Meeting Your Needs of the Moment
Back in college was when I first started getting serious about my nutrition. Before that, food and eating just kind of happened in the background of my life.
Before I was focused on my eating, when I was hungry, I ate. When I wanted a snack, I’d have a snack. Sometimes the food was more stereotypically healthy and other times it wasn’t. But I never felt bad about what I was eating, nor did I ever concern myself with what it was doing to my body.
That attitude towards food didn’t stop me from being fit and healthy. Yes, I was just a teenager, but the point is that my food problems didn’t start until I decided to get serious and more focused with my eating and body and trying to make them “better”.
The only problem is that in the process of being more intentional with my eating, I created a dysfunctional relationship with food. Food became a means to an end – a tool to manipulate my body.
In a way, the idea that I can use food to create the body I want is very exciting. It feels very empowering. You can control your appearance simply by manipulating what, when, and how much you eat.
But that wasn’t exactly what happened. Instead, my obsessive focus on what food would do to my body created an unhealthy relationship with food, and I spent the next 20 years yo-yo dieting, living with a binge eating disorder, and hating the way I looked. Not exactly empowering, now is it?
When I made the decision to ditch Diet Culture I needed to retrain myself on my approach to eating. My focus had always been on how much I was supposed to eat, or what kind of foods to eat, or even when to eat them.
But what I really needed was to address WHY I was even eating. My why was always to control my body. And by extension, food allowed me to feel more valuable in society, have more confidence, and be a better person. Or at least that’s what I had hoped would happen. It didn’t.
So my why needed to change. No longer was I going to use food as a means to an end – a way to control my body and worth. Instead, I was going to start eating in a way that allowed me to mentally, emotionally, and physically feel my best right now – not some day in the future.
I stopped focusing on calories and meal timing and restrictive eating, and instead turned my attention to 3 variables that would meet my needs of the now – satiate, satisfy, and nourish.
When you choose what to eat, how much to eat, and when to eat based on those three variables, you’re honoring your needs of the now instead of your desires of the future, which creates less anxiety and obsession surrounding food.
And here’s the most important thing – focusing on meeting your needs of the now instead of your desires of the future doesn’t mean you’re giving up on your goals. Quite the opposite. Your desired future is simply the natural side effect of you consistently meeting your needs of the now. And Intentional Eating gives you the necessary immediate feedback to make that happen.
Using food to control your future didn’t result in the future you wanted. And the reason why is because you were ignoring your needs of the now. By meeting your needs of the now, by choosing foods that satiate, satisfy, and nourish, you consistently string together the necessary number of days of optimal eating that lead to desirable outcomes.
Satiate, Satisfy, Nourish
Getting intentional with your eating doesn’t mean getting focused on using food to manipulate your body. It means in any given moment you are choosing to eat foods that satiate, satisfy, and nourish you so that you can feel your best right now.
Honoring your needs of the now is key to realizing the benefits of the future. But understand these future benefits your nutrition provides, like improved health and fitness, are secondary to the primary benefit of feeling the best you can in any given moment.
Now, you might think that simply eating whole foods 100% of the time is the goal, but it’s not. The goal is to satiate, satisfy, and nourish the best you can given the circumstances of the moment. And that’s important to understand, because your needs of the moment are not static – they are constantly changing based on what’s going on in your life.
What is satiating right now might not be so satiating tomorrow or next week or even later in the day. What’s satisfying right now might be what you’d consider a stereotypically whole food, but it might also be a cookie. And the best nourishment you could give yourself right now might be different than what you could potentially give yourself at another time.
Your needs have to be addressed in a way that honors the variability of the moment. If you simply just try to eat nothing but whole foods because you think that’s the most satiating, satisfying, and nourishing thing you could theoretically eat, then you run the risk of falling short of meeting your needs of the moment. You might need something that’s more satisfying right now, or a bigger meal than usual. And if you choose to eat based on whether a food is healthy or not rather than if it meets your needs of the moment, you can create a state of restriction and deprivation, which creates unfavorable side effects in the future – inconsistent eating, falling into the binge/restrict cycle, nighttime and weekend overeating, or emotional eating.
So let’s take a look at these 3 variables a little closer…
Satiation is a food’s or meal’s ability to fulfill your physical hunger. More times than not a stereotypical healthy food or meal with satiate you better than processed foods simply because of the sheer amount of volume they have per calorie. This fills you up and does a good job of keeping you satiated for 3-4 hours or longer at times.
However, the most satiating thing for you in any given moment will differ. Satiation is not just about protein, fiber, and food volume. Other factors influences satiety too. All things being equal, a more satisfying meal will tend to be more satiating than a meal of equal size that’s less satisfying.
