The feeling of fullness in your stomach after you eat is part of what’s necessary for you to feel satiated and satisfied with what you ate. However, that doesn’t mean it’s the benchmark for when you’ve had enough to eat.

People can get used to a certain amount of fullness through time, and it becomes the norm for them. They consider this degree of fullness normal, and anything less makes them feel as if they haven’t eaten enough. They may even think they’re still hungry. In reality, they could be overeating repeatedly if they use their “normal” level of fullness to signal when to stop eating. Left unchecked, this habit can contribute to weight gain and ill health.

It’s a myth that your stomach gets smaller when you lose weight or eat less. Although the stomach has the capacity to stretch a great deal, it does this as an immediate response to eating a meal. Once that meal passes from the stomach, the stomach returns to its normal size. The size of one’s stomach is unrelated to weight. So an overweight person could have a smaller stomach than a person who isn’t overweight.

Eating less may not shrink your stomach, but the amount of food required to make you “feel” full can change — when you change your eating habits.

If you get into the habit of eating more than you used to, the amount you need to eat to have the same “full” feeling can increase. By the same token, if you get into the habit of eating less than you used to, the amount of fullness that will make you feel “full enough” will decrease. So it doesn’t matter that the stomach can’t actually shrink. You can create a change in your favor by working to achieve healthier eating habits.

Making the changes that will leave you feeling satisfied with more normal quantities of food, however, requires smart and careful steps. These tips will help:

Accept that changes will be gradual. Having unrealistic expectations will only frustrate you and make the process harder.

Be honest with yourself and assess where the problem areas lie that contribute to your getting overfull when you eat. Do you tend to go back for seconds? Do you overload on particular foods, such as bread or meat? Do you always have dessert with your meals?

Zero in on problem areas that have become habits. It will be less overwhelming if you pinpoint which problems you need to tackle, instead of thinking you have to reduce everything.

Gradually reduce the amount you eat in each of your problem areas by paying attention to your feelings. If you’ve reduced the amount of food too much, your brain will tell you. You will feel resistant because your mind will communicate this message: “I’m feeling deprived and am afraid I won’t get enough to eat!” If the reduction is done in small increments, the psychological mind can be eased. Instead, it will say something like this: “Oh, that’s all? Sure, I can do that.”

Savor what you do eat. When you savor what you eat, you’re paying close attention to what you’re eating. Be aware of the food’s smell, taste, texture and maybe even its sound (when you bite into something crunchy, for example). People consume smaller portions when they savor.

Take a break from eating. Breathing deeply periodically during a meal, putting down your fork and knife and sitting back in your chair, will slow down eating and help your brain catch up with the amount you’ve eaten, sending messages of satisfaction before you’re overfull.

Eat more frequent, smaller meals, rather than fewer, larger meals. This prevents overfilling your stomach during any one eating episode.

Encourage yourself when you’re thinking negatively. Counter pessimistic thoughts with frequent optimistic reminders to help motivate you and make the work easier.

Pay attention to your progress. Being cognizant of positive changes keeps you motivated. Observe how your body is getting used to less fullness because of your efforts and praise yourself for a job well done.

Avoid going back to old habits by continuing to observe the previous steps.

The payoff for consciously and gradually changing habits that have made you think that overfullness is normal? Feeling physically comfortable and satisfied with smaller portions, and being mindful that overfullness is no longer enjoyable and is a feeling to be avoided.

Previously published in the Tampa Bay Times