What is Intuitive Eating and Why You Need to Master This Habit

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[This is an excerpt from my contribution to Master Your Health in 5 Simple Steps: A Guide to Perfecting Your Customized Plan by Dr. Christina Fontana

Here’s some food for thought: Are you eating because you are physically hungry? Are you reaching for that snack because you have a headache, are irritable, or just plain bored? Do you ask yourself these questions every time you eat?

If you don’t, perhaps this chapter will help explain why it may be a good idea to check in with yourself at every meal. This practice may help you listen to your body’s signals and pay attention to what you’re really hungry for.

For a couple of years now, I have been mulling over the concept of ‘eating to fill a void.’ It seems to me that mindful eating is absent even from the best of us. Our modern lives inhibit us from consciously slowing down and being grateful for each meal that we ingest. I often feel that my hunger is fueled not by physical need but rather by an emotional void that is begging to be filled. Usually the most accessible way to quiet your inner spiritual desires is to eat. Giving in to your inner gluttony temporarily silences the roaming mind or restless soul.

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Eating to fill a void

In fact, I noticed through historical/religious references and personal experiences, that spirituality and food have an inverse relationship. All the great prophets, saints, Buddhists and energy healers have had a period of fasting after which they reached their greatest spiritual conduit with a higher being, and had a ‘transcendent’ or enlightening experience as a result. All major religions usually have a period of fasting or modified fasting at least yearly as part of a physical and spiritual ‘cleanse’ to get followers closer to the divine. Similarly, artists, musicians and other creative individuals usually get in a state of mental flow and highest focus when they ‘turn off’ their physical cravings for food. Sometimes they work on a level of higher vibration or frequency all day long and forget to eat, because they are so attuned mentally and emotionally to their craft that it overpowers physical pangs.

On the other hand, those of us with less than stimulating outlets for our spiritual needs feel the physical cravings all too familiarly. When we are lacking fulfillment, unhappy, guilty, self-pitying or plain bored, we turn to ‘sinful behavior’ to shut our negative thoughts off. Some choose to bury their sorrows in booze, cigarettes, drugs, sex, or risky pastimes such as adrenaline-pumping extreme sports or gambling. What these all have in common is that they are addictive behaviors meant to ‘distract’ us from the painful reality. What most people don’t realize is that their eating habits may be just as bad of a trap. Food is a silent sinful culprit because it is a necessary means of our survival. However, eating has turned from a basic survival mechanism to a guilt-ridden, complex and emotional stressor rather than a nourishing tonic.

So, let’s back up and start at the basics here. Why do we eat? 

We eat not only for physical sustenance, but we gather at social functions to celebrate, be merry, and symbolically show mutual respect and trust when we ‘break bread together’. We eat dinner as a family, because ‘a family that eats together, stays together.’ But just like an alcoholic addict will be a ‘closet drinker,’ drinking in isolation and in excess, so can a person develop an unhealthy relationship with food. People range from binge eating, anorexia/bulimia to anorexia, and everything in between, landing in different spots of the ‘food addict’ spectrum. But what all of these conditions have in common is an emotional basis. They use food to call attention to a deeper underlying cause, most often a self-esteem driven one. People who don’t feel adequate worth, respect, or love for themselves turn to fear-based behaviors including, perfectionism, or self-abuse. They try to achieve the perfect figure by not eating, or throw the towel in by overindulging. Both of these are a form of corporeal punishment, where the physical body suffers due to emotional unhappiness.

My conclusion from this observation is simple: we need more fulfillment in our lives. Yes, modernity comes with a whole set of issues that the aboriginal human may not have faced. We now live longer and with more ‘conveniences’ but yet are suffering from debilitating chronic diseases, and soul-penetrating emotional disturbances. We no longer have to worry about survival from one moment to the next, but the built-in defense mechanisms of fear and adrenal overdrive still pervade our evolved psycho-physiology. Without imminent threat hanging over our heads makes it hard for us appreciate each moment. Our lives stretch out as lengthy voids promising nothing but boredom.

So what is the solution? How can we stop this cycle of madness?

Yes, there is a constructive light at the end of the tunnel here, and it’s called: intuitive eating. This is a mindful practice of listening to your body, recognizing signals and properly identifying the best way to address them. But in order to hear clearly, we need to stop, slow down from the hectic pace of our lives, and quietly tune into ourselves. We need to develop a trusting and loving relationship with our inner voice. The more we listen, the more confidence and strength we give to the voice, and eventually it starts to speak louder and more frequently to us.

