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An honest question.

May 22, 2009

I’ve been reading “Health at Every Size” by Linda Bacon and so have had the concept of intuitive eating (as well as the entire HAES paradigm) on the brain.

So I have a question, if most people agree listening to one’s hunger is compatible with also using what we know about food (nutrients, fiber etc…) then why can’t it also be compatible with using caloric information? Now, I’m not interested in redefining intuitive eating, but whenever I read about it I think “that sounds like what I do.” Listening to hunger? Check. Allowing myself to eat all types of foods? Yup. Not dividing food into good/bad categories? Absolutely.

Only, I also take into account how much energy a meal contains vs how much satiety it provides and try to balance the two in order to eat at a slight caloric deficit.

Like I said, I don’t care to try to worm dieting into intuitive eating or HAES. It just occurred to me, and not for the first time, that being grounded in self-acceptance and HAES principles might make me “better” at healthy weight loss.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. May 22, 2009 11:35 pm

    This is an interesting, and totally fair, question.

    I have some conflicting views about this. I guess my overall view is that, for some people, if knowing caloric information helps them to eat an amount that feels right for them (say, because they have trouble feeling their hunger and satiety signals), and that actually supports their physical AND mental well-being, then that information becomes just a tool they are using to try to support their intuitive eating. Yes, it’s an external source of information, but most of us use SOME external sources of information to get the “right” amount and types of food without even realizing it.

    The problem, of course, is that, in our culture, for many many people, calories are just a way to impose rules and restrictions on eating that don’t support physical and mental well-being. This information is used to feed a neurosis about food, or to flagellate onself for eating “wrong” things. And we know this isn’t helpful or good for people, but it seems very very common. In this context, caloric information is used to measure the relative moral weight of various foods, and I think that’s why it’s frowned upon in the IE framework.

    In my opinion, though, there’s something even more important going on that I haven’t seen addressed anywhere — and that’s intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. This, to me, is why I think overt weight loss goals and HAES are basically incompatible (though I certainly support people’s right to make their own choices, and I’d much rather see people pursue weight loss in a saner, healthier manner than the current norm) — because putting an external goal, like weight loss, out in front of survival behaviours, like eating, can actually diminish the inherent pleasure and joy of that behaviour.

    Also, if you don’t believe in a super-strong correlation between weight and health status, then having an external, weight-oriented goal makes even less sense for a behaviour that is supposed to be contributing, first and foremost, to your well-being. To me, if weight loss happens, it happens. I just don’t think it is an appropriate focus to have when it comes to eating. Because eating is an end in itself.

    Anyway, I haven’t entirely sussed all this out to my satisfaction, but these are the ideas knocking around the old noodle lately. What it comes down to, for me, is the idea of “normal eating.” I’ve decided that “normal eating” looks quite different from individual to individual, but the ultimate result is the same — it supports their overall well-being (and I mean that holistically — emotionally, physically, socially, etc. My culture often has a very narrow definition of health and well-being.) Whether calorie counts are involved or not is really up to the individual.

    • May 23, 2009 6:15 am

      I’m on my way to work right now so I won’t be able to write a real reply until later today, but I just wanted to thank you for the awesome and thought-provoking reply.

    • May 23, 2009 8:30 pm

      Ha. I promised a ‘real’ reply, but I’m basically just going to throw out “I agree.”

      I think, when it comes to issues of weight and health, everyone is going to have different ‘triggers’ in terms of what puts them back into the mindset of good/bad wrt food and eating. Some people will find themselves using something as innocuous as the ‘eat a rainbow a day’ advice to beat themselves up for not eating the ‘right’ kind of foods. It definitely is individual and I agree that counting calories is definitely not something that’s going to promote mental/physical health in everyone.

      I think your ideas about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are really interesting. I would probably say that I don’t believe the pleasure of eating is diminished automatically by controlling some aspect of intake – whether we’re talking about controlling carbohydrates for someone with insulin issues, a vegetarian avoiding a food they used to like because it has meat in it or fiddling with the energy content of one’s diet – but that a lot of what happens is due to cultural baggage. Like, in the case of dieters, food and fat has been totally demonized so someone who wants to lose weight is probably operating under at least some notion of 1) being gross and terrible and 2) food being the ‘enemy.’ Every eating experience gets filtered in some way through those lenses which absolutely will destroy a lot of the joy and sense of nourishment they should be getting from eating.

      Which isn’t to say that I would dismiss it as ‘just cultural.’ One of the things I really appreciate about HAES is that it provides a framework for self-care and health outside of the thin = better in every way paradigm that rules the rest of society.

