Eat when you're hungry; stop when you're full. The perfect prescription for weight management. Well, maybe. As with much related to food, it gets complicated.
"Intuitive eating" is the popular term for attending to inner hunger and fullness cues, and eating accordingly. The idea of intuitive eating appeals to those who know that we overeat for emotional reasons, and that diets make it worse. If you tune into your body, trust it, and eat what it's asking for, you won't get caught up in diets. You'll separate emotional hunger from true physical hunger.
Studies indeed corroborate that those who follow inner satiety cues manage weight more successfully than those who diet. Many people fail instantly, however, on trying to do this. It's not their fault. Years of overeating, years of dieting, and years of binge-worthy food all confuse the inner appetite meter. Paradoxically, planned, rather than intuitive eating, can help bring it back to work.
The most extreme diets illustrate how this can happen. People recovering from anorexia usually remain terrified of eating more adequately. They've often denied hunger so effectively that they're not sure if that's what they're feeling. Sometimes, once they start eating more normally again, they'll binge as the body responds to an inner drive to restore weight. Temporarily following a set meal plan allows both body and mind to relax as the stomach gets used to managing food again and the brain starts to register changes. Once some stability returns, a recovering anorexic can practice tuning into the body in ways that feel safe and manageable.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the very overweight also face serious challenges to eating intuitively. Science continues to supply bad news about how extra weight itself changes the appetite signaling. In other words, an obese body will "intuitively" want the amount that will keep it obese. Those who've carried excess weight for a long time know how true this is. Often the syndrome is helped by a regime of small, regularly spaced eating times-even 5 or 6 a day-that include protein. This helps prevent ravenous eating and keeps blood sugar spikes to a minimum, which can curb cravings. It indeed feels unnatural to some at first, but it ultimately helps restore a more healthful system.
When it comes to those binge-worthy foods, it's sometimes hard to tell if you're hungry or not when your body calls for them. We now know that many foods, especially foods processed with sugar and other flavor enhancers, are engineered to make us crave more. The best way to regain an ability to eat intuitively is to cut these from the diet. Eliminating or greatly reducing these foods often requires a plan, though, or even a host of coping skills. Once they're a less significant part of the diet, inner signal detection gets easier.
Tuning in is always helpful-what are you feeling as you head toward that snack? It's just that you may, in addition, need some structure to ready you for eating intuitively. Some will need that structure for a long time, others simply to bridge an impasse. Here are some ways you can move toward eating more intuitively, whether you've got a strict plan, a set of loose guidelines, or any other sort of supportive framework for your eating:
*try not to wait until you're ravenous before you eat. Include small snacks between meals if necessary to keep intense hunger at bay.
*take a deep breath before you eat anything, pause, and then pay attention to your first few chews. This will help prevent rapid mindless eating.
*use a hunger scale (you can download one at www.eatsanely.com) to begin assessing hunger and fullness, even if you are following a plan. It will introduce you to what different states feel like-mild hunger, comfortable fullness, etc.
For more on related topics, I invite you to visit my website, www.eatsanely.com . My workbook, EatSanely: Get Off the Diet Roller Coaster for Good , is available there too, now in paperback and ebook form.