This morning, I had an unusual breakfast: an apple and a scoop of peanut butter. Not an unusual pairing, per se, but I normally go for a much more substantial meal in the morning. I’ll typically have eggs and toast, or oatmeal with fruit, seeds, nuts, and all kinds of crap mixed in. Every meal is important, but without a seriously complete breakfast, I’m a wreck by midday, and so when my appetite wakes up demanding eggs and toast, I make a point of listening. Would you like jam with that? I’ll ask. We have raspberry and sour cherry this morning. Just butter? Very good.
But today, my appetite woke up demanding…nothing much. Can I interest you in some oatmeal with hazelnuts? I asked, perusing the cabinet. Eh, it shrugged. Looking in the fridge, I found an apple. It was a nice one from the farmer’s market, and I knew it would be crisp and juicy. Sure, my appetite agreed. I grabbed the peanut butter to throw in a little fat and protein, and also some of that creamy, salty flavor that goes so well with an apple’s sweet crunch. YAAAS, my appetite concurred. It was a tiny meal, but a relatively balanced one. More importantly, it was just what I wanted. I was satisfied.
There are no food rules in intuitive eating, but there are some helpful principles. These guideposts are designed to help you find your way out of the endless diet maze and back to normalized eating: honoring hunger, feeling your fullness, challenging the food police, respecting your body, and so on. While every principle has a distinct focus, they are all connected by one fundamental element: satisfaction.
This is what Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, the RDs who authored Intuitive Eating, refer to as “the hub.” Satisfaction is one of the most elusive concepts, especially to those of us who’ve spent our lives focused on avoidance and resistance when it comes to food. But it is the foundation on which everything else is built. As Tribole and Resch write in the book, “finding satisfaction in eating is the driving force of this process,” just as it is in all areas of life. “Whether it is food, relationships, or career — if we’re not satisfied, we’re not happy... Abraham Maslow has taught us that we are driven by our unmet needs. We want what we can’t have and will do whatever it takes to calm down the sense of deprivation that inevitably arises when our needs are not satisfied.”
Put another way: If you want ice cream, no amount of sorbet is going to do the trick. And if, conversely, you want the sorbet but go for the ice cream (because it’s there, because you’re thinking of today as a “cheat day,” because you’ve already eaten bread so you might as well be “bad” and start fresh tomorrow), then you won’t be satisfied either. Even if you take both desserts, but then sneak off to eat them in your bedroom with the lights turned off, crying — well, that’s not exactly a satisfactory experience either.
But it is a familiar one, to many of us. As Elyse Resch told me herself, “we live in a moralistic environment, and food takes on a moralistic tone.” She points out that Americans have been puritanical eaters since the literal Puritan era, and we still tend to associate any pleasurable experience as “sinful.” Say what you will about that theory, but it’s hard not to see the connection between diets and dogma. Restricting the food we desire, and feeling bad when we consume it? That’s what some people might call “healthy eating.” Taking pleasure in food — that’s indulgence. Doing so in front of other people, without apology or caveat? Gluttony. The ice cream issue comes up frequently amongst Resch’s clients, who fantasize about a life where they could eat all the hot fudge sundaes they want. They’ll say, “Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could eat all that food?” and then immediately correct themselves: “I'm not supposed to, though.” Thus, hot fudge sundaes become forbidden fruit. It is the most delicious thing, and therefore the most transgressive. There’s no way to enjoy it without feeling bad about it, too.
If you want ice cream, no amount of sorbet is going to do the trick.
Resch continues: “But when you ask them, ‘Let’s say that’s all you can eat — hot fudge sundaes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every day this week. What do you think that would be like?’ Inevitably, the client says, ‘Well, that would be really great, but I bet after a while I’d get sick of them.’” Makes sense. Most of us get sick of hot fudge sundaes before we’re even finished with one. Most of us fly right by the moment of satisfaction and don’t stop until we reach the point of disgust or discomfort. That’s how we treat forbidden fruits.
