I have a little baby as a neighbor. I’ve become friends with her mom, so I get to see her quite often. Not only does she always brighten my day, she also frequently puts things that I’m thinking about into perspective.
As humans grow, we receive messages about our worthiness, our likability, and our identity. They come from our families. They come from our friends. They come from the particular culture of our hometown. They come from the media, whose influence is only growing as our world becomes more connected. They even come from advertisements.
These messages are often wrong. Often, because they generally aren’t based in the understanding that everyone is different.
When I was a baby, I ate every two to three hours, and I always ate “snacks.” I knew exactly when I was hungry and when it was time to stop eating. I knew whether or not I liked a food, and I’d respond accordingly.
I have no idea how I knew, Baby Anne being incapable of metacognition, but somehow I was able to eat for fuel based on nothing but intuition. I still have fond memories of my favorite baby food (sweet potato), which I’m pretty sure I ate well into childhood (and SP’s are still my favorite today).
We all have this miraculous ability as babies. We were all capable of regulating our own fuel intake (with delicate, gentle signaling to our caregivers…right Mom? ;)). Healthy babies aren’t obese or suffering from cravings and food addiction (special circumstances such as fetal alcohol syndrome, drug addicted babies, etc., change things of course).
So what goes wrong?
We should eat three times per day. We should eat whole grains, dairy, protein, fruit and vegetables. We should limit sugar. We should limit fat. We are fat, we need to restrict to lose weight. We should burn more calories than we consume. We should look like that picture in that magazine. We should fit into these clothes. We have to eat this and look like that to attract a mate.
These are only some of the more general messages. All of us also get specific messages that interfere with our natural ability to intuit what we need when we need it. “Should” is tyrannical and “should” be eliminated from our vocabulary. There is no should. There is only need or want and don’t need or don’t want.
Side note: my August intention is to eliminate “should” from my vocabulary, whenever I’m using it to make myself feel bad for something I’m not doing. If I’m not doing it, I don’t need or want it. If I need or want it, I’ll do it.
The processed foods!
Another thing that interferes with the ability to identify hunger-full signals and intuit bodily needs and wants is sugar. Or processed snacks. Crackers are my personal kryptonite: if I eat one, I keep eating until the box is empty (wayyy past when the stomach is full).
There is actually an entire industry (the “food” industry) that employs “food chemists” to determine the exactly perfect flavors to include in processed snacks that will make people crave more. They engineer combinations that tantalize and trap us into buying more more and more. That is how they make money. That is how we DIE!
Okay, a little dramatic. Some chips and cookies once in a while won’t be the death of us. However, falling out of touch with the needs of our bodies could.
Sugar is a particularly troubling disruptor of hunger-full signals and our ability to be intuitive. It actually causes the body to store energy through hormonal signaling, which means the food we consume turns directly into fat. We feel hungry because none of the energy was used immediately for fuel. And we also accumulate fat cells. Scary stuff.
Being ignored and/or restricted.
I won’t go into eating disorders here, because they are frightening and dark and require much deeper treatment. However, they are the extreme version of what I mean here.
Actively ignoring the body’s signals to the brain (I feel stuffed, but I’ll have one more…I’m craving meat, but it’s too many calories…etc.) will eventually turn them off. In the midst of busy lives, a sense of control is many people’s saving grace. However, control can be dangerous when aimed at the body.
Numerous studies have shown that restricting the food you can eat actually makes it harder to avoid eating what’s less healthy for you. I found no long-term success with rules like “I can only eat 1500 calories a day.” Some of you may say “but the Whole30/another elimination diet is super restrictive!” Yes, but it’s temporary, and you can eat as much as you want.
Melissa Hartwig did much research on habit formation, and she found that people more easily stick to habits if the “rules” are black and white. This is the reasoning behind the NO list on the Whole30. But, she’s up front that it’s not for the long term. It’s an experiment to figure out what your food future looks like. The key is to gradually reintroduce foods and see what happens, not to eliminate groups randomly forever.
So, black-and-white to kickstart a journey toward sustainable lifestyle change: yes. Black and white to fit into a dress/shirt/pair of pants or feel good about yourself: no.
Bingeing is the opposite, and also involves ignoring signals from the body. Using the W30 as an example again (tired of it yet?), one of the rules is that you can eat as much as you want. As much as it takes to feel full. So how come it doesn’t turn into bingeing, you ask?
Well, have you ever binged on some pan-seared chicken breast, cauli rice, and broccoli that you had to make yourself?
There’s your answer. Theoretically, and as I’ve found in practice, when we eat real food, we don’t want to binge on it. We feel full.
We should all be able to learn a lesson from having been babies. Not only did we all intuit our needs perfectly well (even better than we do now), we also were special enough to have someone addressing our needs as they came up.
Maybe we never had people who met our needs, or maybe we did; regardless, being an adult means suddenly having to do all that need-meeting all by ourselves.
The best, most healthy thing that anyone can do is to pay attention to their body. All bodies deserve their owner’s love and respect. That doesn’t mean that you can never have more than what makes you full. I overate some plant-based ice cream and super awesome sushi last week. But, that’s becoming an intentional choice rather than a mindless habit.
Love that body, it’s the only one you’ve got. ❤