Intuitive Eating

Growing up, I was always taught that it is possible, if not necessary, to completely control everything you eat. My freshman health class talked about the importance of counting calories. My friends constantly complained how “fat” they were getting when they gave into hunger. My sisters and I each experimented with different diet tips (eating on a smaller plate, so your portions appear larger, eating high protein and low carb, eating only vegan foods, etc.). Food was a burden in many ways, and it was a necessary burden. I can remember dieting as young as thirteen years old, and being encouraged whenever I lost weight and put under a microscope when I gained weight. I can remember the constant questions about my relationship with food from most adults and peers alike, questions like “Didn’t you already have dessert this week?” or “Hungry again?” It was easy to feel guilty for eating and I often did.

I never thought that I should enjoy food; that seemed as crazy to me as enjoying taking tests, or enjoying running marathons. I thought that enjoying food meant giving up control over what I ate. Enjoying food was giving into sin. Advertisements didn’t do much to counter this notion. Chocolate ice cream bar brands coincide “dessert” with “divulging,” “giving into temptation,” or “rewarding yourself” — as if eating should be a reward for only those that are “good.”

The simple, and once bitter, truth is that eating is not for the good or the bad. Eating is a part of life.

Dieting, however, shouldn’t be.

According to the New York Times, 70% of contestants on the show “The Biggest Loser” regain the weight they lose. Additionally, further studies show that these contestants don’t just emotionally struggle to keep off their weight -their bodies undergo semi-permanent physiological changes in the regulation of their metabolism which makes keeping weight off nearly impossible. Your brain has a set range of weight that it considers to be healthy. Once you stay at a certain weight for an extended period of time, particularly if you gain weight, your brain decides that to be outside of that range is unhealthy. Dieting is after all often controlled starvation, can you blame your brain for panicking when, in nature, losing 20 pounds often meant that you were experiencing some sort of traumatic faminine? In response to this weight loss which causes you to fall outside of your set range, your brain enters your body into starvation mode. You get hungrier more frequently, your metabolism becomes more efficient - you might only require 1,200 calories to maintain your weight where before you required 1,800, etc..

This practice of controlled starvation is rampant, particularly among young women. 80% of girls under 10 have been on a diet by the time they are ten years old.

For a time last year, I went on an extreme dieting regime after gaining weight when I left home. I ate way too little, exercised too much, guilted myself into not eating even when I was uncomfortably hungry, avoided desserts and added sugar like this category was the plague. I thought that this was healthy, every bit of diet culture narrative told me that this was what responsible people did. I wasn’t overweight, but I was still told how “curvy” I was, or how “it looks like you’ve been eating well”. My weight was constantly a point of focus for myself and those around me - much more than my intelligence, my personality, or my strength.

I categorized foods that were “good” (apples, cucumbers, kale) and “bad” (peanut butter, cereal, dairy products, meat, processed foods). I became comfortable in this regime and I quickly lost 20 pounds. Although I didn’t change this regime, I quickly found that after this 20 pound mark my weight loss screeched to a halt. I didn’t understand that this was my body interpreting my “healthy lifestyle” as starvation. Suddenly, I found that every “slip up” (an occasional burger, for example) caused me to gain three or four pounds. My metabolism was thoroughly destroyed. I found it difficult to focus, I wasn’t able to work out as hard or run as fast. I was constantly cold and shivering.

 

Not only do diets not work, they are actually dangerous. It’s one thing to eat healthily — it’s another to completely control everything that you eat, all while being completely out of tune with your body’s actual needs. Dieting also assumes a necessary constant — willpower. People talk about how if this person really wanted to lose weight, they would have already — all while ignoring what every food scientist, researchers of the diet industry and neurologist knows. Losing weight is not about willpower; it depends on neurological, metabolic and hormonal signals that no amount of willpower will change.

This past summer, I began intuitive eating. I stopped weighing myself, which I used to do daily. Up until this point, I never thought someone should eat when they are hungry. I never trusted my body to send me the proper signals. I had been counting calories from when I was fourteen to when I was nineteen, but I never felt healthy. When I only ate processed food and felt sick, I didn’t notice. When I underate, I ignored my hunger. When I overate, I ignored the stomach aches and fatigue. I never realized how liberating it is to trust yourself, and to learn to listen to what your gut tells you (literally). Your body knows what it needs to survive and to thrive. It was difficult to listen to these signals and to fine tune my perceptions of them. I learned that I feel best when I eat varied, whole foods and when I limit processed meats and prepackaged foods. I learned that food is much more satiating when I take my time over meals and relish every bite. I learned to set down my fork periodically so that I can check in on my hunger. I carry snacks with me that I know make me feel strong and keep me healthy and so I can focus during lectures, and I know that eating dessert here and there does not make me feel sick - while eating dessert for every meal does. For so long I tried to tell my body what health was, but it was already programmed to know. Not only did I not gain weight, I maintained - where I used to constantly flux, up to ten pounds in a month. I also started weight lifting and practicing yoga - both of which helped me to stop staring at the calorie counter on the elliptical and to build a mind-body connection.

 

Weight is not the most important thing in the world, nor is it close to being one of the most important things. Weight, in fact, tells doctors very little about health. People who are overweight but eat healthily, don’t smoke, and exercise three times a week have the same mortality rates as people in a normal weight range that follow the same habits. Weight does not measure health. Sudden weight gain might be a symptom of metabolic disease, or eating disorder- but sudden weight loss might also indicate metabolic disease or eating disorder. Being skinny does not equate inherent goodness, nor does it indicate health.  

Most importantly, weight should not dictate how you eat. Everybody deserves to eat whole, nutrient-packed food. Everybody needs carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Everybody can incorporate desserts. Everybody deserves balance. No one deserves to starve themselves of what they need to live.

When I called a dear friend this past week, who intictrictly knows my struggles with diet, who knew me when I was afraid to eat, when I cried because I couldn’t stop feeling hungry, she asked me how I was feeling. A smile broke over my face and for the first time I blurted out “I feel so freaking strong.”

 

 

Image Credits: Feature, 1, 2, 3

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4