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What is Appetite Literacy? Beyond hunger and into health.

When people come across my work with Responsive Eating™, one of the main things that might catch their eye is my concept of appetite literacy. Just to provide you with an overview, Responsive Eating™ is a mind-first system for creating eating experiences that are aligned with your hunger and your values. Responsive Eating™ equips you with the evidence-based knowledge and skills you need to be liberated from food and body stories that do not suit you, while becoming healthier in the process. It helps you live your life fully, and on your terms. It is my signature methodology and drives all the work I do in my clinic and online.  

Appetite Literacy

One of the main pieces of the Responsive Eating™ system is appetite literacy. Appetite literacy is a way of knowing about the experience of hunger and wanting, and that appetite consists of both. My work in this area moves someone’s understanding from a one-dimensional view of the appetite into a more holistic three-dimensional view. 

Full disclosure, I have been on hundreds of diets. And not one of them taught me about what my appetite was – not why it was there, what it consisted of, or where it was operating in my brain.  I think that this is one of the great tragedies of the diet industry. In particular, there is no space for learning about the neuroscience of the appetite.  Understanding how to read our appetite and respond to our appetite is actually the core skill that we work on in Responsive Eating™, my signature program, named after my methodology. My understanding of diets, and I say this as a person who has been on so many of them, is that they have de-skilled me. They have made me less capable and they have taken away my sense of confidence over how to eat, how to experience food, and the stories I tell myself about my food and my body. This is one of the main reasons (among hundreds of others) why I propose that more dieting is going to cause more harm, and that shift into a Responsive Eating™ paradigm that is based on appetite literacy is where I invite you to go. 

Hunger and Wanting

The appetite consists of hunger and wanting. Hunger is an experience that is driven both by the subconscious brain as well as the conscious brain. Essentially what you have inside is a really complicated air traffic control system, known as the homeostatic and the hedonic area, that is constantly sensing micronutrients and whether or not you are fed or fasted. The signals from that air traffic control dictate to the higher levels of the appetite, the hedonic and then the executive areas of the appetite, to go and pursue food. So, hunger is a response to an internal nutrient state. Typically, in intuitive eating and mindful eating, hunger is represented along a linear spectrum. In these cases, we’re usually talking about a spectrum from zero to ten; zero being so hungry that I can’t move, I might be dead.  And ten being so full that I’m sick. And this concept, this zero to ten scale was popularized in mindful eating. 

I feel that this one-dimensional representation of the appetite is insufficient, and it often leads people astray. It doesn’t leave room for people who are big eaters. And I’m one of those people. I can eat deep into fullness. Previously, this has been one of the sources of shame for me.  Not anymore, thankfully.  I’ve always spent so much time trying to understand why, and now that I understand the appetite and I understand how people get into big eating, I can understand a little bit more carefully and more thoroughly why it is that we eat in to fullness. 

The second piece of the appetite is wanting. Wanting is desire. It is a desire for pleasure and a desire for reward. We’re very reward-driven as humans and some of us are extremely reward-driven, I’m one of them. And for others, they’re not reward-driven and food is not pleasurable. There are some people, for whom some acts are extremely rewarding and some acts are less rewarding, and a lot of that has to do with how you grew up, your childhood experiences, and things that have been rewarding in the past.  These can range from basic things like being in community, being in partnership, to drugs, to intimacy, to sex, to gambling, to shopping, etc. For anyone reading this, I would imagine that food is a source of reward for you. So, when we look at building out appetite literacy, we actually build out how to read wanting, how to understand when it’s happening, how not to judge it, and how to actually experience it as part of being alive and accept it as a core experience to how you experience this world. We allow our appetite and our wanting to be a strength, not a weakness. And this point is  something that’s been the most pivotal mental shift I’ve made over the past several years. It is the shift which led to the development of Responsive Eating™. 

