I don’t usually share tweets and Twitter threads but sometimes they are so good you need to make an exception.
This thread from the Fat Nutritionist came to my attention via David. Thks David!
“I suspect that like 95% of the food choices people make (when they have the luxury of choice) are purely symbolic. I suspect this because “How does this food affect your body’s functioning?” is a completely new idea to nearly everyone I ask it of.”
We blog a lot about working out and different kinds of training here. And lately with all the book media Sam and I have talked quite a bit about our Fittest by 50 Challenge. One of my proudest achievements, that I started back at in earnest during the Challenge, had nothing to do with workouts and training. It was putting the scale away, stopping tracking and monitoring food in an external way, and committing to the principles of Intuitive Eating. As I reported as last summer drew to an end, it only took 27 years but I finally made it! And I’m happy to say that I’m still there. No longer do I obsess about what I’m going to eat, when I’m going to eat it and how much of it I’m going to consume! Yay for freedom from obsession! p.s. I realize it’s not an approach for everyone but it’s definitely changed my life (made me a lot happier). Here’s last summer’s post about it. If you’ve spent your life obsessed with food, eating, and weight, it may be worth a shot. #tbt
Image description: Colour photo of three small chocolate bowls, each filled with fresh strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries, on white plates with blue and gold around the edges.
It sort of snuck up on me. I’ve known about “intuitive eating” for over 25 years. When I was a graduate student in Cambridge, MA, I used to browse the shelves at Wordsworth Books looking for something, anything, that might help me lose my obsession with food and weight and dieting. Like many of us, I tried diets, thinking that if I could just lose the weight I’d stop obsessing. That didn’t work. Even when I lost the weight I didn’t stop obsessing. A lot of the time I didn’t lose the weight anyway. And the attempts to lose it just increased my obsession with food.
At some point in the very early nineties, I stumbled upon a new approach — intuitive eating
I don’t know if it’s a real day, but apparently May 11th was National Eat What You Want Day. I missed it.
I get my info mostly from this:
Okay, I get that this cartoon is supposed to be a joke. And though I am not familiar with Sandra Boynton’s body of work, a reader of the blog got in touch with me to say her work “is consistently affirming, food positive, body positive, women positive and [she] deserves credit for her work in this post.” So yes: credit where credit is due.
And perhaps in the larger context of Boynton’s work, this is whimsical, funny, and affirming. I can see that. But when I first encountered it, it gave me pause because of the way it represented what Eat What You Want Day would look like. I’m told too that the day apparently originated as a response to our diet-laden cultural mindset. It’s a way of breaking free. And that’s a good thing. But only for a day? Seriously? I want to say: that’s not enough.
First, every day is an eat what you want day as far as I’m concerned. It’s not just because I’m an intuitive eater. It’s also because we’re adults and we get to make our own decisions about what we eat. Literally, at every moment, you get to choose what you want to eat. So do I. And so does the person in front of you in the line up at the coffee shop who wants an apple fritter for breakfast instead of the egg white frittata.
Second, why does everyone always assume that if we eat whatever we want we will choose to eat only cookies, cakes, candy, and chocolate? This narrative is a product of the deprivation mentality that is entirely encouraged in our society. Since veggies and fruits and all that other “healthy” stuff is what we “should” be eating (RULES!), all the fun food is what we actually want to be eating (BREAK THE RULES!).
I venture that if we only have one day where we give ourselves permission to eat what we want and if the rest of the days we are eating plain salads where the only dressing we get is the one tablespoonful that we get to dip our fork into before spearing each cucumber slice (if you’ve ever dieted you’ve done this, right?), then when we take away the rules we’re going to go for the flavour burst foods that we’re not “allowed” to eat.
But if that stuff was always on offer, without the rules, it would lose its lustre after awhile. I know this from experience. When I was a grad student my housemate and I experimented with a candy bowl as part of an assignment given to my by the amazing psychotherapist who was trying to help me recover from disordered eating and chronic dieting.
