Innocent programming to overeat!

This week I want to say more about childhood patterns. One fascinating aspect is the innocent programming many people receive that sets them up to eat in ways that are unhealthy.

A really common issue is the clean plate syndrome! In other words, eating everything on your plate and leaving the plate clean of food. In the UK this is sometimes attributed to post war behaviour. When I say post war I’m talking about the Second World War! I don’t know if this is true or not but the thinking goes along the lines of recovery from deprivation.

The most important point I am making here relates to the innocence of this programming. Parents who instruct their children to clean their plates in most instances are doing so with a positive intention for their children’s well being. I say most because there are exceptions to most things, we’ll talk about more traumatic versions later in the series.

The suggestion is that people who were children during the Second World War in the UK experienced rationing as a result when they became parents they were more grateful for the abundance of food. This created a mentality of telling children they had to clean their plate before getting down from the table. In some cases this may have got quite extreme.

Other phrases often repeated were to remind children of the starving people in other parts of the world. I remember my brother responding to this by asking how he could post his unwanted food to the needy as he didn’t want it! Sadly his creativity was not appreciated.

This clean plate syndrome seems to exist in other cultures too some I’m guessing there are any number of reasons why it might occur. The important bottom line however is the conditioning this creates in any child told to clean their plate. The chances are the child will learn to over ride their bodies natural signals telling them to stop eating when they are full.

Over the years I have spoken to many people who feel uncomfortable leaving food on their plates and for many there is an unconscious drive to keep eating until all the food is gone.

It might be worth considering that some children get a different childhood message. I heard it described as leaving some food for “Mr Manners”! For children raised with this instruction the opposite may be true that cleaning the plate may result in distress. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who had this experience as a child, was it helpful or unhelpful.

There are also some cultures where cleaning the plate by eating everything on it is seen as a sign of respect. In others cleaning the plate means you have not had enough and your plate may get continually filled up until you leave something (always worth checking the local culture when travelling!).

What do you do if clean plate syndrome is your issue?

Well I’m guessing you’ve worked this out already. Make a point of leaving something on your plate! Now a few tips with this one.

Leave some food on your plate and ask yourself the question, “am I still hungry?” Check in with your body, take a break. If you are genuinely still hungry, throw away the food you saved and serve yourself some more. Do the same thing again.

Notice any resistance you have to this suggestion. I recommend writing down your thoughts, this will help you to identify any beliefs you have about cleaning your plate. These could range from ideas about manners through to not wanting to waste (waiste!) food.

Psychologically there is a reason for throwing some of the food away and it can be one string bean! You are re-conditioning yourself in order to change your automatic habit. For those of you familiar with NLP you might want to consider doing an NLP intervention as part of this process. You could probably do any number of interventions, as an example you could use the Change Belief pattern.

I’d be really interested to hear back from any of you who decide to test out the ideas above. Let me know how you get on, what works, what doesn’t for you.

By the way, these ideas are not my original ones, I am sure you could find similar comments in many other books. I have heard variations on this from Geenen Roth through to Anthony Robbins. To remind you, my plan is to bring as many good ideas together as I can in one place.

Next week we will discuss when food is love!

About Melody @ GWizlearning

Melody spent fourteen years gathering experience of the business world working in banking, telecommunications and the public sector before co-founding The GWiz Learning Partnership in 1993. Melody has a Masters Degree in Applied Positive Psychology, a degree in Psychology and a diploma in Psychotherapy. She is an NLP Master Trainer which allows her to run NLP Practitioner, NLP Master Practitioner and NLP Trainer Training courses certified by the Positive School of Intrinsic Neuro-Linguistc Psychology. She is also a qualified Myers Briggs practitioner and EI practitioner and added to all this is five years Transactional Analysis training, meaning she is able to help organisations access the hidden potential in their staff. She is also in demand for her work in transforming average or even troubled teams into high performers. Melody is a visiting lecturer at University of East London, teaching "Wellbeing and Positive Psychology" to undergraduates. Additionally, she is a member of the CIPD and is ILM accredited. Melody's interests are many and varied. She has a keen interest in personal development, canine and wolf psychology, conservation, movies and running. She also enjoys western horse riding, walking the GWiz dogs, nature watching and stage combat (particularly sword fighting).
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9 Responses to Innocent programming to overeat!

  1. Angie says:

    Lovely piece of writing. This intuitive blog post shades light on this issue ‘clean plate syndrome’ in clear, concise manner.
    I’d love to bookmark it.

