We are all born intuitive eaters (with the exception of rare genetic disorders / medical conditions). Meaning, we eat when we're hungry and we stop when we are full. We eat the amount that our bodies need. But as time goes on, many lose connection to that skill. So why does it go away and how can we get it back? Can food ever be "just food" again?
If you've had the honor of being around infants and toddlers, you've likely seen this first hand. These little creatures don't monitor calories, yet they know what they need. Some days a kiddo will eat like a bear and other days a bird. Yet somehow, it all works out. In fact, it can be terrifying for some caregivers - how do I know if they get enough if I don't count?
Kids are born intuitive eaters yet many lose this skill over time due to changes in feeding circumstance. Once food is restricted - either the quantity or type of food, children shift into "feast or famine" mode. Namely, "eat when it's there...eat a lot...eat regardless of taste...and eat past satisfaction and fullness." As my dad loves to joke, the "see-food" diet begins ("I see food, and I eat it"). [bad dad joke]
As I mentioned in my previous post, Intuitive Eating is about trying to re-connect with those internal cues. It's about understanding what drives you to eat and how to decide whether or not to honor your physical / emotional hunger.
One of the first steps in this process is to start to recognize your body's physical cues of hunger and fullness.
Don't be confused - Intuititve Eating is NOT the "hunger / fullness" diet. And as the previous post mentioned, it's also not the f*** it diet. Intuitive Eating is about learning to recognize how your body and mind communicate with you and learning how to honor their unique needs.
But for many, we have to start to re-connect to our body's signals. And hunger / fullness are some of the first signals to learn.
Why do we eat?
Let's start off with a little eating 101. When we eat, we typically eat for 2 reasons
Don't worry. Most people don't.
Fullness literally refers to volume. Think of your stomach like a bag. When you eat, you are going to eat to fill that bag to some level of fullness.
However, just because the bag is full, doesn't mean you feel like you're done eating.
Satisfaction refers to the feeling that you like you've consumed what you need, and you're done eating.
Again think about it like a plastic bag. Pretend you're going clothes shopping and are only able to buy whatever fits in the bag. You could buy a bunch of small, items (eg, socks, underwear, jewelry) and maximize the space of that bag, but that doesn't mean you're satisfied with your ability to clothe the whole body (eg, you might really need a winter coat, jeans, a sweater). Additionally, if you're stuck shopping at a place that doesn't fit your style, you might fill the bag but not want to wear anything in it.
The point is that you have to take stock of what you need and what fits your style AND what fits into the bag.
Hunger is a tricky concept. We can be physically and/or emotionally hungry. For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to talk about physical hunger this time.
Physical hunger is defined by the dictionary as:
"A feeling of discomfort or weakness caused by lack of food, coupled with the desire to eat."
" A severe lack of food."
Hunger can refer to an empty stomach and/or the symptoms associated with lack of food such as a drop in blood sugar. There is a physiology to the sensation of hunger, and for that I can't believe I'm referring you to Wikipedia.
In essence, our bodies need fuel regularly. The longer bodies go without proper fuel, the more hunger cues increase and intensity. Those cues can be severe (eg, dizzy, fainting, headache, nausea) or more mild (eg, growling tummy, desiring food).
However, it's possible to ignore our hunger signals. If we're distracted from our physical body (eg, busy at work, running errands, preoccupied with stress, afraid to eat), we can miss the cues. Suddenly we pause, catch the smell of the local bakery and we're RAVENOUS. Hunger doesn't go from 0 to 100 in a matter of minutes. These cues gradually increase. It's like the gas gauge in the car - it's not full then suddenly running on fumes. We were just busy watching the road and missed the gradual increase in signals.
It's also possible to lose the signal of hunger cues over time. If you've habitually skipped meals, hunger cues are no longer recognized. Again think about it like the gas light in your car. If you never completely fill up the tank so the light is always on, that light is going to burn out from overuse. Just because the light is gone, doesn't mean the car doesn't need fuel.
And there there's "Hungry" : "my stomach is empty and I'm thinking about food."
For many, this isn't a psychologically comfortable place to be, but it's bearable. Once you are in this place, it's time to eat!
Before you eat,
make a mental or physical note
of your hunger level.
Don't worry about doing it "right" or "wrong" just observe.
As I mentioned earlier, fullness literally refers to volume. If you imagine that you're stomach is a bag / balloon, most people eat until that bag is some level of full. How full they fill it depend on how hungry they were to begin with and their current emotional state.
What's tricky is many things can drive us to eat BEYOND that feeling of being comfortably full.
Make a physical or mental note of your
physical fullness during and/or after a meal.
That may mean you pause mid meal to assess how you feel or wait until the meal is finished. Again, no judgement. Just curiosity.
Satisfaction can have 2 components. It can be chemical (eg, adequate carb, protein, fat) and it can also be emotional. Aspects like taste, texture, temperature, environmental experience, distraction from emotions, celebrations, social, cultural are considerations when determining whether or not we feel like we've had what we need.
For example, if you're at a birthday party and everyone is eating cake, but you opt for fruit. It may be difficult to feel satisfied because part of what that experience means to you is to connect with others around food. Namely - cake.
Another example, consider the case of vegetables in winter vs summer. In the summer, I love salads - they're crisp and refreshing. Perfect for a hot day. But in winter they're often the last thing on my list. I can force myself to eat a salad, but I'm often left looking for something else. That doesn't mean I stopped liking vegetables in the winter. What it means is that I prefer something hot. So I can experiment with soups, stews, roasted, sauteed, baked, and boiled vegetables to see what works for me.
Yet another example, if you're eating to avoid feeling sad but don't realize it, it can be challenging to find the "right" food to satisfy you. Because it's not about the food - it's about escape. You may end up "taste testing" to try to find something only to feel full, but not satisfied.
Deciphering "what you want" can be one of the most challenging aspects about eating. Especially if you are struggling with internal / external judgments about what you "should" be eating. When those judgments creep in, you become afraid to allow yourself to eat what it really takes to make you feel like you had what you wanted.
Before you eat or look in the cupboard, evaluate the physical and emotional sensations in your body. Is there a certain taste, texture, or temperature that you're seeking at this eating experience? What do you have on hand that might satisfy you?
This is perhaps one of the hardest skills. Some days are easier than others. Again, be kind and curious.
The moral of the story . . .
Intuitive Eating is a journey of self exploration and re-connection to who YOU are. That's personal and individual. It can feel like an uphill battle in our diet central culture of "good food, bad food", but the results are oh so rewarding and lasting.
Stay nourished friends!
DISCLAIMER: The information presented here is meant to be for general education. If you want individual guidance to reach your unique health goals, please contact me or a local dietitian directly
Dietitian, personal trainer, mother, wife, runner, and triathlete staying healthy one bit and bite at a time