In addition, eating beyond a comfortable level of satiation doesn’t make a meal more satiating. If you end up feeling physically or even mentally uncomfortable because you ate too much, this is not optimal satiation. So sometimes eating less is the way to improve satiation.
So how are you supposed to know what to eat then? You make your best guess, have an eating experience, assess the results, and then iterate. No one gets everything right the first time. True progress comes from trying things and making improvements on behaviors over time. So if you eat too much, then you know a slight adjustment needs to be made for next time. In time you start to understand your body and needs better and better and you’ll be able to eat more intuitively.
This is in contrast to the usual way of eating. Typically we set calorie intakes and food choices based on whether it will help us lose weight. We don’t view our eating through the lens of satiate, satisfy, and nourish. So we are eating mindlessly in that respect. But when you place the eating lens where it needs to be, consecutive eating experiences are more productive, and you are able to anchor these subjective variables and iterate.
Satisfaction is the next Intentional Eating variable. It addresses your mental hunger, also known as cravings, desires, wants, or enjoyment.
This is the variable most people ignore when they go on a diet. There’s this belief out there that satisfaction needs to be sacrificed in order to achieve your goals. This is wrong. It’s the sacrificing of your satisfaction that leads to you not achieving your goals. Your diet must be satisfying or you will experience consistency issues with your eating.
Now, most people think of satisfaction simply as what tastes good. Yes… that is one variable that affects satisfaction, but there are many more, and you should experiment with all of them to get the most out of your diet.
Other than taste, the texture of your food affects satisfaction. The same food prepared different ways can be more or less enjoyable. A baked potato and mashed potatoes are both the same potatoes, but they have different textures, and most people will find one more satisfying than another.
Temperature is another variable. Food or liquids that are hot, cold, or room temp can all affect satisfaction differently.
Meal variety is another. Depending on the person, more similar meals day to day might be more satisfying than different things most days, and vice versa.
The presentation and environment you eat in is another variable. The same meal eaten at home around screaming kids will have a different satisfaction level than that meal being eaten in a 5 star restaurant with dim lighting and nice background music.
How nutritious a meal is can affect satisfaction too. So can having a nostalgic attachment to a particular food. The list goes on and on. You need to consider these things and experiment with your food until you find a dozen or so go-to meals that best satiate, satisfy, and nourish you.
That takes us to the final Intentional Eating variable – nourishment. Nourishment is about the nutritional makeup of your food. It addresses your food’s ability to provide you energy for physical activity, nutrients for your health, and fuel for your mind to think and maintain a positive and productive attitude. That means everything from calories, to protein, carbs, fat, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants are needed by the body and the mind in any given moment to feel and operate at its best.
Similar to satiation, nourishment is going to be best met via whole foods, as these foods have the most nutrients per calorie. But that doesn’t mean every meal needs to be a perfect 10 of nourishment every time you eat. The goal is to do your best meeting your needs of the moment.
There will be times when you actually crave the nutrition of a salad. I feel this way any time I’m coming back from a vacation where I found it more difficult to eat well. When I get home I’m craving my smoothie, and it’s one of the first things I’ll have regardless of what time it is.
But other times you might need to prioritize satiation or satisfaction. Remember, your diet isn’t just about any one particular meal. While you absolutely should assess and honor your needs of the moment, if you zoom out a little and look at your eating over the course of a week or a month, you want to be able to say that yes – overall I satiated, satisfied, and nourished my body well and feel the best I can given the circumstances.
There Are No Empty Calories
Diet culture teaches you that there is this thing called “empty calories”.
That wine you drank. That cake you ate. That bowl of cereal you had.
You’ve been lead to believe these things are empty calories because they contain few nutrients. But who says nutrients are the be-all-end-all yardstick for your food?
If that was the only thing that mattered then our grocery stores would be filled will nothing but nutrient dense fruits and vegetables. Restaurants wouldn’t be a thing (why go out when you can eat the same thing at home). And family get-togethers and holidays like Thanksgiving wouldn’t revolve around food.
Yet all these things do exist. Why? Because food serves a purpose outside of just fuel.
Food also meets cultural, societal, social, mental, emotional, and yes – physical needs.
So empty calories? They don’t exist. Everything you eat fulfills a current need in your life.
You can’t pigeon hole food based on its nutritional content. Doing so blinds you to understanding why you are drawn to eating certain foods.
Yes, of course certain foods have more nutrients than others. No one is going to argue that. A 500 calorie muffin is going to have fewer vitamins and minerals than a serving of broccoli. But that’s as far as this empty calorie ideology is going to take you.
