Can Intuitive Eating Help End Compulsive Eating and Emotional Eating?
What Is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating means mindfully eating what you want, when you are hungry, and stopping when your body is satisfied. Although this may sound simple, if you have battled your weight for most of your life, chances are that your body is sending your mind signals it doesn't want to hear.
For example, have you ever stood in front of the refrigerator or wandered around the kitchen thinking, "I'm hungry, but I don't know what I want eat"? Chances are you aren't really hungry. If you think to a time when you were really, truly hungry because you hadn't eaten for hours, you probably weren't all that choosy about what you were going to eat.
Also, have you ever done preventative eating? In this case, you think, "Oh, I should eat a big lunch so I can get through the rest of the day and then go to the gym after work." While eating, you don't stop to think, "gosh, I'm stuffed," you keep eating because your mind is telling you that you will need lots of energy in the next few hours. (But, chances are, if you overeat, you'll feel groggy.)
Or, have you ever avoided taking a slice of birthday cake, even if it is your favorite chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, and instead nibbled on some carrot sticks while at the party, only to go home and start binging on anything you can find (stale crackers, gummy ice cream, raw Ramen noodles ... it's all up for grabs).
Intuitive eating promises that you can step away from the behaviors that have left you overweight, while learning to become mindful and trust your body. It sounds like a wonderful dream and physically, mentally, and spiritually beneficial plan for life that I am truly interested in working toward.
Photo by Susan Caplan McCarthy
Eat When You Are Physically Hungry
A key to intuitive eating is to eat when you are hungry. If you are overweight, this is trickier than you may think. For example, if you've ever walked into the break room and noticed that someone brought in doughnuts, your stomach may have grumbled in response to the sight of this treat, even though you went into the room just because you wanted a cup of coffee and you hadn't noticed that you were hungry.
- Physical hunger comes on slowly, not suddenly.
- Physical hunger gets you thinking about what you'd like to eat; emotional hunger gets focused on a particular food (I need a donut, bag of chips, burger and fries, candy bar, pint of ice cream, plate of ultimate nachos).
- When you are physically hungry, food smells and tastes wonderful. When you aren't hungry, or are no longer hungry, food no longer has a distinctive flavor.
- When you are hungry, you know that you need to eat. You don't think, "What do I want to eat?"
- Physical hunger isn't connected to emotional distress. If you are thinking, "I deserve a treat; I just want to unwind; I'm bored; I'm tired; I'm lonely," then food won't help. (Well, it will numb your feelings, which seems like it is helping, but in the long run, it isn't an effective solution.)
Directed Eating Can Help You Give Up Dieting
When you go on a diet, your mind (or a book or the individual guiding your meal plans) takes control of what you eat. If you eat a 200 calorie breakfast and a famished a couple of hours later, you force yourself to use willpower, telling yourself that you can't eat until lunch. By the end of the day, you've used up all of your willpower and you binge.
Intuitive eating, or as this author refers to it, directed eating, gives you permission to eat when you are hungry. However, it also tells you that you need to be mindful of when you are satisfied (not necessarily full) so you know to stop.
The author really breaks down the details of what it means to be physically hungry. If you are overweight and you don't have a medical reason for this, chances are you don't understand physical hunger. You can't learn this skill overnight, but you can develop your awareness.
Willpower ... - or Will You Listen to Your Body?
What is the reason you feel that you are battling your weight? Do you feel that you need to control your body's urges or do you feel that you should listen to what your body needs?
What Contributes to Your Body Being Overweight?
Use Hypnosis to Support Intuitive Eating
The book makes wonderful sense and the information is built on the ideas behind intuitive eating. McKenna also supplies a hypnosis CD to help you better assimilate the ideas of eating when hungry and stopping when full.
Okay, you may find the title of this book a bit smarmy. But, really, it isn't one of those lose 20 pounds in a week diet books. The information is based on the idea of intuitive eating, supported with some hypnosis. I couldn't get the hypnosis aspect to work for me; I later found out that I'm not the best candidate for hypnosis. However, if you can be hypnotized, working with this book could help to rewire your faulty thinking around food.
Eat What You Really Want to Eat
This is a tough one. I know, you are thinking, what if I only want to eat cupcakes and burgers and pizza and Doritos and ice cream and, and, and.....
This step catches me time and again because I think I'll only want to eat junk food. However, I've learned it doesn't. Proponents of intuitive eating suggest that if you eat what you want, even if you don't think you should be eating that food, you will regain your body's trust that you aren't going to starve or deprive it. When food starts to lose its emotional component, you realize that you want to eat healthful foods that give you energy.
Photo I took of a food I've learned I can avoid with ease.
