The Art of Intuitive Eating: What Food Cravings Are Really Trying to Tell You
BY PAUL DUGLISS, M.D.
mastering the art of intuitive eating allows you to understand what food cravings are really trying to tell you.
Enlightened Nutrition: Practicing Intuitive Eating to Honor The Body’s Food Cravings
Whe word Ayurveda comes from two words: ayur—meaning life or longevity, and veda—meaning truth, knowledge, or science. Ayurveda then refers to the science of longevity or the truth of life.
The ancient sages who cognized the natural laws that make up Ayurveda recognized that there were fundamental laws underlying all of creation (i.e., how creation got created). The basis of intuitive eating is this: If you understand the qualities that determine whether a plant, food, herb, or substance is light or airy, heavy or stable, fiery or intense, then you can understand how to use that substance to prevent food cravings and create balance in the human body.
The compilation of the understanding of these natural laws forms the medicine known as Ayurveda, the ancient source of the modern concept of intuitive eating, which is the primary care medicine for approximately 800 million people in India and Southeast Asia.
In the West, our search for truth has come mainly from looking to the outside. Science is composed of the following:
+ Observations that can be verified.
+ Experiments that can be replicated.
+ Conclusions that can be deduced by anyone who is logical.
Science is a useful tool, but it is not the only tool. You have precious tools for discovering truth and “recognizing” natural law. The only difference between you and the seers is the refined awareness or consciousness that they had developed (something you can develop, too, through the practice of meditation and in the case of this article, tuning into your bodies food cravings more closely). Because consciousness can vary so much from individual to individual, the need for an objective way of knowing developed. Science has filled that void. The other approach, the subjective approach to knowledge, can be just as valid. The missing variable has been a means to develop consciousness to its full capacity. Even before that, though, your awareness is a valuable tool. With a little guidance, it can be used to rediscover the knowledge of diet and dietary principles cognized by the ancients that can help you learn the art of intuitive eating.
We all have some awareness of our experience. We all have intuition. Each of has a “gut feeling” about what is right for us, such as our frequent food cravings. Intuition and awareness can be guided and refined to know the most profound principles of intuitive eating and health. I invite you to undertake this different approach to diet and dietary principles. I invite you to utilize your awareness and allow that awareness to be guided to discovering what is healthiest for you. As you do so, you will start to experience the fundamental principles of Enlightened Nutrition. Some of these principles you will learn through direct experience, some through others’ experiences. Each will be supported by some of the cognitions of the ancient seers. Each will be supported by the findings of modern science. In this manner, you will rediscover truth in your own awareness and in your own body.
This process may make for lasting changes in the way you think about diet, the way you intuitively eat, the types of things you eat, and ultimately, the way you re-create yourself. My hope is that you will stop thinking of food in terms of nutrients, food cravings, and calories and start thinking of it in terms of energy, qualities, and the spiritual impact it has on human beings. All this radical shift requires is an openness to learn from your experience.
one of the key practices to master the art of intuitive eating is learning how to interpret your body’s food cravings in a healthy way, for example by eating fruit when you are craving something sweet.
The Principles of Enlightened Nutrition
Principle #1: Food conveys life energy.
Implications for intuitive eating: Do not take lifeless food. Avoid dead and dumb (unintelligent) foods. Fresh vegetarian food that is close to the source and organic without preservatives or artificial flavors is best.
Principle #2: Food conveys emotion and consciousness.
Implications for intuitive eating: The thoughts and emotions of the cook are an important aspect of nutrition. Who prepares your food, the care they put into that preparation, and their relationship with you is important. Home-cooked food, prepared by a loving and spiritual cook, is best.
Principle #3: Food immediately starts re-creating the body.
Implications for intuitive eating: Optimizing digestion is as important as optimizing the type of food you intuitively eat. Digestion can be improved.
Principle #4: When digestion is incomplete, toxins are formed that block metabolism.
Implications for intuitive eating: Regular purification of the body is important. Avoiding foods and habits that block digestion is key.
Principle #5: The body constantly seeks to maintain balance.
Implications for intuitive eating: Diet can be used to bring about balance and regain health. Food is medicine.
These principles and their implications start to form a broader picture of diet. Intuitive eating involves more than just what food is put in the mouth. It incorporates the process of eating, the intuitive eater, and the food that is craved.
