Diving Deep Into Intuitive Eating

EATI have been reading Fiona Willer’s excellent book, The Non-Diet Approach Guidebook for Dietitians, which provides a structured approach for dietitians teaching normalized eating (aka attuned eating aka intuitive eating aka mindful eating). I can’t recommend it enough for dietitians who want to work from a Health At Every Size® perspective with their clients. I’m really enjoying the material and it made me think about how I teach this approach.

My shorthand for intuitive eating has always been, “Eat when you are hungry, stop when you are full.” But reading Willer’s book alerted me to something very important: there is a difference between full and satisfied. Satisfied is the absence of hunger that we need to pay attention to in our eating. The absence of hunger is actually the biological signal to stop eating – not feeling “full.” The difference may seem small, but it is in fact profound. It can be the difference between eating more than we need and eating just enough. Stopping when we are no longer hungry and waiting 10-15 minutes will take us to that comfortably full feeling, because it takes at least that long for our body to recognize fullness.

If I hadn’t given this a lot of thought before, I had to ask myself: Am I truly an intuitive eater?

When I first quit dieting, I decided to give myself a break and just eat. I hadn’t heard of intuitive eating yet, only HAES®, and was doing my best to figure out how to eat normally for the first time in my life. For the most part I didn’t binge – that was something I did when I was restricting – but I didn’t have a clue of how I wanted to feel before, during and after I ate a meal. I did become more of an intuitive eater as I learned more about it, but it’s a process that takes time and practice, especially after so many years of restrictive, regimented eating. Lately my efforts at eating well have concentrated around trying to find ways to get more vegetables into my day, but now I’d like to back up a bit and make sure my IE skills are where I want them to be.

So, because I will never ask my clients to do something I could not or would not do, last week I vowed to really start paying attention to my body’s signals around eating.

Hunger is not a problem for me – I recognize hunger like it was an old pal (although I as a dieter I considered it more of a frenemy). I generally do try to eat when I’m hungry but there are times when this is harder to do – like at work. I’m sometimes a poor planner around snacks, so I occasionally (all right, several times a week) find myself starving and without food at hand. Allowing my hunger to go on for so long – either because I am too busy or too lazy to get food – probably leads me to eat more than I need when lunch time rolls around. Thus, task number 1: make sure I have sufficient snacks throughout the day and access to a lunch I want in order to properly honor my hunger.

I realized last week that I have another hungry-habit that is a holdover from my dieting days. Never a morning exerciser, I like to work out (either at the gym, or by going for a walk) right after work and before dinner. But that means we sometimes don’t eat until almost 8 pm, some nights even later. No good – my significant other (S.O.) and I are both starving and miserable by then and a late dinner means trouble for my acid reflux problem. No to mention we tear into our meal like wild dogs at that late hour, sometimes holding our bellies in distress and dismay at how we ate more than we needed just because we were so hungry.

Task number 2, then: we’re going to eat dinner when we are hungry, which happens to be right after we get home from work. We don’t want snacks then, we want to make dinner because we still have the energy for it. I’ve avoided this because I didn’t like exercising on a “full” stomach after dinner…but exercising on a “satisfied” stomach should be fine…once I get there.

Which brings me to discovering my stopping point. The truth is, I’m often stressed and rushing when I eat, either at work because I’m busy or at home because I’ve waited too late to eat. I’ve also always been a fast eater, speeding through meals as though I’d had to compete with ten siblings for food growing up (I’m an only child). So I’m not actually sure at what point I am stopping these days. I have noticed lately that I feel fuller than I want to at times, and I’d like to remedy that.

(Incidentally, I asked my S.O., who is a very well-self-regulated eater, “Do you stop eating when you’re full, or when you’re no longer hungry?” He honestly didn’t know. He sometimes professes to be a member of the clean-plate-club, but nearly 10 years of watching him eat has allowed me the secret knowledge that he is not – quite often he’ll leave behind food that he is no longer interested in, even if it’s just a few bites. Now there’s an intuitive eater. Except when it comes to pizza, his personal kryptonite, and then all bets are off. Hey, we’ve all got something.)

Over the years I’ve participated in mindful eating exercises in which one bite of food is experienced with all the senses. The Non-Diet Approach… also has a script for this kind of exercise. As you eat slowly and with attention, your body and mind have time to recognize that magic moment when the food tastes suddenly less delicious, your hunger is gone, and you know you are done. While you do want to try to enjoy every bite of food, you probably wouldn’t want to eat quite so deliberately every single time; the idea is for you to practice recognizing the signals of hunger/satiety so that eventually, heeding them becomes automatic.

Again, I have to be honest; lately I’ve been eating at my desk, while working. It’s not the best environment for enjoying my food or recognizing body cues, so I’m determined to make eating a priority not only at home, but at work too. Task number 3: I will step away from the computer, I will put down the pen, and I will be one with my meal. I will eat slowly and mindfully and wait for “not hungry.”

I’ve been practicing all of this the last few days: enjoying my food, honoring my hunger and satiety signals, noting the difference between satisfied and full, eating slower. And I’ve been surprised to find that I am eating less than I thought I would at meals and avoiding that unpleasant, too-full feeling I often get when eating out. The whole point, however, is not to trick you into eating less. Eating with the intention to eat less is just another diet. Checking in often with your body means you get to decide if you want to eat more or not based on what your body is feeling, not a misguided sense of how much you think you should eat.

I’ve got my work cut out for me. But after several years of being diet-free, I finally feel ready to really listen to my body and let it be the boss of how I eat.

For more reading on how to normalize your eating, I recommend these books:
Intuitive Eating
Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat
The Diet Survivor’s Handbook
Overcoming Overeating

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