“Have you lost your mind? You, the anti-calorie-counting dietitian, the believer in legalizing all things chocolate and trusting that everything will be okay? Are you suggesting I should start dieting now, or head to the nearest Weight Watchers meeting and start counting points? Or doing the Paleo thing?”
Nothing of the sort! I’m prompted to write this following two experiences I had at the MEDA conference, that wonderful eating disorder conference held in the Boston area this past weekend. And this pertains to those of you with anorexia as well as those struggling with overeating—compulsive or otherwise.
So I was casually walking in the hall after the keynote presentation by Dr. Roberto Olivardia just killing time until the next break when I’d be selling my book. And I overhear two women, representatives from two respectable eating disorder programs chatting up their programs. “We use an intuitive eating approach with our patients”, she stated. “We don’t use meal plans, but instead have them listen to their body…” Ok, anorexic readers and eating disorder professionals, anything strike you as a bit problematic here? Let’s start with a handy, wiki definition:
“Intuitive eating is a nutrition philosophy based on the premise that becoming more attuned to the body's natural hunger signals is a more effective way to attain a healthy weight, rather than keeping track of the amounts of energy and fats in foods. It's a process that is intended to create a healthy relationship with food, mind and body, making it a popular treatment for disordered eating and eating disorders…”
For starters, to learn to be more attuned to your hunger, to begin to trust it, you need to be able to sense it. Most individuals, by the time they make it to see me, no longer really notice their hunger—not if they’re restricting and not if they are frequently binge eating. With the metabolic slowdown characteristic of food restrictors, hunger gets suppressed, and so that handy cue to get you to eat, that signal you’re supposed to be trusting—it’s largely disappeared! And that “healthy relationship with food” which we all aspire to is just not going to happen with all those unhealthy and distorted thoughts about food and eating and your appearance. Further, if you’ve never had a healthy relationship with food—never trusted your hunger because you went from overeating to undereating, it’s mighty challenging to just start trusting yourself. And for good reason, given your past experience with food and self-regulating.
When I shared my opinions (you didn’t expect I’d just casually stroll past, did you?) the program rep agreed, acknowledging that intuitive eating is an approach they address much later in recovery. We both agreed that normalizing eating under someone else’s direction (a dietitian with eating disorder expertise, for instance), needs to happen first, much before an intuitive eating approach. You can’t expect to be an intuitive eater when you can’t discern hunger and fullness, or when the disordered or diet thoughts are so loud that you can’t trust your physical sensations.
But wait, there’s more.
There were two experiences I wanted to share, remember? The second involves the presentation by Dr. Olivardia, mentioned above, who spoke about ADHD and eating disorders. He highlighted that a very high percentage of obese individuals have undiagnosed ADHD, and identified characteristics of this condition that make it oh-so-challenging to just do it, to follow seemingly reasonable nutrition and behavior recommendations.
For instance, impulsivity. Perhaps if you don’t have ADHD it’s challenging, but manageable, to take a break and have an internal discussion about whether or not you really want to be eating the whole package of cookies, to not respond to your impulse to eat. But in those with impulse control, that discussion comes a bit late. If you struggle with this, you may find yourself eating mindlessly before you’ve even gotten to check in with your signals. And if you eat rather fast, as is typical, you’ll take in a lot of extra calories before the signal of fullness has hit.
Then there’s boredom. Are you still with me? Those with ADHD have a much harder time tolerating boredom. If you struggle with sitting with feeling bored, it may be more difficult to simply acknowledge that you’re not hungry and redirect. Eating to manage this boredom might be the action of choice. Not a very intuitive eating supportive choice!
And while we often think those with attention issues as struggling to stay focused, Dr. Olivardia points out that these very individuals also get hyper-focused on the things they are interested in. This can explain the failure to listen to their hunger, perhaps when they are over-focused on other things. By the time they do respond to their physical hunger they may be ravenous, contributing to overeating. Or maybe there’s an OCD component, with a focus on calories and calorie counting, which may stand in the way of responding to physical cues. Again, making intuitive eating quite a challenge.
To be a successful intuitive eater, you need to be mindful of what you are consuming. Not so easy of you have ADHD and your norm is to multitask! My typical recommendations to separate eating from distractions may not be realistic for those living with ADHD, those for whom multitasking is simply the norm.
For the record, I am a big advocate of intuitive eating and for years have recommended a fabulous book on the subject by RDs Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Do take a look for more guidance on learning to be an intuitive eater.
Surely it’s not hopeless if you fit the descriptions above. To become a more intuitive eater requires more organization to your eating, including preplanning eating times and even meals. Organizational skills may not come so easy, so use tools like alarm reminders, such as on your phone or computer, and make shopping lists. Arrange eating times with friends or family for greater accountability, too. Utilize simple, easy-to-follow cookbooks, where close-to-immediate gratification occurs (with recipes taking 20 minutes or less, for instance.) Yes, Food to Eat fits the bill! And seek the guidance of an ADHD expert like Olivardia, along with an RD with a behavioral focus.
And please be realistic—and less harsh—if you’re prone to berate yourself for being lazy. There may be good reasons why you’re falling short with your follow-through with intuitive eating.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear what you’re thinking.