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A New Relationship With Food – Experiment No. 4 Results

light meal

Another experiment has come to an end, but as usual, I’m not going right back to what I was doing beforehand. Just like my last experiment, 30 Days Without Drugs, one of the habits in my life has been permanently renegotiated.

To recap, a month ago I decided I’d go thirty days eating defensively. That means no indiscriminate eating. I defined four rules to govern my eating during that month:

1) Eat whatever you like. There are no foods to be avoided outright, except foods that make you feel sick. Listen to your body.

2) Never eat until you are full. Always stop at a moment when you still want to eat a bit more. This is the most important part of the diet. Again, listen to what the body says, not the mind.

3) Eat only when you are hungry. Never out of comfort or boredom. Do not eat within sixty minutes of the last time you stopped eating.

4) Water is the only drink. You may still consume any liquids you want, but they are to be treated like food.

These rules served me well, and prevented a lot of needless and excessive eating, but each had its loopholes and grey areas.

“Full” is a subjective term. There is a long continuum of fullness levels, and I found that it is quite possible to overeat even if you never get “full.”

I used to define “full” as the point where eating loses its fun. After the second piece of pumpkin pie, the thought of a third is revolting; that’s “full.” But during my experiment, I stayed well away from that degree of overeating, yet I still ate more than I needed on many occasions. “Almost full” is also too much.

Although I mentioned the concept of mindful eating during my original post, I did not incorporate it into my rules, so many times I made no point of being mindful while I ate. In hindsight, I should have included it as one of the rules. It would have slowed the eating process and encouraged me to stop earlier.

Eating only when I was hungry was difficult, but not for the reasons I thought. It actually never came down to the issue of temptation. I was always able to turn down food when I had set the intention to do so. But I was unprepared for the friction between my intentions and the cultural landscape surrounding eating.

For example, the eight-hour workday is geared specifically for the “three square meals” system. You eat something before going to work (breakfast,) your only lengthy break is at noon (lunch) and you’re hungry by the time you get home, so you eat (supper.) I felt a bit weird making toast in the office at 10am and chopping up fruit at 3pm.

I did lose a noticeable (to me) amount of bodyfat, but I could have lost more if my rules had been a little more definite. There was quite a range of eating habits that all would have been acceptable under the rules I chose, so often I didn’t quite know where to draw the line, even though I was always stopping well short of “full.” For example, because I was eating more often, there were many days when I knew I was eating quite a lot of calories, even though I never ate too much in one sitting.

I could have been more aggressive with my caloric restriction, but I never defined exactly how strict I would be with that, and so my results weren’t exactly astounding in the fat loss department.

But that wasn’t really the point. The goal, as always, was to examine and renegotiate one of my habits. And to that end, mission accomplished.

What I Learned

It feels good to eat light. Digestion takes a lot of the body’s available energy, and it’s well-known that eating makes you tired. I got used to eating just enough that it didn’t effect my energy level much. It was quite a contrast to what I was used to. I felt light and energetic all day, which meant I could do just about any of my daily tasks at any time, I didn’t have to avoid the most demanding activities after supper. I seldom hit the 3pm “wall.” Light is how I want to feel all the time, and with a careful approach to eating, it can be done.

Eating more often makes it easy to eat too much in total. This is one of the first things I noticed. I began to pack my lunch differently; it was split up into a small lunch and two snacks, rather than just a big lunch. But I seemed to be bringing more food in total. Each meal is another chance to overshoot the intended goal, and if you do it six times a day instead of three, it’s very easy to eat just as many calories.

It is logistically difficult to eat only when your body wants you to. Initially I envisioned going about my day, and eating something small whenever I felt that cavernous empty stomach feeling. But it’s hard to get the timing right. An apple and some nuts will only stop a stomach from growling for an hour or so, so either I’d have to eat more each time, or eat more often, and both seemed to lead me to eating more food than normal.

As well, social engagements are often not timed well to accommodate a pattern of eating every three hours. Having only had three or four hundred calories for my last meal, I found myself always thinking about food when other people seemed not to be. Their big dinner would still be sustaining them at 10pm, while I was already planning a way to escape and find some food.

Culture influences much of how, when and what we eat. I mentioned the influence the 8-hour workday has on how people eat, but there’s more to it than that.

Eating mindfully is difficult to do within the bounds of Western eating customs. Hot food becomes a unappetizingly lukewarm when you take the pace of a mindful eater. It’s also a bit uncomfortable to have a table full of people finished and waiting while you’re only a third of the way into your meal.

