Neuroscience Meets Intuitive Eating

coffee table with plant and magazine
Your relationship with food is anything but simple

Eat when you're hungry. Stop when you're full. Sounds simple, right?

If it was that simple, you'd be on the hunger-fullness diet, which aims to keep eating simple - without any regard for the emotional aspects of eating.

But your relationship with food is any but simple. And here's why. Neuroscience.

Way, way, WAY back in the days of the dinosaurs the reptilian or lizard brain developed. Its primary function was to promote survival at all costs. In other words, see a preditor run like hell. See food, eat like your life depends on it, because who knows when food will be available again. There was no thought about how eating the food would feel or if the edible option was healthy. Dinosaurs just ate.

As evolution continued the mammalian or limbic part of the brain developed in mammals. Eating became more complicated with the introduction of emotions and social functioning.

For example, your partner or spouse is out of town on a business trip. When they don't call, text, or email for an extended period of time you may feel neglected, lonely, and sad. Rather than allow yourself to feel these emotions, it's much more comfortable to grab a bag of cookies and your favorite Netflix show - regardless of hunger cues.

Lucky for our digestive systems, humans have an additional, more sophisticated part of the brain that allows for rational thought - the neocortex or wise brain as Elyse Resch MS RDN co-author of Intuitive Eating calls it.

Your neocortex can assess the biological survival signals of hunger coming from the reptilian brain, listen to and comfort emotions from the limbic brain, and finally make an executive decision whether or not to eat and what to eat.

Woman reaching for snack foods
Are you hungry? Bored? Frustrated? Sad?

So, when you ate lunch less than 2 hours ago, you're bored, and you're heading for the pantry to find something more interesting to do (i.e. eat), your neocortex makes you stop, take a mindful minute, and consider why you're in the pantry.

It takes in messaging about your hunger-fullness level from the reptilian brain, it acknowledges and validates the emotion of boredom coming from the limbic brain, and it can come to the rational conclusion that you're not hungry enough for a snack.

Instead, you decide to get some creative juices flowing. You whip out a scrap piece of paper and note all the ways you can find more creativity in your life - professionally and personally. Write freely, don't sensor yourself. Keep the paper or toss it. Check-in again, how's your hunger? Do you need that snack?

REMINDER: there's no judgment about whether or not you decide to eat. That's not the point - if it was, we would be talking about the hunger-fullness diet, which we're not. The point is to engage the neocortex by allowing it to take a mindful minute.

During that mindful minute, you're able to stop the limbic part of your brain from running the show on autopilot. You're able to make a more conscious, embodied choice of what to do next. Journal. Create/brainstorm. Eat. Hydrate. Move your body. Understanding how these fundamental parts of your brain work lead to a greater understanding of how the principles of Intuitive Eating work.

It's a common misconception that by giving yourself full permission to eat whatever you want in the name of Intuitive Eating, that you'll always overeat - especially with foods deemed unhealthy or "junk" food. This is where understanding neuroscience can help.

If all foods are emotionally equal (reptilian brain), and you trust that you can have them whenever you want, it's not as exciting to have them 24/7 (limbic brain doesn't run the show as it did on diet cheat days). Unconditional access to foods you love eliminates any fear that you'll never have them again (limbic brain gets checked by neocortex), which leads to trusting your body's signals of hunger, desire, and fullness (reptilian brain).

Your rational brain (neocortex) will also comfort any lingering thoughts about the food you ate after you're done eating. It can help soothe the critical voice and check the validity of any diet mentality related thoughts that pop up as you get on with life after eating.

Fascinating, hun? Practicing Intuitive Eating allows you to get in touch with all three types of brain function and how they can support your Savor Food & Body Journey.

If you're curious about how to start applying neuroscience to help you reclaim your health from the toxic body shame and blame created by diet culture, download the free Savor Food & Body Guide.

There you'll find 6 action-packed steps to start healing your relationship with food and your body. You'll also receive weekly-ish tips, resources, and recipes to support your Intuitive Eating practice. Sign up here.