food · overeating

Four worries Sam has about intuitive eating

Blue sky, grey water. A man wearing a suit up to his chest in water. He's got a very worried face and he's running his hands through his hair.
Search for “worries” on Unsplash and you get this guy. I’d be worried too if I were wearing a suit and I was up to my chest in water. Photo by Mubariz Mehdizadeh on Unsplash.

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.

Photo of yummy looking cinnamon buns with frosting.

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?

Weekends with Womack

Food Fighting—when we say no to “good” food and yes to “bad” food

This week I’ve been reading and writing about intuitive eating, and thinking more about the meanings food has for us—the humans. I’ve been blogging a bit about this lately here and here.  What we eat, why we eat what we do, and what food does for us are all really fascinating and complicated questions, with no easy or one-size-fits-all answers. Our families, our cultural, ethnic, racial, regional and national traditions, our cooking know-how, our incomes, our biological variations—all these contribute to what we eat and what it means to us.

Lately I’ve been thinking about food as resistance, food as anti-authoritarian means of control, food as a way of acting out against, well, whatever. This reminds me of a scene from 1953 movie The Wild One, with Marlon Brando. The scene is here and the quote is this:

Mildred: Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?

Johnny: Whadda you got?

brando

Maybe Brando didn’t have this in mind, but food is a prime way of rebelling against whatever they got.

Catrin Smith has a really interesting article on women prisoners’ attitudes about food in prison. They have two sources of food—the prison cafeteria, which serves institutional, non-tasty but supposedly nutritionally balanced food, and the prison store, which sells cookies, chips, and other snack foods, which are high in sugar, salt, and fat content. In nutritional terms, the cafeteria food is “good” and the store food is “bad”. However, Smith found in her interviews with the women prisoners that

“Prison food is frequently defined as ‘bad’, in that it remains symbolic, irrespective of its actual quality, of disciplinary control. Here, controlling a prisoner’s intake of food can be seen as an important means of exerting power in a context in which a woman is rendered a subject to the regulations of the institution. Women prisoners are relegated to a child-like state – told when and what to eat – and food becomes associated with penal authority and denial.

Not surprisingly, prison food and eating practices, in turn, become a powerful focus of frustration and anger. At the same time, ‘bad’ food, as defined in dominant nutritional discourses and the women’s own accounts, becomes a source of pleasure (hence ‘good’), not least because of its taste but also because of its very power and status as ‘forbidden’.

Attempts to control the diet of women prisoners so that they ‘conform’ to the imperatives of the institution, or even, for that matter, to the demands of ‘good health’, may therefore be resisted or ignored in favour of the release offered by ‘unhealthy’ food and dietary behaviour.”

This phenomenon is pretty common—we see “good” food resistance also in students who reject or throw away cafeteria food, resulting in lots of waste and also loss of nutritional intake. What are they eating instead? A la carte items like fries, burgers, pizza, chicken fingers, for one.

friesFor another, lots of schools get revenue from vending machine purchases of sodas, energy drinks, and all kinds of snack foods.

vendingPolicies vary a lot from school to school about student access to vending machines, but they are a part of student eating in many schools. Also, many high schools have policies allowing students to eat off-campus, at places like this.

mcdsI remember well that feeling (for me, starting in college) of freedom to go where I wanted, select my own meals, and control when I eat and how much. It was for me in some ways a vehicle for rebelling against parental authority. My mother denied my sister and me regular access to sugary cereals, snack cakes, chips, candy, etc. Of course this was for our own good, but when I got to college and went to a friend’s apartment, I remember seeing this in his kitchen cupboard.

debbieNow, I don’t actually LIKE this kind of food (probably because I didn’t develop a taste for it, courtesy of my mom’s oversight—thanks, Mom!). But the IDEA of it seemed transgressive, rebellious, bold.

One of the primary tenets of intuitive eating is that no food is prohibited, even Little Debbie cakes or this new burger, recently unveiled by Hardee’s in the US, which features a beef burger, hot dog and potato chips, all housed in a bun.

burger

I know that for some situations in which I desire some nutritionally “bad” foods, I will want to exercise some external control, follow a rule or nutritional guideline, and not buy or eat those foods. An example of this (for me) would be when I pass by the chips aisle in the grocery store. However, for other situations, I know I will want to go ahead and eat some of the foods I consider to be “bad”. For instance, if I’m at a birthday party, I will always want some cake and ice cream. The difficulty is figuring out how to regulate those processes so to be able to exercise my judgment in accord with my own desires and values and health goals.

