Those of you who’ve read my About page, may have noticed that I mentioned that I consider myself an “intuitive eater”. After a flurry* of emails requesting that I write a blog post explaining what I mean by Intuitive Eating, I’ve decided to give in to this avalanche of demands. I won’t negotiate with terrorists, but I’m a sucker for email requests. Note: Because of the depth of this subject, this really isn’t a “How To” article, but more of a description of what an Intuitive Diet is. If you’re interested, I’ll write a follow up post with tips on how to implement this way of eating. Just let me know in the comments.
[Disclaimer: I may like to play doctor from time to time, but I am not one. This article is not intended to be medical or nutritional advice. If you are intelligently challenged enough to use anything I say as an excuse to go off your meds, it's on you. And on all those poor school children who got in your way. Why?! Why would you do that?! Oh GAWD. The carnage…]
You’re such an animal!
Let’s start with the basics: Biologically speaking, we are primates, quite a bit like monkeys, and not all that far removed from the pig, apparently. While those facts may explain a lot (I’m talking to you, People of Walmart), I’m not here to make fun of the genetically disabled but rather to make a different point: when it comes right down to it, we’re essentially animals.
And animals have instincts. Animals, all of them, have biological impulses that have allowed all the ones that we haven’t managed to kill off to survive over the millennia. These instincts will tell a bear to protect her cubs and a salmon to swim upstream. They will also let a dog know to eat certain grasses when he’s ill, without any other dog ever having shown him how to do that. Animals in the wild rarely get poisoned by natural plants or have nutritional deficiencies (providing the habitat hasn’t been destroyed and provides all the variety they need) – and not because they’ve somehow managed to gather and pass on the knowledge of which plants or animals are ok to eat and which aren’t. They can sense which foods will benefit them, and which won’t. And it’s only when unnatural substances, such as chemicals, are introduced into the mix, that those instincts go awry.
Humans have access to those same biological impulses. Everything is energy – and we have the ability to read that energy. When something is good for us, when something will benefit us, it will resonate with us. When something is bad for us, it won’t. We translate this reading of energy into biological signals, and if we can re-learn to listen to those signals, we can construct the perfect diet for ourselves.
Why you have cravings
The mechanism of cravings is actually an incredibly useful one: When your body needs something, a certain nutrient, it will give you an impulse to eat something that contains that nutrient. You won’t get the thought to go find something with iron in it, for example, but you may well suddenly crave Watermelon**. Then, your taste buds will jump into the mix and support that craving. This means, that you’ll not only suddenly REALLY want some Watermelon, but when you find some, it will taste like the best thing you’ve ever eaten. All of your senses will come together to ensure that you can suddenly think of nothing more pleasurable than eating the food that you most need.
The intent behind the mechanisms of cravings was never to make you a slave to pizza and ice cream, but rather your very survival. Think about it: Your body knows exactly what it needs. There wasn’t one Neanderthal who had a degree in Nutrition, and yet they managed to survive. Animals who live without human interference, do just fine without “optimized nutrition”. In fact, they tend to deteriorate when we get involved. Why? Because nature provides everything we need to not only survive, but thrive, and has put mechanisms such as impulses in place that will make it easy for us to do so. But, just like the wild animals, we have to listen to those impulses. Enter intuitive eating.
What is intuitive eating?
Intuitive eating is basically a way to reset our body’s original biological impulses so that they are not only accurate again, but loud enough for us to hear. We then listen to those impulses and eat only what our bodies tell us to (i.e. the foods that look and taste amazing) and stay away from anything our bodies don’t want (i.e. the foods that we don’t resonate with, or that even totally gross us out.)
This means that there is no perfect diet for everyone, but there is a perfect concept – eat whatever your body tells you to and nothing else. Some people will need more meat, while others need none at all. Some may want to live mostly on fruit and veggies, while others will crave more grains or fish. A person may go months or years without wanting something and then suddenly have a craving for it. We don’t need to apply one set of rules for everyone. In fact, we should throw all rules out the window.
How rules about food can do damage
Let’s say you’ve decided to go on a strict diet, where every gram of fat, carbohydrate and protein is measured. You even know exactly how many units of each vitamin and mineral you’re taking. Everything is strictly controlled. Now, if you wake up one day and your body tells you to have some chocolate, because it needs one of the many, many minerals that pure chocolate contains, you’re not going to eat it. You’re going to ignore the craving. It doesn’t fit into your diet. If you continue to ignore the craving and don’t find some other way to give your body what it needs, your health will suffer for it. Now, you might try to make up the difference by taking more supplements, but you’re not sure which mineral you need, and the lab can’t even come close to providing nutrition in the exact form that nature does. Your body, on the other hand, knows exactly what you need and is telling you which foods contain it.
