Her next step was to order this dish and see whether it was a good match. If she did feel physically and psychologically satisfied from the food, she'd strengthen her trust in herself and her ability to figure out what to eat in the future. If the match wasn't right, she could use it as a learning experience. What would have made her lunch more satisfying? As long as Lucy could refrain from judging herself for what she craved, she could begin to gather all kinds of eating experiences that would help her become more attuned to what she really needed and wanted at a particular moment.
Learning not to be judgmental during this process is key. Like most clients, Lucy had a list of "forbidden" foods that she believed weren't OK to eat. Part of the journey toward attuned eating is to realize—and become comfortable with—the idea that our bodies crave a wide variety of foods. I'll frequently say to my clients that I've never met anyone who goes through this process and only wants to eat cookies, candy, and ice cream—nor have I ever met anyone who only wants fruits, vegetables, and salads.
As clients give themselves permission to eat formerly forbidden foods, they're likely, at first, to eat more than they need. After all, these foods have been off-limits for some time, and it's exciting to be able to eat them again. What helps clients get beyond overeating and eat a cookie only when they're hungry for a cookie is the understanding that the food won't be off-limits again. Scarcity makes us feel anxious, needy, and greedy, while abundance allows us to feel calm, satisfied, and fulfilled. If clients believe that the next diet is just around the corner, they'll continue to overeat. If they prove to themselves that they can keep cookies available and eat them when that's what they're hungry for, they'll find that they no longer need to eat them out of a feeling of deprivation.
After several sessions, Lucy told me that she'd binged on ice cream before our first meeting because she was sure I'd tell her that she shouldn't eat ice cream. Now that she understands this philosophy, she reports that she has ice cream in her freezer at all times, and eats some when that's what she's hungry for. She explains that in the evening, she often wants something sweet, and has discovered that eating ice cream when she wants a peach won't satisfy her any more than eating a peach when she craves ice cream does. Attuned eating doesn't mean eating whatever you want, whenever you want, and as much as you want. Instead, this method guides you to eat what you're hungry for, when you're hungry, choosing from a wide variety of possibilities that includes nutritious foods.
The final step in attuned eating is stopping when full. At the beginning of this process, Lucy, like most clients, frequently ate until she felt stuffed, finding it easier to recognize her signals for hunger than for fullness. Gradually, she began to notice and pay more attention to these feelings. She realized that when she made the right match in choosing a food that left her feeling satisfied, it was easier to stop. She learned that without a physical signal to start eating—if she used food to assuage boredom, for example—there'd be no physical signal to stop: eating would be entirely disconnected from hunger and satiety. Rather than reprimanding herself for eating past fullness, she allowed herself to consciously experience how her body felt, asking herself, "Is this OK with me?" When the answer was "no," but she still made the decision to continue eating, she learned to do so without self-recrimination. As she became more attuned to her body's messages, Lucy found it much less tolerable to eat past fullness. In fact, she understood that the sooner she stopped eating, the sooner she'd get hungry and could enjoy another satisfying eating experience.
Since we live in a culture that more or less institutionalizes disordered eating, many people—who aren't, or don't consider themselves, overeaters—find they can still benefit from this perspective on eating. In my 18 years of using this approach, I've had many friends and colleagues tell me that just becoming more mindful about their hunger and fullness helped them build a better relationship with food. One friend commented that she used to feel bad when she had an occasional craving for a McDonald's cheeseburger and fries; now she takes pleasure in the experience, without guilt. She realized that it was worth spending money on the fresh raspberries at her grocery store to satisfy that desire.