Yeehaw, it’s a Comment Roundup! Intuitive eating, part two.

By | March 9, 2010


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We sure had an awesome conversation in comments to my post of yesterday on my discomfort with the concept of intuitive eating. Turns out there really are as many definitions for intuitive eating as there are folks practicing it, which makes sense in the larger scheme of things. The discussion really helped me pinpoint exactly where my wariness of intuitive eating comes from, and it may be a total non-surprise that it’s wrapped up in language.

First, the esteemed Fillyjonk said:

I know there are people using the term in a way I find troubling — people who hope to use it as cryptodieting (i.e. “once I commit to intuitive eating I will magically only want carrots and cabbage and will lose weight”), and a smaller number who use it as cryptobinging (”but I want to eat one million Oreos, so it must be good for me”). But this reads to me more like a rejection of disordered versions of IE than a rejection of IE.

…I guess part of the problem is that whenever you put a term to something, you risk people taking it up as a banner but in a way you can’t countenance.

It’s precisely this sort of diet-but-not-a-diet thinking that has made up the majority of the intuitive-eating conversations I’ve read recently, and that explains my desire to reject this faulty logic right away. The potential to use “intuitive eating” as code for for an old-fashioned “lifestyle change” diet makes me twitchy. Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone who practices intuitive eating is participating in a dieting fakeout, not by a long shot — but the capacity of the concept, and the language it uses, to be so flexible is a problem for me. (As an aside, be warned I may start using the term “cryptodieting” ALL THE DAMN TIME now.)

And then, honorable commenter Roxarita said:

Here is what I do not want: another kind of eating that has A NAME.

And I went YES. OH DAMN. THAT’S IT EXACTLY. Here we have my primary problem. I spent the first third of my life giving names to my eating patterns, or having others give names to my eating patterns, or imposing rules other people drew up onto what I ate, and when, and how much. “Intuitive eating” strikes similar chords in my psyche, and that sound frankly makes me want to run as far and as fast as possible in the opposite direction. I just want to eat food that is both tasty and good for me. I don’t want to overthink it. I don’t want to name it or give it a bonnet and a baby carriage. It’s just food, and eating should just happen. Obviously, I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t participate in any naming/organizing of how to eat, if it helps you. You do what makes you happy and well. But it ain’t for me.

Finally, the venerated Michelle of The Fat Nutritionist added some important distinctions:

I think there are some shades of difference between “demand feeding” (which is what a lot of people are talking about when they say “intuitive eating,” and which Lesley is describing here as “intuitive eating”) and other forms of eating that are HAES-supporting.

For myself, I don’t promote the demand feeding variety of intuitive eating. I do think giving some thought to nutrition and how food makes you feel physically (once you’ve dealt with underlying guilt and restriction issues around food, and ONLY once you’ve dealt with those issues) is really the grown-up way to eat. But that’s my bias.

Anyway, the idea I support, and the one I think Lesley is talking about here, is called “eating competence,” which hasn’t spread around too much in lay circles. Yet.

(I also think “eating competence” is meant to be more of a descriptive term than a prescriptive one. The research on it is based on observing how people who are healthy and who don’t have lots of anxiety around food eat, and what factors are a part of that. I can totally understand being uncomfortable with prescriptive eating concepts, because even if it’s a non-diet approach, it still feels like someone is telling you that you SHOULD eat in a certain way. When, in reality, grown-ups get to decide how to eat for themselves — and different people are going to eat in different ways that work for them.)

This really hits the nail on the proverbial head. If I may descend into semantics for a moment, I find “eating competence” a term much preferable to “intuitive eating”. For one, “intuitive eating” rings out like a plan or a strategy or a dreaded lifestyle-change — which, again, is fine if it works for you, but I chafe at that sort of thing. Intuition, conceptually, is an intangible and nebulous idea at best, and intuitive eating would seem, in my opinion, to lend itself too easily to second-guessing and overthinking. I think I want a cookie. No wait, do I really want a cookie? What am I intuiting about the cookie-desire? Maybe I can’t have the cookie I want because it will have a negative health effect on me? Maybe I want a piece of cheese instead? I expect that intuitive eating works as well as it does for folks in recovery from eating disorders because it functions as a training program to reconnect biological need with emotional mind — taking a moment to stop and think about how and what and why you are eating, to nourish yourself, when you’ve lost that ability at some point, is no doubt a tremendously healing approach, and one that provides touchstones and waypoints for re-learning how to eat without judgment or guilt. What do we mean by “intuitive” here, if not as a code word indicating an awareness of a potentially-clouded connection between body and mind? But for those who haven’t divorced these aspects of themselves, this is a challenge without a purpose. In my case, I know when I want a cookie, or a burrito, or a spinach salad, and I don’t want or need to think about it too hard, nor do I feel inclined to interrogate my body to try to glean what it wants, as my body and me are the same thing anyway. I want a burrito, but I should skip it because it’ll make me feel grumpy in the stomach later. I want a cookie, so I eat the damn cookie. I don’t really want a spinach salad, but I’ll eat one anyway because I do best with a certain daily intake of leafy greens. I don’t require reconnection; I’m already connected.

On the other hand, the term “eating competence” sounds to me more like a skill, an expertise you develop and which subsequently comes naturally. I also dig the distinction Michelle makes above regarding this being a term that is more descriptive than prescriptive, as intuitive eating has always struck me as a prescriptive solution, hence my problem with it. I mentioned in comments yesterday that I’d seen a lot of Come-to-Jesus fervor about adopting intuitive eating, and that’s great if it works for you, but it’s not an approach that everyone is going to benefit from. I am very much into the idea of being a competent eater; but I don’t want to have to rely on intuition to direct me. It seems too much like going into the pantry with a dowsing rod and hoping for the best.

Now, the one thing I think we can all agree on is that there is no one definition of intuitive eating that we can all agree on. Which is part of my gripe with the term. As usual, I recommend you, individually, use whatever method works best for you, as an individual, and that you call your approach whatever you want. What I am NOT trying to do here is discredit intuitive eating when it works for people. But I just can’t get my head around it, myself, and the original question was inquiring why I personally am not overly fond of the concept of intuitive eating. This is why: I don’t care for the terminology. I don’t want to overthink or name my eating habits. I don’t believe that human intuition as a concept is infallible. I find that trying to eat “intuitively” complicates something that doesn’t need complications. At least in my case.


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