How to Trust Your Body Around Eating

Seeing how people were happier and healthier after shifting movement patterns to align with their natural structures, gave him the deepest sense of reward he’s felt professionally. Having built impactful and successful businesses in consumer health as well as clinical laboratory, his passion and mission have led him to founding Way. Check out his work and learn more here.

What does trusting your body around eating mean to you?

Do you think of some dream, some fantasy where you eat sweet things like ice cream, chocolate peanut butter cups, and Sour Patch Kids.

Or savory things: steaks, truffle mac ‘n cheese, and cacio e pepe pasta, every day?

And somehow, your body looks like some Victoria’s Secret model or GQ Cover with Leonardo DiCaprio? 

Way Founder Bentley Adams interviews Dr. Robert Waldinger, Director of the Harvard Study on Adult Development, and Co-Author of “The Good Life”. (Credit: Way)

The False Premise of Diets and Body Image

No doubt we have all felt like we could live a life of massive indulgence and have a body that looks like a millionaire actress or actor. (Also, spoiler: they don’t really look that way in real life.)

But that assumes two false premises, both of which disconnect us from trusting our body: 1) That we “can’t” eat foods we love and “should” eat certain “healthy” foods, and 2) That having a body image that’s not our own authentic one is even truly desirable or achievable in the first place.

Further, the concept of eating whatever you want seems to be a fantasy that can be scary. Thoughts pop up like, “If I eat whatever I want, will I just blow up like a balloon?”

And honestly, the first few weeks of your intuitive eating journey can feel like you’re “losing” ground on a weight loss goal, even though weight loss isn’t the objective of intuitive eating. Nor is weight loss actually clinically achievable or sustainable for most people in the long-term, per a vast library of studies.

Beginning the Intuitive Eating Journey and Trusting Your Body

Those first few weeks of eating intuitively – simply eating what you want and what you feel like eating – is both pure bliss and can feel a bit wonky. Like you’re out of control. Because, you’ve likely been conditioned to think that you “need” to restrict what you’re eating in order to be “healthy”. 

Which is simply false, per the data. 4 of 5 diet interventions fail long-term and we’ve known this for a long time – “failure” defined as regaining all the weight lost, if not more, within 2 years. If you didn’t stick with a diet, it’s not your fault – you were set up for failure from the beginning.

Instead of trusting a restrictive diet or program, remember that our world and social culture values “control”. Thus, trusting your body can feel like an abstract idea. Yet, Intuitive Eating has a 49% name recognition amongst US adults aged 18-34 years old. So while it might feel abstract, it’s definitely not.

The difference is that trusting our bodies is not something we’re taught in the US. We’ve been taught to follow “nutritional values” on the side of a box of cereal or chips. Or, that we need to follow the “food pyramid” or whatever trend will make the number on the scale go down or the size of our pants get smaller.

All of these messages push us away from listening to our bodies and they do a disservice to us on so many levels. 

These food rules can create so much confusion and disconnection from the body, they can cause a Stress reaction. Really, it’s Stress that’s induced by Shame – an ancient emotion that’s more active inside of us than we may realize.

It’s something that from years of study and both personal experience and being lucky enough to speak with amazing experts, seems clear to me. 

Shame is Isolation, Isolation is Physically Damaging

When I spoke with Dr. Robert Waldinger, the 4th Director of the Harvard Study on Adult Development, I had one goal… 

To understand his studies on the physical effects on loneliness and isolation. 

You see, the Harvard study has follow the same group of people since 1938 – 84 years – and their main finding?

The single best predictor of our health and happiness isn’t what we eat or how often we exercise.

It’s the quality of relationships we have with the people around us that best predicts our happiness and health.

When I first saw his TedTalk in 2015, I was mesmerized and dumbfounded all at the same time.

It seemed so simple, so self-evident, so true, from the very first moment I heard it.

At the same time, I had spent the better part of 10 years of my life in and around the healthcare system. So much of our healthcare system is about so many other measures of health.

Learning that the quality of relationships was the best predictor of health and happiness started a whole new chapter of my life. 

And, Dr. Waldinger said in that same TedTalk in 2015 that loneliness and isolation are physically damaging

So, when I got to speak with Dr. Waldinger (video of our short conversation is above), I wanted to understand why. 

He had just released new findings that said the reason why loneliness and isolation are so harmful – it’s because they trigger a Stress response.

It’s super simple – humans need other humans. No one is immune or exempt. When we don’t have people around us who make us feel safe, our body physically changes and reacts to protect us. We Stress.

I believe that Shame causes this same sense of isolation, this same reaction of Stress.

Diets cause Shame.

Trusting Your Body Can Lower Stress – Really, Perceived Stress

Stress is a killer. Chronic Stress can lead to Chronic Inflammation – that was the bridge for me. Because we’ve known for a long time that Chronic Inflammation is the underlying cause of over 50% of the known diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke and diabetes.

When you trust your body, you’re calmer. You still stress, but you view stress as simply your body rising to the challenge, using the millions upon millions of years of your DNA’s evolution to address whatever situation is occupying your attention. And, you can recover from stress much quicker – your Stress latency is much lower. 

Stress is one of the biggest killers in our society – Chronic Stress correlates or is the cause of many forms of Cardiovascular Disease, Diabetes, Neurological conditions, Immune System dysfunction, and so many more.

