• Sydney Cochran, MS, RD, LD

Using Head Knowledge and Body Knowledge in Food Decisions

Photo by Charl van Rooy on Unsplash

We often like to think of food decisions in very black and white terms: I "should" eat this, I "shouldn't" eat that. The struggle with this is that eating is very rarely a black and white process. You may have noticed this when you try to stick to a rigid plan with very clearly defined rules. It may make things seem easier on the surface, but the actual implementation is a struggle (this is true for the vast majority of people - it's not just you!).

Transitioning from rigid rules to a more intuitive, mindful way of eating sounds like a huge relief to most people but I find that the implementation often feels like a challenge. I think one reason for this might be that our minds still have a tendency to want to turn the process of eating more intuitively into something black and white: either I'm only listening to my body's internal cues or I'm only following outside guidance to tell me what and when to eat.

An example of this might be when you go through a period of not feeling hungry for hours or days at a time. If you've started practicing intuitive eating, you might think "Well, I don't feel hungry so I guess I just don't need to eat" (this is black and white thinking) and you might then be tempted to skips meals. There are a few situations when your hunger cues may seem non-existent:

  • Maybe you're stressed, anxious, or distracted by work, school, family, etc. Any of these situations could suppress hunger or make it hard to decipher your internal cues.

  • Or perhaps you're a competitive athlete. Sometimes, intense or prolonged training can actually decrease your appetite, as least temporarily.

  • Finally, if you have a history of restrictive eating or of going long periods of time without food, your hunger/fullness cues are skewed and not reliable.

Regardless of the cause, this scenario is a prime example of the need to bridge body knowledge (knowledge of internal cues) with head knowledge (what you know intellectually about food, meal timing, etc) when it comes to making eating decisions. Like I said before, our culture often tends to encourage focus only on head knowledge to determine eating choices. Rather than throwing head knowledge out the window, intuitive eating utilizes it in conjunction with body knowledge. As fellow dietitian, Robyn Nohling, says: the body is the pilot and the mind is the co-pilot. They work together.

So, back to not feeling hunger cues. In this situation, your body is not giving you signals that you're hungry. However, your head tells you that it has been 4 hours since you last ate and that, to ensure that your body is getting what it needs and can function properly, you probably need to go ahead and eat something now. If you have a history of disordered or restrictive eating, you will likely need the assistance of a dietitian, a therapist, and a structured meal plan to help you normalize eating and get to the place where your hunger/fullness cues are consistently working properly.


As another example, let's say a doughnut sounds like exactly what you want for breakfast. Your body is telling you what sounds satisfying. However, you also know that you have a busy morning where you may not have time for breaks and you need to remain focused throughout. In this case, the doughnut will likely not be adequate or filling enough to carry you through the morning (head knowledge). So, along with the doughnut that sounds wonderful (body knowledge), you have some scrambled eggs with cheese, or fruit and a glass of milk, or Greek yogurt with nuts to provide filling protein and fats that will carry you through your morning tasks (head knowledge). Or, if there isn't a doughnut that will be easily accessible, you choose a filling breakfast and keep an eye out for opportunities to get a doughnut later if it still sounds good.

Combining head knowledge and body knowledge is using all the information available to you to make a decision that is free of judgement. Notice that in the above examples, there was no guilt or self-shaming for eating when not hungry or for having a doughnut at breakfast. There were simply eating decisions that took into account all the factors at play and made what seemed like the best choice for that moment based on available information.

The concept of combining head knowledge and body knowledge plays out in all of the principles of intuitive eating but possibly slightly more so with gentle nutrition. This is another reason why gentle nutrition usually needs to come after you feel comfortable with the other principles. If you start in on gentle nutrition too early, it's easy to want to rely only on head knowledge. It takes time to build up the body knowledge so you can use both together in a helpful, non-judgmental way.

If you'd like to become an intuitive eater and learn how to use both body and head knowledge when making eating decisions, I'd love to help you! Click the banner below to connect and we can discuss options for working together!


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