5 Ways to Protect Your Eating Instincts

Diets, detoxes, and wellness plans give you lots of rules to follow about eating. But you were born knowing how to have a healthy relationship with food. Virginia Sole-Smith, author of The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image and Guilt in America, discusses five ways to protect these instincts. 

Virginia Sole-Smith
4-minute read
image of cover of the eating instinct

Food is supposed to sustain and nourish us. Eating well, any doctor will tell you, is the best way to take care of yourself. Feeding well, any human will tell you, is the most important job a mother has. But for too many of us, food now feels dangerous. We categorize food as “good” and “bad” (and the bad list is always longer). We think we have to “earn” dessert and should apologize for wanting a cookie, or even just feeling hungry for lunch. Studies show that half of preschool-age girls worry about being fat; 40 percent of teenage girls use restrictive measures to lose weight and 60 percent of American adults are on a diet—even though many of them have tried and failed to lose weight through restriction as many as twenty previous times.

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We’re mixed up about food because we live in a culture that tells us we can’t trust our bodies. But this isn’t true—everyone is born with three key eating instincts. Think about how newborn babies eat. They know when they’re hungry; that’s why they cry! And they know when they’re full—they simply stop nursing or bottle-feeding and fall asleep when they’re warm, cozy, and fed. And, they know that food must provide comfort as well as physical nourishment. Eating is how babies form secure attachments to their caregivers; it’s how they fall in love.

As babies grow into children, they naturally disconnect a bit from their eating instincts, because they learn to eat at mealtimes and according to the customs of their family. But too often, we’re told to ignore our eating instincts for far more arbitrary reasons—because a new diet trend says so, or because a parent thinks we have to clean our plate. Many of us feel guilty if we find comfort in food, forgetting how essential that is to the eating process. And many of us ignore our hunger or our fullness cues; restricting till we can ignore our hunger or overeating past the point of physical comfort. Lots of us do both.

For my book, The Eating Instinct, I interviewed dozens of people about their relationships with food. And it didn’t matter if they were recovering from orthorexia and obsessed with clean eating, or recovering from weight loss surgery and trying to figure out how to eat with a newly shrunken stomach, or living in poverty and worrying about having enough to eat, period. Folks with all kinds of eating struggles, in all walks of life asked the same questions: How did we learn to eat this way? Why is it so hard to feel good about food? And how can we make it better?

The answer is to reconnect with your eating instincts and trust yourself first, around food. Not some wellness guru. Not some new diet plan. Just you. These strategies can help:

  1. Stop apologizing for your food choices. It’s nobody’s business why you’re taking the second cookie, or not eating meat right now, or hungry for lunch at 11am when most people in your office wait till noon. You don’t owe the world any kind of perfect eating. A meal only has to satisfy you.

  2. Focus on what your body does for you, not how it looks to others. The number one reason people try to control eating is to lose weight and achieve the unrealistic standard of beauty perpetuated in our culture. But your body’s value and purpose extends far beyond how it looks. It keeps your heart beating and your eyes blinking; maybe it’s made a baby or run a marathon or learned to jump rope. It needs good food to do all of that and it deserves to be appreciated for how it serves you much more than how it looks.

  3. Know that you can make choices to support your health without making a moral judgment about food or your body. Perhaps you have a food allergy, a gluten intolerance, or another health challenge that requires eating according to certain guidelines. You can still listen to your body’s instincts about hunger, fullness, and comfort. You can still choose foods that satisfy you, even if you’re limiting others. And you don’t have to view this as a personal failing, or write off the food that doesn’t work for you as “bad.” Make these choices from a place of self-care and abundance rather than thinking of them as restrictions or deprivations.

  4. Reclaim comfort food. Because eating is so essential to human survival, we’ve evolved several mechanisms to make sure we do it. One is physical hunger (that rumbly tummy feeling that reminds you to eat lunch). But another is the joy we get when we eat well; the fact that eating is a comforting process ensures that babies will keep wanting to do it. But too often, diet culture dismisses comfort foods as bad or unhealthy; and we’re told that food should be nothing more than fuel. Emotional eating isn’t always destructive; often, it’s you eating exactly the way your body needs.

  5. Remember that all of this is an ongoing process. You don’t have to get it right at every meal. It takes a long time to tune out the noise and mixed messages of modern food culture and choose to put your body first. But the good news is you get another shot in just a few hours. The only way to learn to eat is by eating.

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