We’re all born with the ability to eat intuitively, to listen to our body’s needs, to eat nourishing foods when we’re hungry, to stop when we’re full. It’s our default setting; our natural state. Even just writing that out right now, it’s such a “duh” that I can’t believe how easy and common it is for people to lose this ability, but it is. I stopped eating intuitively when I was a kid. I can’t pinpoint one exact moment that my sense of hunger became more emotional than physical, but I remember lots of little moments that helped redefine my relationship with food:
- When I realized that eating half a box of Cheez-Its after school made me feel numb to the mean things my classmates had said to me that day.
- When my grandma literally stuffed cookies into my mouth while saying, “Don’t get fat.”
- When I started eating tons of refined carbs to self-medicate my ADD.
- When I learned to lean on food for emotional support.
And even beyond all that, I just genuinely love food. Always have. I view it as one of life’s great pleasures, but like any pleasure, overdoing it is a surefire way to take all the pleasure out of it.
I do remember the exact moment I decided I wanted to change my eating habits: it was Christmas, just a few weeks ago. I was lying on the couch with a massive stomach ache. In the spirit of celebration, I’d “treated myself” to a steady stream of rich desserts and decadent meals for the entire day, and I felt awful. My stomach hurt. I felt bloated and heavy. Instead of being grateful for all the amazing foods I’d enjoyed that day, I never wanted to look at a wheel of baked brie again. “Enough,” I moaned. “I don’t want to feel like this anymore.”
I decided that I was going to start listening to my body when it came to eating. I didn’t want to focus on losing weight or counting calories, I wanted to focus on getting reacquainted with my body’s real needs, and feeling better in the process. So for the past few weeks I’ve been doing what I call “intuitive eating.” It is not in any way a diet, it’s just a different way of approaching food, eating, and my relationship with my body. It’s about eating healthier not because I want to shrink or change the shape of my body, but because I want to honor it and keep it running properly.
All of this might seem extremely basic, but it feels pretty revolutionary to me.
Eating intuitively has meant dismantling a ton of habits — big and small — and listening to my body’s ever-changing needs instead of abiding by old patterns. Here are some things I’ve changed and learned so far. (Again, the whole point of this intuitive eating thing is to figure out what feels right for me, so it’s very possible that none of this will apply to you. That’s OK. I think it’s still valuable to share my experiences and challenges.)
I stopped eating breakfast right when I wake up. For years, I dutifully toasted a piece of wheat bread as soon as I woke up, regardless of whether I felt hungry or not. As part of my new plan, now I wait til I’m hungry to eat breakfast, and I’ve found that I usually don’t feel like eating my first meal of the day until 10:30 or so. Until then, I sip coffee or tea, and if I feel a bit peckish, eat a piece of fruit. I know this goes against all the rules of “jump starting your metabolism” and such, but it makes sense to me, and I’ve noticed my energy level is steadier throughout the day when I hold off on breakfast.
I eat slower. It’s been said so many times, but it’s impossible to tune into your natural impulses when you’re scarfing down a burrito in record time. Slowing down, giving myself time to chew and taste my food completely, to savor it, also gives me time to check in with myself and hear that first little whisper of “I might be getting full now.”
I’ve started craving healthier foods. When I really, truly listen to my body, I don’t crave crappy food or a truckload of carbs and sugar. I’ve been eating a ton of fruits and veggies because honestly, that’s what sounds good to me most of the time. It makes sense, too: of course my body craves natural, whole foods that will keep it healthy and energized.
I don’t do anything else while eating. I just eat. A few years ago, Nick and I stopped watching TV while we eat, which has been great, but recently I’d gotten into the habit of eating lunch at my desk while writing, emailing, or surfing the web. I barely noticed the food that was going into my mouth, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to get hungry within an hour of eating lunch, probably because I ate so quickly and mindlessly that the meal barely registered. Now I try to actually focus on my food while I’m eating it, preferably far away from my work station. It makes a huge difference.
I’ve had to rethink dinnertime portions. Nick and I both love to cook, so dinners — even random weeknight dinners — tend to be a fairly big production. We listen to music and make a huge meal from scratch. I’ve realized I tend to overeat at dinnertime, not only because the food tastes great, but because there’s a part of me that feels like I need to eat a lot to sort of recoup all the effort it took to prepare the meal. Like, if it took us an hour to cook something, I might as well eat two plates full of it, right? I’m trying to teach myself to let go of that twisted logic and just listen to my body. When I’m full, I’m full, no matter how amazing the food is or how long it took to prepare. Plus, hello, leftovers!
I don’t deprive myself, so I don’t feel deprived. I didn’t approach my new eating habits from a “dieting” perspective, which has helped me avoid common diet pitfalls such as feeling deprived or thinking, “Since I only get to eat ice cream once a week now, I better eat the whole carton!” I want to eat in a way that’s nourishing and healthy without making me feel hungry and angry and deprived. Intuitive eating, for me, means eating exactly what I want. As I mentioned above, I’ve been wanting to eat more fruits and veggies lately, but sometimes I want to eat a croissant or some Junior Mints. So I do, but I savor them, and I stop when I’m full.
I feel better in my body. I don’t have a scale, so I don’t know if my overhauled eating habits have created a measurable result in the size of my waist or the width of my thighs, but I do know that I feel more in tune with my body than I have in a long time. I’ve written before about how disordered eating and body image issues can create a feeling of disconnect between your body and your spirit. Eating intuitively has been a way for me to connect with my physical self in a positive way. I’ve been trying really hard to listen to my body, nurture it, and foster that connection. And let me tell you, even if I never lose a pound, it’s already been so worth it.
[Photo via Shutterstock]