But take out the “forbidden,” and it’s just fruit. “When we allow ourselves to have whatever we want to have — truly allow ourselves, without some hidden judgment — then, over time, we start to realize it's just a hot fudge sundae.” When every craving is permitted, then they become more varied and balanced, Resch says. “You start craving a piece of chicken or a salad...you have that natural desire for a full range of foods.” But if you’re busy fantasizing about the sundaes you can’t have, you’re probably not going to notice those other cravings.
Think of your appetite as a hungry, crying newborn baby. You can put a pacifier in its mouth, and distract it with peek-a-boo, but eventually, you’re going to need to feed that baby. And why wouldn’t you?! When a baby is hungry, you feed it, right?! I’m not a parent myself, but I’ve never looked at a hungry, wailing baby and said, “Do you really need that bottle? Or is this just about that guy not calling you back?” Yes, as adults, our food becomes tangled up with feelings and social interactions and all sorts of things, including hunger. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. If the craving is there, and it doesn’t go away, satisfy it. Feed the baby and let it be calmed, so you can get back to the rest of your life (and so the baby gets the nourishment it clearly needs). Otherwise, you’ll spend the rest of your day carrying around a screaming baby.
But satisfaction isn’t just about eating dessert. It’s also about skipping it, if that’s what you want to do. This sounds a lot easier, but sometimes it’s even trickier. Imagine you’re out to a fabulous dinner with a table full of friends. In Italy. You’re in a country that somehow invented a version of ice cream that is better than ice cream — but you just don’t feel like gelato. Your friends are all, “Oh come on, we’re all having some. You’re making us feel bad!” But you’ve already had the most perfect, satisfying dinner, and you know that eating dessert would just ruin it. You’d be up all night with a stomach ache, and you might even have to miss the trip to Pompeii tomorrow. And so even though you’re in Italy, and you’re on vacation, and your friends are all having dessert, you pass. Because you know what happens when you keep feeding a baby who’s had enough to eat: It pukes at the table.
True satisfaction is about fulfilling a desire, but also enjoying it. After all, being satisfied is not the same thing as being stuffed. In fact, it’s often the opposite. In my own dieting days, I routinely ate what I called a “mixing bowl salad” for dinner. By that I mean I made a salad so enormous that I had to eat it out of my largest mixing bowl. And when I say “salad” I mean a family-size bag of lettuce, doused in vinegar, and pretty much nothing else. At the end of this so-called meal, I would be full to bursting, but nowhere near satisfied. If I had eaten what I wanted — be it a piece of chicken or a slice of pizza — I would have eaten a lot less food. I would have been comfortable and sated, able to do something with my evening besides sit there and wait for my belly full of roughage to digest. But back then, I never would have considered it. It never would have occurred to me to ask myself what I wanted. Sitting there on my bedroom floor (where I ate most of my meals), I felt like someone had just filled me up with styrofoam. I could barely hear the crying of my own appetite, buried underneath all that stuffing. And that was the point.
Once I began learning intuitive eating, I stopped eating sad salads the size of dump trucks, and I could hear my own appetite again. Still, it took a while for me to really listen to it. It took even longer for me to trust it and to recognize its desires as valid and allowed. In other words, it took a long time for me to understand that satisfaction was an asset and an instinct I could rely on — rather than some sneaky impulse trying to trick me into eating hot fudge sundaes ‘round the clock.
Now, if I wake up wanting eggs, I have them. If oatmeal sounds good, then oatmeal it is. If there’s no oatmeal in the house, then I throw together something oatmeal-ish. Satisfaction doesn’t mean dropping everything to fulfill my appetite’s demands at a moment’s notice. It may be a fussy baby, but I’m a grown woman with a life to lead. And that life is a whole lot easier when my appetite is sated and my body is nourished. This morning, that meant an apple with peanut butter. Later it might mean a hot fudge sundae. Either way, there’s simply nothing to be ashamed of.