person sitting on top of gray rock overlooking mountain during daytime
One common denominator to naturally thin people: Being active. Photo by Denys Nevozhai

The secrets of being “naturally thin”

First of all, I am not talking about myself. I wish.

I will be the first to admit I have to work hard to be fit. After a while, it becomes more effortless because the habits are so integrated into my day-to-day routine that I don’t even give it a second thought. Some of the habits I have learned are from my “naturally thin” friends.

Who are these “naturally thin” people?

These are people (who we hate) who always seem to stay thin without putting too much effort into diet or exercise, or who may not work out at all. They order whatever they want at restaurants, have popcorn at the movies, and get the full-fat milk in their lattes. Weight never has been an issue for them, and you are left scratching your head wondering how they do it.

Although there is some research pointing towards genetics, my experience is that the notion of being  “naturally thin” is mostly illusory. The only thing natural about most naturally thin people are the habits they have either intentionally or unintentionally made them stay on the lean side for most of their lives. 

I have studied the habits of my naturally thin friends, and distilled them into this list of “dos and don’ts”. This doesn’t mean that doing any of these things or none of these things will make you thick or thin overnight – it is only extrapolated data, as we say in business. But, I find that these habits have helped me and I hope at least some of them can help you. 

The Do’s and Dont’s of Naturally thin people

DO only eat when you are hungry

This may seem obvious, but I constantly hear advice about needing to eat every 3-4 hours or a certain number of meals and snacks a day. This throws off your body’s natural ability to sense hunger and actually eat out of hunger. And if you are not eating out of hunger, you will usually be eating out of stress, boredom or habit. A habit falsely introduced by the fitness and food industry that perpetuates the idea that we must constantly feed.

Introducing your new best friend, the Hunger Scale

How do you really tell if you are hungry? Ironically, the best way to tell if you are really hungry is if you can wait to have the food. If you feel like you have to have the food right now, it’s probably driven by an impulse. But once you start to feel hungry, instead of eating, see if you can wait for 30 minutes. Then silently observe the signals your body sends when you get hungrier.

A common tool that can help you identify the right moment to eat AND the right moment to stop is a “hunger scale” – see this example from this state health blog. The basic question is, on a scale of 1 to 10, how hungry are you?

If you are at a 1, you are about to pass out. You don’t ever want to get there. If you are at a 4, i.e., beginning to feel hungry, that is when it becomes ideal to wait for 30 minutes, That way, you get closer to a 3, which is genuine hunger but not at the 1-2 hangry level.

The hunger scale is an art, not a science. But it’s also a benchmark that “naturally” thin people may have mastered early on in life. The good news is that with practice, this is easy to learn. We can use tools like the Hunger Scale to unlearn old behaviors and replace those with ones that result us being more in tune with our bodies and our natural needs. So going back to “natural need”, there is rarely a need to eat if you don’t feel hungry. There is a reason hunger and all its signs exist in the first place, just like with thirst, sleepiness, and feelings of attraction. They are all primordial instincts we need to survive.

If the Hunger Scale is too scientific, or you want an additional rule of thumb, recall the apple test from my stress easting post. Don’t you notice that when you feel hungry almost anything – whether it be a salad, sandwich, or fish and veggies, seems really appetizing? Whereas, if you are experiencing a craving it’s probably for a very specific food like chocolate. 

By practicing eating out of genuine hunger you will feel more satisfied and are likely to make healthier food changes. Also, you will give your body the time it needs to digest the food that you have eaten earlier and recover. By eating too soon afterwards, you impair that process. As this blog by Jillian Michaels explains, constant grazing will prevent your body from burning fat and lose track of the calories you are eating.

Do understand the right time to stop eating

The counterside of the “hunger” on the Hunger Scale is knowing when you are full and stopping there. The problem is, your brain gets the message that you are full about 20 minutes after your stomach does. . There is about a 20 minute time lapse between when your stomach gets full and when your brain figures out that your stomach is full.

