Body Language: Eating Intuitively

About three months ago I read a great book called Always Hungry? by Dr. David Ludwig.  He proposes a weight loss plan based along the Mediterranean diet which sharply curtails refined carbs and eliminates cravings.  It’s a lot like the Paleo lifestyle I follow, and I thought he had a lot of great ideas but the one I thought was hardest for me personally was the idea of eating intuitively.  This is the idea that you eat when you’re hungry and stop eating when you’re satisfied (which is not necessarily “full”).  Geez!! How hard can that be?? Um,….. it’s harder than it sounds!

A lot of weight loss experts promote this idea because it’s the simplest and easiest way to make sure you are eating enough calories for your body’s activity level and it gets away from the whole “counting calories or macros” ideas.  There are a lot of “diet gurus” out there that still promote counting calories and moderating macros because even though people think it’s hard, it’s actually easier than listening to your body.  You enter your food into the calorie counter and it tallies up how many calories you have left to eat or how many carbs/ macro units you have left.  It’s usually way off but it gives people the reassurance (often false) that they are following their diet.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, while I religiously enter my food for each meal/ snack into My Fitness Pal and monitor both my calories and my macros, if I “go over” my calorie limit, I don’t freak out.  I look at the numbers as more of a ball park target, though I do try to keep my carbs on the lower side; when they got too low, it was really not-good.  I’d like to think I’m finally getting the hang of this eating intuitively process!

So what is “eating intuitively?” On the most basic level, it’s what I described up above: eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you are satisfied, but not necessarily “full.”  What makes it difficult is we (modern human beings) have gotten away from listening to our bodies.  I joke a lot with my friends that I wish I were more like my cockapoo, because he really isn’t interested in food.  As a rule, he gets a part of most of what I eat at home, provided it’s puppy-safe, but about half the time, he sniffs it and lets it sit there.  This includes chicken, lamb, beef, pork, real eggs (as opposed to egg substitutes to which he completely turns up his nose!), yogurt, cottage cheese, and so on! He leaves them on his plate until one of the cats shows an interest and even then, he may just let the cats eat it.  If he was just “saving it for later,” he’ll eat it, but most of the time, after a token woof, the cats eat it.  The only things he really eats right when I give it to him are fish and milk (half and half).  He’s just not hungry and so he doesn’t eat.  I joke that there are “starving dogs in China” but if he’s not hungry, he’s pretty much not eating! On the other hand, he loves his kibble and eats it regularly when we go to bed or get up in the morning, and he loves his peanut butter cookies (Trader Joe’s Peanut Butter dog biscuits), but he saves those until we go to bed and then chews on them a lot before eating them.  He’s very active and weighs about what he should (12 lbs).  Why am I going on about my dog? Because he eats intuitively!

We are trained from childhood that we are supposed to eat three times a day (at least): breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Snacks and desserts are optional, but the meals are pretty much a given.  There’s the stereotype of the child who isn’t hungry being made to sit at the table until his/ her plate is clean.  Even more than making us eat; we are supposed to “clean our plate” on top of that! So we are taught not only to eat when we are not hungry, but how much we are supposed to eat! If our body is saying it doesn’t need fuel, that we are not hungry, we are taught to ignore that!

We are also influenced by what is happening around us.  How many times have we been walking through a mall or driving down the road and we smell food: suddenly, we’re “hungry,” even if we just ate! We smell popcorn, donuts, Chinese food, and we suddenly want some. Someone in our office just warmed up their lunch and the whole office smells delicious- mmmm, I want lunch!! We walk into the theater and we weren’t hungry outside, but now the hot buttered (real butter!) popcorn smells so good- maybe just a small one, and oooh! peanut M&Ms!! So, our body isn’t hungry but our head is, and therein lies the crux of our dilemma: how to sort out who is saying what to you.

For example, my cubicle neighbor eats all day.  He’s a thin active young guy who starts the morning with toast and coffee and usually has lunch around 11:00-11:30.  I can smell his sourdough toast with butter and jam; I can hear him crunching away at it, and a couple hours later, I get to smell his usually-delicious lunch: soup, meat, vegetables, whatever.  So am I hungry because my body is running low on fuel or am I hungry because I smell his food?  I know for a fact that usually I get hungry according to the clock: about 10:30-ish, my stomach starts growling.  I usually have breakfast between 7-7:30 a.m., so it’s usually been about 3 hours since I ate.  Is that my body saying I need more fuel or is that because I’ve usually had coffee or tea by 10:30?  Is is snack memory or real hunger? Something similar usually happens around 4:00 p.m.  I get a little hungry and is that because I usually have more coffee or some nuts around that time or is it really hunger?

We (meaning I) have similar issues when it comes to knowing when we are satisfied. There is usually about a 20 minute lag between when the body realizes enough fuel has been ingested and when the brain gets the signal.  This is one of the reasons we feel “stuffed” after a meal: we’ve eaten until the brain gets the signal and by then, we’ve had too much (in may case, because I’ve eaten pretty fast!).  The weight loss experts tell us to pause during our meal to “check our hunger gauge” and let the brain catch up with the body.  Again, this is where the “clean your plate” catechism comes into play: we are programmed to eat it all even if it is way too much, as is normally the case in a restaurant setting!