Here are some suggestions to help you build your intuitive eating muscles:

 

  1. First and foremost, make sure you are consuming well-balanced, nourishing and regularly scheduled meals to keep your blood sugar constant and your mood steady (See previous chapters on tips for meal prepping). Include one main source of protein and some type of healthy fat with each meal for optimal digestion and sustained satiety until the next meal. This step alone will help maintain a positive, well-balanced mood and sustained energy levels throughout the day. It will decrease sugar crashes, headaches, dizzy spells, anxiety/panic attacks and irritability.
  2. Decrease any type of food that can interfere with your mental capacity or is not nourishing to your body. That means processed, chemical or sugar-laden, packaged foods, inflammatory or allergenic foods, genetically modified, fried, hydrogenated, artificial or any other junk food. These foods will just aggravate your body not only on a physical, but on an energetic/vibrational level. They may give you a temporary ‘high’ due to their addictive natures  – by triggering the nucleus accumbens (pleasure center of brain), but in the long run will deplete you physically, spiritually and emotionally. They will take away from your ability to vibrate on a higher energetic plane.
  3. Before each meal, ask yourself if you are ready for the meal. Do you have real hunger pangs? Have you hydrated sufficiently? If not, drink a glass of water or two. If still hungry in 10-15 minutes, you are ready to eat. Bonus: drinking water, especially with lemon or apple cider vinegar, or taking bitter herbs (as a tea or tincture), will also help jumpstart your digestive functions by stimulating bile secretion.
  4. Say grace, or any variation of gratitude practice, before meals. Acknowledge how blessed you are to be receiving this meal, that you lovingly prepared or picked out for yourself. Take a moment to admire the aesthetic qualities of the presentation/arrangement and the tantalizing aroma. Imagine how the food got to your plate, perhaps with love and care each step along the way: from the farm, to the market, to the kitchen prep area, and to finally for your consumption.
  5. This is a crucial step: when eating, slow down. Chew each morsel consciously and deliberately, savoring each sensory perception your taste buds, olfactory nerves, and tactile and auditory receptors register. Noticing the taste, smell, texture and sound (crunch, slurp) of the food enhances your eating experience and gives a much greater satisfaction. 
  6. Did I mention all of this needs to be done in peace and quiet? No TV, Netflix, reading or working during the sacred act of eating! The only exception is in a social setting: eating with friends or family is encouraged as it generally puts a relaxing, pleasant atmosphere to aid in the ‘rest and digest’ process. You may talk and mingle while you eat and enjoy your meal. 
  7. Stop eating when you are about 80% full. In Japan, this is the general dining rule (and let’s not forget one of the world’s blue zones is Okinawa – perhaps this is a major contributing factor?). The slower you eat, the more time you give your brain receptors to catch up to your stomach’s sensory signals. This is why steps 4 and 5 are so important: to allow you to recognize this communication as it’s happening, and not get distracted by other interfering stimuli. If we are not paying attention, we may miss the 80% mark and only start feeling ‘full’ when we’re effectively stuffed. This will result in a tummy ache and feeling guilty for overeating.
  8. Conclude the meal, perhaps by saying another grace, or another small ritual. Thank the people who shared the meal with you, if any. Savor a small cup of tea or coffee, or even a small piece of [organic, fair-trade, non-GMO] dark chocolate to symbolize the completion of the meal.

 

Last, but not least, I want to address our self-destructive emotional eating patterns. How can we deal with our bad habits and addictions? In order to overcome our obsession with distractions (including overindulging on food), we must bring more meaning into life! Here are some suggestions:

 

  1. First, realize that you are not infallible; making and learning from mistakes is all part of the beautiful experience of being human.
  2. It is better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all. The worst risk of all is not to take a chance. If you don’t fail, you don’t learn the lesson. Insert success/failure adages here.
  3. Being your true, authentic self is what will set you free. Really tune into yourself and try to channel that inner voice of truth in your outward actions.
  4. Don’t let society, parents, friends and media influence you (too much) and just do you. Your heart will lead the way.
  5. Nothing fulfills you like knowing your life is making a difference. Whether it’s on a large-scale world revolutionizing level, or having helped just one person feel better, you are making a monumental positive impact. Help spread the joy and influence others by your good deeds. As they say, no good deed is altruistic, because a direct side effect is that it makes you feel better about yourself. That’s what I call 2 birds with one stone (or rather, helping two birds with one deed?)!
  6. Find your passion and do your best to touch base with it daily. Incorporate it into your daily routine, in whatever small amount possible. Fill your day with things that make you happy so that you don’t have to drown in your sorrows at night (with cookies or reality TV or other addictive substances).
  7. Practice gratitude. Keep an appreciation journal, or say grace before meals (bonus: adds mindfulness to your eating habits!), or thank your loved ones habitually. Express to the universe that you are thankful for the things you already have (and once you start counting, you will realize it’s a lot!) and more things to be thankful for will follow. “Like calls to like,” “the Secret,” the “Law of Attraction,” are all different ways of saying the same thing.
  8. Speaking of the Universe, having a devoted relationship to the higher powers is known to bring meaning to life. No matter if you follow an organized religion or have your own personal spiritual practice, it all boils down to the same thing: belief in something greater than yourself. That conviction alone can comfort us and bathe us in the everlasting love of life that we so want to have faith in.
  9. Love is the ultimate weapon against fear. We don’t have to fight our fears or diseases. We just have to build love and health by the practices outlined above. The bad will diminish automatically when we build and strengthen the good.

    I hope this shed some light about how to start building awareness and mindfulness around eating. Eating doesn’t have to be a stressor (watching your figure), nor does it have to be your knight in shining armor (compulsive eating). Eating is a necessary means to our physical sustenance, to getting our nutrients, vitamins and minerals and maintain proper bodily functions. Eating can be a fun, social experience or a chance to bond with family. But eating should not be a substitute for true fulfillment. Listen to your body’s cues about when you are really hungry, and what you are hungry for. 

~Dr. Marina Book

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