Restaurant portions are based on the Three Squares system. When you’re out to eat with clients (or even friends,) it’s also kind of weird to be ordering an appetizer or half-portion for your meal. In most of those situations, I ordered a regular meal, and often finished most of it to avoid the ordeal of having to explain my experiment (though I always stayed shy of ‘full.’)

Intention is half the battle. Whenever I approached an eating situation, I tried to remember to turn on defensive eating mode. Often, just remembering my experiment was enough to make it fairly easy to refrain from eating unnecessarily. I would ask “Do I really need this?” and that was usually enough to convince me not to bother.

There were times when my experiment was not at the front of my mind, and in those cases, my habits were happy to take over. I could eat pretzels and taco chips without even really thinking about it.

There are hidden habits at play. One thing that was difficult to get over was the fear of wasting food. I’ve always felt it was some small tragedy to scrape perfectly good food into the garbage can. It was hard to leave uneaten portions sitting there for that reason alone.

Now, I know that it isn’t any less a waste to eat excess food than to throw it out. I don’t need the calories, so they’re better off in a garbage can, rather than using my body as the receptacle. But still, it felt wrong to leave food when I knew I could just eat it. This was a much more powerful compulsion than I expected, I guess it was a result of many years of being told to finish everything on my plate.

At home I could often wrap up the rest for later, but I discovered another habit there. I hate wrapping stuff up when there’s only a small amount of it left. It felt dumb to store a few tablespoons of kasha for later, so often I’d just eat it then. There are reasons for overeating that have nothing to do with actually wanting to eat the food itself.

I was also still in the habit of putting a hefty amount of food on my plate, and sometimes it would already be there by the time I realized how much I was really taking. A lot of behavior surrounding eating is almost automatic because of how much practice we get.

Experiments need hard edges. My most successful experiment so far was my drug-free month, and after this latest experiment, I see why. Out of the four I’ve done, it was the one with a definite binary goal. It was either an X or a checkmark every day; there was no ambiguity about it. It had the most profound effect on my behavior and it is the one I’m most proud of.

In the other three experiments, there was always room to stretch the boundaries a bit. There was too much leeway here, and I think it tempered the effects. Lesson learned.

A New Philosophy

This latest experiment has certainly changed the way I eat, but it could have used a more definite mandate. In the future I will establish clear criteria for whether I stuck to it or not.

That said, defensive eating has become my philosophy now, and I feel like I’m much more in control of how I eat. I do not really enjoy eating until I’m stuffed anymore, it’s just too unpleasant and unnecessary. Successful restraint is a skill, and it feels good to pull it off. A little practice goes a long way.

I do think it pays to do it once in a while though, to remember the sluggishness and indigestion, the same “never again” feeling you get after drinking too much for the last time. Again.

I find it alarming that I was so casual with what I ate before. Eating, though we are all very familiar with it, is a very intimate and consequential act if you think about it objectively. You’re picking up a substance and putting it in your mouth! Are you sure you should be doing that?! The substance then becomes a part of your body, at least partly.

Yet we do it so casually, often without really thinking about it. For what it’s worth, now I do think about it. If I take nothing else from this experiment, it’s that moment of questioning before I put something in my mouth. Do I need this? Why not not eat it?

I’m not at 100% with that reflex yet, but I’m getting there. I slow down. I enjoy smaller amounts of food more. I feel grateful when I eat. Food has been so good to me, and I finally feel like I’m starting to give it the respect it deserves.


Photo by malias

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Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) October 5, 2009 at 3:37 am

Following an eating criteria is mindfulness…at least at that moment ~:-)

Do you feel lighter? on your feet I mean, not as in kilos…

David October 5, 2009 at 9:02 am

Yes I do. I find my mind is quicker too, when I don’t overeat.

Hayden Tompkins October 5, 2009 at 4:16 am

“I used to define “full” as the point where eating loses its fun.”

Oh, wow, I am BUSTED. I know exactly what this means. I also share a similar reaction to leaving food on my plate but, even more surprisingly, was how much more I’d eat simply because I knew my food wouldn’t be as delicious when reheated.

What a wonderful ‘experiment’ and I just have to give you a shout out for drinking water!!
.-= Hayden Tompkins´s last blog ..The Magic of Having Your Own Transformers =-.

David October 5, 2009 at 9:03 am

Hi Hayden. It turns out my reservations about reheating weren’t unique to me. That’s still one of the most difficult things for me. I’m trying to counter it by just making less food to begin with. If I make too little, then it’s just another chance to practice quitting before I’m full.

