Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center
International Eating Disorder Referral Organization
Intuitive Eating to Treat Eating Disorders by Alice Covey, CD, RD
Many treatment facilities and dietitians use meal plans as a way to treat eating disorders. This approach has many cons, however. Meal plans are virtually the same as a diet. People following meal plans are allotted a certain amount of carbohydrate, protein, and fat servings, or they are allowed to choose from pre-planned food items. Just like a diet, there are rules and boundaries. Some individuals with eating disorders may really like this structure, but the new set of rules and boundaries that the meal plan provides are just replacing the old set of rules the eating disorder provided. Sometimes dietitians will even encourage their clients with eating disorders to weigh and measure their food to get the “correct” amount. The act of weighing and measuring food allows for no flexibility. And on top of that, it gives the message that food must controlled, regulated, and monitored, which is exactly how someone with an eating disorder already feels about food. In essence, meal plans feed into eating disorder behaviors and thoughts. If a mistake is made with a meal plan, as is inevitable, strong feelings of guilt and failure will most likely emerge. Meal planning gives an individual with an eating disorder the impression that they need these guidelines because they have proven themselves untrustworthy with food. They can become very dependent on this external method of controlling food intake, instead of looking inside themselves for the answers.
Intuitive eating teaches individuals how to look inside themselves and listen to internal cues. It also provides guidance on how to form a healthy relationship with food. It is an anti-diet approach to eating. There are no rules to break and no temptations to resist. Intuitive eating, unlike dieting and meal planning, is not a set up for failure.
To get back to a healthy and natural relationship with food, it is important to remember that infants and toddlers innately possess this ability. Infants easily know when they are hungry and full. Doctors guide new mothers to respect their infant’s inner wisdom. They instruct moms to never force-feed an infant. It is amazing that infants intuitively know that they need more food right before a growth spurt and will naturally crave increased feedings. Toddlers are the same. A study done by Leann Birch, Ph. D. showed that children ages two to five were eating, on average, the same amount of calories daily for a week, even though the calories from their individual meals varied greatly. This study shows that toddlers don’t need to count calories to get the appropriate amount of energy; they naturally know what they need.
The ability to use the internal cues (hunger and fullness sensations and cravings) to regulate food intake is present in everyone. This is true no matter how long the individual has been ignoring them. The challenge in becoming an intuitive eater is to reconnect with the already present internal cues and to learn to ignore the external ones.
Dieting is a purely external way to regulate food intake. Other things that control food intake, which are external, are only choosing “good” or “healthy” foods, automatically finishing everything on the plate, and taking the portion that is listed on the food label. Using external factors to determine what, how much and when to eat is a dangerous path because it disconnects us from our bodies and our intuition.
Fears Regarding Listening to Our Bodies
Most people initially believe that by using internal cues to guide food amounts and food choices, they will inevitably be “unhealthy,” make the wrong choices, and eat too much. This is a sign of a lack of self-trust, which is natural when external factors have been used for so long to make these choices for us. Regaining trust is a process. It takes time and practice, but it is well worth it. By using internal cues it is possible to never diet again!
When people start eliminating all the old, external rules and controls, it is normal to crave foods that were once restricted. For example, when individuals go on low-carbohydrate diets, usually that is the nutrient they start to think about and crave. After stopping the diet it is quite common to “over-indulge” in foods high in carbohydrates. This is because the body is craving them so intensely. It is the same with any food. The more and longer a food is restricted, the more intense the cravings will be. This can be especially scary for individuals with eating disorders. At first, it may make them feel out of control and like they cannot be trusted with food. But eventually the extreme cravings subside and return to “normal.” It is important for them to keep this in mind as they are going through the process of becoming an intuitive eater.
Just as the body and mind intensely crave foods that have been restricted, the reverse also holds true. An example of this is going on a road trip and only having limited options of fast food available. At first it may be fun, exciting and pleasurable to eat these foods, especially if they aren’t foods normally consumed. However, after a while, fast food will get old, boring and cravings for other foods will arise. This is because your body and mind get tired of the same thing over and over. We crave variety, and we can think of the old adage, “variety is the spice of life.”
Listening to the Body and Weight
By listening to hunger and fullness cues and to what the body is craving, our body will naturally find a weight where it feels comfortable. This is known as the body’s set-point weight. An easy way to understand this concept is with an analogy. A thermostat is set at 70 degrees. When the room drops below that temperature, heat will blow out of the vent and warm the room. If the temperature in the room goes above 70 degrees the air conditioner will blow cool air. Metabolism and hunger operate in a very similar way.
Hunger and fullness cues and metabolism play a role in the regulation of our body’s weight, just as the heating and cooling of the room helps control the temperature where the thermostat is set. When weight drops below our set-point, hunger will increase and metabolism will lower to conserve energy. When our weight goes above our set-point, hunger decreases and metabolism increases to burn energy more easily.
It is true that the regulatory mechanisms do work harder to keep the body from going below the set-point than above it. This is most likely due to the fact that during the majority of human history food sources have been scarce, and it has been vital for the body to preserve energy as a means of survival. However, the more we are able to tune into the regulatory mechanisms, the more likely weight will remain stable.
A study was done to exhibit the phenomenon of set-point weight. Volunteers were made to either gain or lose weight. After the artificial control was removed from the experiment, their weight automatically returned to normal. Most likely, the individuals in this experiment were able to reconnect to their bodies by listening to their hunger and fullness cues, after the artificial, external controls were removed.
Being Mindful while Eating
In order to get back in touch with hunger/fullness cues and to figure out what the body is craving, it is important to be mindful while eating. Using our senses while eating is a great way to get back in touch with our bodies. In our modern-day lives, many of us are rushing around and eating food on the run. Eating in this manner, most individuals do not pay attention to hunger and fullness cues, let alone the taste, texture, sight, and smell of their food. Staying fully aware of these aspects of food will enhance the experience of eating, and more enjoyment and satisfaction will be derived.
Checking in during various times throughout the meal can also help us to be mindful while eating. Ask questions like:
• Where is my hunger/fullness level?
• Am I enjoying this food?
• What would make my eating experience more pleasurable in this moment?
• Would I rather be eating something else?
• I am staying present while I am eating, or is my mind wandering around?
• What external things influenced my food choices today?
• How can I reconnect to the internal signals my body is giving me?
Asking questions, being curious and mindful during mealtimes will be beneficial to someone trying to become a more intuitive eater. Awareness is such an important component of change. Without this subtle awareness I we may find it impossible to become an intuitive eater and move out of the diet mentality.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author and are presented without editing. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position or the policy of EDReferral.com, and no official endorsement by EDReferral.com of the opinions expressed herein should be inferred.
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