Why is intuitive eating so hard?

March 25, 2015

I’ve been trying to practice intuitive eating lately. My renewed interest has arisen as I re-read the excellent book by nutritionists Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. The second go around, I’m more aware than ever of how challenging it is to eat intuitively. Surprisingly so – after all, it has intuitive right in the name, and its basic tenets are that you can eat whatever you want. Simple, right?

Yet, what I’ve found is that what’s difficult about intuitive eating is exactly what, at first glance, you might think makes it easy. Giving yourself permission to eat whatever you want is difficult. Decoupling food from emotions (whether positive or negative) or from a reward/punishment dynamic – also difficult. Not to mention getting rid of the “food police” in your mind who classify certain foods as inherently “good” and others as “bad” – you know, the voice that tells you that you need to hit the gym to work off that rich meal, or, conversely, that you deserve dessert because you were good today (ugh, if only these voices of judgment were easy to silence!)

Regardless, if you’re used to following a set of dieting rules, intuitive eating feels like relinquishing control. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that without guidelines imposed by yourself, a trainer, or a diet, you will go totally off the rails, sucking everything that’s edible into your gaping maw like a howling, voracious vortex.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, of course. It ends up that one of the direct effects of destigmatizing food is that you become much less obsessed with it. When you can eat whatever you want, whenever you’re hungry, the most difficult questions become ones like, “What do I feel like eating?”, “Does this taste good to me right now?”, “Is this satistfying?”, and “Am I getting full?” Intuitive eating is why there are still two full boxes of Girl Scout cookies in our freezer and why I instead chose to walk a mile to the cookie shop down the street for tastier gourmet treats. Intuitive eating is also why I have a half-full glass of vanilla steamed milk sitting next to me unfinished – because I’m full, and I don’t want to finish it!

Not a whole lot of people seem to get it at first, though. When I was describing the process to a new acquaintance at work the other day, her response was immediately negative. “There’s no way I could do that,” she declared, rolling her eyes dismissively. “I need rules. Without them, I’m out of control.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” said another woman sitting nearby. “I can’t stop eating when I’m full. I eat past the point of fullness. That’s why I couldn’t do intuitive eating, because I would just eat all chips, all the time!”

If you’d told me the same thing a couple years ago, I’d probably have responded similarly. In the midst of my diet and exercise binge, it was my belief that my iron control over my diet was the only thing standing between me and weight gain. But when I started to backslide without changing anything about my diet or exercise routine, and when I later found out that dieting had wrecked my metabolism, I realized that the answers didn’t lie there, after all.

Nonetheless, where did this lack of trust in ourselves come from? How did we learn that we cannot control ourselves around food, and that it’s the enemy?

Since I’ve started embracing intuitive eating (and getting treatment for my metabolic issues), my experience has been the opposite. Though I was skeptical at first, it has been just as they say in the book: when you give yourself permission to eat whatever you want while acknowledging when your body is hungry, you quickly realize that it’s incredibly boring to eat formerly “forbidden” foods all the time. They lose their air of seductive mystery.

Psychologically speaking, if you don’t classify certain foods as “good” or “bad” in your mind, you’re less compelled to binge, because all food is neutral – just different kinds of fuel, some of which tastes better to you than others, some of which may be more or less appealing on a given day. And if you are allowed to eat those foods any time, you’re a lot less likely to overeat. You check in and ask yourself, “Am I still hungry?” And if you aren’t, you stop eating with the knowledge that if you want more of that exact same food later, you can come back to it. It is not the last time you can have it. It is not your last meal.

Food stigmatization can do strange things to your brain. It elevates certain items to levels of magic and mystery. As a kid, I grew up eating “health food” before Whole Foods was trendy. Most kinds of so-called “junk food” was off limits. Naturally, these kinds of foods were elevated to heightened levels of power in my mind: soda, fake nacho cheese, gummy candies, lime jello, cheez-its, goldfish crackers, cookies, Lunchables, fruit by the foot, gushers, capri sun, and, highest of all, Cool Ranch Doritos – the staples of other kids’ childhoods were absent from mine, and their absence made them all the more enticing.

As part of intuitive eating, I went out and got a massive bag of the aforementioned Doritos. As I put them in the basket hanging on my arm, a brief spark of anxiety shot through my stomach. Much like what my coworker had said aloud, what if I couldn’t stop myself from eating the whole bag? In my mind’s eye, I saw myself uncontrollably gobbling it down. And, yet, I’ve never actually done anything like that before. There’s no precedent whatsoever. Why would I start now? After all, I would get uncomfortably full long before finishing the bag. Yet I was innately suspicious; I thought these chips had crack-like powers and could compel me to eat all of them before collapsing into a food coma.

