We all have that one thin friend—one of those skinny women who’s never bullied into submission by the bread basket, and when she says “I’ll just eat one bite,” she does just that. Is she for real?
Turns out, research shows that skinny people simply don’t think about food the same way as–well, the rest of us. “Thin people have a relaxed relationship with food,” explains David L. Katz, MD, an associate professor adjunct in public health at Yale University. “Those who are overweight, however, tend to be preoccupied by it. They focus on how much or how often they eat, or attach labels like good and bad to certain foods. As a result, mealtime is always on the brain.”
Here, weight loss experts explore the mysterious minds of “naturally” slim, and how to eat like skinny women. Learn what they do, what they don’t, and how you can act the part.
1. They choose satisfied over stuffed
On a fullness scale of 1 to 10, skinny women stop eating at a level of 6 or 7, says Jill Fleming, RD, author of Thin People Don’t Clean Their Plates. The rest of us may keep going to an 8 or 10. Why? It may be because you mistakenly equate the sensation of fullness with satisfaction and feel deprived if you stop short, says Fleming. Or you may just be used to finishing what’s in front of you, regardless of whether you really need it.
Copy them: To eat like skinny women, about halfway through your next meal, put your fork down and, using the 1 to 10 scale, rate your level of fullness. Do it again when you have about five bites left. The goal is to increase your awareness of how satisfied you feel during a meal. (Bonus: It also slows down your eating, which allows the sensation of fullness to settle in.)
2. They realize hunger isn’t an emergency
Most of us who struggle with extra pounds tend to view hunger as a condition that needs to be cured—and fast, says Judith S. Beck, PhD, author of the new Beck Diet Solution. “If you fear hunger, you might routinely overeat to avoid it,” she says. Thin people tolerate it because they know hunger pangs always come and go, buying them some time.
Copy them: Pick a busy day to purposely delay lunch by an hour or two. Or try skipping an afternoon snack one day. You’ll see that you can still function just fine. Then next time you feel those grumbles, you’ll hold off before making a beeline for the fridge.
3. They don’t use food to cure the blues
It’s not that skinny women are immune to emotional eating, says Kara Gallagher, PhD, a weight loss expert based in Louisville. But they tend to recognize when they’re doing it and stop.
Copy them: Add the word ‘Halt’ to your vocabulary, says Gallagher. More than just a command (as in stop eating that entire sleeve of cookies), it’s an acronym that stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired—the four most common triggers for emotional eating.
If you’re truly hungry, eat a balanced snack, such as a handful of nuts, to tide you over until your next meal. But if you’re angry, lonely, or tired, seek an alternative calorie-free solution to your emotional need. Blow off steam by going for a run or just jumping around—the heartbeat boost will help dissipate your anger. Lonely? Call a friend, e-mail your kid, or walk to the park or mall. Being around others will make you feel more connected to your community (even if you don’t bump into anyone you know). If you’re tired, for heaven’s sake, sleep!
4. They eat more fruit
Skinny women, on average, have one more serving of fruit and eat more fiber and less fat per day than overweight people, reports a 2006 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
Copy them: Start tinkering. To eat like akinny women, examine your diet for ways to add whole fruits (not juices) to your meals and snacks. Aim for two or three servings per day. Sprinkle berries in your cereal or on your yogurt. Add sliced pears to your turkey sandwich, or bake an apple for dessert. Keep a bowl of fruit on your kitchen table or desk to motivate you to think fruit first, vending machine never.
5. They’re creatures of habit
Any dietitian will tell you that a varied diet is good–but too much variety can backfire, says Katz, author of The Flavor Point Diet. Studies have shown that too many tastes and textures encourage you to overeat, he explains. “Thin people have what I call a food groove—the majority of their meals consist of well-planned staples,” says Beck. “There are a few surprises thrown in, but for the most part, their diets are fairly predictable.”
Copy them: Try to eat as consistently as possible with your major meals—have cereal for breakfast, a salad at lunch, and so forth. It’s okay to add grilled chicken to the salad one day and tuna the next, but by sticking to a loosely prescribed meal schedule, you limit the opportunities to overindulge.
6. They have a self-control gene
Researchers at Tufts University found that the biggest predictor of weight gain among women in their 50s and 60s was their level of disinhibition, or unrestrained behavior. Women with low disinhibition (in other words, a finely tuned sense of restraint) had the lowest body mass index. High disinhibition (i.e., low restraint) was linked to an adult weight gain of as much as 33 pounds.
Copy them: Prepare for moments when your disinhibition is likely to be higher—such as when you’re in a festive atmosphere with a large group of friends. If you’re at a party, tell yourself you’ll take one of every fourth passed hors d’oeuvre. If you’re out at dinner, order an appetizer portion and share dessert. Or if you’re stressed—another low-restraint moment—make sure you have a source of crunchy snacks (like fruit or carrot sticks) at the ready.
7. They’re movers and shakers
On average, skinny women are on their feet an extra 2 1/2 hours per day—which can help burn off 33 pounds a year, according to a study from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.
Copy them: Try a reality check. Studies have shown that people often overestimate how active they really are, says Gallagher. Most people actually spend 16 to 20 hours a day just sitting. Wear a pedometer on an average day, and see how close you get to the recommended 10,000 steps. Your day should combine 30 minutes of structured exercise with a variety of healthy habits, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator or mopping the floor with extra vigor.
8. They sleep—well
Skinny women snooze 2 more hours per week, compared with overweight people, says a study from Eastern Virginia Medical School. Researchers theorize that a lack of shut-eye is linked to lower levels of appetite-suppressing hormones like leptin and higher levels of the appetite-boosting hormone ghrelin.
Copy them: Break it down: Two extra hours of sleep a week is only 17 more minutes a day—a lot more manageable, even for the most packed of schedules. Start there and slowly work toward 8 hours of snooze time a night—the right amount for most adults.
Quick tip Eat breakfast! 78% of successful dieters do it every day, according to the National Weight Control Registry, a database of more than 5,000 people who’ve lost more than 30 pounds and kept the weight off for at least a year.