Each individual is unique. Ultimately, no one can prescribe the perfect diet for someone else. Bodies come in different sizes and shapes. They have different metabolisms. They develop at different rates. They change with time and have different states of balance or imbalance on any given day. Subjecting someone to a diet with exactly so many calories, so much protein, and so much fat denies these differences. How could anyone ever know the exact number of calories someone else’s body will need in one day? How can one guarantee that the amount of protein or fat is too much by a gram or two? Surely, that extra gram or two will turn into ama (toxins that build up in the body from poor digestion). A gram or two may not seem like much. But day after day, what would be the effects of creating a gram or two of ama?
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Each of us has been given our own intuitive abilities. Each of us has within an elaborate feedback mechanism, more sophisticated than the most advanced computer. Each of us has the means to know exactly what we need to intuitively eat—and when—by listening to our food cravings and understanding them. Unfortunately, with all the rules and regulations that are attached to diet, this wondrous system is too easily ignored. We just don’t listen. And listening is key to the ultimate diet.
Listening means paying attention to what your gut is saying—what exact nutrients and foods it is craving. It means attending to the sensations you have before you eat, when you are eating, and after you intuitively eat. It means having your awareness attuned to your body. When this is the state of mind, then amazing information is available to you. This next experiment gives some hint at what is possible.
Experiment: The Gut-Feeling Experience
This exercise involves developing your awareness of the sensations in the body. In order to heighten these sensations and practice intuitive eating, you will cut back drastically on food intake for less than one day. The objective is to become aware of the messages the body is giving you.
Required Materials: None.
+ For breakfast, take only 1/2 your normal amount of food.
+ For lunch, take only 1/4 your normal amount of food.
+ Do not skip meals.
+ Do not snack between meals.
+ Do not dramatically increase your fluid intake.
+ If you are not hungry by dinnertime, take only 1/4 the amount of your normal dinner.
Record your experience of hunger during the day by paying particular attention to:
+ The sensation of hunger in your gut.
+ The type of food you would like to consume.
+ The types of taste you would like to take while you are hungry.
+ How the hunger changes when you start to eat meals.
+ What food tastes you would like to experience at the beginning of the meal, during the middle of the meal, and at the end of the meal.
For this experiment, it is very important to record your impressions and food cravings. After you have recorded your experiences, you can take a little more for dinner. If hunger did not come until after dinner, then you can take some warm milk or a date shake to quell the hunger after you have recorded your impressions about intuitive eating.
Questions for you to ponder:
1. If you intuitively craved a particular taste, why might that be? Would any taste have satisfied?
2. Was the desire to fill the stomach with anything, or was it for something in particular?
3. If the desire was for something in particular, was this desire coming from the mind or from the gut?
4. Why might the desire change as you start to eat? If it did change, what did it change to?
5. Could you distinguish between what the mind imagined as food and what the gut intuitively desired?
That last question refers to what many people describe as “having a gut feeling.” We call it that when we are using our intuition to eat. Our minds can conjure up any craving. Our “gut” guides us on the level of feeling to the correct conclusion. Listen to some of the experiences of my patients as they learned about making this distinction.
“I started craving pasta. Now I am a big chocolate fan. I usually think I could live on chocolate, and I anticipated that I would crave this constantly. I was surprised to find myself craving noodles with a little bit of salt and butter. It seems that my body knew it needed to take on some carbs.”
— Angela B., Graphics Design Artist
“I did not notice very much, except that I was hungry. It was a different kind of hunger though. It became very intense, and I knew that I wanted something substantial. It was not a desire for desserts or sweets or anything like that. If anything, a submarine sandwich would have done the trick.”
— Joseph J., Minister
“At the first full meal I took, I started out with some bread. Then my body seemed to be craving salad. Then it seemed to want some liquid. Then it changed again and it wanted something starchy. Eventually, I was full, but very, very satisfied. The hunger seemed to heighten the experience of each taste, and I enjoyed the contrasts.”
— Margaret P., Housewife
Some people know precisely what foods the body is craving. Others need to develop this awareness. Regardless, most make the distinction between what foods the mind is thinking about and what the body is asking for. Nine times out of 10, people do not go for junk food after restricting their diet for a short time and practicing intuitive eating. Most do not binge on chocolate.