Bottom line: it seems to me that I need more strategies than those provided by intuitive eating in order to deal with the issue of when-to-eat-rebelliously and when-not-to-eat-rebelliously.

Readers, do you ever eat “rebelliously”? I’d love to hear any comments you have.

Weekends with Womack

Hidden values in intuitive eating, or can I eat a Big Mac intuitively?

A couple of weeks ago, I posted here with some worries about intuitive eating, which is a key component of the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement. Here’s another brief installment.

There are a lot of things to love about HAES—it’s body-positive, emphasizing weight and body and self-acceptance. It also promotes physical activity of all sorts, stressing that bodies of all shapes, sizes, and capacities can be physically engaged, active, and fit. And this blog is all about that, as am I.

But their emphasis on intuitive eating gives me pause. In my previous post, I listed the principles of intuitive eating from a book about it that Tracy discussed here .  Here they are again:

  1. reject the diet mentality
  2. honor your hunger
  3. make peace with food
  4. challenge the food police
  5. feel your fullness
  6. discover the satisfaction factor
  7. cope with your emotions without using food
  8. respect your body
  9. exercise: feel the difference
  10. honor your health with gentle nutrition

All of these make a lot of sense as a reaction to the feelings of deprivation and anxiety that often result from dieting.   I mean, who wants to be stuck eating only this all the time?

sad

Intuitive eating is supposed to liberate us from the tyranny of all-salad-all-the-time. Of course I love salad as much as the next person, although maybe not as much as all those online happy women alone eating salad. You know, like this woman:

happy

But sometimes I really want a burger and fries. Or cake. Or doughnuts. Or tempura. Or fried dumplings. Or macaroni and cheese. Sometimes I really want foods that I know are not especially healthy for me, are very calorie-dense, are highly processed, and which contain a lot of sugar, salt, fat, simple carbs, or other ingredients that I know play a part in overeating or unhealthy eating FOR ME. Like these:

bad food

And yet at the time I want them. I really want them. I want them now. There’s no ambiguity about this at all. And when I eat them, I feel satisfaction.

Of course, the intuitive eating plan has a response to this feeling of wanting these sorts of foods—you invoke rule 7: cope with your emotions without using food, and also rule 10: honor your health with gentle nutrition.

My problem here, though, is this: my feelings or intuitions about what foods I happen to want at any given time are not always very fine-tuned. Yes, of course, we can often recognize feelings like the rush of momentary desire that results from say, walking at a street fair and smelling fried dough or cotton candy and thinking, “wow, wouldn’t it be great to have something like that?” For me, I try to acknowledge that feeling and keep walking past booths like this one:

fried dough

I do so because I really subscribe to rule 10: honor your health with gentle nutrition. But there are also times like this past week when I was out and about, wanted a late lunch, passed this place in Harvard Square and thought to myself, oh yeah, I’d love a burger and fries. That sounds perfect. And it was– I ordered the People’s Republic of Cambridge burger with cole slaw and Russian dressing. Eating it felt fine and satisfying and yummy.

The problem is, my intuitions about what I want at any given time may lead me to gentle nutrition, but I know for a fact that they also lead me to corn dogs. In order to say no to corn dogs (which, for me, is what I would like to do in general for a bunch of reasons), I have to enlist other faculties:

  • my powers of judgment
  • my knowledge about nutrition
  • my desires to develop and maintain patterns of healthy eating FOR ME
  • my will to override any other momentary desires (or peer pressure, or other emotions triggered by the presence of some food)

Enlisting these faculties means ignoring or overriding messages from my body or my feelings or my intuitions or my desires. Of course we all know this—it’s no news. But it does present me with a problem: in the moment, it can be very hard to distinguish between eating intuitively and eating in a way that runs counter to my desire to honor my body with gentle nutrition. In order to make a judgment call at the time, I have to go outside the intuitive eating paradigm and invoke standard nutritional rules, like the one that says, “give me a break—corn dogs? Really? I don’t think so.”

I’m still thinking and working on these ideas, so I welcome others’ experiences and comments here.

body image · diets · eating · health · motivation · weight loss

“Healthy stuff is still healthy, it just doesn’t make you thin”

Yesterday Sam posted about the CBC report with latest “news” about obesity research: “Obesity research confirms, longterm weight-loss almost impossible.”  This is hardly news. We’ve said this many times.  It’s one of the most controversial claims you can make that’s fully supported by research.