Your body needs a variety of foods. I’ve been eating a completely intuitive diet (as opposed to a mostly intuitive one) for the last several years and I’ve gone through several cycles of cravings. There was my avocado phase – a period of two weeks where I could’ve bathed in avocados every day. They were the best thing I’d ever tasted. And then, just like that, I stopped wanting them. They still tasted ok, but they were no longer anything special. Then, came my Rocket salad phase. For about a week, I added Rocket to my salad every day. I couldn’t get enough of it. After that, I went through a sushi phase. Each time, my body needed something that was in those foods. Once I satisfied the demand, they ceased to be interesting to me. If I’d applied some arbitrary rules and refused to give in to my cravings, I would’ve become deficient in some way and forced my body to redress the balance in any way it could.
What went wrong
If you’re like most people in the Western world today, you’ve come to hate your cravings. You see them as something that has sabotaged every diet attempt you’ve ever made. The idea that cravings could be not only natural, but useful to you seems ridiculous. Cravings need to be overcome, managed, fought against and eliminated. But the cravings aren’t the problem. They’re just a signal that your body needs something that it’s not getting. The real problem is that the signal has been corrupted – if you’re craving fast food burgers and donuts, it isn’t because your body needs lots of the elusive “Grease Vitamin”. The signals you’re getting are wrong.
But how did they get corrupted in the first place? When we ingest substances that aren’t really food, our bodies don’t recognize them and don’t really know how to process them. In an attempt to keep us alive, however, our bodies will try to adapt to what we’re feeding them. It’s as if we’re using the Google Language Tool and asking it to translate from German to French. But instead of putting in German, we write something in Japanese. The program won’t be able to translate the language, but it’ll still try. Only, the output will be horribly (or hilariously) wrong. When we eat something that isn’t really food, we’re telling our bodies “this is food”, even thought it isn’t and our bodies will try to respond, only what comes out is gobbled-gook. This is how you get cravings for Twinkies and Doritos. So, basically, every time you ate something that wasn’t made with natural ingredients (foods that your grandmother would recognize) but contained chemicals, preservatives and substances that more closely resembled plastic than something edible, you made it just a little bit harder for your body to communicate its needs to you.
The cost of eating garbage
Because our bodies (not just human bodies, but all bodies) are these miraculous biological machines, they find a way to keep us alive, even when we subsist mainly on meals that should, by all rights, come with a hazmat warning.
But there’s a cost. We begin to suffer from indigestion, heart burn, ulcers, fatigue, excess weight, aches and pains, headaches, high blood pressure, and all kinds of other ailments that are simply a result of our bodies’ attempts at keeping us from keeling over. When you put sugar in your car’s gas tank, it dies. It can’t cope. But when you gulp down 32 ounces of soda, you don’t instantly die. Your body finds a way to deal with the onslaught. It cleans up what it can, using your liver and kidneys. And what it can’t deal with right now, it shoves into your fat cells, to be dealt with at a later time. When you don’t get the nutrition you need, your body takes what it needs from wherever it can get it, meaning it will cannibalize certain systems to keep itself alive.
Just to give you one example, the ideal ratio of Calcium to Phosphorous , is between 1:1 and 2:1. That means that your body needs at least an equal amount of or preferably more Calcium than it does Phosphorous. When you drink homogenized cow’s milk, you’re getting a ratio of 1:1.2, which means the body must find some calcium somewhere else in order to maintain the correct ratio. This is how it stays alive. So, your body will leach calcium from your bones and teeth to make up the difference (yes, drinking milk actually causes you to lose calcium.) Your body is going to do whatever it takes to keep you from dying, and when you consider that even a slight imbalance in the blood can lead to death, it becomes clear just what a huge job that is.
But you don’t need to be a nutritionist, or even know anything about nutrition in order to maintain a perfect diet. All you need to do is create an environment where your body’s natural signals can come through and they will tell you, in every instance, exactly what you need. So, what do you do if you’re currently craving chocolate cake?
Get off the garbage. Stop eating chemicals. You don’t have to stop eating pizza, but stop eating pizza made with fake ingredients. Stop going to restaurants that serve vegetables out of a bag (how hard is it to cut up some lettuce??). Go cold turkey. Eat all you want, but only natural foods. If you do this, a few things will happen:
- You’ll have withdrawal symptoms. Your body is used to getting these chemicals and some of those substances act like drugs. You’ll need to give yourself about a week to adjust. It will take your body about 3 days to clean the majority of crap out your blood (this will not clean out the garbage socked away in your fat cells), but depending on how toxic your diet was, it may take up to a week or two. After that, you’ll feel a lot better. Side effects such as headaches, fatigue and nausea may occur. Be prepared for that.
