habitual eating versus intuitive eating

Readers of the blog know that I’ve been struggling a bit with intuitive eating. First, I was worried that I couldn’t trust myself without limits. Then, after I started to loosen the limits, I caught myself using intuitive eating as an excuse to eat poorly.

Now, I’m coming to understand another difficulty: I’m having a hard time distinguishing between intuitive eating and habitual eating. What feels like intuition, for me, is often poorly concealed habit. A key element of intuitive eating, as I understand it, is conscious eating. Knowing what I’m craving. Acting on that craving. Paying attention to whether the craving has been met. Habitual eating – which can feel a lot like a craving, can even become a real honest-to-goodness craving – is the opposite of conscious eating.

Some food habits I have that I’ve just begun to notice:

  • I eat dinner as soon as possible after getting home. I come in the front door, drop the bags, change into my loungey clothes and head into the kitchen. Doesn’t matter if I’m getting home at 5:30 or 8:00.
  • I have a meal-sized sample of everything I’ve cooked. Doesn’t matter if I’m making risotto at 8:00 in the morning or muffins at 9:00 at night.
  • When I shop for groceries, I buy myself a drinkable treat. Could be a latte (when I’m at the grocery store that has a coffee shop inside) or a diet soda or whatever else looks good, but I always get something.
  • When I shop at the coop, I take a run through the salad bar for lunch.
  • At restaurants? I always order the same damned thing. The Kurdish restaurant? Dowjic. Tex-mex? Chicken taquitos. Cambodian restaurant? Loth cha. Thai restaurant? Green curry. Chipotle? Burrito bowl, no rice, black beans, fajita veggies, chicken, tomato salsa, corn salsa, “just a little” cheese and sour cream, lettuce.

I want to get a handle on all these little habits. I want to recognize them as such, so I can call myself on them. That’s not to say that I’ll deny myself these pleasures, but I want to do so in full awareness of what I’m choosing – and why.

That actually reminds me of something else I’ve been noodling about lately. A commenter here keeps a food diary online. She takes pictures of her meals and posts them on her blog. I’m always interested to read it – in part because I’m fascinated by food in general (dammit! I’m a living fat stereotype), but also because I’ve been thinking about doing the same thing. Oh, I probably wouldn’t post it online – that’s not what this blog is about, and I certainly don’t want to start maintaining another one! – but the idea of capturing what I’m eating appeals to me. I like order. I like lists. I love to plan things. I would take some pleasure in keeping track of what I’ve eaten on a given day – not to see whether I’ve been “good” or “bad” but because I’m really, actually interested. And, while I’m no longer counting calories or fat grams, I do want to be sure that I’m eating a balanced diet generally, that I’m getting the nutrition that I need.

But where’s the line between a disordered obsession with food – an obsession with how much and how many and “good” and “bad” – and a healthy awareness and interest in what I’m eating? Am I kidding myself to think that I can have one without the other?


18 responses to “habitual eating versus intuitive eating

  1. Hi, there. I’m fairly new to the fatosphere and am not sure about how people feel about Geneen Roth, but I’d like to put in a word for her here, because it feels relevant. Her books taught me how to eat. I had been dieting and bingeing for so long, I had no idea what actual physical hunger felt like, what satiety felt like, and/or how to identify what I wanted to eat at any given time. And while her books are generally oriented toward losing weight, which is certainly a problem, her method for intuitive eating worked for me. I went through her books and did all of the exercises, especially the one where I tracked my meals and rated my hunger before and after every meal, and it truly changed my life. It took a few months to really get it, but this ability to connect with my inner knowledge has lasted many years — we’re now up to 12. So now, even though sometimes I override it, I almost always know when I’m truly hungry and when I’m not. I almost always know when I’m overeating — which sometimes I choose to do — and when I’m eating for emotional reasons instead of physical hunger — which, again, I sometimes choose to do. I owe Roth a lot. I’m really grateful to her for her work.

    A couple of notes:

    1) Paying close attention to physical hunger and desire means paying close attention to the body, so feelings other than hunger come up. It’s worth having an outlet for those feelings — i.e., a journal, a therapist, good friends to talk to, etc.