I responded last summer with the post “If Diets Don’t Work, Then What?”   There I promoted the benefits, mostly in terms of mental health, of the intuitive eating approach.  I didn’t lose weight when I embraced intuitive eating. But I did lose a debilitating obsession with food and weight.  That more than made up for it.

And yet, after a year of intuitive eating, I still chose to pursue the Precision Nutrition Lean Eating Program for Women. Knowing what I know, it may seem like an odd choice. Why, when all the advertising surrounding the program is about body transformation, would I want to do it? I blogged about it in the post “Why I’m trying PN “Lean Eating” after a year of intuitive eating.”  There, I said my main reason had to do with tweaking my nutritional habits:

One of the principles of Intuitive Eating–the last principle, in fact, because it is so loaded for so many chronic dieters–is “Honor your health with gentle nutrition.”  I don’t want to exaggerate. It’s not as if I’m living on junk food and soda pop or anything like that.  But I do feel as if I’ve not quite mastered nutrition since I became vegan just over three years ago. And while I’ve been focusing on a more intuitive approach to eating, nutrition hasn’t been the main guiding principle in my choices.

And truth be told, I’m ready for a change.  From what Sam has told me about the Lean Eating program and from everything I’ve read, it’s not a diet and it can be compatible with an intuitive eating approach to food. So let’s just say that this year, I’m honoring my health with the re-introduction of gentle nutrition.  Nothing extreme will work for me.

And so far, it’s been doing that really well.  What I didn’t know ahead of time is just how compatible with intuitive eating the PN approach in the Lean Eating program actually is. If you could just embrace the two “anchor habits” of eating slowly and stopping at 80% full, you would be a fairly successful intuitive eater. And a whole lot more comfortable after meals.

So I’m engaging in some healthy behaviors and developing some healthy habits. And since they do ask for weight and measurements on a regular basis, I can report that I have dropped a few pounds along the way. But I am not deluding myself this time. The real test of any program is not to be found by comparing the “before” with the “immediately after.” Not at all. Check back a year after. Or two years after. What about five years after?

As Sam reported yesterday, PN doesn’t track that sort of thing at all. No follow-up means no data to report.  With the stats for any program as they are, it’s not surprising no one wants to track the long term results. And the fact that lots of people do PN multiple times is evidence that despite its focus on healthy habits, the results are not likely to be sustainable for the majority of people.  If they were, they would be more enthusiastic about follow-ups and reporting the longer term outcomes for their clients.

The quote from the CBC article that I liked the most, is the one that I put in the title today. Pyschologist Traci Mann, who ran an eating lab at the University of Minnesota for 20 years, says: “Healthy stuff is still healthy, it just doesn’t make you thin.”

As Sam did yesterday, I’m concerned about people who put thinness as their primary goal for engaging in activity or for making balanced nutritional choices.  That’s not the only reason to make those choices. As the research shows, it’s not even a good reason.

I do wonder whether I will keep these “healthy habits” over time.  Does the weight come back on inevitably, or is it because habits slide? “Researchers are divided about why weight gain seems to be irreversible, probably a combination of biological and social forces. ‘The fundamental reason,’ [obesity researcher Tim] Caulfield says, ‘is that we are very efficient biological machines. We evolved not to lose weight. We evolved to keep on as much weight as we possibly can.'”

Okay, so as Sam asked yesterday: liberating or depressing?  For me, it’s helping me a lot to keep any weight loss that I might be experiencing in PN LE in perspective. Thankfully it’s not my primary goal, and even more thankfully the weighing and measuring has not fostered a new obsession. In fact, I have found myself quite capable of adopting the recommended attitude of “get ’em and forget ’em” towards the weekly updates.

I used to feel more hopeful about a different outcome, namely a change not in weight but in body composition. But now I think that aspirations of that nature are just another breeding ground for false hope.

When I reflect on what has been most amazing so far about the “fittest by 50 challenge” that Sam and I are on, for me it comes down to two things:

1. becoming adept at intuitive eating, to the point where I no longer obsess about food.  I repeat: I NO LONGER OBSESS ABOUT FOOD!

2. how much I am enjoying the activities I’m pursuing these days. I’m all geared up for my first triathlon of the season on the weekend and I couldn’t be more excited.  Weight loss and even body composition just aren’t factoring into that picture.

