In the days of incessant dieting, the concept of “intuitive eating” is alluring and it is somewhat of a trending topic as of late in the health community.
I can eat whatever I want?
Yes, actually you can!
But, there is a but (of course). A beautiful little caveat.
The Key to Intuitive Eating:
In order for your body to give you the proper signals of what it needs, it needs to be fed well in the first place.
Think of it this way, for a tomato plant to grow and pull in the nutrients it needs and position itself appropriately to sunlight, it needs nutrient dense soil, plenty of water, access to sunlight, and proper support. A tomato seed will not sprout let alone thrive if it’s covered with a layer of gunk and it’s only source of food is Gatorade. We know this innately and if you’re a movie buff, you saw it play out in Idiocracy (one of the most brilliantly stupid movies that I have ever seen - I actually think my IQ lowered watching it but that is a testament to the brilliance of the film).
Likewise, you cannot expect your body to tell your brain “mmm I would love a nice salmon fillet and a big salad with some cheese and olives for dinner,” if you fancy a candy bar and energy drink for breakfast and a chemically infused cheese burger, processed bun, and sodium ladened, inflammatory fries for lunch - nearly all void of nutrients. No, those food-like products when eaten on the daily actually confuse your brain and can cause impaired memory and learning, anxiety, depression and can lead to a number of diseases (more on that here).
What we eat and drink literally fuels every single part of our body, including our brain.
This post isn’t to deter you from ever reaching for a container of full fat delicious ice cream, or from chowing down on a sodium-rich (hopefully responsibly raised) hotdog, or indulging in a cocktail on occasion, but it is to give you encouragement to make those indulgences 5-20% of your diet and 80-95% real whole foods as close to their natural state as possible for the rest of your diet. The 80/20ish is something that I have embraced in my life for many years and I have found it has not only worked for me but it is has made it possible for me to naturally and authentically eat intuitively.
To be healthy, you do not need to be restricted. In fact, that is a contributor to an unhealthy lifestyle and detrimental to both for your physical and emotional wellbeing. Restriction is not a sign of willpower, the willpower comes with the balance.
Eating can be very joyous and pleasurable. And, indulging is not only good for your body for harmony but your mind and soul as well. Food and particularly sharing both cooking and eating with others has been ingrained in cultures all over the world for hundreds of years. Very few things beat sitting around a table with loved ones and enjoying a wholesome home cooked meal filled with nutrient dense delightful bites. I’m a firm believer that if something is homemade and made with love - it has health benefits no matter what the ingredients are (so please, welcome Grandma’s Chocolate Cake on special occasions!). BTW, there are numerous quantifiable studies that have been done on the importance of dining together, hit up Google if you’d like to dig in.
I’ve talked to some who follow a strict 80/20 or 90/10 rule and follow the guideline during the week and binge on the weekends. While this may seem tempting, I caution you as this could be a wide open door to disordered eating. Binging in any form does not typically set us up for success. I prefer to get my 5-10-20% daily with delicious dark chocolate, coffee (if you consider that an indulgence), some olive or avocado oil potato chips here and there, some oat bread (though I’d argue that’s part of the 80%), or a gluten free cookie etc.
When your body is fed with nutrient dense whole foods, it’s set up to intuitively feel and give your brain signals on what you are truly craving. If you’re like me those cravings are: Salmon, dark chocolate, fresh veggies, a big bowl of fruit, nuts, oats, eggs, a (preferably venison) steak, and yes even some french fries, chips, french toast, pizza, and ice cream every so often. This is when you can begin to form a trusting relationship with your body. After fueling your body (80-90% of the time) with nutrient dense foods, if your body wants something you consider an indulgence, chances are you should trust it and just eat the thing. I don’t recommend curbing that craving with a substitute - rarely does that work long term. A few macadamia nuts will not take your french fry craving away. The key, is setting your body up for success to give those true intuitive signals in the first place. When you do this you will have less urgent cravings for purely indulgent foods.
A couple of rule of thumb guides around cravings:
If the thought of it makes your mouth water, the craving is not coming from your body’s intuition (unfortunate I know!) and it’s not hunger
If the craving is urgent but you are not actually feeling hungry, it’s not coming from your body’s intuition and it’s not hunger
If the craving is urgent and you are hungry, it may be your body’s intuition - start off with nutrient dense foods and eat slowly to determine how much or how little (or any at all) of the indulgence you truly need
Hunger is often gradual and lends you the ability to make thoughtful decisions on what you will eat
You can absolutely still follow a craving but just be aware of that situation so that you can eat more mindfully
We are bombarded with diet plans, weight-loss regimens, and images of what we should look like yet surrounded by food-like products that don’t support our wellbeing. It’s no wonder so many people feel at a loss.
Paleo, Keto, Raw, Raw Vegan, Macrobiotic, <insert trend here,> all work for a time despite their polarity. Why? Because they all (if followed correctly) eliminate processed food and introduce more natural foods. You do this and you will feel better and you will almost definitely shed some pounds, it’s that simple. Not only that, but folks who adopt these trendy diets usually start changing other aspects of their health too. They start working out more, walking, meditating, listening to self-help podcasts, reading self-help books, taking up different fun and playful activities such as SUP or dancing - you do this all in combination with removing processed foods and you are going to feel better regardless of which trendy path you take with your meals.
The diet and weight-loss market in America is worth 72 billion dollars annually (2019 research report). While folks are taking less diet-pills a trend of the 80s and 90s, and taking on more do-it-yourself programs (i.e. read something online and then do it), remember by following someone else’s plan - you are denying yourself the chance to learn about what works for you. There is nothing wrong with researching but remember that your body has all of the answers when given the opportunity.
You know more than you think do when it comes to what to eat.