


Finding your last bite threshold is about finding where fullness and satisfaction meet, or at least closely meet within a few bites.


For example, you might feel comfortably full and the food you're eating starting to taste neutral (around a 7 on the fullness scale), but you'd like to finish off the meal with something sweet. So, you grab some cookies have a few bites, check-in, and ask yourself, "are you satisfied now?"


Sure, you might be approaching overfull, but it's still important to ask, "are you satisfied" and if you're not, reflect on why. Maybe you do need more food? Maybe the eating environment was chaotic and you weren't able to notice what you were eating or if you even liked it (totally normal in our busy lives)?


Remember this isn't an exact science. It's an intuitive practice that will get easier over time.


To help you get to know your hunger, satisfaction, and fullness on a more intimate level, I invite you to keep a satisfaction journal for about 5 days, including both workdays and weekend days.


No! This is not a typical food tracking journal meant for weight loss. You've likely done enough of those for a lifetime. A satisfaction journal can help you get curious about patterns with when you eat, what you eat, and how you physically and emotionally feel.


For example, I invite clients to note these things in the journal:


  • Time

  • Their hunger level 1-5 before eating

  • What they eat (without measuring, amounts aren't important!)

  • Their satisfaction level 1-5 during eating and after (not part of the hunger fullness scale, just rate based on your own definition)

  • Their fullness level 5-10 after eating

  • Comments on energy, mood, diet mentality thoughts, challenges, how the food tasted, and any surprises like the food didn't taste as great as they remembered from dieting/bingeing days etc.

You can do this in any notebook, journal, or spreadsheet. Whatever fits your style. The point of doing this is to notice any patterns with compassionate curiosity and without judgment. Not only will this practice help you with the "invite all foods to the table" strategy, it will also help with the "overstuffed and undernourished" strategy - both part of the 6 Strategies to Live Your Healthiest Life.


If you haven't downloaded the 6 Strategies to Live Your Healthiest life and listened to the companion podcast episode 17, what are you waiting for!


You can also ask follow-up questions by joining the private Savor Food and Body Facebook community or emailing me here.


I truly hope you've found this Getting Started Series helpful. I hope that you take these new strategies and turn them into practices so you can find greater peace with food and your body - especially as we head into the holidays. Remember life's too short to NOT savor food and your body.