  2. Felicity says:

    This is a really fascinating piece. I was impressed upon by parents, but mainly grandparents, the importance of finishing every mouthful on the plate, for many reasons including the post-war reason as well as my family being a bit hard-up. The “some children are starving” argument never works either becuase then you feel guilty twice!
    My problem was that I naturally had/have a relatively small appetite. I was also a very fussy eater as a child, and would happily have chosen to go without food as a preference to eating something I disliked. But often I was simply full and just could not eat any more.
    What I have found is that the “empty your plate” idea had the opposite effect on me. It made me resentful of being forced to eat things I didn’t enjoy the taste of. It may be no surprise that I do not suffer with weight issues. But why was I able to resist the guilt-trip where others have been badly affected?

    • Hi Felicity

      I have a theory! It is based on how we take on beliefs. Sometimes we conform and sometimes we rebel. When we rebel rather than accepting the conditioning we find a way to reject it. This is still based on our response to the stimulus. This is what makes us so fascinating, two people can have the same experience but can respond differently.

      In my family my sister may well have responded the same way as you. She has never had a weight issue either. In families there can sometimes be different roles and this can also impact in varying responses to the same stimulus.

      This may not be true for you as it is just one possibility. What do you think?

  3. Sousa Hari says:

    HI Melody. I read somewhere that while eating, we experience a ‘natural’ pause, where we stop putting food onto our fork/spoon and rest out hands back. This is the point at which we have had enough. Old habits kick in then, to finish or at least to try. The trick is, when you pause, to say ‘thank you’ to your self for showing you that you have had enough and to stand up or move the plate away. When trying this observation out, I found that sometimes I had had enough quite quickly, and that by refusing the remainder, I felt very comfortable, didn’t get bloated and generally more in control. I sometimes put the left over food into a container for lunch the next day if I felt guilty about wasting food. Although I wasn’t a war baby, my parents were still ‘in that mode’ of thinking, so my sister and I were always told to finish our meals.

    • Hi Sousa

      Thanks for the information.

      Can you remember where you read it about it? Sounds like a useful idea to help people re-calibrate to the signals in their bodies.


      • Sousa Hari says:

        Hi Melody – apologies, I’ve only just found your reply… no I can’t remember where I read this, but a quick search for ‘Natural pause when eating’ came up with a Weight Watchers blog. This is an excerpt: Day 35 Linda Spangle says that we have a natural pause when we are eating that tells us that we are full. But that most of us continue to eat…..have to start paying attention to when I pause while eating……need to take that time to see if I am still hungry before I pick up my fork and take any more bites….tell when my body isn’t hungry and I am satisfied……….bad habits gained such as not eating slowly, large portions…..I need to listen to my inner…Pause. notice at any meal or snack that I have pushed my plate away, that is my signal to stop. Wait at least two hours before eating again. If I am still hungry after the pause, I will need to fine tune my body listening skills…so that I can begin to discern when I am hungry or not.
        If I can find you a reference, I’ll be in touch. Best regards, Sousa

  4. Joanne Coulson says:

    Hi Melody,

    This whole series on weight/food and the relationships therein has been fascinating to me.  I was brought up from the age of 4 by my Grandmother who experienced a comfortable childhood of her own, then experienced rationing during the war and brought up 7 of her own children from 1944.  As a child growing up in her house, meals had to stretch across 7 of us on a regular basis and would start on a Sunday with the roast. During the week, the remains of the roast would be used in many forms (re-heated, stew, curry) until it was finished on Friday so we could enjoy sausage and mash on a saturday evening.  We weren’t allowed sweets or biscuits during the week, only 2 biscuits on Sunday and fizzy drinks didn’t come into the house! I think I was the only child who couldn’t wait to get back to (boarding) school to have more variety of food! (This is so funny exploring this because we were only allowed 2 biscuits at school of an evening and still now, if I have biscuits in the house, I only take 2 in any sitting – how funny!)

    When I did the exercise of leaving some food, then throwing it away and having something else, tweaked me inside and actually it was my other Granny’s voice in my head that I heard say “That’s such a waste!” So now reading these blogs and exploring this for myself, I have been able to recognise that I created my adult eating habits based on these two beliefs: 1. There might not be enough to go round so eat what you can when you get it  and 2. “ooooh – look at all that variety and lovely treats that I can now have, quick! get it in the trolley!”

    This has been most enlightening.  A quick belief change will set me straight on this…now I can look at my beliefs about fruit…! Wonderful as always – thank you Joxx


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