Constant awareness is a part of conscious eating. It is the key to detecting a change in what the body is requiring and craving in this instant. When it is refined, each bite is followed by a shift in sensation and a reassessment of what the body is calling out for. Is something sour needed now? Is something heavy needed next? Is something crunchy needed now? Is something sweet needed next? This constant attending to the signals of the body guides the process of intuitive eating. It assures the development of the most important feedback system in the body. It is the key to healthful eating.
Our society has such difficulty with food and eating that diets become rules for suppressing our desires instead of us taking on healthy techniques like intuitive eating. Desire is the means through which the body expresses its needs. Desiring a salty taste or a sweet taste or a bitter taste is the body’s communication method. Ignoring and suppressing desire damages this feedback system and makes one less aware. It often results in mental tension. This produces cravings. Cravings can be out of a sense of deprivation, or they can result from specific imbalances. Mental cravings distract you from the messages of the body. The gut feeling you have intuitively is overridden by the mind’s insistence on a specific sensation. Mental cravings of a persistent nature sometimes have meaning. They sometimes relate to an imbalance in the physiology. Below is a list of the meanings of some cravings.
The Meaning of Food Cravings
Food cravings are sometimes the result of imbalances in the physiology or the diet, but can also be the result of intuitive signals on what to eat. When they are present, they can give a clue as to what changes are needed in the diet. Below are some common cravings and their potential implications.
Food cravings for sweets after a meal in non-obese person: Can mean protein deficiency; diet is not rich enough or heavy enough to ground the individual.
Food cravings for salt: Can be sluggish digestion. Digestion needs to be sharpened. Activity level is too high and digestion is being damaged by overdoing.
Food cravings for hot spicy foods: Can be weak digestion, particularly from lack of exercise and physical activity.
Food cravings for sour: Can be from the buildup of ama. Ama needs to be cut through and dissolved for digestion to work right.
Food cravings for bitter (such as coffee or dark chocolate): Can be lack of bitter in the diet (not enough greens and vegetables).
Learning to eat intuitively is the most important skill you can develop in regard to your health. Your intuition is more sophisticated than any computer. It can provide the exact ingredients you need to properly nourish and reconstruct the body and end food cravings. It is in each of us. It only needs to be developed.
Intuition is tied to having that “gut feeling” about something. It is deep in the gut that we experience a more refined feeling about what is right for us. Practice refines it. It promotes it and allows it to expand. Eating intuitively has another advantage over prescribed diets—it is fun. When you satisfy the body’s desires and food cravings (as opposed the mind’s cravings), you feel completely fulfilled. You experience complete satisfaction, not a temporary fleeting pause in craving.
Eating intuitively is ultimately the way you can assure that your body is well nourished. It is part of our distrust of nature, our desire to “conquer the elements” that makes us distrustful of the body’s desires and food cravings. This has caused many generations of parents to impose their ideas about diet and eating on their children.
In order to discover whether children really need such guidance, researchers undertook to study what happens when children are given complete freedom to choose their diet without guidance from the outside. The research project utilized a gymnasium with tables stocked with different diet elements. There was a dessert table, a snack table, a vegetable table, a bread table, etc. The children were brought to the gym for meals and given free reign to intuitively eat whatever they wanted in whatever quantity they wanted. Many of the researchers predicted that the children would just eat sweet snacks and desserts to match their food cravings and would never choose a balanced diet. What they found was that those children who had been deprived of having sweets binged for a few days on desserts; but, by the end of a week, almost all of the children were eating a balanced diet. By the end of two weeks, they all were taking foods from every food group. Without supervision, the children naturally gravitated to a healthful diet.
Principle #6: Desire is the body’s mechanism for communicating its needs.
Awareness of this communication and refinement to pinpoint the exact message can be developed. This again points to the importance of consciousness and the development of greater awareness through meditation. As consciousness develops, so does intuition. Refinement of intuition can be enhanced to the point that the need for specific foods in the diet can be ascertained. The key here is practice. Practice referring to yourself for guidance. Practice intuitive eating by paying attention as you eat to the desires of the body. Practice distinguishing the fascination of the mind for some taste or food craving from the desire of the body.
