I don’t like the word “diet.” I don’t like restrictions. I don’t like setting myself up for failure. Some days, I wake up and I’m starving, so I eat a large breakfast. Other days, I have no appetite, so I drink my iced coffee, grab a handful of almonds, and go on with my day until the small hunger pangs settle in. It took me decades to learn how to be an intuitive eater. But two healthy pregnancies (and children) later, I can honestly say, I did it. And I have a three-year-old to thank for it.
Let me explain.
When you’re a woman, your friends, family, and acquaintances have tons of opinions about what you look like. When you’re a nutritionist, their opinions and assumptions then lead to questions about what you do and don’t eat. Sharing a meal always leads to an inquisition. “Do you eat dairy?” “Have you ever gone Paleo?” “Is sugar really toxic?”
My toddler hasn’t heard anything of this. In fact, he just eats when he’s hungry. He refuses to eat when he’s full, and he only snacks when he needs a little burst of energy to get him through until his next meal.
At first, I approached all of this as a problem that needed solving. I tried putting him on a schedule: feeding him breakfast within thirty minutes of waking followed by a healthy lunch an hour before his nap, and so forth. When he refused to eat, I consulted with his pediatrician. After all, how could the son of a health professional be nutrient deficient?
But here’s the funny thing: It turns out he was getting what he needed.
He was listening to his body. In fact, he was more in tune with his caloric needs than most of us are. Being a toddler, my son doesn’t understand that, by American standards, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. He doesn’t care that most health experts instruct you to stop eating two to three hours before you go to bed. He never learned that drinking an eight-ounce glass of water before a meal will curb your appetite. He’s three, and he doesn’t care. He listens to his body and he eats when his little tummy tells him to.
I realized that was something I could really learn from.
The truth is, we spend too much time obsessing over our “diets.” We label what type of eaters we are and what types of eating will make us lose weight, or bulk up, or feel our best. It would be dishonest of me to say that I never tried to cut out complex carbs, sugar, caffeine, or other foods labeled “bad” at some point in my life. It’s difficult to know how our bodies respond to consuming certain foods, and it may make sense for you to try to eliminate them from time to time.
But the sooner we accept the fact that there is no magic way—no magic “fix”—the sooner we can get back in tune with what our bodies crave and make honest, healthier food choices. Hey, three-year-olds seem to be having way more fun than we are, right?
Here are five steps I recommend to become an intuitive eater:
1. Realize that timing isn’t everything.
Stop using a clock to decide when to eat. Breakfast is important, but whether you eat it at 6:00 a.m. or 9:00 a.m. isn’t going to make or break your day.
2. Change your perspective.
When we go on “diets,” one handful of M&M’s throws us off. We suddenly think we’ve failed and we go from feeling motivated to feeling defeated in under ten seconds. Don’t look for short-term solutions; think about the big picture.
3. Remember calories are not the devil.
Many of us exercise to burn off all of the food we ate. We forget that calories provide us with energy and fuel to tackle the day. Whether you’re a mom, executive, or teacher (or all three!), you need food to keep your brain, body, and heart working optimally. So, eat up.
4. Go all in.
If you’re craving French fries, don’t settle for pretzels. Eating something different won’t ward off the craving and you’ll end up eating both the pretzels and the French fries. Just pay attention to those cravings and try to figure out what’s causing them to prevent them from popping up again.
5. Eat meal by meal.
Don’t think of each day as a “good” or “bad” day based on what you ate. Reset your clock at each meal. This way, if your breakfast is waffles, you aren’t in the mindset of, “Today I ate poorly, I’ll start again tomorrow.”
By Jennifer Silverman, MS, NLC
About Jennifer: Jennifer is a New York City nutritionist and holistic health coach who takes a 360-degree approach to empower her clients to take ownership of their eating choices and enrich their lives. Her high-touch approach, warmth, and relatability set her apart among her peers. A Baltimore native, she earned a Master’s in Health Promotion Management with a specialization in Nutrition Education from American University in Washington D.C. Jennifer spent nearly a decade consulting for organizations in the public and private sector on their employee wellness programs. She developed health education programs, led seminars and worked closely with a number of Fortune 500 companies to drive lasting behavior change. Jennifer is also the nutrition consultant for Tone House, the first-ever extreme, athletic-based group fitness studio aimed at unleashing the inner athlete in everyone. When not working, you can find her working out at Tone House and exploring parks and farmer’s markets around the city. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, David, and two sons, Max and Boaz. Follow her on Instagram at @JenSilvermanNutrition.
(Photos: Jennifer Silverman)