Intuitive Eating or Impulsive Eating?

“Whenever I eat intuitively, I just end up overeating potato chips and chocolate.”

This is the line I hear from close to half the people I speak to who are new to the concept of Intuitive Eating.

To the above line, I like to respond with my own one-liner:

“That sounds like impulsive eating, not Intuitive Eating.”

One of the premises of Intuitive Eating is that you actually end up eating what’s best for you when you are not on a meal plan. But when people think of eating unguided by a meal plan, they tend to envision life in a perpetual blitz of croissants and iced coffees. That may be the reality of someone out of sync with her intuition.

At our core, all people are created to be well-balanced “machines” with powerful self-regulators that tell us what we need to eat, how much of it we need, and how often. These self-regulators include signals like hunger, or outcomes like illness, discomfort, and weakness. These are the signals that form your eating “intuition.” The trick is learning your signals and making sure they are coming from intuition and not from impulse.

But our bodies are even more attuned than that.

In order to see this in a day-to-day setting, we can look to our children. Since eating intuitively is inborn, children are a great place to see intuition at its finest, before it has been affected by culture. In Ellyn Satter’s Feeding with Love and Good Sense, she talks about parents who felt their baby needed to gain weight but they couldn’t get her to eat more. In order to accomplish their goal, the parents doubled the concentration of her formula. The result: she ate half as much. In a non-clinical setting, we see it every time our children stop halfway through dessert or turn down pizza because they just aren’t in the mood.

The idea then is to come to a place where we can reconnect to our intuition and allow that to instruct our eating choices.

When people eat impulsively, they are not only setting aside any food plan, they are also pushing aside their intuition. While chips and chocolate can certainly fit into any diet, the body clearly needs a larger and more varied diet in order to thrive. But anyone who has had that Purim hangover of eating too much nosh for too many days in a row also knows that the body has ways of telling you when you’re giving it too much of something. In our home it is often expressed by a unanimous statement, “We need a salad for dinner.”

People tend to confuse impulse and intuition because they are both an unseen sense driving us toward a certain behavior. Impulses, however, stem from many possible sources. They can be coming from places like stress or emotions, or they can be a reaction to our thoughts. For example, a person might feel a strong impulse to eat chips or chocolate because she has always been told that those foods are forbidden, and as we know, forbidden fruits have a very powerful allure. If a person keeps being pulled back toward chips and chocolate after receiving clear signs from the body that enough is enough, that is a strong indication that she is eating impulsively, not intuitively.

Another indication of impulsive eating could be a powerful urge around eating. It’s as though the person feels the need to cram it down before his sense of judgement calls him out on his action. Impulsive eating is also often accompanied by eating while standing or hiding, or feelings of guilt.

As a result of this confusion between impulse and intuition, you may end up concluding that the best course of action would be to avoid any subconscious messages altogether and just rely on a food plan. Let the intellect lead the intuition. We believe that as long as we are relying on sound scientific theories, we can’t be doing ourselves any harm.

Unfortunately, intellectualizing can also be a culprit in triggering impulsive eating. By sticking to food plans we actually train ourselves to mute our intuition. We teach ourselves to ignore hunger signals and to avoid foods our bodies may be craving for genuine nutritional needs. That’s because food plans can never fit all bodies at all stages of development across countless real-life scenarios.

The role of dietitians is critical in developing food plans and possibly even schedules for individuals who have medical concerns. But even these plans are best served alongside the tools that are taught in Intuitive Eating, as evidenced by the numerous books integrating an Intuitive Eating approach to specific medical conditions written by doctors and dietitians.

The longer we squelch our intuition by ignoring hunger signals and cravings, both emotional and physical, the more we set the stage for the most devastating consequence for anyone trying to find balance in her eating, and that is, the binge. Binges are often the result of an overburdened, overcontrolled eater who has reached her snapping point. The result of a binge is that instead of taking your time to enjoy a reasonable amount of cookies, you’ve now devastated your cookie supply along with your self-esteem.

Many of the other behaviors that undermine our intuition are really just the outcome of habit. There are many habits that can develop over years of disordered eating that can disrupt our bodies’ signals. These include not eating breakfast even if you wake up hungry or clearing your plate even after you’re full. By falling into old habits, we lose out on the opportunity to allow our bodies to lead us in our eating experience.

The good news is that impulse, intellect, and habit are also powerful tools that help us become intuitive eaters. Impulses can bring us awareness of different conflicts in our lives, internal or external, that may have gone by undetected. Whenever we feel urgency around different courses of action, it’s a pretty sure sign we need to investigate what stress is driving that impulse.

Intellect can guide us to make thoughtful choices when we decide how to best nourish ourselves. We can likewise use intellect to run through all the self-care options open to us and choose the one that will best fill our need.

Habits can be developed to assist us after we gain a sense of what our bodies need and what generally works to fulfill those needs.

As always, these can show up in all areas of our lives and not just in our eating routines. Impulsive behavior can manifest itself all throughout our day and bring us to act against our own best interests. Anger is just one great example of where impulse mutes our intuition and brings us to regrettable actions.

We over-intellectualize much of our lives and try “scientific” fixes for everything. We use formulas for marriage, parenting, and career, just to name a few. Often these formulas actually cause us to turn a blind eye to solutions that we’ve always felt intuitively but were convinced were ridiculous because they went against “proven” solutions.

And habits, well, we all know how bad habits can wreak havoc in every nook of our lives…

The tools of Intuitive Eating are powerful remedies to all of these disruptors. By learning how to bring menuchas hanefesh into your life and finally listen to your internal voice, many challenges in life begin to resolve themselves just by allowing our own inner expert to guide us.

To paraphrase some feedback I received from my clients, when they signed up for this program many thought it would be all about food. And though they have definitely learned a lot about their relationship with food and have made progress in that aspect, they saw that the program was about so much more. They have found it to be life altering, spilling over into and affecting so many areas of their lives. While many of them saw Intuitive Eating as a perfect solution to their eating issues, it has surprisingly brought meaning into their lives in so many ways.

So, the next time you think that Intuitive Eating would lead you toward a foray through your nosh drawer, remember that real intuition may just lead you to a true exploration of what you really crave.

(This article originally appeared in The Voice of Lakewood.)

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