I think really that most of us aspire to eat intuitively, to have an uncomplicated relationship with food. You know the basic ideas, if you’ve been reading this blog for awhile: eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, no foods are off limits, listen to your body, and follow “gentle” nutrition. I admit it sounds heavenly. Me too. Me too. And I think it’s terrific for people who have a broken relationship with their body’s signals , people who eat what a diet says, when it says, ignoring all the cues our bodies give us. Getting in touch with hunger–which many of us have the privilege to not experience very often–can be super useful.
But I have so many worries about intuitive eating as a social phenomenon.
We talk about intuitive eating a lot around here since we’re all anti-dieting and against demonizing foods. Tracy is the biggest fan of intuitive eating. See Intuitive Eating: What It Is and Why I Love It! and It only took 27 years, but now I’m a bona fide intuitive eater.
But I’m the worrier. I’ve worried about it for awhile. See The weak link in intuitive eating, our hunger signals aren’t terribly reliable and I’ve written about my own experiences with misfiring hunger cues here, Forgetting to eat? Who are these people? and here and here.
And like me, Catherine is skeptical. See Hidden values in intuitive eating, or can I eat a Big Mac intuitively and Is intuitive eating enough? Inner capacities vs. outer food cues .
So I am going to try to sort out my concerns in a numbered list, like philosophers are in the habit of doing.
First, I worry that it’s often a disguised diet where “working” as in “does intuitive eating work for you?” is measured, in part, in terms of your weight. If there were more fat people, at stable weights, not obsessed with diets or food, held up as intuitive eating success stories, I’d be happier.
Second, I worry that it’s connected to another way of judging fat people. You’re supposed to only eat because you’re hungry. Intuitive eating, done right, is supposed to land you at the right weight for your size (see above). Therefore, larger people must be eating for reasons besides hunger. You’re supposed to be vigilant about emotional eating. So often there’s judgments about mental and emotional health of fat people, as if we can read your emotional well-being off the number on the scale. It assumes that if you take care of your mental and emotional health your weight will fix itself. And that you can tell that people–and here pretty much we mean women–are emotionally unstable, because they’re fat. Just no.
I’ve written in defense of food as comfort and emotional eating here.
There are many amazing photos of food on Unsplash. This is a tray of cinnamon buns. Photo by Otto Norin on Unsplash.
Okay, but these two worries are about intuitive eating as a thing, as a social phenomenon, about the way we think about it and talk about it. We could stop all that. We could hold up some fat people as successful intuitive eaters. We could stop assuming that fat people aren’t eating for hunger. We could do it right.
Third, I have worries about the actual practice of intuitive eating. I worry that hunger is not exactly the most reliable bodily signal in town. My own experiences in this area are pretty wild and they have to do with thyroid levels. I’ve had thyroid cancer and as a result take a synthetic version of thyroid hormones called synthroid. There’s a lot of juggling in getting your thyroid levels right. Lots of things can throw it off and the thing I notice is the most is how this affects hunger. I can go from raging hunger all day, like waking up during the night hungry, to not caring at all about food. It’s really striking.
Lots of women, not just those of us who have had cancer, have issues with thyroid levels. It’s very common. See International Women’s Day and How Thyroid Disease is a Feminist Issue and Why Hypothyroidism is a Feminist Issue .
It’s clear to me now that our hunger signals aren’t perfect at all. They’re pretty darn flexible.
The other group of people who experience this are formerly obese people. As a group they have much higher levels of the hormones that signal hunger.
Here’s one such study, from Science Daily.
The study involved 50 overweight or obese adults, with a BMI of between 27 and 40, and an average weight of 95kg, who enrolled in a 10-week weight loss program using a very low energy diet. Levels of appetite-regulating hormones were measured at baseline, at the end of the program and one year after initial weight loss.
Results showed that following initial weight loss of about 13 kgs, the levels of hormones that influence hunger changed in a way which would be expected to increase appetite. These changes were sustained for at least one year. Participants regained around 5kgs during the one-year period of study.
Professor Joseph Proietto from the University of Melbourne and Austin Health said the study revealed the important roles that hormones play in regulating body weight, making dietary and behavioral change less likely to work in the long-term.
“Our study has provided clues as to why obese people who have lost weight often relapse. The relapse has a strong physiological basis and is not simply the result of the voluntary resumption of old habits,” he said.”
Why does it matter? What’s this got to do with intuitive eating? My worry here is that intuitive eating assumes that our bodies are right about various things, that the signals they send us are correct. But if the formerly obese person eats when hungry, they’ll be eating a lot more often than is consistent with maintaining their weight. Still thinking about this? Want more information? Here’s two articles from Precision Nutrition that do a pretty good job of explaining the hormones that regulate hunger: Leptin, ghrelin, and weight loss and Weight loss & hunger hormones. It’s pretty complicated.
If your hunger cues are reliable, great. If you’re not a formerly obese person or someone who struggles getting their thyroid levels right, enjoy! But recognize that as a privilege and don’t assume that it will work for others.
Fourth, I worry about intuitive eating in an environment where some foods are designed to make us want them. Sugar + fat? Yum! Read here for how junk food is designed to both create cravings and convince your body that you’re not full and can keep eating more. From the article just cited, “Foods that rapidly vanish or “melt in your mouth” signal to your brain that you’re not eating as much as you actually are. In other words, these foods literally tell your brain that you’re not full, even though you’re eating a lot of calories. The result: you tend to overeat.”
We’re not all alike and if intuitive eating works for you, then great. But what do I mean by work? I don’t mean weight, that’s for sure. I mean if you eat this way are you, on reflection, happy with the food choices you’re making? Are you leading a life you enjoy? Are you meeting your own food goals around nutrition? Do you have energy to do the things you love? When I say it doesn’t work for me, I mean that sometimes I am hungry all of the time. I can be hungry 20 minutes after finishing a meal. Hungry again before bed. Hungry during the night. When I am like that I have to ignore hunger because I know I have eaten enough. At other times I am hardly hungry at all and I can skip meals without noticing. Then I have to make sure I still eat to fuel some of the activities I like, like riding my bike. So as long as this hunger fluctuation is part of my life there’s no strictly intuitive eating for me.
How about you? How well do your hunger cues track the need to eat? Do you listen to your body about what to eat? Are you happy with the choices you make?