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Unpacking HAES Eating

March 5, 2013

I’ve been thinking a lot about HAES-style eating lately.

Eating for Health at Every Size® is so simple that it can almost be intimidating sometimes. Basically, HAES eating is a three-legged stool:

  • Leg one: Eat when you’re hungry.
  • Leg two: Eat what you’re hungry for.
  • Leg three: Eat until you’re full.

That’s it. It seems simple, but I’ve been working on this for the last three years and it’s not always as simple as it seems. Food can have so much guilt attached to it. When guilt is in the building, it’s hard to even know when you’re hungry. I mean, if you have a thousand voices in your head asking you if you’re really hungry or maybe you’re just thirsty or maybe your adipose tissue has taken on a life of its own and is trying to trick you into believing that you’re hungry when really you aren’t at all and it’s after eight and only disgusting gluttons get hungry after eight… and… see what I mean? It’s exhausting.

Even if you can decide that the rumbly in your tumbly is hunger, if you’ve spent decades (like I have) under the spell of the idea that eating is a means to shrinking, you may have lost the ability to know what you want to eat. You had it once, I promise. When you were a little kid, you knew when you wanted something sweet or when you needed something more substantial. Your body knew when it needed carbs for energy or protein for longevity. But when you start believing that you have to pair every chocolate chip cookie with a disclaimer that you know you’ve done something wrong by eating it — things get all screwed up.

So, you’ve decided you’re hungry and you’ve figured out what you want to eat — now you’re faced with having to relearn how to trust yourself to eat. Ellyn Satter calls being able to eat a satisfying amount of food on a regular basis competent eating. On top of probably not making you lose weight, years of dieting may very well have robbed you of the instinctive ability to eat competently. If you’re busy worrying that every single bite that goes into your mouth is going to make you fat, it can mess up your internal hunger signals.

All of this is to say that I’ve decided to take the next three of my posts to unpack HAES eating principles. If you have any questions or topics about HAES eating you’d like me to address, leave a comment here or email me at shauntagrimes at gmail dot com.

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33 Comments leave one →
  1. queenie permalink
    March 5, 2013 2:20 pm

    I’m all for HAES, and I’m all for a certain amount of intuitive eating, and I’m certainly all for the word “diet” returning to it’s original meaning of “what you eat” instead of “weight-loss program”.

    That said, eating what you want, when you want, and as much as you want does still need to be filtered through your grownup mind, right? I could eat an entire family size bag of Ruffles sour cream and cheddar potato chips right now. Just thinking about it is making my stomach rumble, despite that I just ate a perfectly sensible lunch. So, I’m hungry for Ruffles. But should I eat them whenever I feel like it? Nope. Completely aside from the calorie thing, they’re horribly unhealthy in pretty much every way imaginable. I could say the same thing about a pound of Trader Joe’s almond buttercrunch candy. I’m hungry for it, but that doesn’t mean I should eat it.

    So I’d change those rules to :

    1. Eat when you’re hungry. Actually, truly hungry for, say, an apple. If only Ruffles sour cream and cheddar potato chips will do, you’re not really hungry.

    2. Eat what you’re hungry for, as long as it’s (a) healthy or, if not, (b) an occasional treat. No Ruffles sour cream and cheddar potato chips every day.

    3. Eat until you aren’t hungry anymore. Unless it’s junk food, in which case you should portion out a sensible serving and stop when that is gone.

    • purple peonies permalink
      March 5, 2013 5:22 pm

      I think that part of HAES involves not just the act of eating itself, but about what happens after you eat. How do you FEEL after eating an entire bag of sour cream and cheddar potato chips? And I don’t just mean what society thinks we should feel, but about how we feel physically and mentally. Sometimes I *do* wind up eating a whole bag of Plentils (I’m a gluten free vegan, so I’m not a fan of the sour cream and cheddar chips, so this is just my example), but then I end up with a belly ache, or I don’t really feel energized and nourished. I also revisit what I expected to feel before I ate all those Plentils. So I file that away and keep it in mind next time it’s time to eat or I feel that way or want Plentils.