    2) As much as I hate to admit it, because I am a lifelong devotee of chocolate and sugar, but for me, sugar can screw up intuitive eating. It doesn’t have to; I’ve had years where I eat intuitively and incorporate sugar the same way I incorporate everything else. But there have also been times when I’ve lapsed into full-on sugar addiction (eating it with every meal, sometimes in large quantities) that ends up feeling bad for my body.

    3) I’ve found that it’s harder to stay in touch with my body when I’m very busy. The slower my pace of life, the easier it is to tap into my feelings (of any kind) and live in a peaceful way. So if I’m overworked and rushing around and under stress to meet deadlines, I’m much less likely to have luck with intuitive eating.

    I think that’s it. Thanks for your site!

  2. Yeah, I’ve had a hard time with IE, too, and recently I’ve struggled even more because I’ve been given some dietary restrictions for health reasons. Unfortunately the stuff that really messes with my body is exactly the stuff I want: sugar. LOL

    I’m finding that the most helpful thing for me is to draw a careful distinction between what I Want and what I Notice. If I wake up in the morning and want a donut (but don’t have time to stop before work) and on the way home from work I want a donut (but am in a hurry to get somewhere and I don’t stop) and the NEXT morning I’m still thinking about it . . . yeah, I just eat the damn donut, because that’s something I Want.
    But if I’m driving home from work thinking, “Gosh, I’m hungry! I can’t wait to get home and eat some eggplant parmigiana from last night, that will taste so good! And I . . . OO! A donut shop! I wanna donut!” Um, that for me isn’t something I Want. It’s something I Noticed. And that, I usually ignore. (On the rare occasions when I’m still thinking about it later, I will go get a donut, but mostly it’s out of sight, out of mind.)

  3. For me the hardest thing about IE and habits is getting out of the “BUT THIS IS THE ONLY PLACE/CHANCE I HAVE TO EAT THIS AMAZING THING THAT I LOVE” problem. Like Steak n shake, I LOVE steak n shake’s chili mac. And even when I’m not really hungry for chili mac, I still order it… even when I’d rather have say… a salad. Because for some strange reason I feel like it is my last chance ever to taste a chili mac supreme. This is obviously untrue because my dog goes to daycare RIGHT NEXT to steak n shake. But still, it is hard.

    I wish you luck. I’m not a journaler… or a tracker. (I found a diary I got when I was 5 a few weeks ago, I literally have an entry every 9 months or so for several years. And every time it’s like “I’m going to write more often!”)

  4. I have definitely used IE as an excuse to overeat/eat tons of junk food. I mean, I really do want chips quite often. But part of it has to be understanding that even if you are “allowed” to eat chips every day, you might be better served by sometimes trying some baby carrots when you want something crunchy. Lo and behold, I have found myself craving baby carrots lately. Maybe I just needed to be “re-trained” after years of deprivation?

  5. I’m struggling with IE as much as anyone, but there’s one thing where I think I got kind of lucky (if you can call it that). Years of starvation/dieting made me appreciate almost every food item as awesome, not just your typical “forbidden” ones, because, well, all food was forbidden. Don’t ask *eyeroll* So I actually do find myself pining for juicy nectarines, crunchy apples, ripe tomatoes, and the like very very often… My dear (and skinny) boyfriend eats none, so I have plenty to choose from and enjoy :o)

    As for food fascination vs. food obsession, I haven’t figured that one out just yet.

  6. Shinobi, I know what you mean; at the same time (I’ve said this before) there were times I was very glad I’d overindulged a bit in a particular food from a particular place – because they were places which actually did close down, and things which I will never have again – oh I can have similar things, but I’ll never again have a Mom’s Pizza (the most unique pie I ever had) or ChiChi’s chicken taquitos with diablo (always had to have them make those special for me), or the Rad Na the phenomenal Pad Thai served before they got new owners, or any number of things that have been lost over the years.

    When I go to Jose Tejas I’m going to order the chicken quesadilla w/extra guacamole and then the crawfish etouffee (and maybe a ribeye steak to take home.) And I’ll do it whenever I’m able (unfortunately not too often, but I’d do it more if I could.)

