I can’t count the times that potential clients have said, “If you tell me that I can eat whatever I want, I’ll never stop eating it!” To them, Intuitive Eating means eating whatever you want and as much as you want, whenever you want. But Intuitive Eating is more nuanced than simply making impulsive food decisions.
Intuitive Eating is an autonomous process. As a nutrition therapist, I don’t tell my clients what to eat. Instead, I guide my clients through the process of rediscovering their inner wisdom that helps them make decisions about eating. After all, most people are born with all the wisdom they need to know how to eat. Unfortunately, they get distracted from this wisdom along the way and need to be led back to it.
To start that journey back to freedom and safety in eating, it’s important to understand the neuroscience behind Intuitive Eating. Our brains are the masterminds of our behavior, including eating. The multi-faceted development of the human brain has a lot to do with how we decide what we eat and how much.
Way back in time, when the earth was occupied by dinosaurs, eating was a very different experience than it is today. Dinosaurs had a primitive layer of brain functioning, which we call the “reptilian brain.” This brain had only one function: to survive. So if a dinosaur saw another dinosaur to prey upon—prey it did! The dinosaur went after food in an instinctual way. It didn’t have the ability to have any feelings about food. The dinosaur wasn’t scared to eat it, the way many people with disordered eating feel when they’re about to eat. Actually, the dinosaur didn’t feel anything. It didn’t feel scared, excited, or even bored about eating. It simply ate to stay alive.
When animals evolved into mammals, their brains developed another level of brain functioning called the “mammalian brain” or the “limbic brain.” This part of the brain is the center of emotions and social functioning. The limbic brain sits upon the primitive matrix of the reptilian brain. Let’s say you have a dog. If you leave town for the weekend and leave the dog with a sitter, he might act out. He may hide under the bed, refuse to go near you, or have an accident on the floor. Why is he acting this way? Because he has feelings! He may feel angry, sad, lonely, or even betrayed that you left—probably because he had no way of knowing whether you’d ever return. The limbic brain is the part of the brain that controls emotion. The dog can have these behaviors because he has the capacity to have feelings, but he doesn’t have the ability to form thoughts and speak about them.
When humans evolved, a third level of brain functioning emerged called “the human brain” or the neocortex. This is the center of rational thought, and it sits on top of the mammalian and reptilian parts of our brain. If our partner leaves town, we not only may feel angry, sad, or lonely, we probably will speak up about it. We might also have similar behaviors to the dog—we wouldn’t hide under the bed, but we might keep an emotional distance from our partners for a while.
Human brains are the most complex of all species. The human brain has the instinct to survive, the ability to have feelings, and the mechanism to express thoughts and feelings in words. So how does that play into Intuitive Eating? Intuitive Eating is a dynamic interplay of instinct, emotion, and thought. This means that we have the instinct to eat in order to survive. Our survival instinct gives us the messages of hunger, fullness, and what tastes good to us (reptilian brain). We also have emotions that can either make us feel anxious about eating or excited about experiencing all the flavors, aromas, and textures that foods offer (limbic brain). Finally, we have rational thought, which can comfort any emotions we have about eating, override physical or emotional factors that have to do with appetite, and ultimately change our relationship with food and eating, in positive ways (neocortex).
So, how does this neuroscience recontextualize the fear that if you’re told that you can eat whatever you want, you’ll overeat? If you’ve truly made peace with food and have made all foods emotionally equivalent, you don’t experience the feelings of deprivation that come with restricting certain foods. Since you can always eat whatever you like, and since it’s not as exciting as it once was to eat a food that was forbidden, your free access to foods you love will melt away worries that you’ll never stop eating. Your instincts will tell you when you’re hungry and when you’re full—and you’ll stop eating when you’re full. You’ll know intuitively what tastes good and notice when the pleasure in it diminishes. You’ll also use the rational part of your brain to comfort any lingering fears about eating and to evaluate how your body feels after eating. Trust me, you won’t eat the newly liberated food forever!
By practicing Intuitive Eating, all foods will become part of your eating life, even foods you might be forbidding, like French fries or chocolate. You’ll be left with a freedom to eat what you crave and what fills you up—a feeling many of us have been disconnected from since early childhood. Once you’ve gotten the hang of Intuitive Eating, you can trust your wise brain to lead you in the right direction.
Elyse Resch, RDN, CEDRD, is a nutrition therapist with a private practice in Beverly Hills, CA, with over thirty-five years of experience, specializing in eating disorders, intuitive eating, and health at every size. She is co-author of The Intuitive Eating Workbook.