      The questions I ask myself and the reason I blog about these issues are about finding a way outside of the dominant paradigm that doesn’t automatically preclude weight-loss.

      Anyway, blah blah blah. Obviously, I’m still rolling all this around in my head.

  2. May 23, 2009 11:08 pm

    I can only speak from my personal experience. Until I tried to deliberately lose weight, and cut back my eating, I didn’t really differentiate my motives for eating. Eating was a primitive way to respond to any discomfort or stimulus, from hunger, to tiredness, to cold, to emotional upset, to outward stimulus like smelling good food or the time of day.

    After I started a weight loss program and wanted to eat, I had to actually think about why I wanted food, and what it would take to satisfy that hunger within a framework of weight loss. Sometimes it would be spicy food, or carbs, or protein. OR, I might have to say “no” to somebody, get some rest, or resolve a conflict. When I ate whatever and whenever I wanted, I never did really intuitive eating. What I have found out since is that eating sweets will encourage me to eat more of them, rather than satisfying my hunger.

    In maintaining my weight, I’m still learning. When I’m really hungry, I have to answer the call to eat, but not foods that will trigger more eating. That seems to be working for me at this time.

  3. May 26, 2009 10:05 pm

    I consider myself to be using intuitive eating to lose weight. I’ve never claimed to be doing any of this for health reasons, so it’s not HAES. I don’t think my metabolism or blood sugar or thyroid or anything else is off, I think I just had bad training and awful advice. I like IE because I can tweak it a little if I want, and it’s comfortable enough that I can live with it. Forever.

  4. May 28, 2009 8:55 pm

    “Some people will find themselves using something as innocuous as the ‘eat a rainbow a day’ advice to beat themselves up for not eating the ‘right’ kind of foods.”

    This really caught me by the throat when I read it in your comment, attrice, because I have totally seen people do this very thing when they’re purportedly trying to practice fat acceptance and HAES.

    It’s the mindset behind the behaviours that needs fixing. Not necessarily the external behaviours themselves. I’ve seen people beat themselves up in ridiculous ways because they aren’t doing intuitive eating “right” or because they’re not “healthy” at their size (even though they’re making efforts.) And that just tells me that the underlying problem with the “dieting mentality” is still there for those people, as hard as they are trying to break free from it.

    That’s what I’m trying to figure out — how to get people out of that particular mental difficulty. Because it’s hard to do something really health-affirming (whether your view of “health-affirming” includes weight loss or just HAES) if you’re coming from a place of guilt and self-hatred, you know?

    I’m trying to start up some kind of nutrition counselling business thing, and so I’m really tossing these ideas around a lot lately. And it’s nice to encounter someone who’ll geek out about that same stuff 🙂

  5. Anna permalink
    June 3, 2009 6:52 pm

    Reminds me of this article:

    Do I wish that we could walk through life “listening” to our body? Actually I think we do, and I think that is exactly what the problem is.

    * The best natural suppression of stress based upon sedentary work? Eating, specifically carbs.
    * The best natural suppression of stress based up lack of sleep? Eating, specifically carbs and caffeine.
    * The best natural suppression of depression and anxiety? Eating, specifically carbs.
    * The best natural suppression for making up for lack of social interaction? Eating, specifically carbs.

    Guess what folks, we ARE eating intuitively. We ARE fulfilling the needs our bodies feel that have in this new day and age.

    • June 4, 2009 7:51 am

      I think also, when we talk about living in a world where many of us are constantly exposed to an abundance of easily-available and very palatable foods, we at least have to admit that our ‘intuition’ is going to be skewed.

      Which is why when you get down to details a lot of proponents of intuitive eating recognize that people are also going to use what they intellectually know about food and nutrition to choose food. I’m never sure where that balance between intuition and knowledge is supposed to be which is why I asked this question.

    • June 8, 2009 2:03 am

      I think if you read more about intuitive eating you will find that those issues are in fact addressed….

  6. cicadasinmay permalink
    June 25, 2009 9:29 am

    I think one problem might be that if you’re restricting calories you lose flexibility. If you’re doing intuitive eating and one day you have the opportunity to eat some awesome chocolate cake, you can, and if you haven’t had nice vitamin-filled vegetables that day, my experience is that you will start to really want some later, and you can have them. But if you have a fixed calorie limit you might have to choose one or the other, or choose an extremely low-calorie version of the vegetables that perhaps you don’t really like, and then you would feel deprived, and if you had gone with the cake you would probably feel guilty and unhealthy. Maybe you could make flexible calorie limits or something…

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