Outside Magazine: Honoring Body and Plate with Lifestyle Medicine

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In medical school, my education in nutrition was compressed into a single one-hour lecture that delved into the complexities of biochemical reactions in our blood and digestive system. While it established an understanding of digestion, it didn’t prepare me to address my patients’ regular inquiries about eating for their individual needs. As the questions persisted, I grew increasingly disheartened by my inability to offer more than a vague “it depends,” forcing the extra step of making an appointment with a nutritionist.

In an effort to better support my patients, I began studying Lifestyle Medicine, which is a branch of medicine that promotes wellness through healthy lifestyle choices and behavior modifications.

Creating Healthy Habits

Lifestyle Medicine underscores the importance of fostering healthy habits as a foundational nutritional principle. Within this framework, intuitive eating can be a powerful tool, emphasizing mindful awareness and responsive attention to the body’s cues for a sustainable and nourishing relationship with food. By embracing intuitive eating, individuals can establish positive and enduring habits that contribute to overall well-being. The question then arose: How can I guide my patients in cultivating these habits and nurturing intuitive decision-making?

Food and Us: A Relationship Between Mind and Body

While learning, I had growing questions, and the opportunity to attend a nutrition-focused retreat at Miraval Arizona Resort & Spa emerged. My experience enabled a deeper understanding of the links between our dietary habits, food selections, and the needs of our bodies, all while considering the multitude of factors that shape these elements. Among the various nutrition classes I attended, a Lunch and Learn session on intuitive eating stood out. Miraval’s resident dietician, Makenna Baum, delved into various aspects of intuitive eating. One participant defined it as consuming foods that make her “feel good” and resonate with her sense of well being. This prompted the question: Does intuitive eating involve unrestricted indulgence? (The general consensus on this is no.) Another attendee bravely shared her struggle with anorexia, revealing how restrictive eating offered a sense of control over her life, and her subsequent, powerful journey to trust her body’s signals of hunger and satisfaction. Someone else explained that he overcame emotional eating patterns through breathwork and finding solace in stress relief. These diverse perspectives unveiled the intricate nature of intuitive eating: it’s difficult to define.

A Nuanced Approach

Exploring diverse experiences has illuminated the practical aspects of intuitive eating for me—it’s an approach that considers personal food history alongside one’s physical state, emotions, family, culture, and religion. Eating, despite being a universally shared act, is marked by a tangle of individual experiences. Intuitive eating involves meeting the body’s genuine needs—whether enjoying company at dinner, satisfying hunger, or savoring something delicious. It underscores food as essential nourishment, encouraging us to align our understanding of what we truly need with the choices we make in what, when, where, and how we eat.

During a Just Cook for Me workshop, Miraval’s chef de cuisine, Lee Ann Evertsen, shared practical skills and invaluable insights about intuitive eating: prioritize fresh, quality ingredients and embrace simplicity. She emphasized that enjoying aesthetically pleasing food is not only instinctual but also an essential aspect of our intuition. “Making it visually enticing ignites our desire to engage all the senses and fully enjoy our experience with the food,” she explains. This can be as simple as adding a vibrant green herb on top of your protein or plating a meal on your favorite dishes.

Love Your Farmers

Nurturing conscious awareness of food origins and production deepens the connection between nourishment and our values. This empowers us to make informed choices aligned with our well-being and principles. At the same Just Cook for Me event, as aromas of fresh herbs and roasted vegetables filled the air, conversation flowed, including a memorable one with Prentice Onayemi, co-owner of Foglight Farms in Hillsboro, Oregon.

Onayemi considers himself an “accidental,” but now, very intentional farmer. He started his farm after buying a plot of land to live on, and driven by the sheer curiosity of how soil supports life, sought to best honor the land by planting it. Foglight Farms now operates a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, fostering connections to seasons, local culture, and the dedicated individuals behind our food. Onayemi emphasizes the significance of engaging with local farmers, whether through volunteering at community gardens or supporting nearby farms. These actions not only foster an appreciation for food and food systems, but also deepen our understanding of nature’s rhythms, regional flavors, and community bonds—all in organic alignment with the principles of intuitive eating.

Trusting Your Gut

Embracing fresh insights into intuitive eating, I recognized its potential benefits for my patients—and myself. However, like many folks, I also faced the same question: Where do I begin? In a session hosted by Baum entitled Trust Your Gut: Your Intuitive Path to Health, we began with a mindfulness practice akin to a body scan. We closed our eyes and considered the food that was in front of us, practicing gratitude for its sheer existence and the care involved in its journey to our plates. Baum called this an “observational practice,” to help us out of our heads and into our bodies, guiding us away from overthinking and into a state of bodily awareness. By bringing this degree of mindfulness to mealtimes, you can “foster a deeper connection with your body,” Baum says, “and gain a heightened awareness of the impact various foods have on your well-being.” This understanding is the bedrock of intuitive eating—know your food and how it affects you.

It was during this session that I realized that we often use the terms “gut” and “intuition” interchangeably, and wondered how we seem to have separated the two despite still using this analogy in our regular vernacular. To truly understand our relationship with food, it became clear that acknowledging the connection between our physical sensations and intuitive responses is a crucial starting point.

The Breakthrough

In my pursuit of finding concise answers to guide my patients’ dietary questions, I’ve come to realize that, after all this study, my answer is still “it depends.” But now, I follow it up with another question: “What would it be like for you to eat intuitively?”

This query often elicits surprise and a pause, but it’s enlightening to hear the diversity of answers from my patients. I encourage them to embrace their unique perspectives and employ techniques that help them be present, whether it’s through a mental body scan, breathwork, mindfulness, aesthetic presentation or connection to those who supplied their food— chefs and farmers included.

This kind of intuitive eating (and intentional thinking) enables us to honor our personal backgrounds while fostering a curious mindset toward better nutrition and, ultimately, the joy we derive from eating. Farmer Onayemi eloquently described intuitive eating as, “cultivating a sense of what best serves the body while inviting the mind to get out of the way.” I found his definition worth sharing; I just might start using it with my patients too.