The subject of Intuitive Eating is getting discussed around the internet a lot right now, motivated in large part by Fillyjonk’s brilliant post on the subject last week. Meowser also put up a great commentary on what IE means for people who have to live with eating restrictions.
It was suggested, after I left a post-worthy-long comment at Shapely Prose, that I actually post something about this myself. Writing it has only taken me three days! My perspective on IE is a bit different from a lot of people in this conversation, mainly because I’ve never dieted and more or less eat intuitively without really thinking about it.
In my mountain of a comment at SP, I broke down the principles of IE that work for me:
* Eat when I feel physical hunger.
* Stop eating when I feel physically satiated, or just not hungry.
These are actually the main basic tenets of IE. The rest of my bullet-points (abbreviated here) basically dealt with how to practice IE while having some restrictions or problematic mindsets about it:
* Occasionally forgetting to eat or being too busy to snack or drinking my dinner is ok. Occasionally overeating a little because something is so fucking delicious that I want a little more is also ok. Neither of those things will hurt most people. Systematically doing those things, on the other hand, can be harmful. And doing either of those things systematically tends to involve a lot of thinking and deliberate self-controlling (and alternately self-flagellating and self-praising), so that can be the heads-up that it’s happening.
* If you… can’t sense your own hunger signals because of years of disordered eating/dieting (or other reasons), maybe take a chance and test it a little….
* If certain foods make me feel sick, or would trigger an unpleasant reaction, I avoid those as much as I need to…. Since I have an illness that limits [what I can eat], I try to find ways to be satisfied and full and have energy and eat things I enjoy within those, as much as possible, so I can get past the stage of controlling and into a normal routine where it’s second-nature….
* Emotional health is really important, and includes things like the happiness or contentedness or basic sense of satisfaction that can come from pleasurable eating or satisfying a craving. Unless [you're allergic/intolerant] or it is going to very literally trigger a dangerous binging episode**, cut yourself some slack and give in to those cravings. At the very least, you can try to let yourself seriously consider giving in, and maybe eventually you’ll stop caring….
* If you’re new to this whole concept of giving yourself what you want, and you are afraid you’ll never stop eating and you’ll devour the world if you give in even an inch… take a chance.
….These are general guidelines, and messing them up is not about guilt, blame, or failure. That means not flagellating myself for feeling guilty, either – I just notice.
See, I told you it was a long comment.
The goal, I think, is to just stop thinking about it much at all…. The goal is to just live with food as a thing you interact with in the world, like cats and fishtanks and laptops and books.
I know that’s probably a distant end-goal that might never be reached by a lot of people, but in the meantime, if now and then you can enjoy a meal or a snack or a dessert, for real without punishing yourself, that might lift your day a little. Mindfulness takes a while.
Okay, so I want to add just a few things to this today. I recently wrote a post about the false dichotomy between natural and unnatural things and behaviors. In light of that, it’s interesting to me that I might come across, as an advocate for IE, as pushing a certain behavior because it appears to be the more “natural” option. Listen to what your body tells you to do, because it knows better than Science and Medicine and those artificial man-made ideas! But that’s not quite right. On the one hand, I DO think that we should try to tune in to our bodies’ signals, because we live in those bodies and that’s how we know what’s going on with them. If how you felt in your body never changed and you never had a doctor check it out, you might never know you had developed some illness (which certainly happens sometimes, but often there are symptoms). Most health problems or changes we experience are noticed in the first place because we feel something different. Being aware of that is useful! And mostly our bodies are built to have complex feedbacks and send signals and sensations all over the place. Most people start out in life experiencing the sensations of hunger and satiety, and those are useful to notice, because they usually correspond to needing (and not needing) some sustenance.
On the other hand, that doesn’t mean some literally poisonous substances don’t taste delicious. The world is a complex place and that toxic plant may have evolved to imitate something else that we found tasty. Similarly, our very complicated brains often think about or even crave things that we don’t actually need or want. Being aware of that is useful. I think calling it “intuitive” eating can be confusing, because there is this miscommunication sometimes between what we think we want and what our bodies probably actually need. BUT. Repeated self-denial out of an obsessive need to follow proscripted rules about what is “healthy” is pretty much the opposite of health, because it’s not mentally healthy. Giving in to cravings sometimes, or even leaving open the option to satisfy a craving, is not usually going to hurt you in the long run**. And denying yourself absolutely everything you crave will hurt you: by damaging how you sense hunger and fullness; by creating a false sense of control over not only your body but your whole life that rapidly becomes a source of both brief emotional highs and painful desperation; and more simply, by never allowing yourself to just live and feel satisfied and happy.
As Meowser so brilliantly lays out, this does not actually conflict with needing to impose on yourself some restrictions because certain foods or eating habits might trigger problems in your particular body. There’s a balance between what you can actually intuit based on your gut and what you know about yourself from trial-and-error. And there’s a difference (though a hairy one) between not letting yourself eat peanuts because they will kill you and restricting out of an obsessive need for control over your body. As a person who grew up without any dieting or self-punishment over food, but who now lives with some dietary restrictions because of chronic digestive illness, I know how easy it is to step over that line. The difference is in the mindset. I’m no longer avoiding lactose and gluten just to control my life down to every single thing that goes in my mouth. I’m not sacrificing mental health to reach an [impossible] goal of Perfect Physical Health, because there’s no such thing anyway. I do what I have to so that I usually feel pretty good, and within those restrictions I eat what I want and when I want to. And I try to do it without guilt.
** A lot of my suggestions would be problematic for people with BED. At the same time, there was a good discussion in the SP comment thread about how many people, especially fat people, have been told or have convinced themselves they are binging whenever they just eat something pleasurable, or that enjoying a delicious dessert when they aren’t starving means they are mindless food-shoveling robots. This is not what binging actually is. We all think about food a lot and crave delicious things, even sometimes when we’re not terribly hungry, and that’s totally normal. We all occasionally finish off a whole tub of ice cream in front of a good movie, or because our hearts just got broken. That is not the reason that anyone is fat, none of those things are binging, and unless you actually are a practicing Puritan, most of us don’t believe that enjoying yourself or seeking comfort in the occasional tub of ice cream is really going to damn you straight to hell.