We’ve been talking about habits and intuitive eating and I’ve heard from several of you that you’d like to hear more about the intuitive eating process so I thought we’d jump in and take a closer look.
The book I bought that brought the philosophy of intuitive eating to light for me is called, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works, and was written by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. The first edition was published in the mid-90s and through the years they’ve continued updating the information as new studies become available. In fact, they’ve recently released a brand new edition and there is a companion workbook that goes with it.
The premise of the book is about how we’ve all been screwed over by the weight loss industry and how diets and dieting have destroyed our biology. As I mentioned in a previous episode, diets follow a common set of guidelines, whether it’s low-fat, high carb, counting calories, etc. Diets usually start with a particular food group that is touted to be the best food group, an arbitrary set of rules are applied which is usually some sort of restriction of other food groups, and by following steps one and two you’ll lose weight. If you think about all the familiar diets out there, they all follow this routine.
The intuitive eating philosophy goes against the grain of popular diet rhetoric. The authors suggest that diets cause more harm than good because while you may lose weight, what you’re really doing is paving the way for a nice little eating disorder. I don’t know about you but I’m so sick of all the conflicting information that is presented to us day in and day out about how we are supposed to take care of our bodies. This is why the principles of intuitive eating ring so true for me, they are all about YOU and what YOUR body needs. Let me tell you about the principles outlined in the book.
Principle 1 is to reject the diet mentality – which we’ve already basically discussed. The authors tell you to get angry at all the lies you’ve been told that have led you to feel like a failure when diets either don’t work or stop working. This is a lot easier said than done because for those of us who’ve been dieting most of our lives, even when you go off a diet, the thoughts are still there and it’s hard to shake them off. We’ve given too much power to food. Food should be looked at like money; it’s amoral, meaning it’s not good, it’s not bad, it just is. You have to stop labeling foods as safe or worse, bad. Yes, there are such things as frankenfoods that no human should eat, but that comes in a later principle. And you MUST stop comparing yourself to others. Only you know your journey, so stop worrying about what others are going to think about you.
Principle 2 is to honor your hunger. Our bodies need energy to function and energy comes from all the macros – carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. When you live in a constant state of restriction, your body doesn’t know you have all sorts of access to food. What is does know is that it’s in a famine state and this excessive hunger is what can cause you to overeat. If you or someone you know grew up with limited access to food, such as an orphan from an impoverished country, you know that they often can’t control their compulsion to smuggle or hide food even after their food needs have been met once they’ve been adopted. This stems from a psychological terror of hunger. And while dieting is probably not as traumatic as this example, it leaves its mark. The first step to recovering from restriction or starvation is to honor your biological hunger meaning that your body has to trust that you are going to feed it. So how do we honor our hunger? By simply feeding it when it’s hungry. I know, that sounds a little too simple. But it’s not as easy as you think. Over time, we’ve desensitized our hunger cues and now you have to reprogram your brain – which you know you can do based on last week’s episode on habits and how they work.
As I mentioned, my struggle with eating usually stems from boredom, but it can be much more emotional than that. For me, it’s easier for me to recognize when I’m hungry than when I’m starting to get full. The important piece of this is to know that your hunger may not match others and that’s ok. When we’re babies, we wanted to eat when we were hungry and then as we grew, the clock is what dictated when to eat. This kind of programming is hard to break away from. Even now as I’m writing this post the clock says 12:00, meaning lunchtime, but I have to push pause and ask myself if I’m actually hungry or if I’m letting the clock control me. And, I’ve had to have many conversations with my husband about not eating at the same time as him. This is also extremely hard because we like sharing meals together, but at the beginning of the intuitive eating transition, I know that I have to listen to my body, and like I said earlier, my body is not his body and everyone has to be ok with that.