      I don’t think we have to ONLY be hungry for healthy food in order to be legitimately hungry. I’m a health food junkie… I have a wicked sweet tooth and I love chocolate, but I’m definitely in the “eat healthy first and then decide if the junk is still craved” camp. Sometimes I just really really want a big ol’ plate of veganized poutine, or a second piece of cake. If I had a big ol’ plate of vegan poutine for lunch and two pieces of cake for dessert that night EVERY SINGLE DAY, after a couple days (maybe even a week), I’ll start to feel like crap. I’ll have less energy, I’ll get stomach aches from all the sugar, I will likely start having reflux symptoms and all that will start encouraging me to eat less healthy because I’ll get into that instant gratification cycle and addictive food cycle.

      HAES to me is about reevaluating regularly. Not just my hunger signals right NOW but about how they are next week, or right NOW while looking back on the past week or month or more. If I’m craving potato chips every day… could there be something else going on? Am I getting enough salt intake? (And sea salt, not that refined sodium chloride crap.) Am I getting enough SLEEP?? Sometimes carb cravings are a sign of lack of adequate rest. Am I sad? Mad? Bored? Have I skipped my favorite physical activities and now feel sluggish and blah, or have I increased my favorite activities so now I need more energy, so perhaps instead of a bag of carbs, i actually need an extra meal (maybe a sandwich with a handful of chips on the side).

      It’s all very complex. I like the three legged stool to describe the very basics of HAES, but there’s a lot more to it than just “am i hungry” and “what am i hungry for” and “time to stop eating now.” I think this was just a good intro post 🙂

      PS: to the OP: I’d love to hear more about how to re-learn healthy eating habits. I eat healthy because I love to eat healthy and I love the challenge of veganizing and removing the gluten from comfort foods and sweets. But I’ve met some folks who are just hell bent on anything healthy, because they were raised on processed junk. Someone I know once threw out a big bunch of beautiful ripe tomatoes on me, because they didn’t realize that soft tomatoes were a sign of delicious sweet ripeness– they only knew of flavorless white unripened mass produced tomatoes or the kind that come precooked in sauce and frozen meals! I’m always at a loss when this stuff comes up. For some folks the taste and texture of processed crap is just too much to give up, even if their health is at stake.

      • Elizabeth permalink
        March 5, 2013 5:46 pm

        purple peonies, you make some really good points. I’m fortunate in that I grew up eating whole foods, and my mother was a great cook. It can be really difficult for people to leave behind foods that have meaning for them, such as Kraft macaroni and cheese or chocolate milk. This is what my husband ate when I met him, but now he is such a fussy eater he doesn’t like to eat at other people’s houses because the food isn’t as good.

      • March 5, 2013 6:09 pm

        Just logging in to say that sometimes the healthiest thing a person can eat is a 2-inch steak. (Or, to put it another way, “healthy” is far from settled science. If this were to become a discussion of veganism, of “low carb” or some other belief system, I would no longer participate.)

        • March 5, 2013 6:39 pm

          Kell, if it becomes that discussion, it won’t be because of the original posts.

        • Elizabeth permalink
          March 6, 2013 11:53 am

          Exactly, exactly, exactly, Kell. I have fibromyalgia and some adrenal fatigue, and the best things for me are meat and salt. I wish I could be vegetarian, and I really respect vegans, but my body is not happy without animal protein. I think different bodies have different requirements, and the same body may have different requirements at different times. This is one reason I don’t like the lowfat propaganda from docs; I have an enormous tolerance for fat because I have a very fast digestion; fat slows it down and gives me a feeling of satiation.

    • Amber permalink
      March 10, 2013 1:47 pm

      I found queenie’s comment rather triggering. My instinctive response to being told I ought to restrict what foods I allow myself is to want more of whatever I’m being told I should avoid or limit. I had to go away and come back to leave a comment in a calm manner.

