No More Hunger Games: Unlearning a Lifetime of Habits and Societal Norms with Intuitive Eating

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By Valerie Kusler

Since I sat down 30 or 40 minutes ago to prepare for writing this post, I have been distracted not only by adorable cat pictures and Facebook, but also by my appetite. Twice, I’ve gotten up and made it as far as my bedroom door before deciding it’s not quite dinner time. (How apropos, given the topic at hand, right?)

When I was first introduced to the principles of intuitive eating during my eating disorder (ED) recovery, it was an “aha” moment for me. Of course, I already knew that I had been completely ignoring my body’s hunger signals by starving or binging. But I realized that even before the ED came into my life, I had actually been ignoring my body’s hunger and fullness signals on a daily basis. Further pondering it, I realized that most people I knew without an eating disorder also disregarded these cues, and – so far as I could tell – our society in general. Damn… a whole society in which everyone is expected to eat a precise number of meals (three) of a standard portion (usually the amount put on the plate in front of you) at three specific times (more or less). How do these cultural standards coincide with listening to our bodies’ signals of hunger and fullness? That’s the problem; they don’t.

For those of you new to the concept of intuitive eating, let’s take a look at how three of the movement’s leaders conceptualize it and what their guidelines are for practicing it.

Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD and Elyse Resch, MS, RD, FADA

Evelyn and Elyse are the authors of the original book on the topic, Intuitive Eating, now in its 2nd edition. Their website has a wealth of information on the topic including a fantastic resources section.

In their words,Intuitive Eating is an approach that teaches you how to create a healthy relationship with your food, mind, and body–where you ultimately become the expert of your own body. You learn how to distinguish between physical and emotional feelings, and gain a sense of body wisdom. It’s also a process of making peace with food–so you no longer have constant ‘food worry’ thoughts. You begin to realize that health and your worth as a person does not change because you ate a so-called ‘bad’ or ‘fattening’ food.”

Tribole & Resch’s 10 Principles for Intuitive Eating

  1. Reject the Diet Mentality
  2. Honor Your Hunger
  3. Make Peace with Food
  4. Challenge the Food Police
  5. Respect Your Fullness
  6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
  7. Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food
  8. Respect Your Body
  9. Exercise [for the right reasons]–Feel the Difference
  10. Honor Your Health–Gentle Nutrition

Geneen Roth

After 20 years of dieting and over 1000 pounds gained and lost (via dieting, binging, and a full-blown eating disorder), Geneen began writing about her journey away from dieting. Her books, Breaking Free from Emotional Eating, When Food is Love, and Women Food and God (among others) along with regular workshops and retreats, have helped millions of people make peace with food and their bodies. I actually credit one of Geneen’s retreats I went to in 2005 as a significant piece of my ED recovery and repairing my relationship with food.

Geneen’s eating philosophy is her personal variant of intuitive eating. Her seven eating guidelines include:

  1. Eat when you are hungry.
  2. Eat sitting down in a calm environment. This does not include the car.
  3. Eat without distractions. Distractions include: radio, television, newspapers, books, intense or anxiety-producing conversations, and music.
  4. Eat only what your body wants.
  5. Eat until you are satisfied.
  6. Eat (with the intention of being) in full view of others.
  7. Eat with enjoyment, gusto, and pleasure.

Susie Orbach

Susie revolutionized the field of body image with her 1978 book, Fat is a Feminist Issue. In one of her most recent books, On Eating, Susie offers a compassionate, to-the-point guide to intuitive eating with what she calls “the five keys.”

First Key: Eat when you are hungry

Second Key: Eat the food your body is hungry for

Third Key: Find out why you eat when you aren’t hungry

Fourth Key: Taste every mouthful

Fifth Key: Stop eating the moment you are full

As you can see, there’s a lot of overlap among just these three examples. I would encourage you to check each of them out and see which one speaks to you the most, because each author brings something different to the table.

I am proud to say that through a combination of support and hard work, I am fully recovered from my eating disorder. Intuitive eating has become such a part of my everyday life that I could no longer tell you what the exact principles were according to which expert—which is why I had to look them up to provide for you here! To me, that’s a good thing. At one point, I needed constant reminders. These days, it feels like second nature most of the time. Key words: “most of the time.” This evening, however, I let myself get too hungry (note to self: pack car snacks). But instead of picking up fast food and gorging it on the way home, I waited until I got home and had some hummus and crackers to tide me over so I could wait to make a meal I’d actually enjoy rather than inhale.

Then, I sat down to write. Shortly after my snack and the aforementioned procrastinating (curse you, Zuckerberg!), I convinced myself I was hungry for dinner. Really hungry, like, definitely couldn’t wait until this was written hungry. But en route to the kitchen, I froze. I suddenly realized that I was confusing what my brain wanted with what my body wanted. Was my body actually hungry? No, I had just had a filling snack. But my brain wanted to avoid having to be productive for a little bit longer, and eating seemed like a good excuse/alternative (as it often does when our brains want to avoid thinking about/feeling/doing ________.) I laughed out loud, thinking, “Did I seriously just fool myself into creating fake hunger while trying to write a post about intuitive eating?!”

The point of me sharing this anecdote with you is because, after years of practicing intuitive eating, I thought it became second nature: Eat when I’m hungry, stop when I’m full. Yet, I found myself in a situation where I was manifesting hunger in my brain, but not in my body. The longer I have followed intuitive eating, the more often my brain and my body are in sync about hunger. For example, at least once a day, I crave chocolate but it doesn’t take a ton to satisfy me. I also crave vegetables daily, which I used to eat purely because they were low-calorie or because I was “supposed to.”

But as I witnessed tonight, sometimes things come up that throw your body (letting myself get too hungry) or your brain (wanting to avoid something) out of whack. Even though I have a lot of practice listening to my hunger and fullness cues, situations like this remind me that unlearning a lifetime of conditioning is an ongoing process. That means I may occasionally slip up, or sometimes may need to refocus my attention in the moment and remind myself of some of the guidelines above. But the payoff is huge. When you become more familiar with your body’s signals and follow the principles of intuitive eating, it is an amazing feeling. It’s also the be-all, end-all diet killer. Your body will reach its natural set weight, perhaps fluctuating a few pounds here and there, often seasonally. For some people this means losing the extra pounds they’ve always struggled to drop. However, a cautionary note: As discussed over at Body Love Wellness, “practicing intuitive eating with the expectation of weight loss really screws up your ability to eat intuitively.” (If you still need more incentive to ditch the diet this year, check out our recent post.)

I hope that you’re encouraged to become more familiar with the principles of intuitive eating and tweak the guidelines to make them fit for you. As you become more in tune  with your body’s cues, it can be helpful to keep a journal where you can track your hunger and fullness before and after each time you eat. As Susie Orbach wrote, “Undoing years of chaotic or unhealthy eating takes time. Learning to eat in a new way, a way that will work for you for the rest of your life, is like an injured person learning to walk or talk again.” It won’t come overnight, but the results are worth it.

If you have any thoughts or experiences with intuitive eating, or if it’s a new concept to you, we’d love to hear your feedback in the comments. On that note, my body is telling me it’s finally time to eat!

Related Content:

Dare to Resolve to Ditch Dieting

Girls and Dieting: Then and Now

How Diets Decrease Your Self-Esteem and Not Your Size!

Three Steps to Transform the National Weight Debate

Scale Back: It’s International No Diet Day!

 

 

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  1. I love, love, love Intuitive Eating. It helped me so much with my eating disorder. I should reread it! And Geneen is wonderful. I’ve only read “Women, Food, and God,” but it’s incredible.