Principle 3 is all about making peace with food. Stop being the control freak you are and give yourself unconditional permission to eat. Remember how I mentioned that you have to stop labeling foods as good or bad? The reason for this is if you restrict yourself in this way, it can lead to hardcore cravings and potential binge eating. We always want what we can’t have and the same is true with food. I mentioned in an earlier episode about Last Supper eating. I know this conjures up the image of the DaVinci painting of Jesus with his disciples, but that’s not what we’re talking about today. What I mean by last supper eating is what happens on the Sunday before the diet starts on Monday. Or, what takes place on so-called cheat days. Because our new diet isn’t going to let us have all the foods we love, we cram everything we can into our bodies before the new diet starts. Let me tell you why this is a terrible thing to do to yourself. First of all, we’ve already talked about what restricting yourself does to your psyche. Worse than that, you’re probably going to consume upwards of 8-10,000 calories in a weekend which is WAY worse than to just eat the foods you love when you want. At this point I do want to point out a caveat about intuitive eating – you can eat whatever you want, you just have to make sure you’re actually hungry first. Part of the peacemaking process includes a little positive self-talk. Your food choices do not reflect your character or morality. Remember, food is supposed to be amoral.
Principle 4 is to challenge the food police. The food police monitors the unreasonable rules that dieting has created and you have to scream a loud “NOT TODAY FOOD POLICE!” There is a reason why advertising agencies make a crap ton of money – they are the masters at selling us on what we do and don’t need. In the food game, they use words like guilt-free or no guilt when labeling foods. And what do dieters feel when they eat the “wrong” foods? Freaking guilt! And it’s not just our inner voices or ad campaigns feeding us this crap. It also comes from our friends, family, or even strangers and typically sounds something like this, “are you sure you want to buy that full-fat sour cream for taco night?” Or how about that one co-worker who is always dieting and makes comments like, “no cake for me, I’ll just sit here and enjoy my celery stick and a sip of water.” While that’s more of a commentary on their choices, we still feel guilty if we’re the one eating the cake. The book describes five food voices: there’s the food police, which we’ve already talked about and it’s full of judgment, there’s the nutrition informant which tries to keep you dieting, the diet rebel that typically results in self-sabotage, the food anthropologist which is the neutral, nonjudgemental observer, and finally the nurturer which helps you disarm assaults you get from the food police.
Principle 5 is about feeling your fullness. This one is particularly tough for me. It’s pretty easy to recognize when I’m hungry knowing when I’m full, however, is a different story. The way it works is like this, you observe the signals that let you know when you’re comfortably full. This requires pushing the pause button in the middle of eating and asking yourself if you like how the food tastes and what your current hunger level is. The reason this is so hard for me is that I grew up in a household where my dad required me to clean my plate if I wanted dessert. To this day I still feel guilty if I leave food on my plate. The key here is to remind yourself that you have unconditional permission to eat – permission to eat now because you’re hungry and later because you’ll be hungry again. When you finally figure out how to win this battle, it’s much easier to stop eating and leave food behind instead of filling yourself up until you want to burst. To break this habit you can try a couple of different techniques. If you struggle with cleaning your plate as I do, one way you can help yourself is by eating off a smaller plate. At my house, the dinner plates we have could hold enough food to feed a small family so oftentimes, I use the smaller salad plate when I’m fixing my meals. But also, don’t feel like you have to leave food on your plate – once you get good at knowing what your body wants and needs, the easier it will be to judge the portions you put on it. Another technique is to only eat half the food on your plate, wait 15 minutes, and then ask yourself if you’re still hungry. If so, continue eating, if not you’re done. If leaving food on your plate brings up guilt about being wasteful, you can always wrap the plate up and stick in the fridge for later. Lastly, be present at mealtimes. Being present means putting down your phone, turning off the TV, and paying close attention to your eating experience. Does this bite taste as good as the last? What’s your fullness level? Are you about to pop the button on your jeans or do you still feel hungry? A good way to turn eating into an experience is to eat at the table on actual plates rather than over the sink. Maybe for dinner you light some candles, play your favorite music, and actually set the table with placemats and cloth napkins. Try to not eat in front of the television because more often than not you’re going to focus on it and zone out on your food. When you eat without distraction it will be much easier for you to recognize when you are full.
Principle 6 is discover the satisfaction factor. In our haste to look like our favorite Insta celebs, we often forget about the pleasure and satisfaction that can be found in eating experiences. If you don’t believe this is a thing, watch Julie and Julia or any episode of The French Chef with Julia Child. At the end of almost every episode, she takes the food she’s cooked to a set table and will typically talk to you about wine pairings. Julia was a woman who knew how to eat. She understood the pleasure that comes from eating good food properly prepared. To be satisfying, your meals should include foods that you actually enjoy. Eating fruit when you want cake will not lead to satisfaction and can lead to overeating because until you get the thing you want, you’ll just keep filling yourself up on foods you think you should be eating. Ask yourself what you really want to eat, try new foods, taste your food instead of shoveling it in, give your weekly menu some variety, and don’t settle!