Three Dimensions

To recap our appetite, there’s dimension one, which is hunger and fullness. Then there’s dimension two, which is wanting and satisfaction. The third dimension is really the stories, or  the culture in which we eat. We are so enmeshed and embroiled in stories about food. Good food and bad food.  “This is too much”, “I shouldn’t eat that”, “I don’t deserve to eat this”, etc. We are so attached to these stories that we actually don’t have the ability to be present in the experience. And my work, in Responsive Eating™, proposes that you sit in the experience of the present moment and remain connected to it as you eat, with each and every chew. This is really hard for some people and it’s scary, but the system that I teach allows you to do so in a very methodical, very grounded way. And I teach it so that you have language so that you may actually share that experience with people who are like you and who are reward-driven like you. 

So, the ultimate point of appetite literacy is to move from a control paradigm where we’re constantly trying to control what we eat and to control what we think about food, into acceptance, into response, and then into awareness.  We want to shift into being aware of, accepting of, and a little bit more appreciative of the messages coming from our internal appetite system. We want to learn to read them and then respond to them appropriately, and sometimes that means continuing to eat or changing what you eat, and sometimes it means stopping eating. And that process is completely in your hands. You are empowered through appetite literacy.  The process no longer has to do with artificial limits, it no longer has to do with what may be coming from outside in terms of the culture or the stories that you tell yourself about what you do and do not deserve to eat. 

Disruption is Normal in Real Life

The Responsive Eating™ system is meant to be used in times of disruption. It’s meant to be used when you are not able to make easy decisions. And it’s meant to be used when diets don’t work, which is always, in my opinion. But it’s meant to be used when you are on the run, when you are moving from shift to shift, when you are trying to deal with feeding children and things are complicated. The idea is that this is a system that helps you learn meal to meal, helps you learn chew to chew, about what you’re experiencing, and helps to develop an inner language for that experience. It then helps you to apply that learning to future meals and gives you space to become more comfortable understanding where your drive to eat comes from. 

Because, in reality, your drive to eat is a survival instinct. It’s something that is so sacred and precious, and it should be celebrated.  But instead, we spend most of our time in our culture suppressing it and calling it dangerous. Allowing yourself to respect your appetite as a source of life is a critical shift that allows you to release a lot of angst about food. And, of course, because this is a three-dimensional model, one of the major outcomes of appetite literacy is that you can actually separate the present moment from all the moments before. 

The past is really important when it comes to explaining why you eat the way that you eat, because so much of our pleasure seeking and our reward seeking comes from childhood experiences and things that we have found particularly rewarding about food in the past. However,  when you connect to the present moment and you identify the stories as they cross your mind’s eye for what they are, which are just stories, none of it’s really truth. Using the  Responsive Eating™ system and developing a repertoire of skills for appetite literacy, you can decide what matters in each chew and what doesn’t. That, in and of itself, is a profoundly liberating experience that gives you a sense of mastery and competence over your own self. That is ultimately the reward, at any body size. 

Practice

Appetite literacy is actually a skill that is something that, just like reading, you need to learn.  You didn’t start off knowing how to read. You didn’t learn the alphabet and then say, “Ah, I can read now.” It’s an acquired skill. Similarly, as you encounter food and body stories, particularly the toxic ones, your skill level may revert back a bit and you may feel less capable at times than others, particularly when you’re stressed, But this system helps you navigate and develop resilience to that experience because that’s also normal. And it would be bizarre if you just clicked right away with learning appetite literacy and learning how to move through this system. It’s normal that it takes time. 

To summarize, the appetite is the experience of both hunger and wanting, and that is enmeshed in a three-dimensional set of stories we tell ourselves about food and body and eating. These stories are deeply connected to the culture, particularly diet culture, in which we live, as well as the culture in which we were raised. The way that we experienced food and body growing up matters, even now, to every single eating experience. And while we can’t change the past, we certainly can learn from it. That is the process of appetite literacy and that’s the core skill of what I teach in our programs and what my work is about. 

Our Clinic and Programs are Coming Soon

Information about my appetite clinic and the Responsive Eating™ system will be shared over the coming month.  I could not be more excited. 

See you soon!

Dr. Ashley White

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