Eating Skills—Josh Hillis

An Excerpt from Josh Hillis’s book, Lean and Strong

Josh Hillis eating skills

Eating Skills

The biggest mistake most people make with intuitive eating is that after a lifetime of ignoring hunger and fullness cues, they attempt to just “hope it all works out.”

Most people spend their lives:

  • Eating when they are bored or stressed, even though they aren’t hungry;
  • Dieting and ignoring hunger;
  • Calorie counting and ignoring hunger;
  • Working too much and ignoring hunger;
  • Eating while distracted and missing their fullness signals;
  • Eating too fast and missing their fullness signals;
  • Giving up on diets and ignoring fullness;
  • Having free days and ignoring fullness.

If you’ve spent decades ignoring hunger and fullness, you can’t expect to be an expert at it the first day you decide to try.

You need to work on the component skills that make up listening to hunger and listening to fullness, and noticing the difference between emotions and hunger. Fortunately, that’s what this section is about.

Eating Guidelines

The eating guidelines are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Sometimes this is distinguished between mindful eating (aka intuitive eating) and mindful decision making. In these cases, mindful decision making leads to faster weight loss.[i]

One study rated people on intuitive eating using a pasta taste test. They were allowed to eat as much pasta as they wanted, but were randomly divided into two groups: One group got a twelve-inch plate, and the other group got an eight-inch plate. The people with the smaller plates ate less. Interestingly, and contrary to what the researchers had predicted, the difference was the biggest with people who scored highest on intuitive eating. The guideline of plate size made a huge difference in their intuitive skill use.[ii]

Other times, it’s been compared as intuitive eating versus flexible restraint, in which case flexible restraint also leads to faster weight loss. There’s an interesting look at the difference between three things: intuitive eating (similar to the “trust your body” skills), flexible dietary control (like guidelines), and rigid dietary control (dieting):

  • Intuitive eating: Best for body image
  • Flexible control: Best for weight loss
  • Rigid control (dieting): Worst for body image; good for short-term weight loss[iii],[iv]

The potential pitfall is turning the guidelines into diet rules: If you turn them into hard rules, you’re screwed. If you have black-and-white thinking about foods, that some foods are “good” and others are “bad,” you’re similarly screwed.

As long as you can keep them flexible—as guidelines—you’re cool. They’re super effective; just hold them lightly. It comes down to using them as a target…but not freaking out when things aren’t exactly perfect. Guidelines, not rules.

We’re going to work on four kinds of skills:

  During Meals   Between Meals
Listen to Your Body Skills Notice when getting full, and stop when full   Distinguish true hunger versus cravings, boredom, tiredness, emotions, or thoughts  
Use a Guideline Plate healthy and balanced portions   Eat a balanced meal every four to six hours, without snacking in between  

You’ll use a mix of both guidelines and skills. Guidelines will help, especially when you’re just learning the skills, or when you’re in times of intense stress.

In the end, you probably want the one skill from each box that makes the biggest difference for you. That’ll leave you with two listen-to-your-body skills and two guidelines. You’ll use the “trust yourself” skills most of the time; the guides you’ll use in times of stress. Simple.

Dan John talks about having a “pirate map” to a goal. Essentially, it’s the clearest and simplest steps to follow. For weight loss, the pirate map looks like this:

  1. Eat a balanced meal every four to six hours.
  2. Distinguish true hunger from cravings, boredom, tiredness, emotions, or thoughts.
  3. Plate healthy and balanced portions.
  4. Eat slowly. Notice when getting full and stop.

This is Dan’s idea of “eating like an adult.” These four things are how I’d nail down what eating like an adult looks like in steps.

We’ll break those down into sub-skills, but that’s the whole game. It’s those four things, and nothing but those four things. Whenever you feel lost or stuck, all you need to do is come back to these four things, and see which you’re missing.

Skills are Faster

The biggest misconception about habit-based or skills-based weight loss is thinking it’s slower.

It’s not.

Skills always win. It’s the tortoise and the hare.

Sure, it sounds cool when your friend loses ten pounds in a week…but your friend has probably been losing and regaining that same ten pounds for a decade or two.

On the flip side, losing a half-pound to a pound per week and having that handled forever is much, much faster. Do it right, once, and be done with it. Sure, your friend may lose and re-gain ten pounds twice in the time it takes you to lose ten. But then, while you’re losing another ten pounds, your friend will have lost and regained that same ten pounds another time or two. Fast results create an illusion of progress…but if you’re losing and regaining the same weight every other month, there’s no progress at all—it’s just a cycle of failure.

The hare always loses because the hare starts and quits over and over again. Doesn’t that sound like the diet cycle of failure? Start really fast, then quit?

The tortoise always wins, always goes faster because of continual steps in the direction of what matters.

Problem Solving: The Four Skills Matrix

The big evolution for this system was realizing that skills fit into a matrix to solve problems we have with eating too much.

If you eat too much between meals—work on between-meal skills.

If you eat too much during meals—work on during-meal skills.

If you want to transform your relationship to your body and to food—work on listen-to-your-body skills.

If you’re new to listen-to-your-body skills, you’re tired, or you’re stressed out—work on eating guidelines.

First, we want to distinguish whether your issues are mostly between meals or during meals. Often, I find clients have been working diligently on their meals, but they never addressed boredom or stress snacking between meals. Working on “between meals” makes all of the difference for them.

People always have the most food enjoyment, best body image, highest wellbeing, and most sustainable weight loss results when they use listen-to-your-body eating skills.

Listen-to-your-body eating skills can take a year or two to master. In the meantime, people get better results by practicing a combination of listen-to-your-body skills and eating guidelines.

Lastly, when people are tired or stressed out, it’s always harder to use listen-to-your-body skills. In these cases, people can just rely on eating guidelines.

Lean and Strong by Josh Hillis
This was an excerpt from Lean & Strong by Josh Hillis. Click here for more information.

[i] Ibid. Anglin (2012)

[ii] Ibid. Anderson, Schaumberg, Anderson, and Reilly (2015)

[iii] Ibid. Tylka, Calogero & Daníelsdóttir (2015)

[iv] Linardon, J., & Mitchell, S. (2017). Rigid dietary control, flexible dietary control, and intuitive eating: Evidence for their differential relationship to disordered eating and body image concerns. Eating behaviors, 26, 16-22.