In reality, what happened was this: it was late at night when I got home with the chips and my other groceries. I mentally asked myself, “Do I feel like having some chips right now?” The answer was no. I was tired, I wasn’t hungry, and they’d be there in the morning. I put them in the pantry and actually forgot about them until a couple days later.

On the prowl for snacks to set out for a movie night with friends, I re-discovered the chips and brought them out along with some popcorn, chocolate, candy, and other food. I grabbed a couple handfuls and ate them while we watched the movie. Over subsequent days, I had a bowl of them at home or took a sandwich bagful to work, in addition to other foods. As I ate them, I made sure to savor the texture and the flavor, just as the intuitive eating book advises. Despite my usual habits of reading or watching TV while eating, I forced myself to take a break and just focus on eating the chips.

When I did, I realized that they’re really not much different from, well, other chips. There’s nothing magical about them, and I didn’t uncontrollably eat my way to the bottom of the bag. Perhaps this isn’t surprising to other people, but it was surprising to me – in my mind, they were one of the most amazing foods that could possibly exist. After all, they were forbidden! They have monosodium glutamate!

Now when I peer in the pantry, I see them in there and if I want some, I have some. By giving myself permission to eat them, by having them around the house, and by eating them whenever I want, they have lost their bewitching appeal. It ends up that Doritos are just chips like any other, and, as with any food, sometimes I feel like eating them, and sometimes I don’t. Almost 6 weeks later, the unfinished bag is still in our pantry – I may finish them before they go stale, and I may not. When there are so many other food options out there, who’s to say?

Doritos will probably stick around the house from time to time, but one food I remembered fondly didn’t end up being nearly as delicious as I recalled. Soon after the Doritos shopping trip, I went out and got lime jello – after all, it was another one of my forbidden childhood foods. But when the jello was finally set and I dug in, it tasted… awful! I gave it a couple more chances over the next few days to make sure it wasn’t a fluke, but couldn’t eat more than a spoonful. Not only was it not appealing, it wasn’t at all the enticing dessert I thought it would be.

So it goes. I get the foods I feel like eating, I eat them, I pay attention to how they taste and how they make me feel – sometimes they get to stay in the rotation, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they don’t live up to my expectations, while other times they’re just as delicious – but that still doesn’t mean I want to eat unlimited amounts of them all the time.

As much as I love cheesecake, I do not want it for every meal. But if I feel like having cheesecake for breakfast, I will – and, as I’ve learned, my body’s hunger signals will compensate accordingly.  In so doing, I haven’t gained uncontrollable amounts of weight. In fact, my weight has remained quite stable.  When you pay attention to whether you’re hungry or not, that just works itself out on its own.

None of this satisfactorily answers the question of “why is it so hard?”, though. The difficulty of intuitive eating is insidious. Much of it is internal, though some is external. It’s in looking at a bowl of chips and fearing that you won’t be satisfied with just that amount. It’s in buying ice cream at the grocery store because that’s what you feel like eating for dinner, and fearing that the people in line are looking at it and judging you. It’s in going to the gym and feeling as though you’ve been “good”, or not feeling like working out and then feeling like you’ve had some great moral failing. It’s in Facebook friends’ posts about their latest cleanses, where they claim that they’re not hungry – really! – after drinking nothing but juice for a week, or when a coworker passes up a tiny cookie at a meeting saying they’re being “good”. It’s in the voice in your head that says, “How can I possibly be hungry again already?” when your stomach starts rumbling an hour after you just had lunch.

But what if you quit all the food judgment and scrutiny and just learn to trust yourself? What if you acknowledge your hunger and your cravings? According to intuitive eating, you end up liberated – not only of the dark, oppressive cloud of dieting and all the biological havoc it wreaks, but also of long-standing, tumultuous, emotional relationships with food. And according to the book’s authors, you may even end up losing weight.

As for my journey with intuitive eating – so far, so good. Will it stick? Moreover, will it work? Will it really do all that the book promises? Time will only tell. For now, I can only attest to what I know: I feel happier. I don’t feel the need to uncontrollably eat “forbidden” foods. Oftentimes, I completely forget they’re in the house! And when people ask me what diet I’m on or what I eat, I can honestly tell them: “whatever I want!”

Photo credit: icedsoul photography .:teymur madjderey / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

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