In my book, "Training on Empty," I mention intuitive eating, not in those exact words, but I address how difficult always tapping into our nutritional and dietary needs would be in the chaotic world in which we live. The idea behind intuitive eating is that our bodies have the wisdom to know what and how much we need, not just want, at any given moment. I don't believe it's possible or even necessary to be that grounded and in touch with your body and inner voice in order to recover, and I believe very few people who are normal and healthy do this 100 percent of the time. In fact, believing this is the answer to recovery can get people into trouble because our bodies aren't always 100 percent reliable when it comes to hunger cues, let alone signaling complete nutritional needs.
In saying this, however, I don't want to discourage anyone from being in touch with his or her internal signals. I'm all for giving yourself permission to eat what you want. I'm sure some will argue that they do fine eating intuitively, and I'm OK with that. It's great. I've always encouraged people to do what works for them. I'm just throwing out a word of caution for those who are in recovery to be aware of how difficult tossing out all dietary guidelines except your body's prompts can be. It's my strong opinion that using both intuitive eating along with some kind of relaxed meal plan is the best approach, especially for those taking their first steps toward recovery.
Once you're more solidly recovered, you have every right to choose what style of eating best serves you. Until then, it might take some work in order to understand and gather enough information in order to fully read what your body is telling you. Even then, I'm not entirely convinced that people can completely separate physical hunger cues from emotional cravings entangled in years of what society throws at us. My concern is that missed cues can lead to more missed cues, and that can lead to an increase in potentially dangerous behaviors. That's a lot of pressure on anyone. Learn to trust yourself, but also rely on sheer rational thought. The two work well together.
People like to claim that all children eat intuitively. They don't, or at least many of them don't. Parents unintentionally teach their kids to ignore their signs of hunger and often use food in some sort of a reward and punishment program, withholding food for bad behavior and offering goodies in exchange for good behavior. Even from a young age, kids are manipulated by a media that attempts to shape their food cravings. Commercials for sweets and fast food target youngsters. Big companies like McDonald's know how to direct content toward kids as young as four years old, and it's estimated that these kids see well over 200 of that particular corporation's ads each year.
I never ate intuitively when I was young, ever. Like many others, I was an emotional eater from a very young age. I was like one of those abandoned stray dogs that finally comes upon food and eats and eats and eats with no "I'm full" alarm alerting me to stop. As far back as I can remember, I had an intense hunger, at least I perceived it as hunger, that I couldn't seem to satisfy, and I never felt truly full. Obviously, I'm not suggesting that kids can't be wise about what they need, but reading hunger cues doesn't necessarily mean a child or adult will always eat the right foods in order to get adequate nutrition.
When not targeting young children, the media is busy promoting some fantasy or miracle plan for your diet and weight-related goals. On the one hand, we are encouraged to look a certain way, yet we are bombarded with images of decadent food and the false idea that we can eat whatever we want whenever we want and be thin. Oprah boasts about eating BREAD and PASTA every day while supposedly losing weight, like carbohydrates are some sort of taboo fare that only the very thin are allowed, and people suddenly think Weight Watchers has the answers to all their dietary needs. False.
People should be able to eat bread and pasta whenever they want. It's healthy to eat what your body craves, absolutely, but you also have to be aware that your body needs a wide variety of different nutrients, from protein, fats, and carbohydrates to vitamins and minerals. That's why having some loose guidelines without strict rules is better than diving into a complete free-for-all. Your size shouldn't really matter, but how your body and your brain operate depend a lot on what you put into it. A good dietitian will help you create a plan that focuses on foods you love and nutrient-dense foods that you might consider adding to your diet to increase overall health. Sometimes this kind of plan really does include bread and pasta on a daily bases. Ture.
I learned the hard way that eating sweets all the time caused me to crave more and more simple sugars, but when I ate a more reasonably sized daily dessert as part of a healthier meal plan, those terribly intense, out-of-control cravings faded. But that's my story. It doesn't have to be yours.
I love the idea of really listening to your cravings and honoring your hunger. I just think that it becomes complicated quickly to always rely on internal cues. It's a good goal to have, but there is no one definitive cue for hunger. People experience being hungry in a variety of ways, and one person can have varying internal cues. Some days, my body signals are clear and obvious, and other days, I have a hard time determining what I'm feeling. If I relied only on internal hints, I'm pretty sure I would miss some of them while navigating this crazy and often stressful reality called life. Sometimes I just have to look objectively at my diet and eat because I know I need to, not because an alarm inside has alerted me.
I'm the type that sees nothing wrong with having ice cream for breakfast or nachos for dinner now and then. I think emotional eating for comfort during horribly stressful times is not the worst thing on Earth, as long as you are aware and don't beat yourself up afterward. Obviously, learning healthy coping skills is better than turning to any kind of truly unhealthy behavior, but I don't see occasional comfort eating as anything abnormal. Those of us who have struggled in the past are so quick to judge ourselves harshly; the last thing we need is more pressure to eat a certain way. My suggestion remains the same that people should use what works for them. If there's no problem, don't fix it, but also don't assume that everyone else should follow the way you eat because it works for you.