As obsessed as Americans are with dieting, you'd think we'd be thin and healthy by now. But as obesity rates and diet-related illnesses like diabetes and heart disease continue to rise, many nutrition experts and health professionals are advocating a gut-level approach to food. Rather than mindlessly following the latest dietary advice or bouncing from fad to fad, they say, tune in to your own body to find out when you're hungry and what to eat.
"Intuitive eating is being able to eat when you're hungry and stop when you're full," says Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, Irvine, California-based author of Intuitive Eating (St. Martin's Griffin, 2003). "It's being able to distinguish physical from emotional cues. It's being the expert of your own body—which is hard to do when you've got a zillion people telling you what and how to eat." Here's how to reconnect with your body's signals and learn to feed it what it really wants.
Feel your hunger
"We're born with the capabilities ... to tend toward foods that our bodies need and to stop eating when we're full," says Karin Kratina, PhD, RD, a nutritionist in Gainesville, Florida, who specializes in weight and eating disorders. "But events conspire throughout our lives to encourage us to ignore our bodies' signals. As children, we eat in response to internal cues. As adults, we eat in response to the clock, the latest diet, social cues, or uncomfortable emotions."
Most of us don't recognize biological hunger signals—mainly because of sugar overexposure, which causes continual fluctuations in the hormones leptin and insulin. "When the body's insulin and leptin levels are high, it should tell the body, 'Whoa, you've got tons of sugar and fuel available; stop eating now!'" says Ron Rosedale, MD, Denver-based author of The Rosedale Diet (HarperCollins, 2004). But too-frequent sugar consumption repeatedly triggers insulin and leptin, and "[the body] becomes desensitized to their signals."
To feel your hunger, keep blood sugar levels low, says Rosedale: Eliminate all sugars, white flour, and low-fiber carbohydrates, and focus on small, regular meals with adequate protein and fiber. Before you eat, become mindful of your internal condition and appetite, from ravenous to uncomfortably full. You'll be on the right track when you start eating in response to physical signs—a rumbling in your belly, for example.
Practice mindful eating
There you are in front of the fridge at 9 p.m., noshing on leftover Chinese right out of the container. How did this happen? "This is called 'eating amnesia,' where the hand-to-mouth action of feeding yourself becomes so automatic that, before you know it, you've devoured a bag of chips or a bowl of nuts," says Tribole.
To stem scarfing, practice mindful eating: Slow down and be present with your food. Start by removing distractions; instead of wolfing lunch in the car or during a conference call, eat while sitting at a table.
Decode food symbolism
"What's happening on your plate is often a reflection of what's happening in your life," says Kratina. "Restricting food means you're restricting yourself somewhere in your life. People who deny themselves food may also deny themselves relationships—it's as if they can't let anything in. On the other hand, compulsive eaters may have difficulty setting boundaries in relationships."
Ask yourself: "When I'm feeling the urge to eat, what part of my body actually wants the food?" For example, if you're craving chips, it may be that the crunching relieves stress in your jaw, which may be related to anger and frustration. If your lips and tongue crave food's feeling and flavor, you may need nurturing. Or if it's your throat that's "hungry"—your gullet wants to feel movement—you may need to speak your mind on something. "Feeling hunger in your throat may also signal that your life feels chaotic or out of control," says Kratina.
If your hunger isn't coming from your stomach, do something other than eat. Open your mouth very wide or massage your jaw to relieve tension. Pamper yourself: Take a bath, get a massage, buy flowers. And if your throat is "hungry," say or write down what's on your mind, or investigate ways to calm chaos in your life.
That means calories, fat, carbs, ounces—whatever number keeps you out of your body and in your head. When you count, measure, weigh, or calculate food, you're judging it—and you're eating according to intellect rather than intuition.
"One of the biggest mistakes we make in eating is trying to rely on our conscious mind to control this subconscious urge; for example, counting calories," says Rosedale. "When you've reached a certain number of calories, you tell your body to stop eating, even if you're still hungry. It will never, ever work." Studies have shown that people who rigidly follow a diet are more likely to binge eat or overeat when alone.
If you're accustomed to measuring every morsel, the prospect of free-for-all noshing can be scary. So start small: Eat one meal in your day without counting anything. After several days, eat two meals a day count-free. Continue at your own pace until you've stopped counting your food.
Indulge in food
Grazing on low-fat, low-carb, processed foods is the antithesis of eating intuitively. Get rid of fake food, and give yourself permission to indulge. "Some people think of indulging in food as eating a tub of ice cream in front of American Idol," says New York—based Kat James, author of The Truth About Beauty (Beyond Words, 2003). "But truly indulging means eating sensual, high-quality foods—like avocados, raw nut butters, ripe berries—that are intense in flavor and texture. These real foods are so satisfying and nutrient dense, your body will slow down to savor them and will be content with smaller morsels."
Rid your kitchen of all ersatz foods: anything processed, fat-free, artificially sweetened, chemically enhanced, or otherwise manipulated. Stock up on rich, flavorful, whole foods, organic whenever possible, and begin to feed your body well. Some ideas: blackberries in whole-milk yogurt; arugula with goat cheese and walnut oil; Black Mission figs and avocados or almond butter; smoked salmon, ripe mangoes, and papaya on bitter greens with honey-lime dressing.
"After three or four days, you'll lose your appetite for cheap, processed foods," says James. "You'll crave flavors that go beyond sweet and salty; the excessive sweetness of processed foods will annoy you. This is a sign that your taste buds are becoming resensitized, which is crucial in eating intuitively."
Food and health writer Lisa Turner contributes frequently to Delicious Living. Her eating motto: "Your body knows what it needs. Be still and listen; the answers will come."