I also have an expanded conception of health that includes my mental health.  I feel more grounded, more at peace with who I am, much healthier in my relationship and attitude towards food, activity, and my body.  I’ve still got a bit of a way to go with respect to body image, but I am further than I was last summer when I wrote this post.

I too fall into the “liberating” camp.  Knowing the facts should also liberate us from stigmatizing fat bodies and making moralized judgments about body fat (on ourselves and others). In moral philosophy we have this principle that says “ought implies can.” It means that you can’t be under an obligation to do anything that is impossible.  If we say you “ought to” then it means you should be able to.

And the stats on long term maintenance of lost weight don’t support the “can.” Therefore, they call seriously into question the “ought.”

At the same time, that doesn’t mean we need to give up on making choices that make us feel better. But making thinness the primary motive is a set-up for feeling much, much worse.

 

 

eating

When to Eat What…Nutrient Timing Just Isn’t All That Important

protein shakeI read with great relief earlier this week that nutrient timing just doesn’t matter all that much.  Nutrient timing is that approach that says you should eat certain things at certain times.  For example, the whole carb-loading thing before a marathon. Or the thing about having that protein smoothie within 30 minutes after the end of your workout. That’s nutrient timing.

Chronic dieters have heard different, perhaps milder versions of it with all sorts of diet imperatives:  Don’t eat after 7 p.m.!  Never skip breakfast! Don’t eat between meals!  Eat something every two hours! (hey, I never said the message was always consistent).

My main approach to food is what’s called “intuitive eating.” I pay attention to my hunger signals and do my best to respond to them when I’m hungry. I eat what I like. I stop when I feel satisfied (lately, following the latest habit in the Lean Eating Program, I’m aiming for 80% full as my limit).  That’s not compatible with the idea of carefully timing when and what you eat.  That’s why I was relieved to read that most of us can live without nutrient timing.

Brian St. Pierre posted “Is Nutrient Timing Dead?” on the Precision Nutrition website. It’s an indepth look at the various trends and claims surrounding nutrient timing.  He defines it like this: “Nutrient timing simply means eating specific nutrients (such as protein or carbs)… in specific amounts… at specific times (such as before, during, or after exercise).”

And the bottom line is that he’s found that, despite the early studies that supported some basic claims about nutrient timing (e.g. that post workout meals should be higher in fast-digesting carbs like starchy foods and fruit and that other meals should be lower in these things), further research hasn’t corroborated those results.  So his current position on nutrient timing is:

Based on the current body of research, and PN’s experience with over 20,000 clients, I’ve come to realize that nutrient timing isn’t particularly important for most people trying to look and feel better.  

Let me be clear: no, I don’t think nutrient timing is dead, worthless, whatever. In certain situations it’s probably really important. (We’ll explore them below.)

However, lots of really smart and hard working people are getting lost in the finer points of nutrient timing, while consistently missing out on sleep, or vegetables, or other — more important — health and lifestyle factors. And that’s a shame.

I understand that we want to maximize our workouts and that timing our nutrient intake might seem like a sensible way to do that if the research shows it works. But for me, nutrient timing in a strict sense has always been yet another way to obsess about food and whether I’m “getting it right.”

St. Pierre’s article is a good read. He talks about the “anabolic window of opportunity” that prompts so many gym rats to rush to the locker room for that protein drink.  He considers too the idea of meal-scheduling and meal frequency. He takes on that fundamental piece of dietary advice: breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so don’t skip it!

It turns out that breakfast works for some of us, but for others, it’s no benefit at all:

For example:

  • Folks with Type 2 diabetes did better when they skipped breakfast altogether and ate a larger lunch.
  • Other folks who were told to skip breakfast ended up eating less overall compared to breakfast eaters.
  • And skipping breakfast was found to be just as effective as eating breakfast for weight loss.

So, will skipping breakfast be better for you?

Maybe yes. Maybe no.

Preliminary evidence suggests that skipping breakfast can:

  • increase fat breakdown;
  • increase the release of growth hormone (which has anti-aging and fat loss benefits);
  • improve blood glucose control;
  • improve cardiovascular function; and/or
  • decrease food intake.

However, the truth is, most of this research has been done in animals, with only a few conclusive human studies.

The main message behind the post is that there’s no one way that works for everyone.

He concludes that nutrient timing might matter for some people. If you’re an elite or professional athlete, or a weight-class athlete, you may need to think about it. If you workout more than once a day, you might want to time your eating so that you’re not depleted for that second workout.  But saving that, it’s not all that important.

