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Health and Healing

What Is Instinctive Eating?

by Zephyr Ano Tarletz

I live on the Big Island of Hawaii at a beautiful place called Pangaia, where my family and I practice sustainable homesteading using Permaculture principles, the Bio-Intensive Mini-Farming teaching, and local wisdom.

I moved here in 1992, looking for a place to live where I could eat fresh fruit all year. For years I have been very focused on understanding food, its relationship to health, sustainable lifestyle, and bodily happiness. Earlier, in 1990 I changed my diet and began "instinctive eating," which is a particular way of eating raw foods using our inborn instincts. This marked a great change in my investigation of food. In this essay I want to share with you the essence of what I've discovered over these last 9 years of happily eating this way. In 1996 I published a book about the subject and since then I have been more formally teaching instinctive eating. I consider the basic understanding of our instinctual relationship to food to be critical information for anyone who eats, regardless if they find themselves actually drawn to practice this particular diet.

All diets are based on some understanding (or misunderstanding), whether scientific, nutritional, cultural, spiritual, ethical, 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, body-typing, Eastern wisdom, or native diets. Rather, it is the inherent living system for selecting, eating, and digesting foods within our animal biology. The way it works is simple, magical, and mysterious. 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 clan 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 simple and direct!

So, why would you stop eating? This is the 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 first tasted exquisite will become less and less delicious, until it is actually painful to try to eat! Really! The sensory experience changes, even though the food remains the same. In other words, the body is a most sophisticated signal-receiving and data-processing organism. It's perfectly designed to prevent gluttony via the taste change, for 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 produces a radical reduction, or even removal, of food-related confusion, suffering, and hopelessness. Using it yields tremendous liberation, pleasure, and the security that you're eating the best foods for you, as well as profound long-term health benefits.

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. But that same apple which smells wonderful to you might not smell good to your friend because s/he doesn't need it. However, apple pie is a different story. The smell (especially right out of the oven) no longer honestly and 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. Unfortunately, the symptoms of this tiny misunderstanding around food and instincts cause immeasurable suffering worldwide.

Nowadays there are extensive arts and sciences developed around non-original food, eaten in a non-instinctive way. But all are tragically unaware of our bio-instinctual system that is underlying every overlaid dietary system. Nevertheless, our bodies are always trying to function at peak performance — despite deceptive signals, difficult-to-digest foods, and minds and cultures that don't recognize or encourage the body's most dependable instincts.

To compensate for this we have developed or adopted various techniques for deciding what to eat, when to stop, and, indeed, what is considered food. These include myriad diets, cultural preferences, yin/yang theory, weight loss programs, eating until full every time, willfully stopping when your mind says you've had enough, austerity, bulimia, guilt, shame... the list goes on and on. These are all sadly ineffective and inferior approaches when compared to our inborn instinctive system, which can be trusted to handle all our food-selecting, eating, and digesting processes with impeccable grace, intimacy, 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 essences and which also communicate an accurate taste change. Practically speaking, this means selecting only whole, raw, and organic foods. To some this might sound like a frustrating limit, but many of us who have walked through this doorway have been 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!

A final point. This instinctive system doesn't only work with raw fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, bee products, sea vegetables, fungi, and water. It also works with free-ranging, raw, and organic fish, meats, eggs, and insects. This might concern folks with ethical, moral, or spiritual considerations around eating animal products. These concerns are valid and true expressions of people's being, and I honor them. Nonetheless, the instinctive process exists prior to ethics, morality, and spiritual dogmas. In the natural world 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, the biological evidence shows that omnivorism is an integrous choice for many humans who surrender to their instincts. Instincts are an undeniable bodily truth. If you don't like the fact that raw animal foods speak the same language as other raw foods, you might have some soul-searching to do. For raw meats do smell and taste good to many humans, and are found to digest properly and nourish profoundly. And, yes, many other instinctive-eating humans find raw meat totally unnecessary for their diet, and this, too, is fine. In fact, it elegantly validates the instinctive process. No two humans have the same dietary needs, and indeed a single human's dietary needs will usually change as 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 curious, there are a few ways to explore instinctive eating. You can read Instinctive Eating The Lost Knowledge of Optimum Nutrition, by Zephyr (me). It is available directly from Pangaia, RR2 #3950, Pahoa, HI 96778 for $15. If you'd like to talk to me directly about anything pertaining to instinctive eating or sustainable living, call (808) 965-6069. You can also visit our website,