Intuitive Eating 101
I first heard about intuitive eating from Refinery29’s "Anti-Diet Project" and the book When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies. If you’re unfamiliar, here’s the gist: Traditional diets with all their food restriction and calorie limitation set you up to fail. Your body is no dummy. It has powerful biological and psychological forces that will drive you to consume the very foods you're avoiding, often in excess. (Ever played “keep away” with a brownie, only to find yourself eating the whole pan later?)
This isn’t a lack of willpower. It’s your body fighting against perceived starvation, nutritional deficiencies, and restrictions on pleasurable foods Low Calorie Dieting Increases Cortisol.Tomiyama A.J., Mann T., Vinas D., et al. Psychosomatic Medicine, 2010 May; 72(4): 357–364. Nutritional deficiencies in children on restricted diets. Kirby M, Danner E. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 2009 Oct;56(5):1085-103.. You can win the battle and white-knuckle your way past the office candy bowl, but you’ll lose the war. Engage in this behavior often enough, and a dangerous diet/binge cycle can emerge.
So what’s the solution? Admit defeat, face-plant into a bowl of Skittles, and never surface again? Not so much.
Intuitive eating teaches that the solution is to actually listen to your body. Using a hunger scale, you tune in to whether you biologically need food. When you feel hunger, you allow yourself whatever you want, and if that’s Skittles, then go ahead and taste that rainbow! (Trust me, you can only make a meal of candy for so long before you desperately crave greens and lean protein.) You also tune in to your fullness and stop before overdoing it.
Following these guidelines day after day, your body will finally trust that it's not under the threat of deprivation, your metabolism will return to normal, and you’ll find your naturally healthy weight. (Studies have shown that people who eat intuitively have lower BMIs Intuitive eating: associations with physical activity motivation and BMI. Gast, J., Campbell, Nielson, A., Hunt, A., Leiker, JJ. American Journal of Health Promotion, 2015 Jan-Feb;29(3):e91-9. Eating in response to hunger and satiety signals is related to BMI in a nationwide sample of 1601 mid-age New Zealand women. Madden, C.E., Leong, S.L., Gray, A., Horwath, C.C. Public Health Nutrition, 2012 Dec;15(12):2272-9..) But perhaps most importantly, you can finally trust your body rather than fight its every impulse Dieting, exercise, and intuitive eating among early adolescents. Moy, J., Petrie, T.A., Dockendorff, et al. Eating Behaviors, 2013 Dec;14(4):529-32. The Intuitive Eating Scale-2: item refinement and psychometric evaluation with college women and men. Tylka, T.L., Kroon Van Diest, A.M. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 2013 Jan;60(1):137-53..
When you feel hunger, allow yourself whatever you want, and if that’s Skittles, go ahead and taste that rainbow!
Easy as (unrestricted) pie! Or so you’d think. There are a few roadblocks on your way to the intuitive eating promised land—namely that people eat for reasons other than hunger. We eat out of anxiety, boredom, or the blues. I’m guilty of doing these things, despite knowing there's not much comfort to be found at the bottom of a pint of Chunky Monkey. And we eat out of what’s been dubbed “last supper syndrome.” Here’s where my struggles began.
The Last Hurrah
Intuitive eating expert Theresa Kinsella, R.D., describes last supper syndrome as “the underlying beliefs that promote fear that certain foods won't be allowed or available down the road.” Over the holidays, "last supper syndrome" was my M.O. Here’s a classic example: You know Nana’s Thanksgiving pie won’t come around for another year, so you do a swan dive directly into that lattice crust. And if you’re called away, you can barely focus on a family game of Pictionary because you have tunnel vision on that pie and can’t rest until every crumb is consumed.
But last supper syndrome isn’t only in effect during the holidays. It can also strike with Super Bowl nachos, restaurant outings, or even bagel Friday at the office. Unfortunately my last supper eating was bleeding into all those situations and more. Groundhog Day? What’s-her-face’s birthday? Opening weekend for 50 Shades of Grey? All these occasions were cause for primo eats! Because who knows when life will grant another chance for treats, right?