It matters much more to focus on “your nutritional hierarchy of importance”:

  1. How much are you eating?
    (Recommendation: Eat until satisfied, instead of stuffed, follow PN’s Calorie Control Guide .)
  2. How you are eating?
    (Recommendation: Eat slowly and mindfully, without distraction.)
  3. Why are you eating?
    (Hungry, bored, stressed, following peer pressure, social cues, triggered by hyper-rewarding foods?)
  4. What are you eating?
    (Recommendation: Minimally processed proteins, veggies, fruits, healthy starches, and healthy fats.)
  5. Are you doing #1 to #4 properly, consistently?
    (Recommendation: Shoot for 80% consistency with these items before moving on.)

And only then consider…

  1. When are you eating?
    (Now you can consider breakfast, late-night, during your workout, etc.)

For more on nutrient timing, check out the whole article.  Me? I’m starting to feel hungry now. I think I’ll go eat something.

eating · sports nutrition · training

Why I’m Trying PN “Lean Eating” after a Year of Intuitive Eating

fresh-fruits-and-vegetables1On Monday, after long discussions with Sam about her experience with Precision Nutrition’s Lean Eating Program, I started my one-year commitment to the program.  If you’re not familiar with it, see Sam’s detailed review here.

I’ve been doing and enjoying Intuitive Eating for a year. When I started the Intuitive Eating approach, I was obsessed with food and weight, weighing myself daily, gaining instead of losing, and generally feeling crappy about myself after years and years of the diet roller coaster.  I didn’t think I could handle one more climb to the top of that hill even if the “wheeeeee!” of going down felt great.

The Intuitive Eating solution was to stop focusing on weight–no more weigh-ins (read about that here).  It felt very nurturing to me, and much more in line with my feminist principles than the obsessive focus on seeing a certain number on the scale.  The central principles of honoring my hunger and respecting my body really altered my attitude and refocused my attention.  Self-awareness increased.

And yet, over the course of that same year, I’ve become more interested in triathlon. I’m training harder to prep for the summer season, with regular swimming workouts, three-times a week running, and on-going resistance training in addition to my yoga practice.  And that’s not even fitting cycling into the equation (it’ll be back in the spring).  And though I have gone on record saying that to me, sports nutrition counseling is like dieting in disguise, I feel as if it’s time for me to make some changes.

One of the principles of Intuitive Eating–the last principle, in fact, because it is so loaded for so many chronic dieters–is “Honor your health with gentle nutrition.”  I don’t want to exaggerate. It’s not as if I’m living on junk food and soda pop or anything like that.  But I do feel as if I’ve not quite mastered nutrition since I became vegan just over three years ago. And while I’ve been focusing on a more intuitive approach to eating, nutrition hasn’t been the main guiding principle in my choices.

And truth be told, I’m ready for a change.  From what Sam has told me about the Lean Eating program and from everything I’ve read, it’s not a diet and it can be compatible with an intuitive eating approach to food. So let’s just say that this year, I’m honoring my health with the re-introduction of gentle nutrition.  Nothing extreme will work for me.

One of the things I like most about the Precision Nutrition approach is the focus on healthy habits.  In week one, we’re not even changing anything about eating. We’re just committing to a schedule of working out and active recovery, and adding one “five-minute action” to our day. It can be anything. Mine is at least five minutes of meditation before I sit down to work each day.

Sam has blogged about habits. Habits work well because they’re things you can do without having to think too much. At first you need to be hyper-conscious, but after a time, they become a part of life.  This kind of approach strikes me as entirely compatible and consistent with Intuitive Eating.

I like the sense of community, support, and camaraderie I’m experiencing already on the PN Lean Eating forums. So far, I’m liking my coach (Janet) a lot too, as well as the mentors in my group, who are helping to orient us newbies.

What am I most worried about? Though we haven’t started yet, I know that tracking progress is an important element of the program.  They want weekly weight. body fat, and body measurements, and I think it’s monthly photos.

After a year of staying away from this kind of tracking, I’m going in with a new attitude: that it’s just information. If I can maintain a neutral attitude to that information, I’ll be happy about that.

Of course, I could skip that part. But I have made a commitment to do the program “as directed” for at least the first three months. If I’m struggling with any aspect of it, I’ll approach the coach, the mentors, or the group through the forums. There are quite a few women (over a hundred) in my group, so I’m sure I’ll be able to find some like-minded people along the way.