So how do you know when you are full? Well you really don’t, just because of the delay I described. BUT you can practice certain “thin people” habits that increase the chances that your brain will have a chance to process when you are full.

DON’T be a card carrying member of the clean plate club

This is where it is key to unlearn behaviors that take advantage of that time lag. And the number one behavior is the clean plate club – possibly a behavior learned from childhood, or just generally ingrained into American culture. The default mode should not be clearing the plate, but leaving at least a few bites on your plate, Particularly if you are eating takeout or at a restaurant, almost 100 percent of the time the portion size is twice what you should be eating. Even a salad usually comes in a huge deep bowl that should feed a few people. Aim to eat half of what is on your plate and take the rest for your lunch the next day (one less meal to worry about.).

silver fork and knife on plate
Photo by Thought Catalog

Do eat little bites and pause between bites

There is an Italian saying, mangia poco ma bene. It means “Eat little, but well.” I totally saw this every time I visited family friends in Italy. First, I was totally floored by how thin Italian women were. None of them worked out, except for walking (but that actually can add up, as the previous section showed). In Italy, meals are several courses. Unlike America, pasta is an appetizer. So you don’t eat a big old bowl but usually they come in little plates. 

Another thing I noticed is that a meal is really not about the food but the experience. We would all sit around a big table, and not get up for hours because everyone was talking. And being busy talking means they were not as busy eating. I would watch as my Italian counterparts would linger over their dishes, and then cut each small bite delicately, and rest their fork down for even several minutes before picking up the next bite. Again this goes back to the stomach-brain connection. The more time you let between bites, and the smaller bites you take, the sooner you will lose interest in what you are eating because you will be more satisfied. 

Do chew slowly 

Every “naturally thin” friend I have is a notoriously slow eater. You know, one of thosepeople you have to keep sitting at the table floor because they are just not done picking at their fries.  As I studied this more carefully I realized that my thin friend was chewing super slowly and actually biting into one fry at a time. 

Not only does chewing more slowly and just generally chewing more before you swallowed make you full faster, but it also helps with your digestion, which actually starts in the mouth. So do your stomach a favor and slow down. And don’t worry about being one of those annoying slow eaters – this is a practice that takes a long time to get used to and probably will only make you just a little slower than the average eater, at best.

Don’t eat distracted 

I hear nothing but complaints about not having time to eat, but what do we do once we actually sit down? Munching on a sandwich while at your computer is not only kind of gross, it makes your brain go on autopilot and forget that it actually ate the sandwich. The same logic applies to TV. It’s practically an American pastime to eat in front of the TV, so I know that trying to draw a hard line for you TV watchers will be a futile effort. What I would recommend is trying to at least 1 meal a day in silence, and if you are eating in front of the TV, at least close your eyes or mute the TV  during bites so you have more sensory input from the taste of the food. This way, your brain will be able to pick up more on the satiety signals and you won’t have total amnesia about what you just ate. 

Do stop short one bite of full

There is a famous Japanese saying, Hara hachi bu meaning Eat until you’re 80% full.” It originated in the city of Okinawa, where people use this advice as a way to control their eating habits. Interestingly, they have one of the lowest rates of illness from heart disease, cancer and stroke. 

The saying rings true though and goes back to the stomach- brain lag – by stopping before you feel full, you give your brain time to process that. For me, it’s really hard to quantify 80 percent full, so I have developed the “one bite” rule of thumb. You know that moment in the meal where you think you can take one more bite – instead of doing that, put the food down and wait for 5 minutes. If you still want another bite, take one. But chances are you won’t want it. This will become more and more intuitive over time. By doing this, you will stop eating by a 5-6 on the hunger scale, which is where you want to be.

DO capitalize on the thermic effect of food

I don’t think it’s a big coincidence that the cuisines with the spiciest food come from the cultures with the thinnest people. Spicing uip your food with a non-sugary hot sauce will kick up your metabolism and is also more likely to make you eat less. 

