Craving and Balance: My feelings on intuitive eating explained. (Or not.)

By | March 8, 2010

EDIT: Some folks in comments are suggesting that what I describe here IS intuitive eating, so possibly this post would be better framed as my own re/definition of the concept. My reading on the subject over the past few months has left a sour taste in my mouth, so I’m feeling reactionary about it, but it could be that intuitive eating is just one of those approaches that has no single definition, even if some sources make it sound otherwise (or that intuitive eating requires a wholesale rejection of any eating “rules” whatsoever). At any rate, on to the original post.

I had a question a couple weeks ago about why I’m not a huge proponent of intuitive eating as a solution to a troubled relationship with food. First, I want to make it abundantly clear that this is my opinion only. I am not disparaging intuitive eating if it works for you; I think everyone should find their own way of feeding themselves and relating to food, and, if necessary, healing that broken connection with the whole process of eating. Reality dictates that different bodies and different people respond differently to different stimuli, so if intuitive eating has served you, then you go on intuiting, friend. However, both philosophically and practically, it does not so much work for me. I think intuitive eating actually complicates something that should be very simple, and it can outright fail some of us as a strategy for eating healthfully. I’ll illustrate, as is my wont, with a personal example.

I don’t have a gallbladder. Not anymore; not for several years. I have written about this, with both humor and rage, before. When I was 23, my gallbladder and I found ourselves at a standoff, victims of irreconcilable differences. I won the battle, obviously, and my gallbladder and I would part ways forever. No, this is unfair; I didn’t hate my gallbladder, nor was I at war with it. Indeed, the injury I caused it was purely accidental and if the intervening years have taught me anything, I would much rather go through life with a functional, intact, normal gallbladder than without one. But, the divide occurred, and one of us had to go, and accepting that, swallowing the reality that I was losing an organ, was a long and difficult process.

For reasons relating to the obscene miseries of health insurance, I had to put off my gallbladder’s removal for several months after being diagnosed. At the time I was just squeaking out my final years on my father’s health insurance, which would only pay for such a surgery if it took place in-network, the “network” being mostly located in Florida with my father and my childhood home. I was also in my final semester of my first Master’s degree, and a Boston resident of several years, and, well, if you know me at all you’ll know it is very much against my nature to take a leave of absence from school in order to tend to a health problem that was unlikely to kill me in a hurry. So, I faced a period of almost four months in which my gallbladder and I had to maintain a shared household, which was a bit like spending four months with a sleeping pufferfish in your abdomen. You really don’t want to disturb the pufferfish, so living in a way that eliminated possible disruptions seemed my most logical option. Surviving those four months without pain would require a major change in eating patterns.

As my first two attacks were instigated by dietary fat — specifically vegetables sauteed in olive oil — I gamely decided to remove all fat from my diet. I didn’t have a target, in terms of numbers, as my wide-eyed goal was to live completely fat-free, though I’d soon discover this was nearly impossible. Almost everything has some fat in it. Plus, fat serves other purposes in your digestive tract that are kind of important. I eventually settled on trying to keep my fat intake below ten grams a day. As a result, I spent the next four months primarily subsisting on sliced apples, unflavored brown rice, baked potatoes with fat-free sour cream, and fat-free soy-based “bacon” on fat-free white bread with fat-free mayo and lettuce and tomato, in a revolting perversion of the traditional BLT sandwich.

It was not living; it was surviving.