We were to keep the bowl heaped full. Just buying those mini-chocolate bars to fill it gave us an adrenaline rush. And the first week or say we went to town on those candies. We had to fill up the bowl quite a bit. Less so the second week. By the third and fourth week we weren’t as interested anymore. And today I always have a few chocolate bars on hand that I keep in a bin and that last months. Because sometimes I want salad or hummus or a farro bowl with steamed rapini and stir-fried tofu drizzled with tahini and Frank’s Red Hot, not a piece of dark chocolate-dipped crystallized ginger.
Third, this brings me to the point I really want to make, and that we’ve made many times on the blog before, in various forms: food is beyond good and evil. You’re not morally good if you eat a salad and morally bad if you eat fries. Steamed broccoli isn’t virtuous and banana tempura in syrup isn’t sinful and decadent. It’s food. You can eat it if you like.
I just despise food policing, the food police, and any kind of moralizing about food (other than vegan moralizing, which I’m totally down with even if I tend to stay silent unless asked or unless it’s totally relevant and people are saying ridiculous things to defend their participation in unnecessary animal cruelty…oops). Susan shared a story yesterday with the other blog authors about how she was at a coffee shop (buying a muffin) and a woman came in and literally lectured the owner about how muffins are cake.
You know what? Cake is awesome. So simply telling me that muffins are cake makes me want to say, “And your point is…?” All over the world people eat pastries and stuff for breakfast. If you’re eating muffins because you’re counting calories or fat grams and you think they’re low in those, then you might want to think again. But if you’re eating the because you like them, which is basically the best reason to eat whatever we eat, then someone telling you muffins are cake might go a long way to explaining why they’re so damned delicious.
I’m not the only one on the blog who feels this way about food policing. Here are some of our posts about this topic, gathered in one place, for your reading pleasure. Next time the food police make an appearance, ignore them, refer them to the blog, or tell them to go ahead and arrest you for taking pleasure in your food choices!
Disclaimer: I’m not discounting that some of us may have added reasons not to eat some foods. If I was diabetic, I would need to be careful about sugar. I do have a garlic intolerance that means I cannot deal with anything other than trace amounts of cooked garlic and almost no amount of raw garlic. That doesn’t make me want garlic. Also, there are ethical reasons for avoiding some foods. I’m an ethical vegan who pretty consistently avoids animal products because of my beliefs about the industry’s impact on the environment and my desire not to contribute to animal suffering and exploitation (two hallmarks of industrial animal agriculture). That’s a reason. And it doesn’t make me want filet mignon and veal parmesan.
Held in conjunction with the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival
The Elmira Maple Syrup Festival is a local food festival that has been a pillar of the community for over a half century. Recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the World’s Largest Single Day Maple Syrup Festival when 66,529 people attended in 2000. Attracting even more people today, this festival has reached attendance levels close to 80,000.
There are lots and lots of these “eat x, run y” or “drink x, run y” events. I’m not sure any of them have ever appealed to me. There is a bike race that involves donuts I might be able to manage.
What do you think of these faces? Fun? Fun but you wouldn’t do it? Or are you more generally grumpy about gimmicky exercise. I don’t drink so I wouldn’t do the beer mile (even if I could run, which I can’t) and I’m grumpy about the the skirt chaser race and I wouldn’t do the XRated Run.
Oh, I’m also grumpy about the Prison Break! run too. I was going to say that I’m a big liberal about these things and I’m all “you do you.” But maybe that’s not quite right.
Anyway, of the food and drink related races do any appeal to you? Which ones and why? Why not?
I just got back from a work-related trip to China that involved a lot of official and hosted dinners. What that means is lots of meals with more food than you can imagine, platters and platters of it being delivered to the table in an endless procession. It’s all served family style, placed on a turn-table that allows you to spin the dish you want to the spot in front of you.
The focus is on the guests’ enjoyment, and it’s a cultural expectation that there will be more food than can comfortably be eaten. If the plates were cleaned that would indicate poor planning, insufficient food for everyone to feel satisfied.
As a vegan among omnivores, this arrangement challenged me on several levels. First, the most obvious: vegan / vegetarian cuisine is not as readily available in China (or easy to explain) as you might think. I’d been warned ahead of hidden animal products–minced meat tossed in with veggies (which I never encountered), animal stock as the base for soups (yes, on a number of occasions), veggies possibly cooked in animal fat or stock, that sort of thing.
