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HAES Eating: Eat What You’re Hungry For

April 16, 2013

The second leg in the three-legged stool called HAES-style eating is to eat what you’re hungry for.

I think this might be the most controversial of the three legs of Health at Every Size® (HAES) eating. It can seem like an open invitation to eat until you pop. People who are deeply entrenched in the old calories-in-calories-out diet mentality have spent so much time and energy restricting, that it totally makes sense to me that when they think about eating what they want, things get a little crazy on the inside.

But eating what you are hungry for is as important to HAES eating as a third leg is to the stability of a stool. If you tell yourself you’ll eat when you’re hungry, and you’ll eat until you’re full — but you’ll only eat from a limited list of acceptable foods, you’re going to have a really hard time getting the full benefits of HAES. You’re still restricting, then, aren’t you? You’re still eating with an eye toward losing weight, instead of with an eye toward competent, intuitive eating that supports your total health and well-being.

When you fully embrace HAES eating, you stop moralizing food. There is no good food and bad food. There is just food. Some food makes you feel good immediately, and bad later. Some food makes you feel pretty good all the time. Some food makes you feel really bad all the time, because your body doesn’t play well with it. But, in general, food is just food.

If you’ve been dieting for most of your life, and you give yourself permission to eat whatever you want, there is a chance that what you want to eat is what you’ve been denying yourself (or equating with capital-B, guilt-inducing  Bad) for all those years. So you might find that for a while, if you ask yourself what you’re hungry for the answer is fried chicken or cake. Maybe two whole cakes, who knows? It could be cheese sandwiches or Lucky Charms or whole milk. Whatever it is, you might find that for a while, that’s what you want to eat.

And that will probably be scary. In fact, it might be so scary that it’s holding you back from giving HAES a try.

Facing the fear of food that falls into your personal Bad column is part of the process.

When you get to the other side, you realize that you don’t want to eat cake all day everyday any more than you really wanted to eat rice cakes with a measured teaspoon of peanut butter. You’ll realize that when fast food stops being the enemy, it’s really pretty gross anyway and you won’t actually want to eat it that often. Why would you, when you have the entire range of available foods open to you?

Even better, when that craving for a Western Bacon Cheeseburger does hit, you’ll just eat one and move on with your life. You’ll enjoy every bite, without it turning into a binge or a round of self-hatred or anything else. Not only that, you’ll eat that Western Bacon Cheeseburger because it’s really what you want in that moment, and not because you’re starting a diet tomorrow and maybe you’ll never, ever get to eat one again. EVER. Which often leads to adding a shake and a giant-size fries, and maybe even some tacos or a pizza, none of which you’re hungry for in the first place, because NEVER EVER AGAIN.

Something magical happens after your body and mind really get the message that no food is off limits. You’ll start to notice that you feel good when you eat some foods, and less good when you eat others. You’ll start to trust your own judgement about when, say, eating that cake is worth the sugar crash that comes after it, and when it’s not. You’ll start to realize that eating a balanced diet isn’t only about losing weight (which probably never happened in a meaningful, lasting way anyway), but also just feels good. And you’ll want to feel good, so what you’re hungry for will become the foods that are going to support that good feeling.

You’ll start to really get that feeling good is not equal to being good. And that, my friends, is like fairy tale magic. Because when you realize that whether or not you’re a worthy person isn’t tied up in your ability to strictly control what you put in your mouth, it’s like shackles falling off.

Eating what you’re hungry for is the most controversial part of HAES because it’s the scariest. There is a huge, multi-faceted, multi-billion dollar machine out there invested in making sure that you believe that you and your body aren’t competent enough to be trusted to eat what you’re hungry for. It’s set up to make you believe you can succeed in being beautiful and having faultless health, if you’re strong enough to follow through, and puts all the blame on you when it fails you time and time again. (If you were part of that machine, how invested would you be in your client’s success? Wouldn’t you want them coming back again and again with their wallets open? Or coming to you after the last diet fails?) You’ve probably trained yourself to believe that eating what you want is equal to eating only the things that you’ve been denying yourself all these years.

You’re so well trained that maybe you’re reading this and thinking, “What kind of a stupid person really believes that anyone should just eat whatever they want?” I expect some pretty strong responses to this post, because I know that the idea of trusting yourself and your body to just eat without all the rules and restrictions is terrifying. I went through it, too. But the end result was feeling mentally and physically better than I have in my entire adult life, having a stable body weight for the first time in at least a decade, and the end of things like binge eating, self-hatred, and wildly-swinging blood sugar.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. April 16, 2013 12:38 pm

    Love your insights. Thank you.

  2. April 16, 2013 1:55 pm

    once i stated actually eating what i wanted when i wanted i found that i stopped wanting cake. Mcdonalds and burger king and taco bell are now gross. i find myself craving stuff like yogurt. or bell peppers. or a salad.