    At the same time, let me say this, FGOAD. It might be a good idea to briefly track your food intake – I don’t see what’s wrong with that. For a long time I’ve just eaten what I wanted when I wanted (excepting when I was sick and couldn’t eat at all) and I thought – well, maybe I’m really going nuts here and don’t even realize it. Could it be? Then when I kept a record of it for a while, I found out – hell, I wasn’t eating the world at all. And to be honest, if you find out you are, that’s pretty common at first, isn’t it? When first you stop thinking you have to deny yourself, and diet, and punish yourself for everything that goes in? I would think eating a whole lot for a while would definitely be pretty darn normal. It’s pretty unlikely you’ll spend the rest of your life doing that, though :) You’ll start to feel crappy if you eat too much, and recognize actual hunger, and get more in tune with what your body is asking for.

    Also, your dining out diet sounds pretty darn varied to me. So what if you get the same thing each time from each place? Sounded like good stuff to me. Though I’m unfamiliar with Kurdish or Cambodian food. (I did eat at a Vietnamese place once and told the woman she had to guide us as I knew nothing about it – it was pretty awesome!)

  7. Is it my flog (food + blog…I read that somewhere but I’m not sure where…maybe The Rotund?) you are referring to FGOAD? :)

    For me my flog is about 2 things: 1) removing the moralizing about my food choices, and 2) because I always wished someone else would do it so I could see what intuitive eating might look like and I figured what the heck, why not me.

    I think the question of fascination vs obsession is an important one. I can totally see how doing it might be a trigger to obsess for people, including me. If I felt like I was obsessing about my choices I’d stop, but it isn’t feeling like that to me so far. So far is is kind of freeing and also helps me reflect about my choices.

    I am trying not to moralize on the flog …truth be told though, I am still doing it some in my head. I have decided though to let myself not worry too much about nutrition yet. I know from previous experience that I won’t eat the world and that I will end up making more balanced choices as time goes on. I have sabotaged myself in the past by obsessing about my food choices instead of letting my body guide my choices and I hope this time to be at peace with it.

    Having begun the intuitive eating journey before I agree that Geneen Roth’s books and Tribole and Resch’s (sp?) book are very good to learn about hunger and satisfaction. Do though, as pickledginger said, watch out for the weight loss focus.

  8. I defnitely understand the feeling of ‘the last supper’. Whenever I am at a restaurant I always want to try something different but am afraid to order a salad or something (even if I feel like it) because I get worried it wont full me up. So I end up ordering the same old stuff then regretting it. But I have been focusing on eating really slowly lately and the other night I ordered the beef kebabs and although it was a small meal it lasted forever because I savoured every bite. So I think I might be able to experiment a bit more now because the ‘but am I going to be full’ fear isnt there anymore.

  9. Gosh, this post really speaks to me. I definitely still use the idea of “intuitive eating” to indulge in full-on binges sometimes, though much less often than I used to.

    My main problem in this process is not how much I eat, or even what I eat. It’s that I have trouble staying PRESENT during my meal, with experiencing the act of eating, tasting, and enjoying my food. My main bad habit has been to “zone out” while eating, usually by reading. It’s awfully hard to be in touch with how full I am when I’m barely aware I’m eating!

    I think that awareness, that consciousness, is key to learning to eat intuitively. I learned it years ago from Geneen Roth, but still haven’t come near mastering it.

  10. I have also been known to use intutive eating as an excuse to binge. I think there is a fine line between intutive eating and “eating whatever you want”. It is hard to determine if a craving is because you just really want the taste or if your body is craving some sort of nutrient. I can also easily convince myself that I need nutella just because I can’t get it off of my mind. And my mind and my body are not always on the same page. I don’t think that stuffing my face with nutella because it sounds good actually IS eating intuitively.

  11. I agree totally. Eating intuitively is knowing when to say you have had enough. If your bingeing then you are not eating intuitively you are bingeing.