I’m also kind of excited this time about learning to eat in a way that supports my activities better, and also, to be perfectly honest, about the prospect of getting leaner and stronger as I go into the home stretch of the fittest by fifty challenge and prep for a summer of triathlons and 10K races.

diets · eating · fat · overeating · weight loss

Listen to your body, yes, but with a skeptical ear….

Tracy has written lots about what works for her when it comes to food choices. Listening to her body rather than following a strict diet plan is the main piece of that. (See her post on intuitive eating.) She’s also not interested in seeking the advice of sports nutritionists (see here.) Largely she thinks our bodies know what they need and listening to our bodies is both healthier and less alienating than ‘mediated eating.’ We should eat what we want not what the latest diet plan or diet guru tells us to eat. See her post on fad diets here.

We hear this same idea from others too. According to Amber at Go Kaleo, we should listen to our bodies and let them guide us.

Our bodies are not the enemies. I like that as a slogan. The thing is I’m convinced my body is not my enemy. But I’m also not convinced it’s always my best friend either.

That said, I’m not as angry at my body as eat, drink, and run is. I’m not as amusing either. She explains why she doesn’t listen to her body in these terms:

“Because my body is kind of a little bitch.  Yep, this body is all about guarding its own shortsighted interests.  Go for a run, body?  Noooo…I asked the legs, they’d rather take a rest day! Eat some of that broccoli?  Noooo…taste buds want ice cream instead! Get out of bed and go to work?  Oh…I consulted the epidermis and it says that these warm covers feel just fine, so we’re staying put, KTHXBAI.” 

Go read the rest here. It’s very funny.

Mostly I’m in agreement with the intuitive eating idea, especially the claims that we need to make peace with food and end restrictive dieting.  I think self trust matters for women’s autonomy. Casting aside the advice of experts is liberating.

These experts tend to target women with their advice and treat us as incompetent idiots. They create incompetence and then sell products to fix the problem.

Like the woman centred childbirth movement–if you feel like walking around in labour, walk around– the intuitive eating approach teaches women that we know what’s best for our own health.

Shut out the outside noise–whether the noise is fast food advertising or nutritional advice from experts–slow down and feed your self when you’re hungry, stop before you’re full, and eat foods that appeal to you.

What’s great about trusting your body, especially for women, is its radical potential. And as I’ve said, I think lots about this is right but here I want to raise some doubts about intuitive eating, at least as it applies to my life.

The worries I have been be divided into two categories, the internal and the external.

First, let’s look at the internal issues with intuitive approaches to eating.

Our bodies often want things that aren’t the best for us. That seems obvious to me and there is an easy explanation of why this is so. In evolutionary terms death by starvation was a much more likely bad outcome than the health risk of being overweight, especially prior to childbirth years. We are creatures geared for feast and famine times living in an environment of all feast, all the time. We’re not wrong or mistaken to want to eat whenever food presents itself. Until very recently in human history that desire would have served us very well.

Our bodies also aren’t unitary desiring machines either. There are conflicts between well being for different bits of our bodies. What’s good for our brain may not be so good for our thighs. Our brain’s desire for sugar is fascinating and it’s in clear conflict with what’s best for us overall. See “Why our brains love sugar and why our bodies don’t,” here, in Psychology Today.

It seems to me to be a very romantic view of embodiment to think our bodies know what’s best. I’ve written before about the variety of ways that our bodies undercut our best efforts. See this post about our bodies scheming against our weight loss efforts.

Second, let’s look at the external factors. There is no ‘what I want’ separate from my environment. I crave cupcakes, when I crave cupcakes, because I’m in a cupcake heavy time and place. There are many places and times where I might have lived where I’d never crave cupcakes. Would I have wanted something else? Sure. I don’t crave or eat meat but in much of the world not eating meat wouldn’t be an option and probably I’d come to desire it.

On a smaller scale now this is true about the environment I create for myself. I don’t like potato chips very much and I don’t buy them or bring them into my house. But if they’re there I come perversely to want them. Our desire for food isn’t separate from our environment. And I think this is especially true for food that’s designed, like cigarettes, to be addictive. I’m looking forward to reading Salt, Sugar, Fat reviewed here in the Guardian.

My next post in habits and environmental cues looks at how we might intervene and help ourselves make better choices.

Here’s what intuitive approaches get right. We don’t do as badly as we imagine we’d do if all food is available and nothing is off limits. And I think it’s right that lots of over eating stems from restricting our diets. Certain foods are held up to be both magically bad and desirable. And highly restrictive diets are destructive for just this reason.

