By Erin Green MS, RDN, LD
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
It is not uncommon for people these days to lose touch with sound eating practices. Our world emphasizes productivity and efficiency. Sadly, this is reflected in our dietary intake, with a recent survey revealing that over 80% of American calories are in the form of ready-to-heat or ready-to-eat foods. (1) Surrounded by technology and convenience foods, we scuttle throughout our days without pause and then struggle to identify which specific diet to follow or which supplement to take in order to get back on track. Recommendations for calories, carbs, dietary composition and hydration abound. Yet few resources emphasize the very aspect of eating with which we are all born: intuition.
For centuries mindfulness has been believed to enhance the body’s recognition of nourishment. The term “Intuitive Eating” emerged in the 70’s but the practice of mindfulness with regard to food has been around for centuries and is imbedded in Buddhist doctrine. (2,3) While there is immense support for honing awareness with eating, bustling habits tend to dominate our daily lives. This applies particularly to athletes who maintain tight schedules and thus are required to be supremely efficient. The quest to improve performance often leads to self-imposed dietary methods, whether evidence-based or not.
The deleterious results of focusing on the “what” and neglecting the “how/why” of eating can be many. Among them are lackluster performance, nutrient deficiencies, low energy and moodiness. Athletes will often cite dietary reasons for these difficulties, and they’re correct. But by the time they come to me for guidance, they’re requesting a specific diet plan (i.e. write me some weekly menus) to improve performance. More often, though, the athlete needs a less tangible approach.
What exactly does Intuitive Eating look like? There are several principles and they differ depending on the resource. What follows is a collection of some basic guidelines along with practical strategies to boost your eating intuition.
Nourish your body. Total nourishment accounts for both the food you put in and the emotional/psychological messages provided by your internal monologue. Take pride in giving your body the nutrients to function at its best. This doesn’t mean counting carbs or grams of protein. This means really believing in the benefits of sound nutrition practice, and appreciating the effects food has on the body and mind. Acknowledge that food impacts our wellbeing, yet also seek emotional fulfillment through other activities that don’t involve food.
Honor hunger/satiety. These biological mechanisms are in place for a reason. Listen to them. Gain confidence in distinguishing between biological hunger and emotional or situational hunger. Identify instances in which you tend to eat in the absence of physical hunger. What physical signs tell you your body is hungry? Rumbling stomach, shakiness, difficulties concentrating, enhanced thoughts about food are all typical answers and all describe biological hunger. Emotional/situational hunger is more related to filling an intangible void with food. Often it manifests itself from external cues, like seeing a commercial, having a bad day or smelling the drive-thru on your way home. Eat until you are physically satisfied (not full). Recognize that ignoring biological hunger is both ineffective and unkind.
Appreciate food and the act of eating. Slow down the mealtime. Pause between bites. Use dishes and utensils (no eating out of the bag or over the sink.) Take time to present the food in a visually pleasing manner. Remember, we eat with our eyes first! Minimize distractions and simply enjoy preparing and eating your meal.
Withhold judgment. Did you really earn that cupcake? Suspend any judgments you place on yourself for your food choices or practices. Rather, acknowledge the reason why you’re eating what you are at this moment. This is key to allowing oneself to truly eat anything desired without the subsequent emotional rollercoaster.
Practice attunement. Food is a basic need. If we don’t eat our bodies shut down. But food should also be enjoyable. Find ways to appreciate healthful foods by trying new recipes or adding nutrient-dense options whenever possible. Meanwhile, grant yourself unconditional permission to enjoy foods simply for their non-nutritive qualities such as flavor, texture or comforting association (hello, Mom’s fried chicken!) Balance the yin and yang of need vs. want in order to reach attunement with food.
A client once responded to my description of intuitive eating with a dubious, “So am I supposed to hear angels sing or something?” Understandably, many will meet this concept with skepticism. How on earth will I reach my training and racing goals by staring at my toast and admiring its crisp, golden surface before taking a bite? Well, a wide body of evidence has found that mindfulness directly impacts nutrient adequacy and weight management. (3-6) Furthermore, imparting strict rules around eating takes mental energy (something of a valuable commodity in athletes).
So if you’re struggling to meet your nutrition goals through calorie trackers and fad diets, consider putting a little heart and soul into your next meal. Intuition is your diet’s strongest asset.
- Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). (2015, March 29). Highly processed foods dominate U. S. grocery purchases. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 23, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150329141017.htm
www.intuitiveeating.com Accessed September 23, 2015.
- Fujimori, S. (2013, May/June). Zen and the art of mindful eating. Food and Nutrition Magazine, 12-13.
- Mindful eating may help with weight loss. (n.d.). Healthbeat. Retrieved September 23, 2015 from http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/mindful-eating-may-help-with-weight-loss
- Why being mindful matters. (2008, August 1). Taking Charge of Your Health and Wellbeing. Retrieved September 23, 2015 from http://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/explore-healing-practices/food-medicine/why-being-mindful-matters
- Mattes, R. (1997, April 1). Physiologic responses to sensory stimulation by food: Nutritional implications. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 406-410.