This was a guest post that I originally wrote for the wonderful and supportive blog from the BingeBehavior Community.
He stood on the scale with wide, nervous eyes as the doctor shook her head and tsk tsked.
“He’s overweight,” she told me, “you need to put your cat on a diet.”
“But I don’t believe in diets,” I told her.
“Well how much do you feed him?”
“I don’t know, I just put food in his bowl. He eats it when he’s hungry and walks away from it when he’s satisfied… we believe in intuitive eating in my house, my cat practices it too.”
“No,” she told me, “you can’t do that, he gets a set amount and a set time to eat, he can’t just graze all day, obesity is no good for a cat.”
I know that what she was saying was true. My brother, a veterinarian warned and warned and warned my parents about overfeeding their cats and he is now lassoed with their insulin dependent cat Creamsicle when they couldn’t manage his diabetes. Let’s move past the irony of a diabetic cat named Creamsicle.
I thought about it for a while. Cats are natural hunters. They spend their days outside looking for small birds and rodents and then they kill and eat them. A domestic lifestyle, though lovely, is not their physiologically natural state, so it would make sense that their bodies tend not to do as well on a steady diet of processed food at their beck and call.
So what does my cat’s woes have to do with the price of wine in Napa? Well, a lot.
See, I’ve been seeing a lot of people out there promising you that when you learn intuitive eating and mindful eating, that you will lose weight or even some people make the promise that you will be like your “naturally skinny friends”.
Let’s dissect Intuitive eating and Mindful eating for a moment. Intuitive eating is following the natural instincts of your body to eat when you are hungry and to stop when you are satisfied. It is about listening to your body and giving it what it needs. Mindful eating is the practice that you take on to become an intuitive eater. However, eating is a survival mechanism.
Let’s go back to caveman times, as they like to discuss in certain food cult circles, and acknowledge that our instincts are designed to grab as much food as we can when it is scarce. Cavemen didn’t have pantries or supermarkets so they spent much of their days hunting and gathering in case there was a famine or a long winter or disease killing off the food supply. The instinct would be to grab onto and eat as much food as they possibly could in a sitting, lest it be eaten by someone else or another animal.
So here is where things get confusing, our intuitive eating also follows a pattern of bingeing. Yes. Binge eating is intuitive but, as I stated above, the bingeing happened when the food supply was greatly diminished; it was a survival mechanism.
We have evolved greatly past the days of hunter/gatherer societies. Cavemen didn’t have apps on their iPhones to order dinner and cavemen didn’t have mothers telling them to go on diets. They lived in a completely alternate reality and so we can’t expect to live or eat like them.
So let’s talk about intuitive eating.
You probably started out as an intuitive eater, you ate what you wanted when you wanted without too much thought on the matter – until the first time someone called attention to your weight.
Maybe you were 14, maybe you were 4, but someone said you were chubby or you could stand to lose a few and so you went on your first diet, or someone put you on your first diet. Your intuitive sense told you that you would be deprived of food and so you binged in secret and this became a perpetuating cycle of bingeing and restricting.
What would have happened if you never went on that first diet? What would happen if you ate when you were hungry and stopped when you were satisfied. Would you be skinny? Maybe or maybe not. You would probably be a weight that was right for you, and that perhaps is not skinny. Your natural weight might just be a little thicker, or little softer, or a little rounder.
That’s why it makes me crazy when I hear, “Your naturally skinny friends can eat whatever they want whenever they want because they are intuitive eaters. They eat when they are hungry and stop when they are satisfied.”
It’s not true. My naturally skinny friends can eat whatever they want because they are naturally skinny. It’s just their body type.
I remember my friend Pam visiting me for long weekends when we were in our 20s. She was always so much thinner than I, yet she was always hungry and ate so much more than me. To my spinach salad with chopped eggs and chicken with a light vinaigrette, she’d order a giant falafel with french fries stuffed in it. Later in the afternoon, she would bring out chocolate and red wine to snack on. She’d never been on a diet. She loved food and indulged in it and it didn’t make her fat.
So what does any of this have to do with intuitive eating? I think we have to reacquaint ourselves with true intuitive eating.
Remember, intuitive eating is the practice of eating what your body needs as informed by your practice of mindful eating. Mindful eating is noticing your body’s need for foods, your hunger and satiety and your body’s physical reactions to certain types of food. As you become more mindful and understanding about your needs, you hone your intuition about food.
It’s a practice. It’s not easy because we are born with an internalized instinct to binge when food becomes scarce. But food is no longer scarce, so we are teaching ourselves to evolve with the world around us.
But make no mistake, mindfulness and intuitive eating won’t make you skinny- unless you are naturally skinny, and we are not all naturally skinny.
Maybe French women don’t get fat because they are French. My roots are mostly Austrian and Russian and most of the women in my family are shaped in the same way. We’re short and petite with wide hips.; close to the ground so we can squat down and birth those babies, then get back to work on the farm.
My friend Pam, remember her, the one who eats falafel and wine and chocolate all day? She’s all Italian. Have you ever been to Rome? Most of the women there are petite and they eat spaghetti and gelato and wine all day!
We’ve discussed what mindfulness and intuitive eating won’t do for you, so what will it do for you?
The very first thing it will do is inform you to stop any restrictive diet that you’ve been on. You will then begin the practice of mindful eating.
You will begin to slow down and check in with your body, a lot. And this doesn’t come naturally. It’s a practice, just like meditation. You begin to learn what your body likes and what your body reacts poorly to and you maintain the practice of honoring your body with those pieces of information. That’s how intuitive eating becomes part of your makeup. You remember that food is plentiful and that you can make choices based on what your body actually needs, not choices based on what other people tell you your body needs.
When you are eating intuitively, your body will most likely settle into a place that is healthy for your body.
This might be different than what the BMI says is healthy but you know when you are healthy. Can you sleep? Do you have energy? Can you find enjoyable movement? Can you enjoy your life? Are you happy?
What you can really gain by practicing mindful eating and learning intuitive eating is a deep sense of emotional peace around food and your body.
Imagine what it would be like to feel at ease in that way. No fighting, no debates in your head, no stress about what you are eating.
Wouldn’t it be nice to feed your body in a way that feels nourishing and a way where you feel comfortable in your body? That’s where the mindfulness comes in. This is where we honor our bodies, no matter what size, what shape, we lavish our bodies with attention and affection. Then we ask our bodies what they need.
We eat some tomatoes and then we have a bellyache. Notice it. Make a mental note that “tomatoes might be too acidic on my belly for awhile”. Your unconscious takes that note and you notice that you are intuitively avoiding the tomatoes in your salad.
Intuitive eating will not make you skinny, nor will it make you taller because skinny is a body type. Some of us are skinny; in America most of us are not. Unfortunately, not being skinny because it is the American ideal has pushed us into a world of dieting and bingeing (because that’s the instinctual result of dieting).
Mindfulness practice will give you the awareness of your body’s needs, it will not fulfill what the world around you says your body should look like. Integrate mindfulness to help yourself become more intuitive about what you need.
Intuitive eating will make your body feel better because you will be more aware of what you need and what you don’t need. It will give you the sense that you don’t need to grab food and run away. You can be present for yourself and for the world around you. It will help you find a place of calm that you hadn’t had before.