Finding Freedom with Food: Attuned Eating
By Karin Kratina, PhD, RD
Reprinted from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
2004 Volume 2, Number 5
©2004 Gürze Books
Remember a time when you were young and automatically knew when you were hungry? No one had to tell you. As soon as you were full, you were clamoring to be excused from the table to go play. Food was not special. You didn’t worry about your weight, it seemed to manage itself.
It is possible to find that freedom with food again by learning to trust your body’s hunger and fullness cues. To start, consider the following questions:
- Do you frequently eat when you are not hungry?
- Do you often continue eating after feeling full?
- Do you try not to eat despite feeling hungry?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you probably experience food preoccupation, strong food cravings, and periods of overeating—and probably believe you should be dieting or eating healthier. However, dieting, watching portion sizes, counting calories or carbs, or excessively trying to eat "healthy" can cause you to ignore your body’s cues of hunger, satisfaction, and fullness. If you do this often enough the resulting eating style, often called externally-regulated, restrained eating, can end up backfiring.
Listen to Your Body
Your body knows better than any expert how much to eat, when to eat, and when it’s time to quit eating. And it will keep trying to tell you. These hunger and fullness cues are not turned off simply because you’re following a "plan." Most people can ignore these signals for a while, but sooner or later ignored hunger will begin to push you out of control. Also, when you ignore hunger, you learn to ignore fullness. Those who no longer listen to the internal mechanisms that signal the end of the meal may begin to lose trust in the body and feel the need for more rigid plans or a diet surveillance group. Food cravings get stronger, preoccupation with food more intense, and binges more frequent. You trust yourself less and feel the need for more control. It is a vicious cycle.
One powerful way to break this cycle is to practice "attuned" or "intuitive" eating—eating in response to your body’s cues of hunger and fullness. For many people, hearing about attuned eating may cause them to exclaim fearfully, "I can’t listen to my body. If I do, I’ll eat everything!" But consider this: It is your body that actually asks you to quit eating when it is satisfied. Then the mind, in its infinite capacity to imagine pleasure, responds "Just one more." In fact, "Just one more" can become the mind’s mantra, especially if there has been a history of dieting. Meanwhile, the body is trying to communicate and its signals are ignored.
Conversations between the body and mind might sound the following:
Body: OK, I’m full.
Mind: Uh, did you say something?
Body: Yeah, I’m full, let’s stop eating.
Mind: Heck no, I’m having fun.
Body: But I am getting uncomfortable.
Mind: So what? I might not get this again in a while.
Body: But I’m uncomfortable.
Mind: I don’t care. Besides, I’m going on a diet tomorrow.
Body: But I’m really uncomfortable. I would like to stop eating, please.
Mind: I’m going to ignore you. I’m having a good time here.
If you had listened to your body, you would have quit eating. But with the mind in control, you’re more likely to ignore fullness and keep eating. You may think, "I will just follow the diet and not let my mind wander," but research shows that externally-regulated, restrained eating is an eating style prone to disinhibition. This means that you are more likely to lose control of your eating when only listening to external signals. Studies consistently show that restrained eaters are more likely to overeat than eaters who listen and respond to their internal cues1,2.
Practice Attuned Eating
To end this disinhibition and the resultant overeating, I ask my clients to do four things:
- Eat when you are hungry.
- Do not allow yourself to get too hungry.
- Quit eating when you are satisfied.
- Eat only what you truly want.
The result is an eating style that is attuned or intuitive. After only a week of attuned eating, clients are shocked at the changes in their eating habits—they did not have out of control food cravings, they only wanted a small piece of chocolate and were satisfied, and food did not call to them. They are amazed that food is no longer special. Each time, this transformation seems almost a miracle.
To reconnect with attuned eating, read books such as Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch and Breaking Free from Emotional Eating by Geneen Roth. Use tools to help increase awareness and trust such as a Hunger/Satiety Food Journal and HungerScale (available free at www.nourishingconnections.com). If, after using these resources, you still find attuned eating difficult, consult with a dietitian who is skilled in hunger and satiety work(consult Carolyn Costin’s Eating Disorders Sourcebook) for tips on finding the right dietitian. All of these titles are available from Gürze Books.
Depending on how long you have been ignoring and distrusting hunger and satiety signals, it may take a few weeks or months to reconnect with and trust these signals (for some clients with severe eating disorders, it has even taken up to 5 years). However, those who reconnect with and begin to use attuned eating consistently say it is worth the effort.
Note: It is extremely difficult for a person who is underweight or who is eating less than about 1300 calories daily (1500 for men) to practice attuned eating. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is a false sense of fullness. In these situations it is best to follow a meal plan until you are at approximately 90 percent of your ideal body weight and are eating at least 1300 to 1500 calories daily.
- Polivy J. Psychological consequences of food restriction. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 1996; 96:589-592.
- Polivy J, Herman C, Jazwinski L, Olmstead N, eds. Restraint and Binge Eating. New York: Springer, 1984.