There was also the issue of protein. Since the cuisine (at least in the area where we were) relies heavily on meat, fish, and poultry, there is little need for the locals to worry about protein sources. Yes, you can get tofu and I did have some other legumes at one point (a local bean dish that was quite good), but I never really get around to communicating clearly about the difference between a vegetable dish and a vegetarian dish that includes protein.
I also felt painfully conscious of my desire to be a gracious guest. What happened most frequently at these meals was that, recognizing that I had special needs, the vegetable dishes would suddenly start arriving en masse on the table. And everyone would nudge them my way — “here, we ordered this one for you…” Protein or not, there was a heck of a lot of food coming my way and I had at least to try all of it.
Shortly into the trip, probably at the second hosted meal, it dawned on me that the top struggle I confronted was that I simply do not like being ordered for. I may be an intuitive eater, but I am happiest when I get to choose what foods are put in front of me. This is not to say I don’t mind trying new things, but entire meals (indeed, a series of entire meals) consisting of new things in which I had no say, turn out to be unbelievably stressful for me. This is not something I’d ever been consciously aware of quite to this degree before because I have never had so many meals in a row of this kind.
It was like the perfect storm of uncomfortable food circumstances for me: incredibly large amounts of new foods, many of which were ordered specifically with me in mind while I remained unconvinced that my vegan needs had been successfully communicated and at the same time keenly aware that I was a guest (and manners matter to me).
I also like to think I’m at least a little bit cosmopolitan and I am for a fact well-traveled, so it’s always a shock to me when I struggle in a new country (with something as basic as the food). This has happened to me in a serious way only once before, and that’s when I went to Tanzania shortly after becoming vegan. There, it seemed like a ridiculous abuse of privilege to insist on vegan food everywhere that I actually stopped doing it while there.
I’ve always associated food control issues with the diet mentality. But I don’t eat that way anymore. I’ve thoroughly converted intuitive eating. But if you think of intuitive eating as eating what you want, when you’re hungry, in amounts that satisfy, it makes sense that when practiced that way it requires some control over the what, when, and how much of eating.
And that is exactly what was absent on this trip. From the first meal, I almost never felt hungry on this trip because there was just so much food at the hosted dinners and lunches. I’m not the only one who felt this way. The colleagues I traveled with had similar feelings of not being hungry. Towards the end of the trip, we actually skipped dinner three nights in a row, one of the nights after walking 10K through the streets of Suzhou.
I’m not down on myself for having this need to have a say in what I choose to eat, when I choose to eat it, and how much of it I eat. Yes, I recognize it as a “control issue,” but I’m okay with that even if it surprised me when I experienced it so acutely in China. I didn’t have it one bit in India, but that’s because it’s one of the easiest places in the world to be vegan and for the most part I was able to communicate more clearly what I needed — less of a language barrier and far fewer hosted meals. Culturally and linguistically, China was more difficult for me to navigate. I imagine with return visits and some strategic language learning, I will do better than I did this time.
One thing I cannot complain about at all is the abundance of fresh fruit available in China. And they have the every best pears I’ve ever eaten anywhere — juicy, sweet, textured, and bursting with flavour.
Do you think of yourself as controlling or relaxed about your food choices?
Whenever I talk about moderation in eating, I always hear from people who have at least some foods that they do not believe they can moderate. These foods are usually things like potato chips and cheesies, cake and cookies, nuts and pretzels, chocolate and ice cream. To a lesser degree, some avoid things like pizza and french fries for similar reasons. They can’t eat just a little bit.
My initial reaction to this claim of the inability to moderate is skepticism. The intuitive eating approach that I’ve been following lately, and that has miraculously freed me from all rules about food and from overeating pretty much anything, works on the premise that when we release ourselves from the idea of forbidden foods and eat what we want, when we are hungry, in a mindful fashion until we are satisfied (not stuffed, satisfied), we will achieve a peaceful relationship with food.
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.
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.
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?