Positively Present October 5, 2009 at 7:50 am

Really interesting point about eating more often. I’ve read that it’s best to eat lots of little meals every day but you’ve brought up a great point. Every one of those meals is a chance to overdo it!
.-= Positively Present´s last blog ..how to break barriers and create connections =-.

David October 5, 2009 at 9:05 am

Yeah I found that difficult. Every time I eat anything at all, I feel like I’m opening a can of worms that I might have trouble closing.

I think what I’ll do now is go back to three meals a day, because now I make all my meals smaller. If I’m hungry in between it’s fruit or something healthy.

John October 5, 2009 at 8:21 am

In my group of friends, I’m always the last one to finish eating (I know how you feel). They always ask me why I’m so slow, but my response is also always the same: “Savor the flavor”. Eating slowly makes me feel like I’m in control. I can feel the texture and respect the taste of the food, instead of just throwing it all down my throat as if in a hot dog eating contest.

I really hate the “full” feeling just as much as you. Why eat to get full, when feeling full sucks and hurts so much? I’ve learned my lesson.

I knew you could do it (Didn’t I say?). Another successful experiment in the bag, David.
.-= John´s last blog ..Difficulties Maintaining the Balance Between “Online and Offline” =-.

David October 5, 2009 at 9:06 am

Thanks John. I’m going to learn to be more defiant with my eating speed. You’re right, it does taste better. A little food can go a long way when you pay attention to it.

Srinivas Rao October 5, 2009 at 8:23 am

To Dani’s point, i’ve also read the best thing to do is eat lots of little meals. But, I think that comes down to self control. I don’t have to do much in terms of diet given my health habits (i.e. being a surfer, eating very healthy in general, etc, etc), but interesting to think about.
.-= Srinivas Rao´s last blog ..One brick at a time, Legos, 15 minutes a day, and the path to accomplishment =-.

David October 5, 2009 at 9:09 am

Yeah I’m just not a fan of the “six small and equal meals” format. Taking a break in the day to have a sit-down meal is an important cultural custom to me. I think I’ve found a good balance.

Beth L. Gainer October 5, 2009 at 8:36 am


This is a really insightful posting!! I especially love your point about our being conditioned to not throw food away and instead gorge on food we don’t need. Luckily, I have no problems instead of using garbage to house food I don’t need rather than myself as garbage.

Thanks for an insightful post. By the way, I’m an English professor and my students have subscribed to you!! You may be hearing from them in the future. :-)

David October 5, 2009 at 9:16 am

That’s a very good argument. I shouldn’t use myself as a garbage can either.

The “don’t waste food” doctrine is a very powerful one in my family. My grandmother grew up in the depression, when throwing out food was an outright sin, and that dogma has found its way to me. Of course, the landscape has changed; I run very little risk of going hungry, so fat reserves don’t do me much good.

I’m flattered you’ve shared me with your students. I hope they didn’t notice the typo I left in there this morning! I have no formal education in the English language, I’m sure it shows. Thanks for the great comment Beth, and thank you for reading. :)

Dayne | TheHappySelf.com October 5, 2009 at 10:58 am

Loved this post!

I’m actually trying to do some similar things in my daily diet. I’m sticking with only water (and plenty of it), and I’m doing lots of small meals throughout my day. I do feel better and “lighter” through my day.

The other thing is being mindful while eating. That one I’m still working on.

Thanks for the great post David!

Dayne :)
.-= Dayne | TheHappySelf.com´s last blog ..If Life is a Classroom, You Better Sit in the Front =-.

David October 5, 2009 at 3:06 pm

Thanks Dayne. Mindful eating makes for a pretty different eating experience. A fellow blogger recommended a great way to wade into it. He advised: At first, do just two things. Stay mindful for the first three bites of your meal, and for the last three bites of your meal. It’s a good place to start.

Patty - Why Not Start Now? October 5, 2009 at 1:17 pm

“Fear of wasting food..” That’s a big one for me. Although I know realistically that it doesn’t make a difference, I almost go into a trance. A scarcity mentality that I picked up along the way. Anyway, I’m fascinated with your post and everything makes sense, but I have to admit the term “defensive” eating seems hard around the edges. There is a joy, a savoring, that comes with food, especially when shared with people you love. Does the joy come through when you’re eating defensively?
.-= Patty – Why Not Start Now?´s last blog ..Life Lessons Learned from Leo =-.