But, for me at least, intuitive eating isn’t perfect either. After days without vegetables I come to crave them it’s true. But I doubt that left to my own desires I’d come to want enough green things. I also think that in small amounts we might eat more than we need in some cases and less in others. My own examples come from sports performance, not eating enough when I’m racing and eating too much on days when I do long slow rides. My appetite isn’t a reliable guide to what I need to eat to perform well.

Okay, what can we do? I think small changes in behavior and in our environment can make a difference. What sort of changes? These will be the topic of my next blog post.

Note it may turn out that for you, even small restrictions bring to mind the full on serious restrictions of heavy duty during, the way that tracking and nutrition counseling affected Tracy. If that’s right then I agree it’s best to stick with intuitive eating as a way of recovering from a history of dieting.

But as I’ve said in a few blog posts, it’s part of my goal to get leaner and to improve my nutrition. I’ll be listening to my body too but with a critical ear and strategizing about ways to get it what it wants while still meeting my goals and changing my eating habits.

Further reading:

When listening to your body doesn’t work, Part 1

When listening to your body doesn’t work, Part 2

(Mark’s Daily Apple)

Nia Shanks: Ditch the diet rules, listen to your body for optimal health

The most effective diet: listening to your body

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body image · diets · eating · overeating · sports nutrition · weight loss

Intuitive Eating: What It Is and Why I Love It!

MangoRecently I wrote about my (personal, not for everyone) decisions not to get further sports nutrition counseling and to stop weighing myself.  I committed to re-acquainting myself with two books that helped me a lot back in the early nineties when I was a compulsive dieter and exerciser with a diagnosed eating disorder (that I didn’t believe I had because I wasn’t skinny enough).

The books were Overcoming Overeating: How to Break the Diet-Binge Cycle and Live a Happier, More Satisfying Life by psychotherapists Carol H. Munter and Jane R. Hirschmann and Intuitive Eating, Third Edition:A Revolutionary Program That Works by nutritionists Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.  You can find my review of and experience with Overcoming Overeating here. There I say that while I liked a lot of the principles, Intuitive Eating resonates much more strongly with me.  So today’s post is about this approach and why it’s working for me.

Intuitive Eating (IE) is based on ten principles, to each of which the authors devote a full chapter:

  1. reject the diet mentality
  2. honor your hunger
  3. make peace with food
  4. challenge the food police
  5. feel your fullness
  6. discover the satisfaction factor
  7. cope with your emotions without using food
  8. respect your body
  9. exercise: feel the difference
  10. honor your health with gentle nutrition

The authors introduce the concept of IE. They identify a number of different eating “personalities” who have an unhealthy relationship with food–the Careful Eater who is obsessed with nutrition, the Professional Dieter who is perpetually on a diet, and the Unconscious Eater who pairs eating with another activity, such as watching TV or reading, or just generally eats mindlessly because they are too busy, vulnerable to the presence of food (like the cookie jar or the donuts at meetings), or they don’t like to waste food (they’d rather clean their plate and then move on to their children’s or spouse’s plates), or they use food to cope with emotions.

The Intuitive Eater, by contrast, has what the authors consider to be a healthy relationship with food. They “march to their inner hunger signals, and eat whatever they choose without experiencing guilt or an ethical dilemma.” The authors believe children are born as intuitive eaters, but that social messaging leads many people to develop an unhealthy preoccupation with nutrition, weight loss, and food. The goal of the book is to help people who, in their words, have “hit diet bottom” become Intuitive Eaters.

The first four principles help to change the diet mentality, where food is the enemy and needs to be controlled and restricted to reach the ideal weight.  Principles 5 and 6, feel your fullness and discover the satisfaction factor, nudge us in the direction of a more intuitive relationship to the food we eat. Principle 7 addresses the issue of emotional eating and offers alternative modes of self-care that are more successful.  Principle 8 calls upon us to stop body-bashing, and, as Samantha has recently urged, respect the body we have.

Principles 9 and 10 are introduced last for a reason. The authors think that both exercise and attention to nutrition (The Careful  Eater) can be used as covert ways of implementing The Diet Mentality.  Not only that, many people with a history of dieting and food obsession have negative associations with exercise in particular. They strongly suggest that people work with the first 8 principles to become comfortable Intuitive Eaters and only then pay close attention to exercise and nutrition.

