As a child, how many times were you told to "clean your plate?" Perhaps eating dessert functioned as a reward that was withheld until you ate all your vegetables. Or maybe you learned that there's "good food" and "bad food", rather than effective or ineffective food depending on your individual body's needs.
It's no wonder so many people are caught in a dieting cycle that gives temporary results only to lead them back to their starting point. Other people are unable to accurately read their body's signals because of a lifetime of conditioned, disordered eating habits.
Our culture is constantly exposed to food. Unlimited access to infinite possibilities to relieve hunger quickly, cheaply, and easily line our supermarkets shelves with fancy packaging and branding. As we find ourselves short on time and experiencing higher levels of stress, it's no wonder that we don't make the most effective or sustainable food decisions. How many of us eat not because we're hungry but because something else in our body requires attention and we misread the signals?
Many of us use food to fill, distract, or console ourselves, sometimes with full awareness, other times quite unconsciously. Our relationship with food spans a lifetime and is therefore subject to the trials and tribulations all long-term relationships experience. A friend of mine who'd spent years struggling with an eating disorder once remarked that food is the worst kind of addiction to have because you need it to live. After all, we can't just stop eating in an attempt to overcome a dysfunctional relationship with food.
What Is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating is an approach to diet created by two registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, in 1995. It's not a diet or strict food schedule. Instead, the core idea of intuitive eating is to break the cycle of chronic dieting that keeps so many people ricocheting back and forth between weight gain and weight loss. Indeed, their primary objective was to help their clients heal their relationship with food.
Intuitive eating, also called mindful eating or conscious eating, involves getting in touch with and discerning our body's cues in relation to hunger and fullness. All day long our brains are managing the body's cues while we go about our business, signaling when we need to move, sleep, drink water, eat, stop eating, eliminate, and so on. We're quite sophisticated instruments of nature!
How intuitive eating works is through keeping nutrition interventions behavior focused rather than bound by strict, out-of-date rules about what constitute "good" eating habits. That means, essentially, taking a needs-based approach to feeding. We notice our bodies' signals and respond accordingly--eating when we feel hungry and stopping when we feel full.
The wonderful thing about an intuitive eating approach is that it recognizes the uniqueness of each person in their nutritional requirements. Let's face it, there are some hard-core nutrtion “facts” that just don't work for some people. There is no one-size fits all approach to eating or nutrition. During a recent 5-day fast, the facilitator asked me if I chose to drink 1 liter of water each morning because I was thirsty or because I have a program running in my brain that tells me this is the healthy thing to do. Let's just say her question made me reconsider my programming!
(A side note here: Some water first thing in the morning does help to flush out a highly-acidic "morning stomach"--especially before that first cup of acidic java!)
In an intuitive eating approach, food choices are made based on a close awareness of what nutrients the body is asking for. Many of us are well aware of the resounding SUGAR!! request from the body that swiftly directs it to the snack aisle in our local supermarket. It's a bit like that.
And that's where things begin to fall apart a little. Intuitive eating has the potential to mislead us in our best attempts to honor our bodies' needs and choose foods that we know are going to positively impact our health.
What's Wrong With Intuitive Eating?
As you've probably guessed, our body's don't always deliver sound messages to our conscious understanding. For example, we often feel frightened or anxious in situations where fear is counterproductive. Or we feel hungry when we're thirsty or tired or craving comfort. We don't want to ignore our body's reactions in such situations, but rather become aware of them, and slightly critical. Are signals being crossed here? If so, how can you manage them?
As much as intuitive eating seems to respect the body's needs, we advocate for a balance between the compassionate, self-aware response of intuitive eating and solid information about integrative nutrition. Intuitive eating should be supplemented with sound knowledge of nutritional and caloric requirements common to a healthy human body, recognizing natural fluctuations and flexibility between individuals.
Everyone starts from a different place.
The problem with intuitive eating is that we are not startling at a common baseline. We are tuning into a unique body that has a particular set of habitual eating tendencies based on cultural upbringing and personal preference, as well as a body that is very much a product of what it has been eating up to this point. If we're used to consuming simple carbs and empty calories, that's what our intuition will guide us to eat.
Hunger may cause you to gravitate towards familiar foods that provide expected relief (and comfort) but aren't necessarily the most healthful choices. For example, in my family, a chocolate-coated biscuit and a cup of tea was the antidote to nearly every difficult emotion or situation! Not only does that create an association between cookies and self-consoling, it interferes with our ability to manage challenges face-on--the cookie was always the much-loved, though disarming, savoir.
The feeling of hunger isn't always raw hunger.
These cues don't always offer themselves up for straightforward interpretation. Ever noticed the tendency to salivate when you see an ad for a delicious looking cheeseburger?
A sensation of hunger in response to an external stimulus is a fairly basic-brain mapping, and our behaviors positively reinforce it over time. Much like certain visual stimuli produce feelings of aversion, or the sight or smell of cigarettes may cause a psychological craving in the ex-smoker, the brain and body are in constant communication with their environment, following "rules" set out by your repeated behavior. These cravings are not indications that our body requires that stimulus, but rather that the brain is programmed to respond in a particular way, and that affects enter body systems.
Hunger, therefore, isn't always a reliable indicator that the body requires food in that moment. Most people believe they're going to starve to death if they fast for a day. It's simply not the case. During a five-day fast, I felt no hunger pangs by the third day. That's because I'd severed the program that dictates a regular and frequent feeding schedule in order to stay alive. In reality, my body has enough glycogen and fat stored in the muscles to keep me going for several days. Once my brain got the message, it stopped sending the signals. (Note: we do not recommend unsupervised extended fasting).
Everything in Moderation, Even Moderation!
We've all engaged intuitive eating to some degree or another, just by virtue of having human appetites. All cravings are valid and worthy of your attention--that doesn't mean you need to interpret them at face value. A craving for sugar may be interpreted as a requirement for complex carbs that help deliver more sustained energy, as opposed to simple carbs that your body burns through quickly. A "munchy" feeling may represent a need for foods that require more chewing, like raw vegetables, rather than crispy breads and potato chips.
Whatever approach you take to eating and nutrition, moderation and balance should feature. For more tips on nutrition, cooking, and awesome deals on exclusive kitchenware, join our Insider's Club.
From our kitchen to yours, we wish you the best in continue to cultivate a healthy, conscious approach to eating.