Other foods that are known for their thermic effect, are as follows:

  • Lean proteins
  • Legumes
  • Salmon
  • Avocados
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Citrus fruit
  • Dark leafy greens
  • Coffee and great tea
  • Apple cider vinegar

All of these foods or drinks either activate thermic effect by the effort your body needs to break them down, or the antioxidants it provides that stimulate your metabolism (e.g., coffee, green tea, apple cider vinegar).

More: 15 Fat burning foods (Elle Magazine)

DON’T Confuse “Not dieting” with “Not making stupid food choices”

Do you remember the book “French Women Don’t Get Fat?” The starting point being, they don’t diet? And even if you haven’t heard of the book, how many times have you heard thin people say they don’t diet? The basic gist of that is that statement is eating rich food is perfectly possible. But the point is to slowly sip the wine, nibble and savor the cheese, and let the bite of chocolate melt in your mouth. Sample, but don’t scarf, those decadent foods that you want.

There are, on the other hand, foods that you can eat in high volumes that are nutritious and have few calories, are low in sugar, and little to no fat. They do exist, and I list the top 10 in my post here.

DO Fidget like you have ADD

Remember the CICO equation we went over in the Cardio post? The calories out part of the equation includes the the thermic effect of food which we just covered, calories burned from activity, which we have covered, and non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, which means everything that you do to move your body that isn’t actually exercise. Invest in a standing desk, and you will automatically be shifting weight from one foot to another and more likely to walk away for getting random things because you are already up. Even when you are sitting, make sure you are shaking or swinging a leg or rolling out your wrists – just don’t sit there like a blob because that is what you will inevitably become. 


Fidgeting can help you burn up to 800 calories each day (Quartz)

Weird calorie burning activities (Harper’s Bazaar)

photo of woman holding white and black paper bags
Shopping burns a lot of calories! Photo by freestocks

Do run around like Carrie Bradshaw

Whether she was like this in real life or not, Carrie Bradshaw’s character on Sex in the City epitomized a naturally thin person. She never went to the gym, she was often seen guzzling high-calorie cosmos, and she definitely like eating out at restaurants all the time, because she used her stove for storing sweaters.

But Carrie was VERY active. She was always dashing to meet her friends, chase men, run errands, and she would WALK EVERYWHERE, sometimes up to 60 blocks (yeah, if this was a Jeopardy category, I would sweep it). This is a habit I have noticed in IRL: Active people, regardless of whether they go to the gym, are lean. On the flipside, being sedentary and vegetable like for the 23 hours you are NOT in the gym is definitely to blame for a lot of puzzling about why a fitness plan isn’t working.

So even if you diligently go to Crossfit everyday, the key is to also be active OUTSIDE the gym. Manolos optional.

More: Are you a sedentary athelete? (Active Magazine)

Don’t indulge in guilt 

Whenever I see one of my “naturally” thin friends indulge in a treat, be it cake, pizza, or a beer, I never hear them complain about how badly they feel afterwards. That’s because they DON’T feel bad. Because they haven’t done anything bad, and neither have you by allowing yourself a “20” meal, snack or outing. But I have also noticed that diet plays a huge role in being lean. So what you may not see is the person that eats a burger at lunch may eat a light snack instead for dinner, or eat healthy for the next few days.

The key to the 80/20 lifestyle, which I have posted about here, is to absolutely feel entitled to eating the foods you want, in moderation. If you do this successfully, having a decadent Italian meal with tiramisu will not result in you hating yourself afterwards. This is about sustainability. One meal like that isn’t going to make you gain weight. Think of it like how you think of work – one mistake on a project will usually not taint your otherwise well-earned reputation. It’s the habits that we form and consistently demonstrate which makes us good at what we do. 

Key takeway

Rarely is anyone “naturally thin” – they just have natural habits that MAKE them thin. The more you understand and apply these habits, the more you will see it’s more in tune with the natural signals your body is giving to you. Learnining these behaviors can be a gradual process, so try working them in one at a time and add a new one every few weeks. You will see that it will become intuitive.

More: Don’t eat more than one snack a day (Jillian Michaels, for Shape Magazine)

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