This post is based on my opinion.
The underlying premise of Intuitive Eating is that you will learn to respond to your inner body cues, because you were born with all the wisdom you need for eating intuitively. On the surface, this may sound simplistic, but it is rather complex. This inner wisdom is often clouded by years of dieting and food myths that abound in the culture. For example, “Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full” may sound like basic common sense, but when you have a history of chronic dieting or of following rigid “healthy” rules about eating, it can be quite difficult. To be able to ultimately return to your inborn Intuitive Eater, a number of things need to be in place—most importantly, the ability to trust yourself!
Intuitive eating seems to be everywhere these days. Mindfulness in general is gaining in popularity and it is only fitting that people bring that mindfulness to what, and how, they eat. Proponents of eating intuitively consider this way of eating to be both normal and natural, a sort of “anti-diet”. Others on the other side of the debate consider it another diet, another lifestyle change, and another way of eating to mitigate the amount of harm in one’s body. Either way, being more mindful of when we eat and why we eat, is a sound idea for several reasons, both physical and emotional.
Think of a baby. They know when they’re hungry. They cry. We feed them…when they have had enough they turn away, or throw the food away. They won’t eat no matter how much you try to force it down their throats. They haven’t been brainwashed by society into thinking they need to eat less to be thin, or eat more to make someone happy (or because there are starving children somewhere).
Maria Von Trapp, who sang the immortal lines from “Do Re Mi” in the Sound of Music had the right of it.
“Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start. When we read we begin with ABC…”
To look at intuitive eating, we need to start at the very beginning.
With a baby.
As a mother, I am constantly reading and researching topics pertaining to children. One thing I hear a lot of is that children today are significantly more overweight and showing markers for diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis at shockingly young ages, compared to only one generation ago.
This discussion could go on because there are so many factors contributing to childhood (and adult) obesity.
I am going to discuss infant feeding, and the role that it plays in this discussion, because it is so important to go right to the beginning in looking at this issue.
I want my children to be healthy and fit, and to have a healthy relationship with food. I want them to trust in their own bodies and minds. Through my years of research (AKA – being my kid’s mom), I have found several things that I believe will contribute to my children ultimately having a positive relationship to food. I fail a lot, but I continue to try to achieve a healthy balance.
1. Breastfed babies eat intuitively. In order to successfully get milk from the mother’s breast, the baby must latch on. The process of latching and then sucking the milk takes effort. Essentially, a breastfed baby must work for their food. It is relatively easy for a nursing mother to know when baby is actively sucking for their food, or passively sucking for comfort.
Conversely, the bottlefed baby (be it breastmilk or formula in the bottle) does not exert the same effort. Bottle nipples are free flowing, and though they come in varying sizes and flow rates, the method of getting milk from it is the same.
2. A breastfed baby controls their intake. It is impossible to force a baby to latch onto the breast and actively suck, particularly when baby is not hungry. Babies may eat many, many times a day. They may eat for an hour. They may eat for 5 minutes every 1/2 hour. They may be easily distracted and delatch to look around.
Here is the key - they are controlling their own intake. Yes, it is hard and exhaustive for the mom, but it gets easier and it creates a much more positive relationship with food in later life.
The caregiver of a bottlefed baby controls the intake. While the baby may turn their head or indicate that they are done, the caregiver may continue to feed the baby until the bottle is empty (in an effort not to waste the milk or in an attempt to “top the baby up”).
This early step of “force feeding”, immediately takes away the autonomy from the baby – they are no longer in control of their intake. Furthermore, when feeding is “scheduled”, the baby does not eat according to their needs, but according to a time table designed by someone else.
3. Breastmilk is designed so that the lower calorie, “thinner” or “more watery” “foremilk” is what comes first and the calorie and fat rich “hindmilk” comes later. (Kellymom explains this much better than I do). Generally, the baby gets satisfied off the foremilk and only has a small amount of hindmilk.
The calories are evenly distributed via bottlefeeding.
This small difference may play a larger role in later life. This article (with citations, is quite interesting and explains things well). It is important to take note of this though, because babies who are being exclusively breastfed are often told they are “too small” because the chart that they are being weighed against is a chart for babies who are fed formula. Ensure that your baby is being measured by the WHO chart for breastfed babies and look at other cues such as growing in the positive direction on a curve, output and mood.
4. Early introduction to solids can contribute to later problems with weight and lack of intuitively eating. The guidelines for most major paediatric associations state to wait until the baby is at least six months old before introducing solid food into the diet.
5. Baby led weaning or baby led solids allows a baby to control their own food intake and choices. If we want our kids to have a positive relationship with food, this can begin right when solid foods are introduced. In the first year, solids are mainly for “testing” and tasting, not for sustenance. The baby should be offered solid foods when they are interested and they should be allowed to feed themselves. For someone who practices baby led solids, scooping rice cereal into baby will not usually happen and instead baby will play with foods of soft textures in their hands and then eventually pick food up and eat it. Additionally, breastmilk and formula should be offered before solid food, not after.
Weaning style impacts on food preferences and health in early childhood. Our results suggest that infants weaned through the baby-led approach learn to regulate their food intake in a manner, which leads to a lower BMI and a preference for healthy foods like carbohydrates. This has implications for combating the well-documented rise of obesity in contemporary societies.
6. Bottlefeeding after 12-18 months of age. Babies who get milk from a bottle past the age of 12-18 months show an increased risk for later obesity. A recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics suggests that parents tend to allow the child to use the bottle and walk around with it, and often use it as a behavioural technique, associating the food with comfort and feeding an emotional need. Breastfeeding is not included in this as breastfeeding can meet an emotional need with limited increase in calories and children associate breastfeeding differently.
By nature, babies do eat intuitively, but, in the same way that we sabotage ourselves, we can sabotage our children’s ability to eat intuitively.
If a baby is bottlefed, be sure to feed on demand and, even if milk will be wasted, to stop when the baby indicates they are done. Follow the cues of your baby and let them set their own feeding schedule (or not). Rather than feeding a baby solids via a spoon, allow them to explore the food and feed themselves.
I look to my son as a sort of “test case” for this. My son is a very intuitive eater. Although he had a very minimal amount of formula after birth, he was cup fed and nursed exclusively following release from the hospital. My son was not a huge eater of solid foods in his first year and we very much followed a baby led solids approach, although it was difficult for me to put aside preconceived notions of “right and wrong” with respect to feeding. When I returned to work at twelve months, my son experimented more with solid food, but we reversed cycled at night with nursing – another sign that my son followed his own cues as to when he needed nutrients. Yes, I was tired at times, but I believe that due to the small period in which our children are young, we need to set aside our own wants at times for their needs.
My son is a small four year old, weight wise, but he is a mighty and healthy child, meeting and exceeding developmental milestones. Watching him eat is a pleasure. He eats slowly and methodically. He goes through periods where his hunger is high and periods where he needs little. He asks for a wide variety of food from sweets and chocolate to salmon and carrots. He is not a perfect eater, but he developed, from an early age, the ability to eat intuitively, and I hope that he continues to have a positive relationship with food as he gets older.