What is Instinctive Eating?

Hi, this is Ano speaking (a.k.a. "Zephyr"). I've been living a raw-foods, permaculture lifestyle on the Big Island of Hawaii for 10 years (actually 20 years now). I was led to this way of life through my passion for understanding food and it’s relationship to bodily happiness and sustainable lifestyle. My quest actually began in 1990, when I dramatically changed my diet and began to ?eat instinctively,? which is a way to eat raw foods using our inborn instincts. Later, in 1996, I published the book Instinctive Eating: The Lost Knowledge of Optimum Nutrition and began to formally teach about eating instinctively. I now believe that understanding how our instincts relate to food and health is crucial knowledge for anyone who eats. So I’d like to share the essence of what I’ve discovered over the last two decades of happily eating by instinct.

Keely & Ano enjoying Lychee & Tangerines

All diets are based on fundamental principles or assumptions. These may be scientific, cultural, aesthetic, ethical, spiritual, or intuitive. And all diets have varying degrees of effectiveness and pleasure, for different people at different times. The reality is there are a lot of diets to choose from–if you are a Homo sapiens. But if you are any other animal on this diverse Earth, there is only one diet to choose: instinctive eating! Let me explain.

Instinctive eating is not a new way to eat. It isn’t the latest twist on vegetarianism, nutritional composition, body-typing, Eastern wisdom, or health-oriented diets. Rather, it’s the inherent living system for selecting, eating, and digesting foods within our native biology. The way it works is incredibly simple, yet exceedingly effective. Imagine it’s 50,000 years ago. You are hungry, walking on the beach, looking for food. Essentially, the only foods available are raw, whole, organic, and wild–what I call an "original" food. Next to a salt-water pool, you find a pile of seaweed, a group of rocks, a cluster of clams, a maggot-covered fish, fifteen fallen crabapples, and a broken, evacuated beehive, laden with honey. How do you know what to eat and what not to eat?

Simply put: the nose knows. Like a dog, you smell the foods, look for the best smelling item, and put that one in your mouth. If it tastes good, you eat it, and then forage for some more of that food. This is most significant. The smell of a food is valuable sensory data to the instincts. The pleasurableness of the smell indicates that it might be nourishing food. If after passing the nose test, it also passes the taste test, then you know (bodily) that this is a good food for you at this moment. It’s that uncomplicated and direct!

So, why would you stop eating? This is the most magical part. An original food's taste will actually change in your mouth as your body’s nourishment needs are met (the ones that this particular food offers). In other words, the honey or seaweed that at first tasted exquisite will become less and less delicious, until it is actually painful to continue to eat. Really! The sensory experience changes, even though the food remains the same. That’s because the body is a most sophisticated signal-receiving and data-processing organism. It’s perfectly designed to prevent overeating via the taste change. Even if you are still hungry, you will not be able to eat more of a particular food, as long as you are sensitive to your body’s messages to stop. Why? It just won’t taste good anymore (unless you use condiments to mask and extend the flavor of this now non-nourishing edible).

This basic process is effortless and present in all animals. Essentially, instinctive eating yields tremendous clarity, liberation, and the security that you’re eating the best foods for you – and only in the quantities that you need – as well as generating profound, long-term health benefits. And it all happens through following your pleasure!

We love beef!

So what happens if you eat a non-original food that no longer accurately communicates to your instincts? Let’s take a look: A crabapple’s smell and taste clearly reveals the essence of what that crabapple is, what its "nutrient makeup" is, and what its subjective value to you is. However, apple pie is a different story. The smell (especially right out of the oven) no longer accurately represents the essence of the food. And because of the cooking process and the combining of many foods, the taste change is now either completely absent, muted, or blurred. But your body is genetically programmed to "believe" that if something smells good you might need it, and if it tastes good you do need it. So it is totally natural to want to eat apple pie! Your body is following its innate intelligence. But the food is no longer living up to its end of the relationship by telling you the truth. It’s saying to your instincts, via its always-attractive smell and taste, that it is an always-needed food. Well, need I say, this isn’t always the case. And unfortunately, the symptoms of this tiny misunderstanding around food and instincts are displayed as immeasurable suffering worldwide.

Nowadays most of our dietary arts and sciences involve non-original food, eaten in a non-instinctive way. And they’re tragically unrelated to our bio-instinctual system, which is prior to all the overlaid culinary systems. Because of this, we’ve developed boundless techniques for deciding what to eat, when to stop, and, indeed, what is considered food. These include endless diets, cultural dictates, weight loss and weight gain programs, using willpower to control eating, gluttony, eating disorders, guilt, shame – the list goes on and on. These are all sadly ineffective and inferior approaches compared to our inborn instinctive system, which can be trusted to handle all our food-selecting, eating, and digesting processes with impeccable grace and effectiveness. It’s the right tool for the job. What a relief!

So what’s the cost for this relief? Basically, there is one primary discipline: Eat only foods whose smells and tastes accurately represent their essence and that also communicate an accurate taste change. Practically speaking, this means selecting only from whole, raw, and organic foods. This might sound like a frustrating limit, but there are many of us who have walked through this doorway and have been happily surprised to discover an oasis of deep pleasure, combined with sustainable health and Earth-intimacy.

There are also some secondary disciplines: Eat only one food at a time, so that the taste change (or stop) on that particular food can be most easily "heard." And provide yourself with a wide range of original foods to select from. Of course, having a bunch of other hairless apes to eat instinctively with also helps!

One final point . . . This instinctive system doesn’t only work with raw fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, bee products, and water. It also works with free-ranging, raw, and organic fish, meats, eggs, and insects. This might concern folks with ethical or spiritual considerations around eating animals or animal products. These are valid concerns, and I honor the spirit from which they arise. Nonetheless, the instinctive process exists and functions prior to ethics and religion. This is shamelessly demonstrated in the natural world, where some animals are carnivores, some omnivores, and some herbivores. There are many schools proclaiming which kind of a "vore" humans are. But regardless of the opinions of these different schools, raw meats do smell and taste good to many humans, and are found to digest properly and nourish profoundly.

Again, from an instinctive point of view, the fact that these foods are sensually attractive is important information that indicates the body truly needs them for health and well-being. So if you don’t like the fact that raw animal foods function according to the same principles as other raw foods, you might have some soul-searching to do. (And yes, it’s also true that some instinctive-eating humans find raw meat totally unnecessary for their particular bodies, and this, too, is fine. In fact, it validates the instinctive process: No two humans have the same dietary needs, and indeed, a particular human’s dietary needs usually change as that person’s age and circumstances change.)

Most of us have been trying to navigate the dietary maze in some form or other for quite some time. What I’ve found is that the body already knows the way, and as we follow its wisdom, the labyrinth becomes a delightful romp in the garden. I invite you to explore your own body and instincts, and see if this message is validated in you. It might herald the beginning of a whole new sensibility around food, diet, health, and life altogether. It certainly has for me, and I wish the same possibility for you.

If you’re interested in exploring instinctive eating further, here are some suggestions:

Read Instinctive Eating: The Lost Knowledge of Optimum Nutrition, by Zephyr (me). You can order it through this website.

Talk to me directly about instinctive eating or other aspects of sustainable and holistic lifestyle. E-mail me at aloha@gaiayoga.org.

If you’re or The Big Island of Hawaii, you can attend one of the introductory Instinctive Eating Raw-Foods Buffet Lunches that I offer. See the Calendar of Events.