Nothing’s verboten with intuitive eating— except for gorging when you’re not hungry
BY AMY ROSEN • Remember all those times your mother told you to bring an umbrella even though it was sunny out, and she was right? But remember how she also made you finish everything on your plate before you could have dessert? Turns out she may have been wrong on that front. So says Steven Hawks, a professor of health science at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, who shed 50 lb. several years ago and has kept it off by becoming an “intuitive eater.”
This latest diet is actually a non-diet. It advocates that you eat only when you feel hungry and that you stop eating before you feel full. Essentially, it’s how people who have a healthy relationship with food eat. Still, many
more do not, which is why Canadian obesity rates are at an all-time high, and yo-yo dieters are looking for a slimming magic bullet. Is intuitive eating it?
In a small-scale study published in the American Journal of Health Education in November, lead researcher Hawks and his colleagues studied the relationship between intuitive eating and several health indicators among a group of Brigham Young students. They developed the “Intuitive Eating Scale,” and their study showed that, overall, those who scored high on the scale were healthier than those with low scale scores. The highly intuitive eaters typically weighed less and had a more positive cardiovascular risk profile.
Hawks says the point of developing the scale was to see if intuitive eating could be measured and if there are naturally intuitive eaters. “We found that there are,” he says, “and they are more likely to be male than female.”
Alas, this was not the case for Hawks himself. “In third grade, my classmates started calling me fatty,” he explains. “At that moment, my body became the enemy that was ruining my life. So you separate from the enemy—your body—and force the enemy to become thin with diets so that it’s no longer a force of social pain.” But dieting, says Hawks, creates an intellectual set of rules that you impose on your body so that you lose touch with what it’s trying to tell you. You begin to relate to food differently. Instead of responding to internal cues of hunger and satisfaction, you follow rules established by other sources, such as the latest fad diet.
What’s different about intuitive eating, he says, is that all foods are legal. “It’s about getting out of the mentality that there are good foods and bad foods. Everything can have a place in a healthy diet. As a dieter, I was forbidden to have any junk food in the house, but now we have all types of food, including fruits and veggies, whole-wheat bread and pasta, but also
ice cream, chips and candy. It’s all here and it’s always here, so there’s no urgent sense that we have to get our share or it will be gone.” Hawks concedes that getting away from restrictions and food rules is difficult for many people to accept. They think if they let down their guard they will keep eating forever. The thing is, many will. But Hawks says you have to be aware of your social triggers and identify the circumstances in which you tend to eat when you’re not hungry, and then figure out alternative ways to manage situations. “If you’re eating for emotional reasons, there are ways other than food to deal with that,” he offers. Therapists suggest finding something frivolous but rewarding in your life so that when you get upset, you take a bubble bath instead of eating. In other words, pamper yourself in a way that won’t put calories in your belly.
So where did it all go wrong? How did we get so fat? Studies have shown that infants and young children have the ability to selfregulate their food intake. Think of infants suckling on their mother’s breast. (Of course, then came the bottle and “feeding times.”) California dietitian Barbara Birsinger suggests that “the practice of dictating to our chil-
Tn third grade, kids started calling me fatty. My body became the enemy.’
dren what, when and how much to eat results in many growing up disconnected from their bodies and no longer trusting themselves with food.” Birsinger, whose business, the Energetics of Eating, offers counselling, workshops and retreats on intuitive eating, says that not listening to your internal cues creates a reliance on the outside world regarding how to nourish oneself. Don’t eat that now, it’ll spoil your appetite. Finish your peas and you can have a treat. Sound familiar? Birsinger says intuitive eating works because it is internally driven. “There is no wrong way to do it. Intuitive eating is innate, so it is simply relearning something we are wired at birth to know.”
Peter Herman, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, disagrees. He should know. In 1983, he co-authored (with U of T professor Janet Polivy) Breaking the
Diet Habit: The Natural Weight Alternative, a book that proposed we learn to get back in touch with our feelings of hunger and satiety. Since then, he’s had a change of heart: “There just doesn’t seem to be much evidence that people can learn to connect with their hunger and satiety.” We assume, he says, that “nature is somehow exquisitely regulated, and that whenever we get fat it’s because something’s gone wrong with this naturally beautifully regulated process. But the closer you look, the less impressed you are with how naturally exquisite this regulation is.”
Specifically, relying on our body’s instinctive signals, he says, may be easier said than done. “What do we mean by ‘enough’ or ‘satiety’ or ‘full’?” he asks. “That state is not an allor-nothing. It’s a gradual accumulation of cues. You can be a little bit full or more full, or throw-up full. It’s a gradient.” He says some eaters are able to detect when they’re starting to become full, while others may not perceive or respond to the cues until they are quite strong. “When people use the word ‘enough,’ they may be referring to different sensations,” says Herman. “An intuitive eater maybe fortunate or have a deliberate cultivation where he can detect the onset of satiety, but most people aren’t that lucky.”
Hawks, who is launching the National Institute of Intuitive Eating in the Moab Valley this summer, makes no claims to a cure-all. “Most obesity experts agree that 50 to 60 per cent of body size is a function of genetics,” he says. “The goal of intuitive eating isn’t to become an ultra-thin fashion model if that’s not in your genes.” The goal, he says, is a healthy weight given your genetic makeup and metabolism.
So, happy New Year’s resolutions time, meaning, happy diet and exercise time. And in about two weeks, happy breaking of the New Year’s resolutions time. “The most interesting facet of New Year’s resolutions,” says Herman, “is that people make the same resolutions over and over and over again. You’d think that if you vowed to lose weight eight years in a row and haven’t done it each time December rolls around, you might think of something more plausible to resolve.” Yet people keep going back, thinking this time it will work. “I have a friend who makes a very sensible New Year’s resolution each year,” says Herman. “Eat more pie.” He doesn’t know if his friend always succeeds, but at least it’s something realistic to aspire to. M
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