In reality, there is no such thing as empty calories. Everything you eat or drink is meeting a need of yours.
A glass of wine, or that 500 calorie muffin might be void of micronutrients, but it’s far from empty nutrition when you consider the psychological nature of eating. And that’s the part most people neglect when they are caught up in Diet Culture.
Generally speaking, the majority of people know what foods are most nutritious and would be best for their body. This has never been an issue. I joke around a lot that most people don’t need a nutritionist – they need a therapist. We don’t need more articles about why you should eat more veggies or that you should eat mostly whole foods. That’s nothing mind-blowing.
What we need is more people helping us understand WHY we choose to eat the things we do despite our desires not to eat them. We need a better understanding of our psychology and our relationship with food.
This is what rejecting the idea of empty calories helps you accomplish. It helps you understand the relationship you have with food so that you can heal it. If you just write off foods solely on the basis of whether they have nutrients or not, you’re ignoring the unique dynamic your psychology plays in your eating.
Eating isn’t a mathematical equation. Nor is it rational the majority of the time. And when you realize that most eating is done on a subconscious/unconscious level, you can begin to understand why calorie tracking apps and cliche sayings about food don’t make a dent in your eating struggle.
Intentional eating is about moving beyond the 1+1 nutrition philosophy that Diet Culture teaches, and instead adopting a deeper understanding of all the moving parts that go into why you eat the way you do.
Why did you drink that glass of wine? Why did you eat that muffin? That nutritional decision isn’t empty – it’s packed full of valuable information. Those calories are full of data points that help you to dissect your relationship with food so you can heal and achieve your ideal body.
Did you choose the wine because you were celebrating your birthday with friends? Or did you drink the wine because you were stressed out from work? Diet culture teaches these two glasses of wine as being equal – empty calories. But as I’m sure you can see, they are not empty glasses. Each highlights a different relationship with food – one that might need healing, and one that might be just fine.
So ditch all the cliche sayings, food rules, and disempowering meaning diet culture has attached to food. Its goal is singular – to get you into a smaller body at all costs. Ironically, despite its narrow focus, it’s highly ineffective at doing that. Instead, understand that all food is meeting a need, and that your journey is one of personal discovery, understanding, and healing. All food is full of valuable information, and ditching Diet Culture will allow you see it.
There’s a very big misconception that when you ditch Diet Culture, stop counting calories, and give yourself full unconditional permission to eat what you want, that there’s no longer any structure to your eating. People visualize this big intuitive eating free-for-all where you’re flying by the seat of your pants eating whatever sounds good whenever the mood strikes.
I can assure you that this kind of approach would be hard for anyone to follow. Humans need structure to thrive. We are habitual creatures. Structure prevents decision fatigue and makes it easier to create consistency.
But there’s one big problem – Diet Culture’s version of structure isn’t what we want. Its version is very similar to a rigid meal plan where you are eating a specific thing at a specific time, all planned well in advance, and there’s zero veering from the plan. If you do, you failed.
That is not the kind of structure we want. We need something that gives us guidance, yet also allows for our unique needs and circumstances. That’s where flexible structure comes into play.
Flexible structure allows you to have a framework to build and iterate upon. It helps you to plan for eating decisions ahead of time, but allows you to make in-the-moment changes in order to account for changing needs. And then your structure adapts to your unique life situation over time until you have a very personalized way of eating. Call it the “Me-Diet”.
What we advise our members and clients to do is plan their days with a series of core meals and hunger snacks. We start off with 3 core meals – usually a breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as most people are able to utilize that structure regardless of their life circumstances. If you have a job, you can usually eat before going to work, when you get home, and sometime while you’re there on a break.
The important thing to remember here is that this is only a starting point. It’s a way of guiding your intuitiveness. Over time you might realize that less or more meals each day is ideal for you. I personally have 5 meals. Sometimes that turns into 4 meals and a snack when I’m less active and am more easily satiated on less food.
In between these core meals you have hunger snacks. These snacks are not required. They are tools used to get you to your next core meal without you arriving at that meal feeling ravenous. Many people need something between lunch and dinner. And some people need or enjoy having something in the evening or at night too.
Plan your core meals out so they meet your needs. They should satiate, satisfy, and nourish. Getting in those 3 core meals meeting those 3 variables will really help move you through your day with ease.
If a meal comes up and it’s clear to you that what you have planned to eat isn’t going to meet those needs of the moment, then you are flexible and eat what will honor them. Your needs of the moment are always the priority. The planning and structure just make this process easier.