Oh, the foods I longed for. Delicious cheese. Sliced avocados. Granola. Non-skim milk. Salad dressing. I craved and craved. And yet, satisfying these cravings would have done me no favors. The foods I dreamed of were good for me, certainly, and likely would have satisfied the nutritional requirements I was utterly missing, but they also would have launched Abdominal Pufferfish (great name for a band, no?) into a merciless campaign of pain and terror on my innards, and going back to the ER was just not high on my list of priorities. So I resisted. I was miserable. I tried to imagine it as a fascinating social experiment; a reminder of what my life was like during the multitudes of extreme diets I forced myself to suffer as a teenager. It didn’t work. I hated virtually every moment of my life right up until the day of the surgery; and when the surgery was delayed by a few hours, and I had to lie in prep, in a too-small backless gown, with an IV drip in my arm dosing me with valium that was supposed to take the edge off but did nothing so much as it made me even more depressed and impatient, I finally burst into near-hysterical tears, and begged of my then-boyfriend, now-husband, “Just make them take it out. I just want this to be over. I can’t wait anymore.” Though I had spent my life beginning around the age of eight thinking of my body as the enemy, this was the most at odds I’d ever felt with myself. And it provided a turning point, ultimately, when post-surgery I decided I would declare a truce with my body, fat or not, and learn to think of it not as a discrete entity somehow separate from the person I was, but as every bit a part of me as my commitment to social justice activism, or my love of Sherlock Holmes pastiches. If I am to value myself, and my intelligence, and my contributions to the world, I must also value the vessel that enables me to engage with that world, and to experience everything that makes me who I am.

Now, having had this experience of self-enforced denial, I do understand the intuitive appeal. Ignoring, burying, resisting cravings can make you miserable. But part of my journey toward self-acceptance has been to realize that my own relationship with food is most comfortable when it is informed by certain established standards, and is not simply allowed to take its own course. By way of example, I do better in life when I manage to eat at least one big serving of leafy greens a day. Many days, particularly during the week, I don’t really feel like cooking up some collards or kale, so I’ll have a spinach salad. I’m not always jazzed about a spinach salad (in truth, I usually am, but not always) but I know that eating it will ensure that I’ll feel my usual awesome self the next day. On the other hand, sometimes I’ll crave what I call garbage food.

Now, before anyone gets on me for doing the “good” vs. “bad” food thing, let me note that I’m not saying garbage food is “bad”. Just that it’s garbage. Taco Bell, for example? Is garbage food. It’s not evil, but it is food we eat because we’re in a rush and our options are limited; because it’s cheap; or because we reeeaaally want a metric fuckton of salt. There’s no love or care deployed in its production. Its nutritional value is dubious. It’s prepared with speed, and speed is its only benefit. Well, that, and sometimes it can taste really good going down, in spite of the hypothetical (ahem) effects it may have on one’s digestive tract later on in the day.

So: sometimes I’ll crave garbage food. And sometimes I’ll eat garbage food, and that’s okay, because it always comes down to me making a judgment call about whether the pleasure of ingesting said food is worth the potential havoc to be wrought later on. That’s my choice, and I’m happy to have it; but, I also have to recognize that sometimes not indulging a garbage-food craving is much wiser and kinder to myself than diving into that chalupa with reckless abandon. All things in moderation. When I have a craving, I stop and think, okay, if I eat this, how is it going to make me feel? If it’s likely to make me feel logy or sluggish or otherwise not-great, is that worth the trade-off of satisfying the craving? Is there something else I can eat that will strike a balance between these two issues?

While intuitive eating goes a long way in healing many people, most particularly folks in recovery from eating disorders or other forms of disordered eating, I cannot think of it as a universally-applicable doctrine, and frankly I don’t think it’s supposed to be. There are, after all, people with lactose intolerance who crave cheese, and people with gluten allergies who crave bread, and it’s difficult to argue that these folks would benefit from following their “intuition” at the expense of what they know to be true about how they digest certain foods. While learning to listen to one’s body is of paramount importance in self-acceptance, there is, sadly, no one-size-fits-all solution that invariably works for everyone, and intuitive eating can sometimes verge on a doctrine of its own, if only because the folks who dig it are often very vocal about their experiences. But ultimately, ideally, acceptance of one’s body should also mean cultivating a sensitivity to what helps you and what doesn’t, whether we’re talking eating behaviors, or food itself.

Intuitive eating is, no argument, a radical approach to eating in our current food culture of denial, judgment, and superiority. And I’m happy for the folks for whom it works. But it’s not the only approach. The best approach, for me, is to strip food choices of their moral values, and balance listening to one’s hunger with a thorough understanding of how different foods affect you, for good or ill, and to let that inform my eating decisions.

Comments are closed.