I had a request for a piece expanding on my comments on intuitive eating here.
I wanted it noted right here and right now that I am not a nutritionist or dietition, nor am I an expert in any way on intuitive eating. I’m a culinary professional, with a degree in the culinary arts, so I’ve taken some classes on nutrition, but I am in no way an expert. What I’m going to talk about is a fairly simple version of intuitive eating, the way I learned to do it by working with my counselor some years ago, and the way I practice it when I need to. I didn’t even call it intuitive eating at first. I’d never heard the phrase. I realized it’s more or less what I was doing later on, when I encountered HAES.
First, understand that intuitive eating as I practice it is a set of tools. It’s a way of learning to understand what eating optimally looks like for you, so that you can stop thinking about it all the time. It’s a way of figuring out the ground rules, so you can set up patterns. It’s thinking about it now so you don’t have to think as much about it later. Not that you can’t use these techniques later — of course you can, and they’re often useful — but that you won’t have to every time you’re going to eat. If intuitive eating had a guiding principle, it’s that your body knows what it wants and needs, and will tell you if you ask it, and listen to it.
The first thing I had to do was to figure out how to tell when I was hungry. As I’ve mentioned, I managed for years to turn off my hunger responses by ignoring them into oblivion. I no longer felt them, no longer just knew when I was hungry, not until I was desperate to eat — and then often only because my hands were shaking from low blood sugar. (Hypoglycemic unawareness, they call it.) So before I could do anything else, I had to reactivate it enough to be know that it was time to eat. At first, I had to check in every hour or so, starting when I got up. Stop and concentrate on how my body was feeling, if I needed fuel, if I was low on energy, if my stomach was rumbling, if my salivary glands kicked in when I thought about food. Eventually, I became more aware, and no longer had to stop to check, I simply became aware that I should eat something. And every time it falls apart on me again, I have to go back to checking in with myself when I start my return to eating optimally.
It turned out that eating four or five times a day was what my body wanted. That was how often I actually got hungry — roughly every three or four hours. Once I knew that, I could simply keep an eye on the time, in addition to or instead of paying attention to my hunger. So my optimal eating pattern looks something like: Late breakfast, an hour or two after I wake up, because I am often a little nauseated in the morning. Three or so hours later, lunch. Another three or so hours after that, a snack. Four or so hours after snack, dinner. And then a bedtime snack, whenever I start feeling like it, or whenever bedtime rolls around.
The next step was to figure out what I wanted, and how much. I’d close my eyes, and I’d run through my basic food options, starting with protein: fish, fowl, pork, beef, edamame, whatever I had readily available. While I pictured them, I’d see what made my mouth water. Sometimes it was multiple things, and then I’d go with either what made my mouth water most, or what was easiest. I’d run through the preparations I could do with it, and hit on whatever sounded tastiest. Then I’d run through available starches: bread, rice, cornbread, pasta, barley, whatever was handy (or I’d skip this step and the next, and go to a restaurant and get whatever came with the protein I wanted; I love to eat out), and do the same thing with them, seeing what made my mouth water. Then it was veggies, same thing. If I didn’t want protein, or starch, or veggies, I wouldn’t have them. Did I have a craving for a cupcake or a slice of pie or a candy bar along with all of that? Did I want a cupcake or a slice of pie instead of all that? Then I could have it, because it made eating something I wanted to do instead of work. I gave myself permission to eat anything I wanted and could get, and if I couldn’t get it, I’d find the next closest thing. I did what got me to eat something, what worked for me.
Having figured out what I wanted to eat, I had to figure out how much of it to eat. How much turns out to be really, really important for me. Having too much on my plate feels overwhelming, and I end up eating less, and being hungry again sooner or shutting down my hunger awareness. Eventually, I learned to give myself permission to not finish everything, and to not store leftovers if I didn’t think I’d eat them (I often don’t), because the expectation that I must clean my plate or eat everything I make or pay for at a restaurant made eating seem like work. I prefer smaller portions, and that’s the way I eat naturally. This worked the same way as figuring out what to eat: I’d picture all the foods I’d chosen on a plate. I’d adjust the portion sizes in this mental picture up and down. When it stopped being appetizing when I made it bigger, I knew that would be too much. When it made me feel hungrier when I made it smaller, I knew that would be too little. Salivary response was my guide. If I got it wrong, I could leave food on my plate, or I could go back for more (something I hardly ever do).
Finally, I had to learn to tell when I was full. Every few minutes when I was eating, I had to stop and check to see if I was still hungry, if I wanted more, if my stomach felt full or overfull. And when I was full, I would stop.
Eventually, I hardly ever had to actually do all of that. I knew I was hungry, and whatever occurred to me when I noticed I was hungry was probably what I wanted. If I couldn’t get that, or if nothing occurred to me, I could still go through the steps and ask my body what it wanted until I came up with something doable. When I was full, I’d stop eating without thinking about it. All those steps just stopped being something I had to do all the time. I had thought enough about it that I no longer had to think about it so much.
And that’s it. That’s what intuitive eating is, for me. Simple, but surprisingly difficult to practice. A lot of work. But at the end of it, I had a good idea of what patterns of eating worked best for me, and that was entirely worth it.
A lot of people who practice intuitive eating talk about mouth hunger as opposed to body hunger, what they want to taste as opposed to what they need to eat for nutrients, and frankly I find that to be a false dichotomy for me. My mouth is part of my body. Any good cook knows that food must be pleasing to the mouth to be satisfying. Any calories, no matter if they’re from fat or carbs or protein, will give your body energy. If what it takes to get me to eat is a big bowl of popcorn or a brownie and milk, then that’s what I’m going to have, because what my body needs most of all is fuel. That’s the first and foremost requirement. Micronutrients and fiber and soforth are secondary to that simple, primary, primal need. Once I’m satisfying that need on a regular basis, then my body starts clamoring for spinach and oily fish, or whatever. But it will still ask for that cupcake sometimes.
Denying myself the things I want makes eating harder, and it triggers my disordered eating and even panic attacks. So I try not to do it, and I try not to feel guilty when I eat what I want. Today I have a cupcake waiting for me for my afternoon snack. It’s going to be good.