What is Instinctive Eating?

by David
Instinctive Eating

It’s frustrating when you see people pay no attention to their diet yet appear to be in good shape. They seem to eat what they want, when they want and get results. Whilst on the surface this can appear confusing there may be more to it. They may be eating exactly the right food for their bodies needs without knowing it.

Instinctive eating is a method of nutrition that uses your body’s natural instincts to make food choices. Done right it can sometimes be the best way to go.

In all honesty, instinctive eating is a more complicated way of just eating when you need to.

This method of eating is quite primitive. Our bodies run on what we put into them and we are no different to any other animal on the planet, to survive at the very basic level we need water and food. As a crude example, a Lion doesn’t have the nutritional breakdown on the back of his lunch.

Instinctive eating teaches us to tune into our bodies natural needs and eat to satisfy them. The basic premise of instinctive eating is that we eat when we are hungry. Alongside this we learn to eat what our bodies are asking for. Have you ever been hungry and looked at a menu and wondered why you fancy a steak one day; pasta the next or a salad the other? Well that’s your body trying to tell you that you need more or less of one macronutrient than the other. Instinctive eating is simply listening to that and eating accordingly. 

How does it work?

When we train, play sport or are active our bodies need to recover in response to this. This is so we can cope with the demands and stress activity puts on us to a greater extent. Now, depending on the type of activity we do our bodies will require different forms of fuel (food/hydration) to recover. For example:

  • Running a marathon is a long and slow process. Your body will likely crave fats, some carbs and a bit of protein to replace the depleted stores.
  • Lifting heavy weights intensely for short durations will leave your muscles broken down. Your body will likely crave carbs, protein and a bit of fat to help rebuild.

From the above you can see how the makeup of your post exercise meal would vary. Based on instinctive eating we would simply find the food our bodies are screaming out for and consume them until we hit satiety.  This is why at different times of the day, week or month we “crave” different nutritional groups. It also explains why we sometimes feel like different food types after what we perceive as one type of exercise.

Now, sometimes we do just crave something for the sake of wanting it – We’re all human after all. I highly doubt that my body is ever really in need of the tub of Ben and Jerry’s on a Saturday night. Part of instinctive eating is learning to differentiate between these cravings and our bodies actual needs, it takes time but does become easier.

So, in theory instinctive eating sounds easy. Don’t worry about the number of macronutrients you should be consuming as this may vary as our bodies do not react identically every time. Instead, eat what you feel like you need until satisfied and then crack on.

Why doesn’t everyone do it?

So far instinctive eating sounds really simple. We eat what our body needs when it needs it and we’re good to go. If we feel like more carbs we eat them, if we need some protein we get it. However, it’s not always this simple.

Being surrounded by adverts promoting food and drink makes understanding and listening to our bodies difficult. We’re generations and generations removed from having only natural food sources available. Unfortunately, that means we have had the natural, instinctive style of choosing food suppressed. Instead, we are often persuaded into thinking we need to consume certain foods when we don’t.

For this reason, specific diets have become popular. They give clear guidelines on what nutritional products are allowed and what nutritional products are off limits – They provide us with consistency and clarity.

However, we don’t necessarily have the same requirements day-day or week-week. Ironically, people who aren’t really “foodies” and don’t pay particular attention to nutrition tend to only eat what they need and when they need it.

In the modern world it’s more difficult to tune into our bodies needs but it is not impossible. It just takes time and a bit of practice. Unfortunately, many people want an instant fix so this puts many off instinctive eating. However, if done well, instinctive eating can take the stress out of nutrition and planning diets. It allows you to take back control of your nutritional needs.

Give it a go

The art lies in distinguishing between the feeling you get when you just want something – Ben & Jerry’s – and when your body needs it – Extra rice as a side. Take time to understand what your body wants, don’t just eat something because it says “high protein” or “low carb”.

I would recommend trying to work one day a week of instinctive eating into your existing diet plan. If it works it works, if not it’s not the end of the world. As you get more proficient you can increase the amount of days you follow instinctive eating on until you are confident enough to use it fully.

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