Over time you might realize that one of your core meals needs to be smaller or bigger based on satiation levels you’re achieving, or they might need more satisfaction or nourishment. So what do you do? You iterate on your meal and adjust it to ensure satiation, satisfaction, and nutrition are as optimized as possible. This is what’s going to keep you from feeling restricted and deprived, which will keep you as consistent as possible.
You might also realize that your afternoon hunger snack just isn’t enough food to carry you over to dinner. That’s me. So that snack became a fourth meal. That’s what I need to feel satiated, satisfied, and nourished. Your needs will be different than mine. But the structure will help you understand your unique needs.
Think of flexible structure as a sort of living document. It’s constantly in flux depending on what’s going on in your life. You will end up gravitating towards a certain structure. For example, many people find they aren’t that hungry first thing in the morning, so they won’t have their first meal until mid to late morning. Others will need a different number of core meals. Others will get hungry later after dinner and will need either a hunger snack or a full meal. Your unique satiation, satisfaction, and nourishment needs will determine what your flexible structure looks like.
So start with your 3 core meals. Use hunger snacks in between these meals to ensure you begin eating your core meals at productive hunger levels. And then iterate on your structure until you have a plan that works for you.
What’s Healthy Anyways?
One of the biggest objections people have to the idea of honoring their satisfaction needs, and at times eating fun foods to do that, is that it isn’t healthy for you. After all, how could eating things like pizza, ice cream, cookies, and candy be healthy?
I understand this objection. I once held this belief too. But all it did was keep me in the binge/restrict cycle – constantly trying to be perfect by eating all whole foods, and then unintentionally breaking that perfection with periods of eating all the foods I was placing off limits.
This idea of labeling foods as healthy and unhealthy is deeply rooted in isolationist nutrition thinking. What that means is we tend to compare foods in isolation in order to make a determination of whether it’s healthy for us or not. Not to mention, healthy and nutritious are not synonyms. What is nutritious is most objective and absolute. It either has a lot of nutrients or it doesn’t. But what is healthy, as you will soon see, is much more subjective and relative to each individual person.
For example, when you compare an apple to a cupcake, I don’t think anyone is going to argue that the apple isn’t more nutritious than the cupcake. It’s a whole food, has fiber, nutrients, and antioxidants. The cupcake is mostly sugar, flour, and fat.
So yes… in isolation, the apple is healthier and more nutritious than the cupcake. The problem with this thinking is that we don’t eat foods in isolation. Nor does food just sit on a shelf and get looked at and analyzed. It has to be consumed by people. And people have different operating systems. We all have different psychology, goals, genetics, and circumstances. And these are what actually dictate whether something is healthy for YOU.
In addition, everything we eat influences every other thing that we eat. Our eating is a lifestyle, and that lifestyle is made up of hundreds of meals that all influence one another. When you eat that apple, it creates physiological and psychological changes that will influence when you eat next, what you eat next, and how much you will eat. The same goes for the cupcake.
If you say no to the cupcake and instead opt for the apple simply because “it’s healthier” based on isolationist nutrition thinking, it is entirely possible that choice is creating feelings of deprivation that sets you up for a compulsion to eat that cupcake later.
And what normally happens is you don’t just have one cupcake, you have multiple cupcakes – sometimes spanning days or even weeks. You basically end up paying back the deprivation debt you created plus interest.
If foregoing the cupcake and eating an apple instead leads to you feeling out of control and bingeing on a bunch of foods that make you feel horrible, is the apple really healthy for you? Does it lead to a healthy outcome?
What if deciding to eat the cupcake lowers your feelings of deprivation and intensity around fun foods later? What if the weekend comes and you don’t feel that upward pressure on your eating and desire to let go and live a little? What if you end up eating consistently through the weekend instead of bingeing on thousands of calories?
Would you say the cupcake was the better choice over the apple? Did the cupcake lead to the healthier outcome in the end?
Food cannot be looked at in isolation. There is a cause and effect to every eating decision you make. The healthiest decision to make right now is the one that will lead to the healthiest outcome later. And this healthy outcome is a byproduct of you understanding and honoring your body’s need for satiation, satisfaction, and nourishment of the moment – instead of a generic healthy or not healthy food label.
What this means is you have to start looking at your diet as a whole. You have to zoom out a bit and see the big picture. You have to start judging what’s healthy for you, not based on a side by side comparison of the individual foods we eat, but by the overall outcomes in which they create.
You can start to see now how the whole “what’s healthy” question is more complicated than what it seems. Nobody lives in a lab where all our food is provided for us and we have no option to eat anything else besides what’s given to us.
We live in the real world with real life dynamics. We have social gatherings, holidays, temptations, and cultural pressures we have to manage on a daily basis. And frankly, sometimes we just want to have fun with food – and that’s OK!