      HAES and intuitive eating are different things, though intuitive eating can be part of HAES. The problem with advocating food restrictions in HAES spaces is that modern society almost exclusively associates food restrictions (other than avoiding allergens) with weight-centric Dieting. To talk about one’s own experience is one thing. To include the reader in the need to restrict (“That said, eating what you want, when you want, and as much as you want does still need to be filtered through your grownup mind, right?”) is presumptuous and likely to lead to a negative response in many readers.

      The thing about giving onesself permission to eat anything (even a whole bag of chips) is that because of the “shoulds” and “oughts” regarding restrictions and limits, we may have an emotional response that overrides actual hunger. The goal of permission to eat “what you want, when you want, and as much as you want” is to short circuit that emotional response so that actual hunger can be heard again.

      I love Junior Mints, and on the rare occasions I allowed myself to get them, I would go through an entire theater box size in one sitting. After adopting the intuitive eating permissive approach to foods I want, I went several months eating a box a week or so. Right now I have two boxes at home that I got at the Christmas sales that I have yet to touch. By always having them available, I wind up eating them less, long term.

      • queenie permalink
        March 15, 2013 10:42 am

        I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to trigger. I was, by the way, speaking not at all about calories or body size or things like whether or not the food is “fattening” or what have you, but rather about foods that are, well, just crap for you. Which is why I chose Sour Cream and Cheddar Ruffles potato chips: total, total crap, engineered to be addictive, not one single healthy thing about them.

        I quit smoking because it’s horribly bad for me, even though I quite enjoyed it for years. I limit addictive processed crap for exactly the same reasons. I’d probably still smoke occasionally if I thought I could, you know, smoke occasionally.

  2. March 5, 2013 2:47 pm

    Great. Now I want sour cream & cheddar Ruffles. 😉 Yeah, I must confess that I don’t automatically trust the fat/sugar/salt noshies — humans are hardwired to eat as much of that stuff as possible, ‘cuz once upon a time in our past it was hard to come upon. Maybe the good ole’ “Don’t spoil your dinner” rule would fit here, along with “eat your vegetables or you don’t get dessert.” (Those rules aren’t chosen lightly — they always applied to everybody. For me, they don’t seem to be a loaded with triggers as a lot of other intake guidelines.

  3. Elizabeth permalink
    March 5, 2013 5:03 pm

    When I am feeling half-decent — not exhausted, not stressed — I have no desire to eat a bag of chips or a pound of candy. I have been able to link any cravings for salt or sugar to 1) taking meds that make me want to eat carbs by the ton (NSAIDs, benzodiazepenes in my own personal experience) or 2) exhaustion or stress. I think we all need to be aware of what may be driving us in the direction of the box of chocolates and, frankly, sometimes just eat them with no guilt or nasty self-talk. I don’t know about other people, but the more I deny myself something, the more obsessed I get. When I was a thin child, there was no food denial, and we ate incredibly healthy food. When the weight obsession began on the part of my mother, I ate a lot of sugar I sneaked, and the quality of my intake was poor. So I’m just trying to get back to my childhood — good food (local, organic) and plenty of it, and no food that’s labeled bad.

    • The Real Cie permalink
      March 6, 2013 3:44 am

      I’m the same way. When people start talking about “bad foods” it only makes me want to eat them more.

  4. March 5, 2013 6:43 pm

    One thing that I’ve noticed, as I’ve studied HAES and paid attention, is that it is almost exclusively people who have a history of restricting (that includes deciding you aren’t hungry if you’re not hungry for an apple. No judgement, just saying . . . ) who worry that if they allow themselves to eat their fill when they’re hungry, and to eat what they want to eat, that all they will eat is potato chips or chocolate or Kraft dinner, or whatever. The people I know who have either reclaimed their ability to eat intuitively, or never lost it, don’t have that worry. Because they already know that they won’t only be hungry for chips every time they get hungry. I had the same worry for a long time. I’ve noticed that after a very short time of truly giving up all eating restriction, I naturally wanted a well-rounded diet. I want a meal before something sweet, because I feel better that way, for instance. I want fresh fruits and vegetables because they taste good, which is way better than making myself eat them because I’m supposed to.

