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Why Eating Intuitively Is The Best Way To Fuel Your Body, According To This RD

Christy Harrison, R.D., MPH, CDN
Contributing writer By Christy Harrison, R.D., MPH, CDN
Contributing writer
Christy Harrison, MPH, R.D., CDN is an anti-diet registered dietitian nutritionist and certified intuitive eating counselor based in New York City. She offers online courses and private intuitive eating coaching to help people all over the world make peace with food and their bodies.
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The key to reconnecting with your body's innate wisdom about food is to help your body trust that you won't be depriving it anymore. Having enough food—and not "just enough," but really an abundance, as much as you want—is essential. Being able to eat as many different kinds of food as you like, in whatever amounts you need to feel completely satisfied, allows your body to trust you again. Here's why eating intuitively with your body's natural hunger cues is important.

The importance of eating enough food.

In my work with hundreds of clients, and in my own recovery from diet culture, I've found that pretty much everyone who struggles in their relationship with food doesn't allow themselves to have enough—even the folks who binge, who see themselves as eating "too much."

For most people, bingeing starts precisely because of restriction—where bingeing is a natural response to dieting or "watching it" or "eating clean" or "being healthy" or whatever you want to call it. When you're skimping on portions, restricting certain foods, berating yourself for what and how much you eat, and living under a regime of deprivation, the body's natural response is to eat as much as it can at any opportunity. Even if you feel like you're eating "too much," it's actually because you're not allowing yourself (both physically and mentally) to have enough.

The majority of my clients come to me because they think they have a problem with eating too much, with lack of willpower, with excess. They come to me wanting to develop a better connection with their fullness cues so they can stop eating when they're comfortably full, and wanting to find methods of coping with their emotions other than by eating. I always tell them that I can definitely help them with these goals, but that this can't be the place we start. Because truly, focusing on fullness and emotional eating is putting the cart before the horse.

The reason people eat to the point of discomfort is not because they're weak or greedy or emotionally broken; it's because they usually don't have enough and because they don't trust that food will always be there when they want it. We can't stop at the point of fullness when we don't know how to honor our hunger—how to respond to it when it first pipes up rather than letting it build to a screaming emergency, or letting it scream for so long that its voice eventually becomes inaudible. In fact, when we aren't heeding our hunger signals (because of diet culture or any other reason), our bodies are programmed to start pumping out more and more of the hormones and neurotransmitters that drive us to eat—and that can cause us to feel out of control with food.

Granted, once we release the restrictive thoughts and behaviors, we may also see that we need to develop some additional coping skills. But we can't know that for sure until we've recovered from the trauma of deprivation, which makes anyone reach for food to cope.


What's the difference between fullness and eating enough?

Focusing primarily on fullness and emotional eating instead of on eating enough can keep you stuck in a harmful diet culture— and therefore at war with food and your body. Diet culture can demonize eating emotionally and eating to the point of discomfort because it tells us these things will make us fat, and that fat is bad. If we accept that premise and try to address fullness and emotional eating without first making sure we have enough, we keep ourselves stuck. We won't be able to solve our perceived eating problems because we're still caught up in the mindset that created them.

When you're trying to relearn intuitive eating, the focus must be on finding ways to reassure your body and your brain that you have access to an abundance of food; that you won't be deprived again; and that you have true, unconditional permission to eat whatever you desire whenever you desire it.

What if you can't hear your hunger cues at all?

If you can't recognize your hunger cues, that means your body needs even more TLC, even more consistent eating, to recover from the deprivation that was imposed upon it. It means your body was so deprived that it basically stopped trying to get its needs met, like a neglected child who knows their cries won't be heard.

Down the line, once you've truly healed from whatever level of deprivation you've experienced, you'll be able to trust your body's signals of hunger and fullness. Early on, though, the most important thing is simply to focus on breaking free from all forms of restriction and learning to notice the ways your body might be telling you it needs food. The solution to wonky or absent hunger cues is showing your body that it won't be deprived anymore; that means eating consistent meals and snacks, even if you don't feel hungry. Slowly, you'll start to rebuild that trust with your body. And eventually, you'll get back to being able to recognize and honor your hunger the way you were born doing.

Adapted from Anti-Diet, copyright © 2019 by Christy Harrison, MPH, R.D. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.


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