Eat first with your stomach

Bowl of New Year Food (1808) – Teisai Hokuba

Since we are social, feeling creatures, humans especially suck at sticking to a diet. Friends laugh at our attempts to fast or eat clean and shove plates of fries under our noses. Swirling sadness and anxiety pry open ice cream tubs and general weeknight apathy sends us scrambling for UberEats.

But we know the right path. All around us we might see influencers or our more motivated peers diligently cooking, meal prepping and studying nutrition labels like they it’s required for the MCAT. And we’ve all likely had some success by measuring our food or stocking up the fridge with veggies.

But are those healthy habits and diets really so healthy? We all have stomachs that needs to be filled with food at regular intervals. The question is, whose stomach is it? Who are you eating for?

Eating for the calories

If you count calories, you are likely working to meet a certain target or ‘budget’ every day. If you spend more energy, you ‘get to’ eat more. When I worked at MyFitnessPal, we noticed the detrimental impact of what is essentially a reward/punishment system. It was effective in teaching people the basics of nutrition, but sadly turned eating into a transactional, antagonistic experience.

Personally, I got very good at sticking to my target numbers. This meant I always had energy, was rarely hungry and maintained my goal weight. However, it created a strange feedback loop where, instead of resting after a heavy training session (the natural response), I had to eat back all the calories I had burnt.

Fundamentally, if you are eating for a calorie target, you are not eating for your body.

Eating for the fridge

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely thinks we tend to open the fridge “when we are already hungry, and are looking for something to pop in our mouths right away.” The fridge tells you what you can immediately eat, a feature I use multiple times a day. But there’s a catch. If junk food is available and visible, it’s going in my mouth, whether I’m hungry or not. Placing sugary things around your house is really no different than leaving a trail of dog treats on the floor for your pooch to hoover up.

Another feature of my fridge is it makes me feel guilt. It makes me feel guilt when I see a 3 day old broccoli starting to wilt or a bag of spinach about to turn to soup. I hate wasting food and my fridge constantly reminds me that I’m only a few days or hours away from doing so. All the leftovers, rinds, crusts, spares and dregs I need to deal with inevitably end up in my stomach. I find myself ‘polishing off’ a loaf of bread before it dries out, ‘topping off’ my cereal with that last bit of milk or mounding up my plate because ‘there’s only a little bit left.’

My frugality and ethical concerns trumped simple feelings of hunger or fullness.

The Nearly Full Stomach

“Eight parts of a full stomach sustain the man; the other two sustain the doctor”

Zen proverb

To shift slightly away from calorie algorithms and prison-like diets consider the bodily sensation that has helped humans eat since, well, forever: Satiety. It’s a fiendishly complex process, but all you need to know is that if you are human and possess a functional brain, it will probably tell you when your stomach is empty or full.

If that’s not enough, our ancestors (thanks lads) have handed down a heuristic that suggests to “eat until your stomach is 80% full”. I’m guessing this has been useful for thousands of years because it forces you to think before eating.

Here’s my rough guide to eating stomach first.

  1. Before you eat: When you are loading up your plate, take a second to consider how your stomach is going to feel 20 minutes into the future. Your eyes are actually a really good gauge, especially if you are not ‘starving’. Ask yourself, when all this food in front of me is in my body, how will I feel?
  2. While you eat: Eat slowly. Chew your food. Everyone from ancient Ayurvedic practitioners to your Grandma will remind you to do this for a good reason: it takes a little bit of time for your stomach to register as full. If you buy some time for your brain and you’re less likely to overeat.
  3. After you eat: This might be the most difficult in practice and a reason why we pay surgeons to slice open and staple our stomachs. It’s really up to you to decide what 80% means. We all know what our stomachs feel like once the plates are cleared on Thanksgiving. Work backwards from there and you’ll be on the right track.

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