  12. Donna – YES it’s your FLOG. I love it! :)

    btw, I had to google FGOAD. I thought it was some internet acronym I didn’t understand. When all the results pointed back to comments here I finally understood. :)

  13. I don’t want to sound critical, and if you have read any one of my long rambling comments elsewhere or some of my blog posts you probably already know that I am full of shit and clueless when it comes to IE, but I wanted to point out that I’m a little wary of all of the “excuse to eat poorly,” “excuse to binge” language being used here. If you’re still controlling your food intake such that you only eat when hungry and don’t eat junk, doesn’t that mean you’re sort of on the “eat only when you’re hungry and don’t eat junk diet”? My understanding of IE from those who have been successful at it is that those phases where you’re eating “poorly” or bingeing are sort of part of the process, and eventually you get to a point where you recognize that you don’t want to do those things. Not that you shouldn’t, but that your body doesn’t usually want that type of eating anymore. Like I said, though, I present this opposing view humbly because my own eating is screwed up to high heaven.

    I think you are right on in trying to catalogue your food habits, and separate what you order out of habit from what you really, truly want. In my own incompetent, bumbling way, I am really starting to get the hang of this. Now, like I said, I’m screwed up. So today when I got too hungry and was out running errands, it was like “Do you want a strawberry smoothie and salad from Panera, or something from Starbucks, or a box of Good & Plenty and a Diet Coke [an old comfort eating standby of mine]?” And I went for the Good & Plenty. But at least I “tried out” the foods in my mind and decided which one I thought would really satisfy me. Was this nutritionally a good idea? No, but I’m OK with the choice I made given the circumstances. I’ve also gotten to a point where I will usually order what I really want at a restaurant, considering the flavors and what sounds good to me, rather than ordering the salad if I’m being “good” at the time and the chicken and cheese enchiladas if I’m being “bad.” And sometimes dessert sounds good to me now, sometimes it doesn’t; it used to be I’d always want to order it whether I truly wanted it or not. So I think I’m getting there.

    Dieting, of course, is the worst at separating you from your own intuition where food is concerned. You don’t have to think about what to order because usually there’s only one “diet friendly” item on the menu, so you order that every time. It has taken me a while to start getting over that.

  14. Yeah, spacedcowgirl, I’m wary of that kind of language too (even though I use it!). I’m just really having a hard time articulating what I’m struggling with.

    Here’s another try:

    One step in eating intuitively, for me, was to “let” myself have whatever I wanted. To stop thinking “what should I eat?” when it was time to eat. To stop criticizing myself when I ate, or wanted to eat, something that others would consider “bad”. This came pretty easily for me; I’m certainly all tied up in knots about food but being controlling with myself is not one of my problems. The liberation part of eating intuitively was, well, intuitive.

    The next step – figuring out what I actually want to eat – is not so easy. Do I really want to eat Famous Amos cookies at my desk, or is it just that they’re available? Do I really crave a latte on Friday mornings, or is it just that Friday morning lattes have been a treat that I’ve given myself for years?

    And finally – and I haven’t written much about about this – I actually do have some restrictions on the food that I’m going to eat, and I’m going to keep them. I try hard to eat locally. I buy organic when possible (although if I have to choose between local and organic I choose local). I won’t eat meat that’s processed inhumanely, which mostly means not eating meat at all. I strongly prefer, philosophically, to prepare most of my own food. So figuring out how to eat intuitively – but within those guideposts – is another challenge. But an interesting one!

    And please, don’t ever worry about being critical! If I weren’t open to criticism I sure wouldn’t be posting this stuff for the whole world to see. :)

  15. Aha–that makes total sense when you couch it in terms of “do I really want x or y.” In my case also, habit seems to be a powerful motivator. I think my concern was more of how easily IE in general can morph into a diet, not so much that I thought you were in danger of doing that.

    And you know, it sucks, because I think it’s OK to sometimes eat cookies just because you want them and they taste good, and not because you’re hungry and specifically hungry for them. But distinguishing when I really want them and when something else is going on (work stress I’d rather avoid, habit, boredom) such that I actually end up feeling worse if I eat them, is one of the toughest challenges for me.

    And I know it’s complicated when you have moral convictions around food and are trying to keep that separate from the IE stuff. It sounds like you are on the right track though.

  16. livingrainbowcolor

    Just keep practicing. You will get it. There’s a natural tension between what your body wants and what you habits want. Push yourself gently into experiencing more hunger. Eventually you will feel how light and good eating the right amounts feel.

  17. I totally agree with you, your demarcation of intuitive eating and habitual eating differentiates every individuals’ eating pattern. Most of us eat just for the sake of eating and not when the body actually tells you to. The key is to listen to your body. Good post!

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