For example, a suggestion that I've read numerous times, tells you to keep a no-no food in the house. You know what this food is; this is the food that traditional diet books tell you to get rid of when you are planning on "being good." I adored Goldfish crackers. The bar my husband and I went to would set carafes of Goldfish crackers along the bar. And, I nibbled on them there although I would never, ever buy them. One day, I said, I'm going to follow this suggestion from intuitive eating and buy not just one but three bags of Goldfish crackers.
The packages sat at the back of the kitchen cabinet for maybe a week and then I had a bad day and I ate, yes, all three bags. My body didn't feel good after eating that much salt. The odd thing is, I've almost never eaten these crackers since that day. Not because I don't trust myself to buy them (because I have a couple of times), but because I remembered how awful I felt after eating them. If I really want Goldfish crackers, I will buy them; but, now I notice that I don't really care all that much for the flavor.
I have found that I have to work through individual trigger foods individually. I try to follow the other "rules" of intuitive eating, eat what I want, when I'm hungry, and be mindful so I notice when I'm satisfied. This is an ongoing process.
If you pay attention to what you are eating, you will enjoy the food more. Chances are you will even start to notice when you are feeling full, or better, satisfied. Instead of zoning out in front of the television while eating, and only stopping when you hit the bottom of the package, you give yourself permission to eat what you enjoy.
- Sit down. If you are walking around, you probably aren't paying attention to what you are eating.
- Eat in a designated eating zone which discourages you from eating while sitting on the couch or in bed.
- Use a smaller plate that isn't too small. Go to an antique shop and you'll notice that dinnerware from your parents' and grandparents' eras were much smaller than the plates you own today.
- Make your meal visually appealing. Use a cloth napkin or a real plate instead of a paper plate. Serve yourself a plateful of food that looks appealing.
- Turn off the television don't answer the phone, don't text, don't read. If you are eating with others, pause every so often to check on how your body feels with the food you've already eaten.
- Set your flatware down between bites. Put the sandwich or slice of pizza on the plate as you chew. Don't take another bite until you've chewed and swallowed the previous bite.
- Eat the best part first. If you don't like green beans then you may eat them off your plate in a sort of bribe to allow you to then eat your mashed sweet potatoes. Eat the potatoes first and consider why you are wasting calories on a food you really don't like. You can also ask why you are forcing yourself to eat when that goes against intuitive eating. Serve yourself broccoli if you prefer that to green beans.
Check Out Geneen Roth's Books
Geneen Roth is one of my favorite writers on the subject of overeating. She discusses her own issues with weight and she points out that intuitive eating isn't an easy solution, particularly if you are eating non-diet foods that others feel someone who is overweight shouldn't be eating. Each book is an honest reflection of her experiences.
Roth's books are valuable to read because she doesn't gloss over the emotional struggles connected to binge eating.
Stop Eating When You Feel Satisfied
Another tough skill for the overeater to learn. First, try to notice that after a few or several bites of food that it loses some of its flavor. Other actions that you can try as a way to help you notice if you are still hungry include:
Take half of the food you would normally put on your plate. If you usually take two servings, take one. If you usually eat pre-portioned diet meals, then ignore the suggestion to take less because you'll probably just feel more deprived.
After you have consume half of what is on your plate, take a break. Stand up and get a drink of water. Sit down and sip some water, judging if you are still hungry.
If you have people monitoring how much you eat (even if they intend on being helpful), you will probably feel too stressed to notice signals of hunger and satisfaction. You will need to address this situation if you find yourself paying attention to someone else instead of your own needs.
Photo by the author.
Some people have a foolish way of not minding, or pretending not to mind, what they eat. For my part, I mind my belly very studiously, and very carefully; for I look upon it, that he who does not mind his belly will hardly mind anything else.— Samuel Johnson
Some of My Story
I was a slightly chubby kid who became an obese adult. Snacking on treats from the vending machine was a way to deal with the boredom of a series of frustrating jobs. When I was 27 and my mother had a series of strokes, sneaking food became a way to unwind from working toward a master's degree, teaching freshman English classes, and trying to do more to help out my parents.
Food became a drug, a way to feel numb instead of looking at the emotions I was feeling. I started carrying around a backpack because I could sneak bags of chips and packages of cookies into the house without anyone noticing. Of course, everyone noticed that my weight was skyrocketing, but I could ignore that stress by eating a Sara Lee pound cake.
In my 20s, I started experiencing migraines. Most days, I would force myself to go to work and pretend I was okay. This was just another way I ignored the signals from my body.
I would love to say that I've tried intuitive eating and it worked for me and the excess weight just fell off. Nope. Listening to my body is a skill I'm still working to develop, not just for weight loss but for understanding that when my body is in pain I need to take care of it and when I need to sleep, I shouldn't push myself to one more thing.
One of my parents took this photo of me when I was in a dance recital at age 5 or 6.
What tips would you offer people about developing the skills associated with intuitive eating?
Last updated on March 10, 2014
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