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Not another new diet: Intuitive eating

The radical practice of eating when and what you want

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I used to be in a long distance relationship and whenever my partner would leave for the next month or so, my appetite would suddenly become insatiable. Every meal was like an event on my calendar that I would cross the preceding days off until. Missing someone you’re in a relationship with and knowing that your future is just a cycle of reuniting and missing and missing and reuniting is like how I imagine being inside a human-sized clothes dryer would feel — warm and comforting, but emotionally bruising.

It was through trying new things at Trader Joes, trading recipes with my older sister, and improvising meals with the four things that were about to go bad and having it somehow turn out good that I realized: food made me happy. 

I think the cravings that I would get during these love-withdrawal periods were definitely my body’s way of finding something that lit up the pleasure centers of my brain in the same way as the touch, care, and presence of my boyfriend. A bite of soft brie atop one of those crisp rosemary rustic crackers with a dried mission fig on top — crisp and creamy and umami and sweet — that basically was the equivalent of holding hands. I have memories of distinct joy, dancing in my kitchen, after the perfect bite.

This, however, wasn’t a period of my life that was devoid of food-shame. As I wandered into the kitchen for a third chocolate chip cookie (because the best time to eat a cookie is when they’re fresh out of the oven and they’ll never taste that good again so it’s essential that you take advantage of that window), I would wonder if these cravings had gotten out of hand, if I was eating for the right reasons, and if it would make me gain weight. All of these things I’ve been taught to be watchful and afraid of. 

My long-distance relationship ended, but my paradoxical relationship to food has not. I look forward to both cooking and dining out, but I can’t escape the toxic messaging all around me: my keto coworker’s lunch of ground turkey compared to my pesto cheese tortellini, my friend’s humblebrag that she skipped dinner, and influencers who appear on my Instagram explore page even though I cleaned them out from my following list a long time ago.

So, when I heard of intuitive eating, it was the first time I had a descriptor for the way I aspire to consume food: nonjudgmentally.

“Intuitive eating is really about listening to your body's hunger cues and trying to be open to eating whatever food sounds most appealing to you at a time. And eating when you're hungry and stopping when you're full,” Katherine Manbeck, a psychology graduate student said. “It can be challenging for somebody who's perhaps never eaten intuitively to recognize those cues. So a lot of times it'll start with a kind of body awareness.”

Intuitive eating is a microcosm of mindfulness culture; it emphasizes paying attention to when your body is hungry and when it is full, and rejecting any judgment of “good” or “bad” food. In this way, it’s a complete rejection of the culture we live in, which is always sending us a different news ping about which food should now be considered shameful and dangerous. 

Another tenet of intuitive eating includes respecting your fullness –– paying attention to the signals your body is sending you to know when you’re no longer hungry. It also involves finding the “satisfaction factor,” which is the pleasure that occurs when you’re eating what you really want in an environment conducive to that. 

Manbeck has worked at Opal Food+Body Wisdom for the past two years, an organization which treats eating disorders and practices the philosophy of intuitive eating. 

“Throughout our entire culture, there's like a really strong diet mentality, and so it's not uncommon for people to have views of foods as judgments, valenced in some ways — either good or bad,” Manbeck said. 

“Intuitive eating says there is no such thing as good or bad food. The important thing is to listen to your body and if you're hungry and you want to eat a candy bar, then that's great and you should eat a candy bar. Whatever your body is telling you is an important thing for you to listen to. This is really different than how we're traditionally taught to view food, which is in a much more putative kind of way.”

When we’re children, we’re told we can’t leave the table until our plates are clean, or we are punished for eating too much “junk food.” Slowly, we get taught to ignore our body’s natural cues in favor of an approach that’s much more attuned to eating what’s socially acceptable and much less about eating what feels good to our body. 

But anyone who’s ever attempted a diet knows that the more “off-limits” a food is, the more you want it. For many people, this results in binging on that very food. The cycle of restriction and binging is an unsustainable and useless way to eat in a “healthy” fashion. Studies have shown that the intuitive eating approach can be more effective than traditional weight loss programs which often lead participants to regain the weight they lost once they stop the program. This often constitutes a cycle of weight gain and loss that can end up being more unhealthy than never losing weight.  It should also be noted that constantly weighing yourself and restricting your food intake, as diet culture encourages, is damaging and consuming mentally. 

For people recovering from eating disorders, intuitive eating can be an especially radical, but ultimately productive, change in one’s perception of food. Eating disorders like anorexia are considered to be a “disorder of overcontrol,” which means that, like obsessive compulsive disorder, these conditions are characterized by engagement in excessive self-control. Radically Open Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), also practiced at Manbeck’s clinic, was designed to combat this frame of mind. 

“There are some eating disorder treatments focused on more of a sustained meal plan as the goal. I would say that that runs a little contrary to the principles in Radically Open DBT, because that’s just another form of being quite controlled about food and eating,” Manbeck said. 

“Even if you're somebody who's getting the right number of calories for their body to be sustained, it can still be a bit overcontrolled to be rigidly adhering to that number of calories or that number of proteins or whatever. And so with intuitive eating, it's about challenging that over controlled habit, and trying to increase flexibility in the approach to food.”

However, practicing intuitive eating isn’t easy, whether you’re suffering from a diagnosed eating disorder or not. Manbeck said that many of her clients described their struggle with sticking with the practice after leaving treatment, due to our culture’s obsession with weight. 

“The [most difficult thing for clients] is just how pervasive the messaging is,” Manbeck said. “Our clients describe leaving treatment and just being inundated by messages that are different than [ours] from everybody — friends, pop culture, and social media. I think especially because there's such a strong interest in our society in making people and especially women feel badly about themselves and about their bodies, those messages tend to be put forth in a way that can be very convincing.”

To clarify, I don’t think all the eating I would do when I was missing my boyfriend was necessarily intuitive eating — it was often just emotional eating. Eating when you aren’t hungry, just to feel something, isn’t intuitive eating, and one of the ten principles of intuitive eating is to “honor your feelings without using food.” But those meals, in my low periods, picked me up. 

They taught me that food isn’t just a task to be completed, but a ritual in its own right. I’m still trying to strike a balance between finding joy in eating, while also making sure it isn’t just an easy place I go in order to find joy. And doing all this while not entering a place of self-judgement isn’t easy.

“I just want to acknowledge that if people are trying to get to a place of a more of an intuitive eating approach, it's a hard thing to do,” Manbeck said at the end of our conversation. “[Societal pressure to not intuitively eat] can be internalized and can lead to a lot of self judgment for intuitive eating or for not intuitive eating. I think it's really important as much as possible to try to be gentle and non-judgemental, regardless of where you are in your relationship with food.”

Intuitive eating, like mindfulness in general, is not a summit we can crest and be done with. It’s an active battle to rebuild trust with your body and a fight against a culture that tells us that some shapes are inherently healthier than others, that we should feel bad for indulging in tastes that make us feel good, and that practicing self-control is more important than feeling satisfied and healthy. Now, I’m going to go eat a cinnamon roll. 

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate out of all the psychological disorders. If you are concerned about yourself or a friend’s relationship with food, please seek counseling or encourage them to seek help. UW Counseling Center: 206-543-1240

Reach Pacific Wave Co-Editor Charlotte Houston at Twitter: @choustoo

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