David October 5, 2009 at 3:08 pm

It may not sound like it, but defensive eating is actually conducive to eating with joy. All it means is to not take eating for granted. A little bit of thought about why you are eating goes a long way, not just towards avoiding overeating, but also towards really being present for what you do eat.

brigid October 5, 2009 at 6:50 pm

Defensive Eating sounds so ……..Defensive!
Why not call it by another name, like joyful eating (as you said) or prudent eating, the wise diet or commonsensical sustenance.
Good on you for experimenting with your eating desires and habits. Having tried several different sorts of different ways of eating I have realised the joy of not feeling over full, having energy and being able to think clearly. Its amazing the difference some foods will make us feel. And every person is different, what I eat may not suit someone else at all.
Its also interesting to note what foods I am attracted to depending on my moods and situation.
.-= brigid´s last blog ..Any Suggestions? =-.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) October 5, 2009 at 8:29 pm

“commonsensical sustenance”


me will borrow this ~:-)

David October 6, 2009 at 11:33 am

Defensive eating is the term I learned, but you can call it whatever you like really. It just refers to the habit of questioning every impulse to put something in your mouth.

Ralph October 5, 2009 at 7:07 pm

Great Post! The lessons you learned are similar to the ones I learned during a 3 day discipline fast that i did. Especially the part about hidden habits.

David October 6, 2009 at 11:35 am

That’s one very interesting thing about experimenting like this. Even if you fail to stick to your plan, you still discover all kinds of inconspicuous habits when you run afoul of them.

Barbara October 6, 2009 at 8:24 pm

This was very interesting and I may try it myself as an experiment. I wonder what you will try next ?????
.-= Barbara´s last blog ..Selling the Monster =-.

David October 7, 2009 at 1:32 pm

You know, I haven’t decided. I’ve got a few candidates, so we’ll see.

Neil October 6, 2009 at 10:23 pm

Hey David,

Another fantastic post. I read often and comment rarely, but I’m totally hooked on your writing style and the topics you talk about. I often think it’d be tough to continue the vibe you’re giving off and the well would run a bit dry, but you always manage to keep pulling up bucket after bucket, splashing with substance.

Anyway, I think you’re an excellent thinker and writer and I hope you never stop.

.-= Neil´s last blog ..#663 When your roommate goes away for the weekend =-.

David October 7, 2009 at 1:34 pm

Hi Neil. Always good to hear from you. And thanks!

I don’t think the well will run dry, I’ve got too much jabbering in my head. I need to put it somewhere.

Kaushik October 7, 2009 at 5:28 pm

Interesting–I’m writing a book about mindful eating. The core practice is similar to yours; it’s basically eat whenever, howevermuch, and whatever you want to eat, just do it mindfully, and in particular pay attention to how you feel after eating, and it’s not long before the body and mind relearns natural patterns.

.-= Kaushik´s last blog ..Beyond Karma October 2009 Newsletter =-.

David October 8, 2009 at 11:56 am

The mindful eating part is something I’m just getting into. I will experiment more :)

Brenda October 8, 2009 at 11:23 am

David, you are impacting lives far and wide. I once bought parchment paper simply because you said that chocolate chip cookies must be baked on parchment paper. Remember that? Recently you wrote about tiring of avocado and tomato sandwiches. I went to the store that day and bought avocados and tomatoes and have yet to tire of eating them in sandwiches. My only complaint with this piece is that you didn’t offer enough food ideas. I’ve never heard of kasha, and apples and nuts are ho hum. Details, David, Details. I needs them! :)
.-= Brenda´s last blog ..Back to Work =-.

David October 8, 2009 at 11:58 am

Avocado and tomato sandwiches are so awesome. The humble avocado is one of the most delicious and versatile foods around. I love it. I’ll do another recipe post sometime soon. I have another specialty besides cookies.

Leigh Ann November 24, 2009 at 5:00 pm

Hi David. Thanks so much for such a motivating post. I know I’m responding belatedly, but I’ve spent the afternoon digging around in your archives, thanks to a Twitter post that introduced me to your site, and this experiment in particular is remarkably relevant to me right now. My biggest issue with food has never been what I ate, but how much and particularly WHY? Those diet aid commercials that promise to stop your hunger to get you to lose weight always bug me, because I’ve never overeaten because I was hungry. Bored, anxious, unhappy, lonely . . . yes, hungry, no. Since I have recently decided that I am making a commitment to a diet beginning after Thanksgiving this week, I’m finalizing my plan for going about it and reading this post has given me some great ideas to incorporate into my own adventure. Thanks again. I expect you’ll be “seeing” me around.

Momo March 21, 2012 at 4:56 pm

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