Facing Down My Demons, er, Muffins
How do you put your last supper syndrome to rest? By convincing yourself (and your body) that there are many more suppers to come! “When someone knows they have complete permission to eat previously forbidden foods and the confidence that food is always going to be available to them, cravings and overeating subside,” Kinsella says. That means the typical approach—playing keep away with the celebratory food because you’ll overdo it—will only increase its appeal. I had to change my mental script that says, “Hurry up and get it while I can and get it now before it’s too late!” to, “Oh, there’s that food again.”
As backward as it may sound, the solution from an intuitive eating perspective is to surround myself with my “one-time-only” foods until they lose their "specialness" and become just another item in my kitchen, no more tempting than an apple on the countertop. But could I do it with something as tantalizing as... muffins?
Oh, muffins! You little doughy puffballs of joy with a cap of buttery crumbs and a soft cakey inside oozing with fruit. My dietary kryptonite! Could I really defuse my urges to eat all the muffins, all the time?
I nervously went to the bakery to submit myself to the ultimate test. Facing the counter, I boldly ordered two... of every flavor. I ordered so many muffins that I lost count somewhere around eight. The baker must’ve thought I was hosting brunch for all of Arcade Fire. But I was giddy. Muffins! Muffins for days! I laughed hysterically as I brought the jumbo bag home and set it on the counter next to the fruit bowl.
There were so many that I couldn’t possibly eat them all, which was the point. They were to be a fixture in my kitchen. In fact, I tried to think of the bag as bottomless. The aim was to imprint the message deep in my psyche: There are unlimited muffins whenever you want them.
As expected, the first day I circled the bag like a shark, occasionally catching a doughy whiff. And I happily ate them—pumpkin walnut, carrot cream cheese, berry bonanza—when I was hungry. Every so often I’d check and see that yes, the muffins are still there on standby for whenever hunger strikes. (Phew!)
By day two, my brain and body were slowly receiving the message. It was like a neon light from a diner: “Muffin Bag Open, 24-Hours a Day.” Little by little, my frenzy around them calmed. And yes, in those first two days, those muffins were my breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, and even midnight nosh. If I was hungry, I had permission to eat whatever I wanted, and I wanted muffins.
The first day, I circled the bag like a shark.
By the third day, the muffins were still delicious and (amazingly) not stale, but they did begin to feel a little less special. The food I’d once limited to birthdays and upheld as The Treat to End All Treats was actually starting to feel like bread by another name, and it was not as sweet. I started passing the muffins on the counter for other foods. And I occasionally forgot the muffins were even there. At times I’d look up from the TV, catch sight of the muffin bag, and think, “Oh yeah. That.”
That’s how the muffins of my dreams, the food that I saved for rare celebrations, the food I overate to the point of pain whenever they were near, became just food. I finally began to realize muffins would be in my life, and there was no panic that I would lose them. They would be there, on the counter, to the point of boredom.
At the Heart of My Last Hurrah
Last supper eating comes from issues with permission and abundance, Kinsella says. That’s the diet mentality: Better overdo it on that muffin now because tomorrow it’ll be gone and it’s back to nonstop kale.
But my last supper habits came from an even harder place. For years I’d struggled with caring for a terminally ill parent. It had eroded away my natural optimism and given a dark tinge to joyful events. Death can give you the feeling that everything is temporary and could be snatched away at any moment. I began to look at life like a series of endings, whether that was the life of a loved one or the simple pleasure of food. I felt all the good things would be taken away from me.
Ending last supper syndrome was about rebuilding the trust that more goodness awaits.
What happens when you know something will end? You fear. You panic. You cling with all your might and gobble up everything you can. But here’s the thing about clinging to things tightly: You’re so focused on the inevitable end that you can’t enjoy the moment. You’ve already fast-forwarded to being without the person or thing you love.
And that mentality isn’t accurate. Goodness is abundant. And good food is abundant. There will be many meals and sunny days ahead. For me, ending last supper syndrome was about rebuilding the trust that more goodness awaits, every day. This won’t be my last supper. It’s one of many with the people I love. And yes, I might serve muffins.