Were you ever told to “finish your veggies” or not to get up from the table until you “cleaned your plate?” Most of us were conditioned from an early age to follow external cues when it comes to food consumption. This discouraged our innate tendencies to be attuned to our bodies and to listen, quite literally, to our gut instincts.
As we grew up, the external pressure surrounding food simply shifted to falling behind the latest diet-trends. Especially now, with the rise of health-consciousness, there has been a societal emphasis placed on how to choose the foods we eat. Given the idea that selective eating will lead to optimal health, many different types of diets have surfaced.
Whether vegetarian, vegan, paleo, keto, gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, SOS-free, low-carb, food-combining etc., each of these trends boasts health benefits to the consumer. And yet, when abiding by the demands of such a rigid diet, many of us are left feeling overwhelmed or at the least, unsatisfied. It’s easy to convince ourselves that if we push through, it will be “worth it” in the end. However, research shows that the stress associated with following such a rigid plan can not only neutralize any potential health benefits, but could lead to an array of physical and psychological health problems.
We know that everyone’s body is different, so why are we so eager to force what we eat into a mold? Now, this isn’t to say that the types of diets out there can’t offer any benefits at all. For some of us, grains might be a challenge to digest and therefore the paleo diet could offer some relief. However, maybe for those same people, legumes (commonly avoided on the paleo diet) are an important source of fiber. My point here is that perhaps it’s time to reconsider this “all or nothing” approach.
It’s time to shift our perspective from there must be one ideal streamlined approach to what’s best for one, may not be what’s best for all. Let’s take charge of our own eating-habits by simply tuning into our bodies, honoring our inner wisdom, and practicing intuitive eating.
What is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating is characterized by “(a) having a strong connection with, and eating in accordance to, physiological hunger and satiety cues rather than on external or emotional cues and (b) recognising that all foods serve a variety of purposes (e.g. taste, energy) that is dependent on the context in situation” (Linardon et. al, 2017). In other words, intuitive eating calls for eating what you want, when you want.
The best part is, this concept of intuitive eating is something that is innate within all of us. Research confirms this natural ability of humans, showing that young children and even infants as young as six weeks old are able to self-regulate their food consumption based on physiologic and energetic demands. It is only when we are exposed to external pressures and cues, such as the current diet-culture, that our body's intuition is silenced. This style of eating allows for an unrestricted relationship between our bodies and food. With intuitive eating, no food groups are excluded and nothing is labeled as “good” or “bad.” Instead, the body is able to be fully nourished based on what it desires - never deprived or overloaded.
By trying to control our bodies and governing them with a set of preconceived expectations about eating, we have told our bodies that external and emotional intelligence is more valuable than the physical intelligence within us. However, through mindfulness practices and a commitment to tuning into our bodies, we have the ability to return to eating through this lens of physical intuition.
What does the research show?
Research has emphasized the benefits of returning to this natural state of intuitive eating. It has been suggested that unconditional permission to follow physical cues of desire may have significant psychological and physical effects.
For example, eating in this way has been linked to lessening obsessive preoccupation with food and eating disorders, increased body appreciation and decreased depression. The results from one particular study that contrasted the effects of intuitive eating versus rigid dietary control found intuitive eating to have an inverse relationship with behaviors such as binging or over eating. This study also found that intuitive eating resulted in less concern regarding body appearance and the use of exercise for weight loss.
Additionally, intuitive eating is associated with many physiological markers of health such as lower body mass index (BMI), cholesterol and blood pressure. The results of a research study involving female college student participants found that intuitive eating correlated with not only an overall lower BMI, but also lower triglyceride levels, and higher levels of high density lipoproteins (commonly known as “good” cholesterol). These findings support the idea that intuitive eating is effective for cardiovascular health in addition to healthy weight management (Hawks, 2005).
What’s the science behind this type of intuition?
What if I were to tell you that you had a second brain and that it is located in your gut? Ok, so perhaps it’s not a physical brain in the traditional sense. However, your enteric nervous system (ENS) resides throughout your digestive tract and contains over 100 million neurons (that’s more than the entire spinal cord!).
The ENS is one of the three anatomically distinct systems that make up the autonomic nervous system (sympathetic, parasympathetic, and enteric). It plays a critical role in propagating the sensations associated with food consumption both on its own and through communication with the central nervous system (CNS).
Research has shown that gut-to-brain signaling results in nausea, bloating, or feelings of satiety in order to regulate food intake. A review of multiple studies has attributed the sensation of hunger to specific nerves in the stomach which relay information on how full or empty the stomach may be. The secretion of various hormones and other metabolic signals amplify the transmission of this message.
Sensory and cognitive processes are involved at every step of eating, signaling feelings of hunger, satiation (responsible for regulating meal size), and finally, satiety (“fullness”). Even after the food has been absorbed, physiological factors such as insulin, glucose and amino acid concentrations in the blood and oxidation of nutrients in the liver are responsible for maintaining the feeling of fullness. This ensures that the body does not eat again until it is ready, physically.