    • March 6, 2013 11:03 am

      “I want a meal before something sweet, because I feel better that way, for instance.”

      Yes, exactly. I’m not Type 2 diabetic (yet?), but it does run in one side of my family, plus I have a whole lot of neurological issues that require regular sleep, and avoiding blood sugar swings, etc. And, craving sweets or salt can be part of those swings, so eating what I “want” sometimes could send me into a nasty downward spiral. There are some foods I’ve learned to eat only in certain circumstances or with a certain frequency not because there’s anything “evil” about them, but simply because they have different chemical properties and do different things in my body IMMEDIATELY when I eat them. In other words, I’m managing how I feel today or tomorrow. Kind of like how most people manage their alcohol intake, or deal with allergies.

      I also observe religious fasts or other forms of abstinence now and then, too, for reasons that have nothing to do with “dieting” or (physical) “health,” but many people automatically jump to tabloid assumptions and go into autonomic diet speak if I happen to mention I’m not eating meat on Fridays or whatever. And, then, I have to be careful to not let their assumptions trigger guilt/anger/resentment/insecurity/etc. in me. Sometimes, it’s just saner to do some almsgiving and adoration than anything to do with food, and this is certainly what any spiritual director worth the title would recommend for anyone with a history of eating disorders or being bullied for being fat.

      Yes, many, many land mines…

    • queenie permalink
      March 6, 2013 11:58 am

      My point was that a lot of junk food is engineered to be addictive. So yup, I could eat a family size bag of sour cream and cheddar potato chips, no problem. I’m hungry for it now. And if I ate it, I would be hungry for it again tomorrow, because I like them. A lot. And I could eat a nice big bag of those pretty much every single day for, I don’t know, a long time. And that’s not healthy in anybody’s book.

      So for “indulgence” foods, the ones that just plain aren’t necessary for any reason other than they taste good, and are in fact bad for you on a lot of levels completely aside from the calories…I don’t go by hunger, because hunger isn’t a very useful parameter in those cases.

      For junk, I decide if I want it, if it falls into the “occasional indulgence” category as opposed to the “gee it’s becoming a habit” category, then I portion out a reasonable amount, and stop when that is gone.

      And that has nothing to do with hunger.

  5. The Real Cie permalink
    March 6, 2013 3:43 am

    I refuse to feel bad about the fact that sometimes I want to eat goddamn Lay’s potato chips with goddamn sour cream and onion dip. That does happen sometimes. I eat better than I used to but I refuse to hate on myself for the fact that sometimes I don’t.

    • Elizabeth permalink
      March 6, 2013 11:59 am

      This is what I’ve had to learn, Cie. I eat incredibly well most of the time, but sometimes, when I’m exhausted, I eat chocolate or cookies or ice cream. I’ve had to work hard to not fall into negative self-talk, to just enjoy what I’m eating, to not fall into that goddamn diet trap: Oh, well, now I’ve eaten a couple of Cadbury eggs, what’s the point in fixing a good dinner? So eat your goddamn chips and goddamn dip, and ENJOY!

      • March 6, 2013 12:00 pm

        Hm… Cadbury eggs… (Did I mention I DIDN”T give up chocolate for Lent?)

        • Elizabeth permalink
          March 6, 2013 12:14 pm

          The priest at the church where I occasionally go gave a great sermon about giving things up for Lent. She asked why we didn’t give up not paying attention to our spouses, for example, instead of giving up sugar. Hmmm.

        • The Real Cie permalink
          March 8, 2013 7:31 pm

          Fallen Catholic turned Pagan with Buddhist tendencies. I didn’t give up chocolate for Lent either!

          • March 8, 2013 10:08 pm

            That settles it then! (Tosses out Cadbury Eggs which are, alas, only virtual. But still good.)