- After the initial clean up period, you’ll get a surge of energy. This is because your body is no longer fighting so hard to keep you alive, and all that energy is being freed up. If you’re eating an all natural diet, your body will also be getting a lot more nutrition than it may have gotten in a long time.
- Foods will begin to taste better. It takes your taste buds 10 days to renew. Until this happens, natural foods may taste bland, because you’ve destroyed your sense of taste with chemicals. High fructose corn syrup, for example, is sweeter than anything found in nature. If you’re used to eating it, an apple will taste sour by comparison. Wait for your taste buds to renew and watch out. Natural foods taste better than anything the chemical factory can produce – providing you can taste them.
- Once your taste buds adjust, you’ll become more and more intolerant of chemical additives in your food. You’ll actually be able to taste them, and take it from me, it’s like eating plastic. This is a good thing. The only downside is that you’ll realize just how much shit there is in the food we eat. Seriously.
- Your cravings will become more accurate. You’ll find yourself wanting foods that are actually healthy – with a vengeance.
- You may begin to eat less over time. When you eat nutrient dense foods (natural foods have more nutrients), you no longer need as much food.
This process does take some time. Don’t expect all of these changes to take place in a week. Some, you’ll see quickly (like your taste buds recovering) and others will take longer (like your craving mechanism recovering, this can take weeks or months).
Becoming an intuitive eater has taken me through many changes over the years. It happened naturally for me, not by design, but by default. As I’ve listened to my body more and more, I slowly made changes without really noticing. The chemicals were the first to go. After that, I went through a series of dietary changes. I loved meat and eggs for a while and ate what many call a Paleo diet. This resonated with me for a long time. In January 2011, I had the strong desire to try a RAW diet, which I did and instantly loved. It allowed me to break my coffee addiction (3 days after being completely RAW I just no longer wanted coffee). I ate 100% RAW diet for about six months and have now added some cooked veggies and a few meals of the aforementioned sushi, although that seems to be over with for now. I’m getting more into juicing now, and am always discovering something new.
I don’t care what you eat
The most wonderful thing about eating this way is that I’m completely unaffected by what others eat. For example, I no longer eat dairy (it actually grosses me out a bit). But if you were to eat cheese in front of me, I would have no problem with that. I used to eat cheese. Now I don’t feel like it any more. I’m not denying myself the cheese, or the chocolate cake or the steak. I just don’t want them. I feel no need to judge your diet (eat what you want. It’s your choice and your body. Who am I to judge what’s best for you?), nor do I feel any pressure to conform to peer pressure (“Oh come on. Just one piece of birthday cake. It’s a special occasion”). I’m not on a diet. This isn’t temporary. I’m not denying myself the foods I want in an attempt to be healthy.
I love the food I eat. I’ve always been a foodie and that hasn’t changed. The flavors I get to experience now are out of this world. I still have chocolate, just not with sugar or milk. I put a little raw cacao into my smoothie every morning. It’s orgasmic. I can’t stress this enough. If I want something, I eat it. There is nothing I can’t have, nothing I will deny myself. But, if my body doesn’t want it, I won’t eat it. And if there’s nothing to eat that I want, I’ll skip that meal. I’ve become incredibly discerning about what I put in my body, not because some diet guru told me to, or because I’m trying to make a statement, but because I’ve finally started respecting this incredible biological machine that’s kept me alive throughout the years despite all the less than optimal stuff I shoved down my throat. I have never enjoyed my food more and I’ve never felt better.
Nutritionist’s stamp of approval
But just in case you’re worried about potential imbalances – I recently had a nutritionist evaluate my diet and he was floored. He actually exclaimed, “You’re so healthy!!”. He’d never had a client with such a balanced diet. He confirmed that my intuitive choices were right on the money. Adding lemon juice to my salad, for example, which I do just because I like it, helps to unlock the iron in the vegetables so I can absorb more. I didn’t really need the validation, because I know what I’m feeling, but it was nice to get it, nevertheless. There’s clearly something to this stuff.
Now it’s your turn. Have you had any experiences with intuitive eating? Have you listened to your body? What did it say?
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* = a flurry is 3. Shut up Webster. I reserve the right to make up my own definitions.
** = Watermelons are incredibly high in iron. See? My blog is both fun AND educational. You’re welcome.