Principle 7 deals with how to cope with your emotions without using food. We can’t just stop our feelings and when we feel anxious, lonely, bored, angry, etc. we have to realize that food is not going to fix any of these feelings or solve the problem. I know there’s a reason certain foods are known as comfort foods, and while eating for comfort may make you feel better in the short term, in the long term it can be detrimental because when the food is gone, your feelings or problems are still there. When you feel like you’re about to eat your emotions, first ask yourself if you’re biologically hungry. If the answer is yes, then you should honor your hunger. If not, then put yourself in a timeout. Pull out that journal and write your feelings down, call your mom or a friend and talk about your feelings, or maybe it’s time to hire a therapist. Regardless, this is how you begin to break the routine in the habit loop; you first recognize the trigger and then you take a different action.
Next up is Principle 8, respect your body. I feel like I could do an entire post on this idea and maybe I will in the future… Accept your DNA. You are the only you unless you’re an identical twin, and then technically there’s two of you, but for most of us, that’s not the case. Stop torturing your body. It’s very hard to reject the diet mentality if you have unrealistic expectations and are overly critical about your body shape. Don’t make it complicated, respect your body by making it comfortable and meeting its needs. This is straight from the book, here are the basic premises of body respect:
- My body deserves to be fed.
- My body deserves to be treated with dignity.
- My body deserves to be dressed comfortably and in the manner to which I am accustomed.
- My body deserves to be touched affectionately and with respect.
- My body deserves to move comfortably.
Write these on a sticky and put it on your bathroom mirror. Stop bashing your body. And if you’re one of those girls, and you know who you are, stop bashing other women’s bodies. What they do is none of your business. Fat shaming has gotten too far out of control. There are little second grade girls who are worried about being fat rather than just being little girls. And for heaven’s sake, say good-bye to the fantasy. Refuse to participate in unobtainable goals. And if your partner is the one with the fantasy, it’s time to show them the door. The point is, respecting your body starts with that voice inside your head. If that voice talks to you in a way you’d never talk to your best friend, then it’s time to tell it to quiet down.
Principle 9 is exercise – feel the difference. Don’t try to kill yourself at the gym, just get active. Find something you enjoy. If the thought of lifting a barbell or running five miles makes you want to hurl, then don’t do it. Rather, find something that makes you feel excited. Maybe for you, that’s yoga, or walking in your neighborhood, or dancing around the house in your underwear. Maybe you do love running so go run. Whatever you do, make sure you aren’t crash exercising – it’s no fun and you’ll just burn out. Or worse, injure yourself. If you don’t know where to start, focus on increasing bone strength because this will help you stave off osteoporosis later down the road, increasing heart and lung strength, and improving your mood. And don’t fall into the “I don’t have time” trap. Get up once an hour and have a quick dance session or go for a 5 minutes walk around the block. Don’t feel like you have to block out huge chunks of time because any body movement is better than no movement at all. Just remember, don’t abuse exercise and get rest. Listen to your body, it will tell you when it hurts.
And finally, principle 10 is to honor your health with gentle nutrition. You don’t have to eat perfectly to be healthy. As a chronic dieter your main worry is food and what to eat or not to eat cause undue stress and anxiety. The book describes healthy eating as having a healthy balance of foods and having a healthy relationship with food. Just make sure you’re throwing in some fruits and vegetables – and don’t eat the ones you hate, drink plenty of water, eat quality fats like olive oil, avocados, fish, etc. and try not to live on frankenfoods alone. Yes, the occasional pizza roll isn’t going to kill you, but have you ever looked at the ingredient list? They aren’t even made with real cheese, they are made with a skim-mozzarella like substance.
The key takeaway here is to remember that intuitive eating is not a diet and it’s not about losing weight. It’s about listening to your body and giving it what it needs. And it’s about quieting down the peanut gallery and reprogramming your inner voice.
Now, go get a copy of Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works for yourself and get to work!
In the meantime, let me know how you’re doing.