Yet, fascinatingly, there is strong scientific data evidence to suggest that it’s your perception of Stress that makes it harmful. 

As Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D speaks about in her TedTalk (video below), a large study at the University of Wisconsin (n=30,000 people) and a later study at Harvard validated show if you feel that Stress is “harmful” to your health, you have a greater chance of dying prematurely. 

Those who felt Stress was just their body rising to an occasion and didn’t feel it was “harmful” for their health, were actually the healthiest group long-term.

So, the simple thought we want to have is to trust the body as a way of getting to self-acceptance. Accept the moment of Stress, when it happens. That way, when it’s over, you can accept the moment of relief, release, and the calm that comes. 

And there are some specific ways you can learn how to trust your body, which we’ll explore more now.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D delivers a TedTalk in 2013, “How to Make Stress Your Friend”, explaining how her life’s work in Stress moved her to focus on perceived Stress. (Credit: TED)

How to Trust Your Body Around Eating

To learn how to trust your body around eating, the first step is to listen to your body.

What does listening to your body mean to you?

Do you think of sitting in a meditative lotus pose with your legs crossed, thumb and index fingertips connected in a perfect circle, in divine connection with the universe?

That may be a bit much for most of us. There are simpler ways, at least to start. (Though, personally, I’m a big meditator and relish my morning yoga, meditation, prayer and foam roller routine; much to the chagrin of my significant other;))

Hunger Cues – Easiest Place to Start

The first and easiest way to start with listening to your body is simply to register your hunger and fullness cues. Don’t worry about being “perfect” and “always” listening to them. That will just make your self-talk get highly critical, really quick.

Instead, next time you feel hungry, just a little bit, make note and ask yourself a question: on a scale from 1 to 10 – 1 being famished and 10 being uncomfortably full – what number do you feel? 

Then, let 15 minutes go by. What’s the number at now? Maybe you went from a 4, to a 3.

Don’t wait too long – I don’t want you to faint or anything, but if you can go 15 minutes more, see if that 3, became a 2. 

See, by simply applying a number, you’re giving yourself more information than simply, “I’m sooo starving”, which is a very good way to eat food that your body may not really need, in proportions your body really doesn’t need.

And let’s say you’re at a 2 – that’s pretty hungry and you should eat! But, while you’re learning to listen to your body, try to eat something that gets you back from a 2 to a 4 or a 5. Just to see if you can. 

Experiment with Your Hunger-Fullness Cues

For me, this means eating something that’s a starchy carb mixed with a protein – like Late July chips and my total drool-worthy achilles heel, Revolutionary Earthy Hummus. I don’t really count how many chips I’ve had or how much hummus I’ve scrumptiously scooped on each chip, I just feel it out. Sometimes I eat too many (gets me to a 6), sometimes I eat too few (barely gets me to a 4). 

Playing around with what gets you to the level of hunger or fullness you want to be at, is a great way to also start understanding your energy and mental clarity levels. So, when you’re at a 2, notice how well you can do difficult “thinking” tasks – like critical thinking, calculus, analysis, etc. – compared to when you’re at a 5 or 6. 

Also, you can notice when you’re feeling your best, like your energy and mental clarity are peaking – are you at a 7? An 8? Some people may thrive at a 5. Others’ energy may wither away at a 4, while some don’t dim until they’re at a 2 or even 1. There’s no ego in this game – it’s simply about finding what works best for you.

Listening to Your Body the Hours/Day After You Eat

The only other practical advice I’d like to share in this article is to bring your attention to listening to your body after you eat

We talked about this a little bit above with the hunger scale, but we really do need to make this practice a regular one.

When I was a trainer at Equinox in NYC, I noticed that a funny thing would happen when I brought clients in – whether it was our 1st session or our 50th session together. 

Every sessions, after warming them up and seeing how their day was going, I’d ask my client, “so, what did you eat for lunch?” – and two things happened, every time. 

  1. They’d become aware of what they ate, when they wouldn’t have otherwise.
  2. They knew how their body felt as a result of what they ate, either later that night at 5,6,7pm or the next day when I’d see them.

How your body feels after you eat is a great way to start listening to what makes your body feel good, what gives you the best energy, what makes your mental clarity crisp like a sunrise or foggy like the clouds before a storm. What food gives you pleasure, and can you find a food that gives you pleasure while also giving you more mental clarity?

Digestion is the other part. If you’re waking up in the middle of the night with a grumbling stomach or an undesirable trip to the bathroom, that’s a good sign that whatever you ate is probably not what your body wants or needs (assuming you’re not otherwise sick).

Final Thought(s)

Diet culture and food rules can feel like shame.

Shame can feel like isolation.

Isolation can be physically damaging if it’s chronic, because it can cause Chronic Stress, which can cause Chronic Inflammation.

Trusting your body can be a way to reduce perceived stress.

Listening to your body is a powerful tool and it’s easiest to start with the hunger and fullness cues.

Play around with your hunger-fullness scale, how you feel at the low numbers, how to practice preventing famished and ravenous responses, and how to pause eating when you’re starting to feel full.

There are many deeper layers we can get into, but this is a great start for listening to your body and trusting your body.

When you’re ready to go deeper, check out the next post here on the Way Blog or the Body Feels Pathway in the Way app.