Some help may be in order for those who struggle constantly with sugar cravings. Sugar cravings are a particularly hard food craving for some people to sort out. As mentioned above, in a thin person who is taking a restrictive diet, this can be the body’s cry for more nourishment. Higher protein intake and richer, more soothing foods may be indicated. For other individuals, taking dessert or ingesting sugar-laden drinks may be a mental habit. Breaking that habit can be difficult, particularly in people struggling with weight issues. To break this habit by sheer willpower is sometimes difficult. The ancient knowledge of herbs and herbal combinations are sometimes used to help break these food cravings. Most herbal weight-loss products act as stimulants unfortunately. They whip an already tired horse, resulting in side effects of heart arrhythmias and nausea. The ancient physicians knew better than to take this route. They addressed the problem on another level—on the level of emotion and intuition leading to the art of intuitive eating.
Maintaining normal weight is not a matter of ingesting a diet pill. That is why studies found that meditators’ weight tended to normalize soon after they began the practice of meditation. In order for the body’s feedback system to do its job, it is important to pay attention to how you eat and honor the body’s food cravings with healthy, natural foods. Likewise, it is important to break some old habits and conditioning.
The Spiritually Clean Plate Club
The current concept is that if you leave food on your plate, you are being wasteful. This mentality led to the Clean Plate Club, where you were rewarded for finishing every bite of food on your plate. This concept comes from an attitude of insufficiency. While it materially honors the food and its value, it is not so pure from the spiritual viewpoint.
The ancient seers knew that eating when you were already full would create ama. Not only would it be a waste of food, it would help to destroy the eater’s health. In that sense, eating food because it is placed on the plate is doubly wasted. It honors neither the food nor the intuitive eater.
With this knowledge, it would be best to adopt a different attitude and a different practice. I call this the Spiritually Clean Plate Club because it honors Nature and the intuitive eater at the same time. It is the opposite of the Materially Clean Plate Club. And, it encourages you to tune into the body to determine when you are full. It works as follows:
1. Never eat all the food on your plate.
2. Always leave a portion that is going to be given back to Nature as thanks for nourishing and supporting your life.
3. Always check to see when you are getting full—stop eating at 75% to 80% full.
4. If possible, utilize that portion left on the plate for composting and nourishing the soil near your home.
This practice encourages respect for Nature, respect for you, and it helps you to develop greater awareness of the body and when it is full.
Two other caveats are important in developing intuitive eating. The first is eating slowly. Just shoveling in food after you have intuited what your body needs and is craving will assure you miss any necessary changes that occur as the body starts to metabolize things. As you chew, the taste of food changes. Chewing thoroughly is important for digestion. It slows the process so that you can attend to the taste. Too often people eat and don’t experience the food. They walk away hungry. Eating slowly and enjoying the taste of the food is key.
The other important point is to have available all six tastes at a meal to meet any potential food cravings. As the body shifts and needs a different taste, it helps to have this available on the table to meet the body’s need. Too often bitter and astringent tastes are missing from the typical diet. In order to help supply this, I offer a recipe for Swiss chard. The chard has a wonderful bitterness to it.
Placing lemon juice on it at the end gives it an astringency that delights the palate and makes the mouth want to pucker. This recipe can easily be varied with other greens that also supply the much-needed bitter taste in the diet.
This piece on intuitive eating and food cravings is excerpted with permission from Enlightened Nutrition: Discovering Ancient Secrets for Optimal Health, Longevity and Consciousness: Seven Steps for Radical Life Change by Paul Dugliss, M.D.
About The Author
Paul Dugliss, M.D., practices Ayurvedic Medicine, Ayurvedic Counseling and Internal Medicine. He is also an acupuncturist and practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine. He is the former director of Oakwood Healthcare System’s Complementary & Alternative Medicine Center in Westland, Michigan and is currently on the Board of Directors for the Association of Ayurvedic Professionals of North America (AAPNA). He is the author of several books including Ayurveda—The Power to Heal, Enlightened Nutrition, Capturing the Bliss: Ayurveda and the Yoga of Emotions, The Myth of Cholesterol, and Yoga & Ayurveda. Dr. Dugliss is the Director and Academic Dean of New World Ayurveda, an organization providing training in this comprehensive system of natural medicine. To learn more visit newworldayurveda.com