I can’t go into the principles in detail, but I want to say a bit more about my favourites.

Of course, I love the idea of rejecting the diet mentality. I’ve spoken of it here, here, and here.

Feeling your fullness (Principle 5) is the one that challenges me the most and that I have worked with most closely since I started this approach back in early January. The authors claim that “the ability to stop eating because you have had enough to eat biologically hinges critically on giving yourself unconditional permission to eat (Principle 3: Make peace with food).

In order to feel your fullness, the authors recommend conscious eating. Instead of moving into autopilot, they suggest paying attention, eating without distraction, pausing part way through a meal to register whether the food still tastes good and whether you’re still hungry. Samantha is doing the same thing with her recent attention to mindful eating. They introduce the idea of comfortable satiety, where you’ve had enough to eat but are not overstuffed.  Respecting your fullness means stopping at comfortable satiety. In order to achieve this, you need to eat engage in mindful or conscious eating.

Their approach to both exercise and nutrition focuses not on weight loss but on how good both make you feel and how they act as methods of self care.  In fact, the authors note that exercise is a great stress buffer.  A good relationship with exercise, when it is a part of your life that you actually enjoy instead of see as an obligation, can go a long way to curbing emotional eating.

The IE approach appeals to me for so many reasons.  I am convinced that diets don’t work for long term weight loss and I despise food tracking and monitoring.  So the idea of learning to identify and respond to my body’s natural hunger signals provides an exciting alternative and a reason for optimism. Since I started focusing on mindful eating and respecting my fullness I have been much more capable of eating when hungry and stopping at the point of comfortable satiety.

I am eating foods I enjoy, engaging in exercise I enjoy, and have no hard rules around the foods I choose.  My tendency is towards nutritious foods anyway. I love salads, legumes, soy, whole grains, and fruit. I have a sweet tooth which I satisfy with a whole range of things, from medjool dates and dried pineapple to my favourite vegan chocolate cake and home-baked coconut cranberry chocolate chip cookies.  I have discovered a few things too, like I prefer mangoes to french fries. I have total permission to eat either, depending what I feel like.

The recommendation to toss the scale, found both here and in Overcoming Overeating, has been the single most positive change for me.  I love not weighing myself and instead tuning in with how I am feeling.

On my recent sailing trip to the British Virgin Islands, I maintained an easy level of activity with snorkeling, kayaking, and swimming with a few push-ups and burpees thrown into the mix, ate when I felt hungry and stopped when I felt satisfied, and drank one totally indulgent virgin cocktail (I don’t drink alcohol) a day.

I am sure that I gained no weight and quite possibly lost some (of course I can’t be sure). What matters most is that I feel really good, like I took care of myself, ate well, and kept moving during my vacation. Though I experienced a bit of self-consciousness in my bikini at the beginning (I adjust more quickly to being totally nude than being in a bikini, as explained here), I respected my body and didn’t engage in body-bashing.  After a day or two I felt good.

A couple of other things about the book.

Since the original edition came out in the early nineties, there have been quite a few studies on the approach to gauge its success as a health strategy. The authors have included a chapter about the science behind the IE approach. The chapter adds scientific validity to the author’s suggestions and makes a strong case that Intuitive Eaters experience both mental and physical health. Moreover, they cite studies that show it as a viable solution for the prevention of eating disorders and obesity.

It includes chapters on raising children to be intuitive eaters, and on using the IE approach to treat eating disorders. It also has a Q and A appendix to answer common questions about Intuitive Eating, such as “If I let myself eat whatever I want, won’t I eat uncontrollably and gain lots of weight?” The authors do not believe this will be the case because “when you have made complete peace with food and know that what you like will always be available to you, you’ll be able to stop after a moderate amount. If you’re only giving yourself pseudo-permission, it won’t work, because you don’t really believe you’ll always have access to food. So check out how genuine your permission-giving is.”

Finally, the book has a really helpful appendix that outlines strategies for implementing each of the principles.

I’m a total convert to this approach to eating.  I don’t think about food all the time and don’t spend a lot of time planning my meals and snacks. I just make sure there I’ve always got lots of good food that I like on hand for when I am hungry. I do pay attention to nutrition though I am not a slave to it, and I am as active as I want to be, minimally doing at least one weight training or yoga session a day and one “cardio” activity a day.

I never track and I no longer weigh myself.

If you are ready to do something different and truly willing to commit to never dieting again, I highly recommend that you read this book.