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Every once in a while, I see advice like “Only eat when you are hungry,” or “Eat until you are full.” I recently saw my personal favorite: “Eat until you are 70% full.” Although I am not quite as driven in this area as Louis CK describes above, my belly didn’t come with a fuel gauge, so I’ve had to learn other methods.

The idea of eating until almost full is said to be a Confucian or Zen teaching, but there is some pretty good modern evidence that it really doesn’t work. At least not for us today. We do some fancy footwork psychologically to justify our (less healthy) choices. If it’s labeled “healthy,” we assume it has fewer calories. If it’s labeled “low fat,” we feel free to eat more of it. The temperature of the room can cause us to eat more. We often eat simply because food is easily available, and in the modern Western world, that can be 24 hours a day. These and other hazards are discussed in The Ways Food Tricks Our Brains, including this rather startling study of appetite in people with amnesia:

They took two people with severe amnesia, who couldn’t remember events occurring more than a minute earlier, and fed them lunch. Then a few minutes later, they offered a second lunch. The amnesic patients eagerly ate it. Then a few minutes later, they offered a third lunch, and the patients ate that, too. Days later, they repeated the experiment, telling two people with no short-term memory that it was lunch time over and over and observing them readily eat multiple meals in a short period of time

How can we get around some of these tricks and trip-ups?

We can borrow ideas from those Confucian and Zen teachings and work to improve our awareness. Learning how to identify (and start our meals with) protein- and fiber-rich foods helps, as does preparing our own food, eating fast food only sparingly, and dividing restaurant meals so we can bring half home. We can look at the different “zones” where food is available and ask ourselves “What small changes will make it easier to make a healthy choice?”

And hopefully, we can make enough good choices that we can splash out from time to time and not hate ourselves!

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