Overall, the complex network of the gut is programmed to send messages to the brain which are then integrated in order to achieve optimal appetite control and metabolic satisfaction. For centuries, humans were attune to this intelligent system and conditioned to follow its cues. However, though these physiological processes still occur in our bodies, many of us have learned to trust external messages over the ones that come from within, directly from our gut.
Therefore, in order to reap the many benefits of being an intuitive eater, we must relearn how to feel connected to the physical sensations that stem from our digestion. One way in which this can be done is through practicing mindful eating.
What does eating mindfully entail?
In order to best understand the concept of eating mindfully, let’s first take a look at the general concept of “mindfulness.” Jon Kabat-Zinn, author and leader of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has defined “mindfulness” as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (Nelson, 2017).
Just as with any type of mindfulness practice, mindful eating relies on intentional awareness. By tuning into how our bodies feel at any given moment, we are able to sync our food consumption with physical sensations – the foundation of intuitive eating.
Practicing this style of eating requires a behavioral shift to paying close attention to the food we eat without judging it. By focusing on the sensual aspects of the foods we consume (taste, smell, texture etc.), we establish a mind-body connection that allows our experience with food to be driven by bodily cues, rather than external or psychological motivations.
To an extent, tuning into these internal sensations requires tuning out from external stimuli. Eliminating distractions is particularly important as you work to foster this connection to your body. This might mean shutting off the TV, putting away your phone, or turning away from your work when you eat. By doing so, you can focus all of your attention inwards on the physical sensations that arise.
Another key component of mindful eating is slowing down when you eat. This allows your body the time to process the food that enters your body and signal to you when you are full. Often when people eat in a rushed manner, the physical cues that might otherwise arise from your body do not have the chance to register with you and ultimately, are missed.
One way to encourage slow eating is to take smaller bites and chew until your food has reached an almost liquid state. Savor each bite. Aside from promoting mindful eating, this strategy has the physical effect of allowing your stomach to prepare better for digestion by producing digestive juices.
It’s also important to remind yourself that the experience you have with food is uniquely yours. After practicing mindful eating for some time, you will begin to trust your intuition and allow it to cultivate eating habits and guide you to certain foods.
So what should I eat?
You may be thinking to yourself, “well, if I can eat whatever I crave, I would just eat loads of sugar and potato chips every day.” And this very well may be what your body turns to for the first few days of intuitive eating. However, if you truly commit to focusing on how your body responds to the foods you put into it, you will notice how unhappy your body and mind feel on a diet full of refined sugar and fat.
At first, it may be a challenge to connect the dots. You may not immediately associate your fatigue or back pain with the piece of cake you had for dessert. However, by continuously tuning in to the physical sensations that arise before, during, and after each meal, the connection will become apparent to you.
The result of this is that you will adapt your eating habits to what makes you feel your best. After all, everyone’s body responds differently to different foods. For some, a piece of cake every now and then might be perfectly fine. For others, your body might lead you to cut out refined sugar altogether.
Essentially, you are adopting your own diet, customized naturally by the intelligence of your body. Being patient and letting go of preconceived expectations and associations that we have with various foods is necessary, in order to transition to intuitive eating.
You might believe, for example, that eating raw salads everyday with kale and Brussels sprouts surely must do wonders for your body. However, for many of us, raw vegetables can be extremely hard to digest and lead to problems such as bloating.
Instead of assuming that salads must be good for us because diet-culture tells us so, intuitive eating would call for listening to our bodies and noticing how salads make us feel. For some of us with super strong digestive systems, raw veggies might give us lots of energy and feel great in our bodies. However, if you’re someone who’s body craves vegetables but notices digestive issues after your salad, try not to ignore this sign.
Any physical indication from your body is its way of trying to communicate with you. At this point, once you have validated your body's discomfort, you may act with intuitive knowledge. Perhaps this means simply trying some modifications to ease digestion such as roasting the vegetables and massaging the greens.
Overall, the practice of intuitive eating will lead you down a path of introspection and will foster a deep connection to the physical sensations in your body. It’s time we return to respecting the intelligence within us and trusting our gut.
Denny, Kara N., et al. “Intuitive Eating in Young Adults. Who Is Doing It, and How Is It Related to Disordered Eating Behaviors?”Appetite, vol. 60, 2013, pp. 13–19., doi:10.1016/j.appet.2012.09.029.
Linardon, Jake, and Sarah Mitchell. “Rigid Dietary Control, Flexible Dietary Control, and Intuitive Eating: Evidence for Their Differential Relationship to Disordered Eating and Body Image Concerns.”Eating Behaviors, vol. 26, 2017, pp. 16–22., doi:10.1016/j.eatbeh.2017.01.008.
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Hawks S, Madanat H, Hawks J, Harris A. The relationship between intuitive eating and health indicators among college women. American Journal of Health Education. 2005;36:331–336.
Nelson, Joseph B. “Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat.”Diabetes Spectrum, vol. 30, no. 3, 2017, pp. 171–174., doi:10.2337/ds17-0015.