The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any. - Alice Walker
Can you eat donuts and still be healthy? You already know my answer to this. But, before I explain, let’s define what healthy eating is in our diet crazed, weight obsessed world.
First of all, to define health we need to look at all of the factors that influence health beyond nutrition. There are many factors to consider that have nothing to do with how much kale one eats. What are these other factors? Let’s have a look at a few important ones: high stress levels, poor sleep quality, smoking, chronic dieting, isolation or lack of community, poverty, and exposure to toxic environments and chemicals. In my opinion, Americans over-value and put too much emphasis on the importance of “good” nutrition to achieve “optimal” health. Michael Pollan coins this term, “Nutritionism” whereby food is reduced to nutrients and since we cannot taste nutrients, we need experts, dietitians and nutritionists, to tell us what to eat. Within this framework, nutrition and healthy eating can be measured and controlled; the main purpose of eating is to achieve health and to prevent diet related diseases. Pollan would argue that there are stronger forces that contribute to health beyond the measured and controlled world of nutrition science. The over-concern on ‘proper’ nutrition edges out more important health protectors such as environmental factors like social eating. The environmental, social and psychological reasons to eat are virtually ignored, while reductionist nutrition is over-valued as truth.
I agree with Pollan, in that we need to look beyond nutrients for what promotes health. Eating a bucket load of kale alone and isolated when depressed does not promote optimal digestion and health. On the other hand, eating donuts surrounded by good friends and laughter does.
It is also important to note that Americans love to follow diets such as the Paleo, Weight Watchers, The Master Cleanse, etc. Statistics show dismal dieting ‘success’ rates. Those that follow diets will develop disordered eating behaviors, such as overeating and weight cycling (weight gain) over time. Dieting, which entails avoidance of foods and/or food groups, causes psychological distress as well as physical stress from metabolic impairment. The antidote to dieting is Intuitive eating.
So, what exactly is Intuitive eating, and can it be healthy? Let’s look at a few of the principals of Intuitive eating (IE). Unlike dieting, IE makes room for moderation of ALL foods. This is a critical step in the process of becoming an intuitive eater. Unconditional permission to eat all foods! Yep, you heard me right, all the foods under the sun- from donuts to brownies to kale to corn and back. This way of looking at foods is more neutral, and radically challenges the unconscious cultural habit to judge foods into good and bad categories. Scientifically speaking, most foods have some degree of nutritional value. Even a donut has nutrition. We need to look at foods with critical thinking skills, not magical thinking skills.
When all foods are ‘legalized,’ that is, nothing is forbidden and nothing is over-valued, we can then make a choice from body wisdom, instead of a reaction against self imposed rules. When we choose foods from body wisdom, we will naturally seek the right balance of nutrition. When we choose from a reactionary place, i.e. breaking rules or being bad, it leads to unbalanced behaviors, such as overeating. With unconditional permission to eat all foods, no foods or food groups are avoided out of fear. Avoidance of foods is supportive if there is a legitimate health issue.
The beauty about unconditional permission to eat all foods is that it allows you to relax around food. This principal is what prevents overeating. If you know you can have brownies again tomorrow, why would you eat all of them right now? It’s much, much easier to relax around foods when you trust that they are not going anywhere, and that you can have brownies again for the rest of your life. I realize this is a hard sell, but trust me: when you surrender to this principal, your trust with foods and your trust with yourself will exponentially increase.
Intuitive eating is not perfect eating. It allows for forgiveness and flexibility. Some days you may overeat at that cocktail party from distracted eating, or maybe you didn’t eat enough greens one day and you can feel it in your body- a deeper craving for something green and light. Some days will be like this, but you don’t beat yourself up, instead you gently remind yourself that, tomorrow is a new day, and that you ultimately trust your body to make up for any imbalances over time.
Intuitive eating is body centered. It is rooted in a daily practice of listening to your body. It is an active practice of turning inward to notice the many body sensations that arise during the course of your day. It is getting deeply in touch with your physical hungers, as well as your emotional hungers. It is developing the skills to navigate and feed each appropriately.
Eating intuitively is a lifestyle because it is something you will continue to practice for the rest of your life. Unlike a diet, it is not something you go ‘on’ and then ‘off.’ The practice over time becomes integrated, internalized and sustainable.
Intuitive eating, is also referred to as ‘attuned eating,’ as it honors the body’s need to eat nourishing foods that feel good, rather than eating foods that deplete ones energy. It is honoring craving as they arise and knowing the difference between cravings to support health and cravings that may be from an imbalance, emotional or hormonal reasons.
The practice of leaning in, and listening to body cues of hunger, allows one to access the subtle cues of fullness, otherwise known as the, ‘stopping point.’ Our bodies like to feel comfortably full and satisfied from eating the right amount and balance of foods. Our bodies don’t function well when we over eat, nor do they feel good and function well with under eating.
Intuitive eating leads with self-awareness and pleasure. Dieting on the other hand discourages any sense of pleasure and instead, seeks to ‘avoid temptation.’ Intuitive eating believes the best way to avoid temptation, is to give in. Yet it gives in with deliberate attention, self-awareness and mindfulness. Again, permission to eat all foods, self-awareness and pleasure build trust with all foods. From this point, it is easy to access body wisdom.
When we eat for pleasure and satisfaction, we allow ourselves to relax with eating. Relaxation optimizes our digestion of nutrients, elevates our moods, and creates feelings of well -being. Eating from this relaxed state opens the channels for intuitive wisdom to flow through. We can then easily and effortlessly hear the signals of hunger and fullness. With practice over time, intuitive eating becomes effortless and joyful. You will trust your body to know exactly when to eat, what to eat, and how much to eat.
Dieting on the other hand, is based in fear, avoidance and judgments, which block us from body wisdom. Dieting undermines our ability to trust ourselves by disconnecting the body from hunger and fullness. Dieting says you cannot be trusted to know what and how much to eat. Dieting asks that you give away your power to an outside authority- a diet or a dieting expert. Intuitive eating restores and heals this disconnect. When you vow to stop dieting, you are taking a profound step in taking your power back.
If health is what we are after, we need to look beyond just nutrients. We need to move away from reductionist thinking and of over-valuing the importance of nutrition. We need to look at nutrition within a broader context that takes into account both physical and emotional health. Intuitive eating does just that.