Trust Your Hunger

Eat for nourishment. Stop when you are full. Eat foods you enjoy and without judgement.

Sound simple? But for many of us it’s a far cry from reality. It might look something more like this…Eat something that is low in calories, or some approved diet food. Don’t eat too much of it. Experience a torrent of self-loathing when you eat more than planned. Why is something that seems so simple fraught with such difficulty? Understanding factors that influence our relationship with food and with our own hunger can shed some light on how eating can become such a complex process. Furthermore, adopting an intuitive approach to eating can help many people trust themselves to be guided by their hunger and move towards a satisfying relationship with food.

Once upon a time, perhaps around early toddlerhood, we approached food with curiosity, with excitement even, and ate what tasted and felt good, stopping when we’d had enough (perhaps letting our caregiver know we were finished by dramatically knocking over our bowl, just for effect). Our concerns, when they came to food, probably consisted of the when, how much, and how yummy variety. But as we grew older, we were inundated with messages about what we should and should not be eating. We were “good” when we ate low-fat, low-calorie fare, and “bad” when we indulged in something high-fat or calorie-laden. We learned of an enormous system of rules and criteria for judging what we should put in our bodies, some presented as a roadmap for “healthy eating,” but mostly were diets in some form.

You may be thinking, Don’t we need to have some guidelines for how to choose healthful foods and avoid those that are less nutritious? Absolutely. We certainly can and should make food choices based on what we believe will ultimately nourish our bodies AND respect our tastes and hunger. But too often the process of developing a “healthy” approach to eating comes in the form of a diet that cuts out entire categories of food and demonizes certain foods. If you are like many people, the more rigid “do’s and don’ts” you develop, the more rules your inner rebel has to break. Placing a food on the “forbidden” list makes it difficult to resist eating a box/bag/dozen of that food when it is encountered. Bottom line- we no longer trust ourselves to eat what we like, when we like, and as much as we want. How can we get back in touch with that curious toddler?

Intuitive eating is a set of guidelines with the ultimate goal of increasing one’s trust in their internal cues to guide food choices (Tribole & Resch, 2012). There are ten guidelines, each helping move individuals closer to their inner intuitive eater, relearning how to eat in a way that honors hunger, respects fullness, and addresses feelings without using food. The very first guideline, “Reject the Diet Mentality” encourages us to de-program our brains and challenge the idea that we need to police ourselves around food. Another guideline, “Make Peace with Food,” suggests that we lose the moral connections to food, and do away with a forbidden foods list. Like donuts? Allow yourself to eat them, no judgement. Perhaps the most central to the approach is the guideline that encourages us to “Honor Hunger.” How often do we eat without first asking ourselves whether or not we are hungry? Eating intuitively means checking in with our felt hunger, identifying what it feels like to be ravenous or stuffed, and trying to keep ourselves from landing at these extremes by eating when our bodies first send signals of hunger.

It is important to note that for individuals currently struggling with an eating disorder, intuitive eating is contraindicated until some regular eating habits have been established. Having lost touch with eating for nourishment and in response to hunger, these individuals need the structure of a meal plan to get their bodies used to eating at regular intervals and to slowly get comfortable with feelings of gentle fullness.

Interested in addressing your relationship with food? Therapy can assist you in identifying any current difficulties with food and finding the best path for you to improve your approach to eating.

Tribole, E., and Resch, E. (2012). Intuitive eating. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin

Claire Dean, Psy.D

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