      • The Real Cie permalink
        March 8, 2013 7:33 pm

        Elizabeth, I have fibromyalgia too. I know where you’re coming from. My son and I have gone to a more vegetarian diet, but he’s adhered to it better than I have. Sometimes I still really crave meat.
        I also have hypothyroidism, so boy do I relate to the salt craving! Because I have hypertension, I’m supposed to be on a low sodium diet. Meh–fuck it. I already have to take blood pressure meds, so my BP is in the normal ranges anyway these days!

    • queenie permalink
      March 6, 2013 12:00 pm

      Whoa. Where did the hate come in?

      • The Real Cie permalink
        March 8, 2013 7:38 pm

        I don’t know if there was a troll here making hateful comments that I missed and has since been eradicated. If you’re referring to my comment, I wasn’t meaning anything hateful, except that I tend to backlash at the idea of perfect eating. I have an eating disorder which is currently mostly under control. I tend to express myself in a somewhat snarky and sarcastic fashion. People who can’t see me sometimes miss the sideways smirk in my tone. So if you mean me, I wasn’t being hateful, although maybe I was feeling a little pissed off because it sometimes seems like even in “safe” spaces people tell you what you can and can’t eat, and I’ve been fighting with issues surrounding eating for years.

        • queenie permalink
          March 21, 2013 1:48 pm

          Sorry, I was responding to “I refuse to hate myself” etc. I hadn’t seen anything about hating anybody and wondered where that came from. For the record, I didn’t see anything about eating perfectly either. For me, it’s not a binary subject.

    • emi11n permalink
      March 7, 2013 1:09 pm

      I have a new mantra: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” When you think you have to be perfect you just set yourself up to fail and then quit the good stuff you’re doing because you didn’t do it 100% of the time. So enjoy your chips and dip! It’s not like you’ll never eat veggies again, and eating chips doesn’t cancel out all the veggies you’ve ever eaten.

      • March 7, 2013 3:41 pm

        “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” ❤ this.

        "I am reminded of a zen story of a boy who rakes a lawn getting every last leaf. The Master says to the boy, "Something is not quite right." The boy puts a few of the leaves back. The Master smiles."

      • The Real Cie permalink
        March 8, 2013 7:34 pm

        I resonate with that. I am a horrible, horrible perfectionist and have to tell myself all the time that good enough is good enough.

  6. Marilyn permalink
    March 6, 2013 7:46 am

    I’m currently restricting. I know it’s because of fear of pain and discomfort. I have bad IBS. I just had dental work and my mouth feels weird. I feel like going hungry because I don’t want to deal with intestinal gas, diarrhea and/or mouth pain. Some days, I’ll eat hardly at all and other days much more which does bad things to my bowel. I know it’s best for digestion to eat small, more frequent meals, but making myself do that seems impossible at time. I often look up from my computer and see that it’s three or four in the afternoon and I haven’t eaten a thing all day. I know going without food is punishing myself since eventually I’ll need to eat and I’ll get the gas that I’m so desperate to avoid.

    • Marilyn permalink
      March 6, 2013 7:48 am

      What I mean is that I don’t feel hungry often or if I do, I ignore it. Trying to eat intuitively can make it worse since when I think about what I want to eat, nothing appeals to me.

      • March 6, 2013 12:18 pm

        WARNING: COMMENCING ADVICE MODE. THIS IS NOT A DRILL>>> Maybe you could connect with other people with IBS, and ask for how they handle this problem? Maybe they have some recipes for foods that aren’t problematic. Sounds to me like you’re probably not the only one to have experienced this, and the issue is more managing the IBS than HAES. ??? <<<ENDING ADVICE MODE.

      • emi11n permalink
        March 7, 2013 1:19 pm

        Don’t feel guilty about restricting. Who could blame you for wanting to avoid the misery that you have to endure when you eat? I have no experience with IBS, but I know a book you might like. The author suffered from HORRIBLE IBS for years. He also talks about not wanting to eat for fear of the consequences. I don’t know if what helped him would help you, but it might be worth checking out, it’s a good book. It’s called The Meat Fix, by John Nicholson. I got it on Amazon.

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