So, not only have we been programmed to ignore our body’s signals about hunger, we have been programmed to eat everything in front of us.  How much more disconnected can we get from our body?  Is it any wonder that so many of us have weight issues? This is why I wish I were more like my cockapoo: he doesn’t have any questions about whether he’s hungry or not; whether it’s a treat or not; whether he likes it or not.  All of the issues that we (as intelligent -eye roll- human beings) have to deal with: it’s dinner time, so we have to eat; it’s a French silk chocolate gateau- so we have to eat it!; it’s kind of a stale run of the mill cookie, but, eh, I’m bored, so I’ll eat it! For my cockapoo, it’s easy- not hungry, not interested, not eating! End of story- throw the ball!! (Now if we’re going to discuss his addictions…….!!)

So now that we have defined the problem, how do we solve this? Admittedly, it’s a tough call. If this were a computer, it’d be easy: we wipe the drive and reinstall the operating systems! We’re a bit more complicated: we can’t really “wipe” our hard drives, so we have to do it the hard way.  We have to create new neural pathways; in humanspeak, we have to make new habits.  This is where so many of us fumble the ball. It takes consistency (which is hard enough) and we have to learn how to listen to our bodies again.  I admit, this is where I had such a problem trying to follow Dr. Ludwig’s advice.  I approached it as a three part problem: 1) Identifying if I am truly hungry; 2) Realizing when I’m satisfied (as opposed to feeling full); 3) Being consistent.

Over time, I came to realize that my “getting hungry” at regular times during the day is what I call “snack memory.”  I was used to eating a snack at those times of day, so my stomach let me know that it wasn’t getting the snack it was expecting (try that with my cockapoo! eye roll) So I learned to wait: if my hunger went away, then it was “snack memory” and if it didn’t, then my body was really telling me that it needed fuel.  Elizabeth Benton (PrimalPotential.com) suggests that we take some opportunities simply to “feel hungry.” People are afraid of being hungry and so they eat preemptively (her term) to avoid the hunger pangs.  This is actually something I am used to feeling, because at my old job, I usually had to eat when I could and a lot of times, that meant being hungry until around 3:00 p.m. when I could take a few minutes to eat something.  Now, I make myself wait.  If I’m still hungry around noon, which is about 4.5-5 hours after breakfast, then I have lunch.  The other thing I do is make sure I have plenty of water, since sometimes what we think is hunger, is really thirst, so drinking something (not coffee with lots of creamer!) can alleviate those fake hunger pangs.  So, Elizabeth has a great idea, since if you’ve never let yourself feel what hunger really feels like, take a few minutes to get back in touch with your body’s signals.  “This is what it really feels like to be hungry as opposed to just wanting something to eat.”

The other thing that I had to get back in touch with is satisfaction.  When have I had enough to eat without getting “full?”  This meant I had to eat more slowly, which was more of a struggle than I really wanted to admit.  My life used to be a lot more hectic than it is now, and I got used to gulping my food down as fast as I could because I only had a short lunch period at work and I got home late so it was usually about 8 p.m or later when I had dinner, so gulp that down and get on to whatever else needs to be done.  So taking time to eat slowly was another thing I had to reprogram. Weight loss experts suggest that in addition to chewing your food slowly, you take a brief pause about halfway through your meal and check your hunger gauge.  This will take some time to learn, because most of us don’t really acknowledge that until we feel “stuffed.”  For most of us, the gauge has two settings: Empty and Overfull.  So we need to learn the settings in between.  When we take a pause, feel your hunger and learn from there.  Am I mostly full?  Has the hungry feeling gone away?  You will probably miss the mark the first few times out (I know I did!).  Eventually, you will come to realize “this is what satisfied feels like” and don’t forget there’s a bit of lag time between your stomach sending the “done” message and the brain actually getting it, so if you leave the table feeling you’ve not eaten enough, wait a while and your brain will probably tell you that you really are  satisfied. The key for me was realizing that an hour later, I was not feeling hungry! If you’re having trouble with this one, that is what worked for me!

The last issue is of course consistency.  You have to learn new habits until they just become a part of your normal routine, and this doesn’t mean that you have to follow some kind of elaborate pattern every day and with every meal.  Eventually, your brain will just learn the new signals and you’ll do this without even thinking about it.  When you leave for work every morning, you don’t consciously think about everything that’s involved with going out and starting the car: your brain tells you to grab your keys, unlock the door, sit down, put the key in the ignition and turn it.  It takes me more time to type that out than it does for you to do it, and that’s how it will eventually go in your brain.  You’ll smell something delicious and even though your stomach will growl “mmmm, pizza!,” your brain will acknowledge, “yeah the pizza smells good, but you aren’t hungry!” and after a while, your stomach will stop growling.  You’ll eat dinner and after a certain amount of food, your brain will say “stop eating,” and you’ll just push the plate away without really stopping to wonder “am I full?” It’s like learning any other skill: it takes some practice until it’s natural.  This is where we have to learn to let go of the rote programming we have followed for most of our lives.  For most of us, it hasn’t gotten us anywhere great with our weight.  Our body knows what it needs and we just have to learn to hear it again. The hard part is quieting down all the other noise in our heads telling us to follow the old programming, but it’s not about habit and the clock or whether it’s a treat or not- it’s about whether you are really hungry or not-end of story.  I like to think of it as getting in touch with my inner cockapoo- now throw the ball, dammit!!

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