Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Non-Specific Intuitive Eating

I tend to make things harder than they should be. (Never, EVER ask me to give you directions. I write paragraphs just to get someone 2 miles in a straight line. I feel more detail is always better.) Apparently, I've been doing the same thing with intuitive eating.

I've been walking around thinking that intuitive eating means that, whenever I'm hungry, I'll know PRECISELY what I want to eat. Like, Trader Joe's chicken-and-apple sausage cut up into scrambled eggs with finely shredded asiago cheese, with a hunk of toasted sourdough bread from the tiny indie bakery down the street.

And sometimes my stomach DOES get that specific, and I honor that request to the best of my ability. (The best Thai food I ever had was in London, at Thai on the Thames in Richmond. Since I live right smack in midwestern America, I seriously doubt that my stomach will ever get Thai on the Thames again, so when it craves Pad See Ew, it's got to be from the Thai place around the corner.)

But sometimes my stomach just says, "Hey, I'm hungry. Do we have any protein?" Or, even more vaguely, "Hey, I'm hungry. Put something in me soon, or there's going to be fallout." I had assumed that "real" intuitive eating involved honoring the craving for specific foods, not just honoring your hunger in general.

That's silly, isn't it? At its most basic level, intuitive eating starts with the non-specific idea that if you're hungry, EAT! And from there, if your stomach requests something that's within your power to provide, you eat that instead of a substitute that will inevitably be less satisfying.

But since I make things harder than they need to be, I've been stubborn and not eating when I'm hungry UNLESS I know specifically what it is that I want to eat. This has led, unsurprisingly, to low blood sugar, headaches, crankiness, and, ultimately, eating way past full because I waited too long to eat and my hunger became overwhelming.

Yesterday, it was 11:30-ish in the morning. And I was undeniably, stomach-growling HUNGRY. I kept looking at the clock and telling myself to just hold on and wait until noon. Why? Because noon is when you're "supposed" to eat lunch. (For the record, no one at my company has to follow a rigid time schedule, so some people eat lunch at 2:30, some eat at noon — basically, we can eat whenever we want.)

After about 5 minutes of telling my stomach to stop growling, the sheer absurdity of it suddenly hit me. What the HELL? I'm an adult with a flexible schedule and a turkey sandwich in the refrigerator. There was no reason I couldn't eat my lunch at 11:30 instead of noon.

My hunger wasn't for a specific food; it was just general mealtime hunger. And that's when it hit me that the foundation of intuitive eating is the simple act of eating when you're hungry; from there, it can be more specific, but it doesn't have to be. The Rotund talks about this in a recent post, saying, "The day I realized that I felt better and was happier and far more pleasant to be around when I actually, you know, ate food instead of ignoring my hunger cues, was a hugely important day."

The best part was that, because I finally came to my senses and ate when I was hungry instead of forcing myself to wait, I stopped obsessing over how soon I'd be "allowed" to eat, and just got on with my day. Non-intuitive eating just creates an obsession — when you're allowed to eat, what you're allowed to eat, the amount you're allowed to eat of the approved foods...and then when you'll be allowed to eat AGAIN.

Eat when you're hungry. It's the simplest damn thing in the world. So then WHY is it so hard for so many people?


Rachel said...

I find that I don't get hungry till around 1 - 2 in the afternoon, but I still struggle with the noon lunch hour internal alarm. Not only are some people hung by the "appropriate" time to eat, they're also hung up over what foods are appropriate at mealtimes. For example, I hate most breakfast foods. But eating a bowlful of steamed veggies for breakfast just seems kind of weird to most people. I do like eggs, and sometimes the hubby and I will fix omelets and veggie sausage links for dinner.

Why don't people eat when they're hungry? It's really hard to break free of both societal and internal conditioning.

Fillyjonk said...

I think maybe people WANT intuitive eating to be harder because they're so accustomed to having complicated rules and moral codes surrounding food intake. At least, that's how I read the frequent criticisms like "I can't eat intuitively because I have a food allergy" or "I can't eat intuitively because I don't always know exactly what I want." I think you're right on here -- it's really that simple. But the simplicity tends to leave us feeling adrift when we're used to complexity.

April D said...

So well written. It IS really hard to be intuitive for some reason. Part of it could be years, decades of training into a "Schedule" for meals. Breakfast after you wake up, lunch at noon, dinner around 5-6pm. (Or later, depends on where you grew up I think or even just your own family). Ignoring hunger to get to these mealtimes was just a part of my (and likely many others') upbringing and so much "training" gets to be hard to fight after so long.

But still I try! Even last night I was wandering the kitchen trying to figure out dinner and kept asking DH what he wanted...finally Ramen and salads won out for sheer simplicity and the fact that nothing else was being "demanded" by our stomachs. :)

TropicalChrome said...

I think part of the problem is that we are brought up in a regimented and scheduled world, and hunger is not quite so tractable. So instead of being taught to recognize and handle hunger we're taught to ignore it until something that really should be pretty simple - figuring out we're hungry - becomes this huge labyrinth of issues.

Twistie said...

I think that it's difficult enough to overcome one set of societal rules about eating (lunch is at noon, so you can't eat it earlier or much later), let alone two (lunch is at noon and since you're on a diet, it will consist of three carrot sticks, half a cup of fat-free yoghurt and a prune for dessert).

The hardest thing about intuitive eating is that there literally are no rules beyond 'if your body wants food, give it some; if it says what it wants, give it the closest thing you can.'

As Fillyjonk said, it's a little scary for people to accept that it's really that simple and that basic.

It's also a big responsibility, in a funny way. You're putting yourself in charge of something that's probably been regulated by others most of your life. Parents, doctors, the creators of diets in magazines...everyone has had a metaphorical finger in the (hopefully) metaphorical pie of what you choose to eat.

Sometimes that responsibility is scary. You don't have anyone else to blame if you eat something that makes you feel like crap or if you find it leads to either a big weight loss or gain...or if it doesn't change a thing about your physical appearance.

Add to that the fact that most of us have been trained for decades to consider our bodies 'the enemy' that doesn't know how to be thin, that doesn't know how to be healthy, that sabotages our social standing because it won't cooperate. It's terrifying to hand your trust over to someone you don't trust - you.

No wonder it's hard to trust intuitive eating. We're not used to trusting us.