The Problem with Intuitive Eating

If we don’t follow the clock, how do we know when to eat?

04 Oct, 2020

Article originally published on on 4/26/16. It has been heavily edited for re-publication.

One of the best things about the ketogenic diet and lifestyle is the freedom it provides. You might never realize exactly how shackled you are by food until you experience the real freedom from it that most experience on a ketogenic protocol. One of the most commented upon phenomena within the ketogenic community is that this way of eating often that comes with the freedom to eat intuitively. Intuitive eating means you listen and respond to internal stimuli with regards to eating, instead of external stimuli. In other words, you eat when you're hungry, and stop when you're not.

Houston, We Have a Problem!

Unfortunately, many people have huge problems with intuitive eating when they start trying. Modern life and its fast-paced demands train us to eat according to the clock, peers pressure us into believing we must eat in social settings, and advertising prods us into burying our stress and emotions in a mountain (or ice cream tub) of food. The result? Many modern persons have grown deaf to what their bodies are communicating. You may find yourself unable to read and interpret your body's signals, which means attempts to eat intuitively may be an exercise in frustration. 

Consider the history of humanity. We've been on this planet for a reasonably long period of time, the vast majority of which contained zero clocks, and experienced a distinct lack of diet programs and national guidelines with their fancy pyramids and plates that tell us exactly what and when to eat. The very modern pressures of dates and schedules were non-existent. We just ate, and when we weren't hungry anymore, we stopped. 

We find ourselves at a point in history where we've been trained for the past twenty, thirty, or forty years (or longer!) to eat by a whole pile of signals that have nothing at all to do with your body and its needs. With so much and such constant noise, how can you hear what your body is trying to tell you?! All of this social signaling and angst and frustration only serves to make intuitive eating- something our ancestors did without effort- severely more complicated than it should be. 

How to Fix It

Whenever we encounter questions (or frustrations) on the subject of intuitive eating, the first is inevitably, "How do I know if/when I'm hungry?"

Think about that for just a second. How do I know if/when I'm hungry?

Without rehashing the discussion thus far, that this is even a question reminds us how far out-of-touch have we fallen with our own bodies. Many/most modern persons are unsure of when we are experiencing the most fundamental of biological imperatives! How helpless must we feel to have to ask another person for insight into something so basic to human life? Thus, our first answer is that we understand (some of us quite intimately) just how difficult and frustrating a course correction intuitive eating can be.

The truth is that it's a simple process that is, unfortunately, not easy. Navigating intuitive eating will require you to be comfortable with grey areas and imprecision. There is no formula to help you distinguish between being genuinely hungry and in need of fuel, and only thinking you're hungry because "it's time to eat." The human body is not a macro chart, and it's not spreadsheet. Your body is a living thing and it will communicate what it needs. As long as you're willing to experiment a little and are willing to put effort into paying attention, you will be able to eat intuitively.

What to Look For

The simplest (and most accurate) advice is thus: if you aren't sure that the sensation you're experiencing is hunger, ignore it. If it goes away, it's not hunger. If it persists or you start to feel weird/strange/odd/unusual, go ahead and eat. This method will require a willingness to stretch yourself a bit. That's okay! As you go through this process, you will discover that the brain is a tricky organ. It can make us believe we are hungry when we need no sustenance at all. By ignoring initial hunger pangs, you are forcing your body to, in essence, "scream a little louder" so the real signals are a little easier to decipher. Learning how to tell the difference between the physical need to eat and the mental desire to eat is crucial to your long-term success. That doesn't mean you will be ignoring hunger forever; only until you've learned to recognize the real deal. 

How long you will spend on this process is going to depend entirely on you. Some people very quickly figure out how to recognize when they really need to eat, and can settle comfortably into an intuitive eating routine. If you've spent a lot of time yo-yo dieting, or engaging in emotional and/or social eating, re-training yourself to recognize genuine hunger signaling may be an ongoing process. Regardless of how long it takes you to find your intuitive eating groove, once you've got the hang of responding to genuine hunger and ignoring the noise, your relationship to food and eating will be well on the way towards healing.

Intuitive eating is powerful. It's freeing. It's easy. Once you've unlearned all the detrimental habits you've been taught over the years and start paying attention to your body, You can rely a lot less on macros and trackers and a lot more on just living.

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