    • April 16, 2013 3:50 pm

      Sounds like you took down your defense wall and started listening to what your body needs, not just what it wants. That’s something to emulate.

  3. April 17, 2013 2:25 am

    So…what if you actually really do want the damn piece of cake and not the celery?

  4. Marilyn permalink
    April 17, 2013 6:24 am

    Many times, one has to think in the long run. I’ll be at a bus stop and there are a vending machines with candy and soda. I know if I consume sugar laden food that I won’t want to eat salad, lean meat, etc for many hours. I have stomach problems so I have to go to sleep on an empty stomach or I wake up in pain. If I eat a treat because I’m hungry and not wait to eat a regular meal, then I’ll pay for it later. Eating intuitively doesn’t mean not eating smart.

  5. Ronda permalink
    April 18, 2013 3:41 pm

    Yep – to me, the big idea is learn to listen to your body – pay attention to signals of hunger, fullness, what your body wants, how it makes you feel. Trust yourself and your experiences!

  6. April 19, 2013 9:07 am

    This is exactly what I’m struggling with today, so I really particularly appreciate coming upon this post. As I work with renewed vigor on recovery from disordered behavior, this has definitely been the hardest thing. I’ve made some good progress around eating when I’m hungry, and a lot of progress around stopping when I’m full, but eating whatever I want…that’s tough. I think I’ve sort of struck a mental deal where those things are okay as long as what I’m eating is local, organic produce and protein that I prepare myself (and I love those things!). Last night I had half a chocolate bar after a big dinner and I woke up this morning to a full-on I-can’t-eat-breakfast freakout about it. This stuff is hard. It’s scary and anxiety-producing and destabilizing. And some days it feels like no one in the world but me and my nutritionist thinks what I’m doing is a good idea. So thanks for this post.

  7. IIFYM permalink
    April 20, 2013 2:36 am

    The fact of the matter is certain kinds of foods (especially heavily processed foods) are a) pretty much designed to for you to be able to/want to eat large amounts without ever feeling very full (think crisps/cheese puffs and similar food) and b) very calorically dense but not necessarily filling (a lot of fast foods are like this). So sometimes it is necessary to count calories and such. Having said that, it’s not totally black and white. Why not eat both what you want and a sensible amount of calories, If it fits your macros (IIFYM) style.

    Know what amount of calories you need to maintain weight (eat above or below to gain/lose), focus on achieving a good macronutrient profile (I generally get 2 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight per day while carbs and fats are more variable but within my maintenance calories), multivitamin to take care of micro nutrients if you don’t want to bother with trying to track micro nutrients (you’ll urinate out what you don’t need, apart from the fat soluble vitamins which are pretty hard to overdose on anyway) and fit what you want to eat into this set up.

    Let me put it this way, a McDonalds Seared Grand Chicken Burger contains 501 calories which consists of 35.3g protein, 15g fat and 53.4g carbs. 130g of chicken, 25g of cashews and 120g boiled white rice contains 520 calories which consists of 16.5g fat, 55.2g carbs and 37.9g protein. Notice how they are pretty similar? Your body will react to these foods pretty similarly. Now, obviously the McDonalds will have more trans fats and less mono unsaturated fats and the carbohydrates will be more sugary and there will probably be less water in the McDonalds meal making it less filling for a shorter period of time, so ideally you’d go with the chicken, cashews and rice. Having said that, if you want to eat McDonalds every so often it’s not about feeling guilty, but fitting it into your meal plan in a sensible fashion. You can even expand that beyond a daily thing and into a weekly thing, eg I train on these days, so I’ll eat more calories on these days, while eating slightly less on non-training days to balance it out, or hell “I’m going to a late notice party tonight and want some cake, so I’ll have less carbs at lunch tomorrow (assuming the cake is mostly sugar)” Basically its eat clean 90% of the time and work what you want to eat into your meal plan. It’s what I’ve been doing for a long time now (coupled with the fact that I compete as a powerlifter and train with heavy weights 3 times a week) and I’m maintaining under 10% body fat with a BMI of 27 (80kg/176lbs at 172cm/5′ 7 or 8″ for the record), never feeling hungry or underfed, despite the fact that all of my training sessions are after working all day.

  8. May 28, 2013 11:14 am

    Something magical happens after your body and mind really get the message that no food is off limits. You’ll start to notice that you feel good when you eat some foods, and less good when you eat others. You’ll start to trust your own judgement about when, say, eating that cake is worth the sugar crash that comes after it, and when it’s not. You’ll start to realize that eating a balanced diet isn’t only about losing weight (which probably never happened in a meaningful, lasting way anyway), but also just feels good. And you’ll want to feel good, so what you’re hungry for will become the foods that are going to support that good feeling.

    Thank you so much for these words! I needed to hear this. I needed it to sink in and reach a deeper level of understanding.

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