Intuitive eating is all the rage right now, with so many coaches promoting that you can be free of diets, you never have to diet again, you don’t have to change anything… all you have to do is eat intuitively.
While that sounds AMAZING… as with most things… there’s a good side and a dangerous side. Before we begin, let’s be clear on who we’re talking about. I’m not talking about people who eat intuitively and are “effortlessly” at a healthy weight. For several reasons, not everyone struggles with weight issues. This post is about people who for medical or personal reasons need to manage their weight and are looking at Intuitive Eating as a way to do so.
WHAT IT IS
Intuitive Eating is the idea that you listen to your body and eat according to body cues. You will eat only when you’re hungry and will stop when you’re satisfied.
This means that you won’t eat out of boredom, due to emotions (anxiety, stress, sadness, etc.), you won’t eat just because your favorite food is right in front of you, or because you’ve been invited to eat at someone’s home, or you’re at a work function.
Intuitive Eating says you only when you’re actually hungry and stop when you’re satisfied. You don’t stop when you’re full, you don’t stop when you feel a little sick, you don’t stop when you get to the end of the package or the container or the bowl. You stop when you’re satisfied.
That is a beautiful and liberating concept. Eat when your body needs nourishment and stop when you’re satisfied.
Everyone at one point has eaten intuitively. Babies cry when hungry and stop when full. However… we unlearn this at a very young age. With the best of intentions, parents train their kids to not eat intuitively. If you ever heard as a child, or said to your child things that structure eating, there has been an untraining in Intuitive Eating. Things that imply that the packed lunch has to be finished, the plate has to be cleaned, you can only eat at certain times, you can’t possibly be hungry now – you just ate x time ago!, if you eat x more spoonful’s then you can be excused, you can’t have more because you ate this much and that’s enough, etc.
Sometime during childhood, we are trained to distrust our body cues, and this is also a time when someone is responsible for feeding us. Then comes adulthood and we are responsible for our own food, and lots of people gain weight in that time of their life because they don’t know what to do with that much freedom.
Exceptions are people who have had food insecurity or danger surrounding food. That is not the majority of people who come to my page or listen to my podcast, so I’ll focus on the majority, and that is that most of us have unlearned how to trust our body cues.
THINGS TO PAY ATTENTION TO
One important thing to think about is that our life has intersections.
We are creatures of habit, we are social creatures, and we have a circadian rhythm, and all these things, among others, dictate how we eat.
Habit means that if we eat at certain times, or doing certain activities over a period of time, our body begins to associate that time and/or activity with food.
Social means that we are community beings and for as long as people have gathered, food has been part of being together, and that may coincide with a moment of hunger, but many times it’s not about eating because you’re hungry, it’s about enjoying the moment with people you love.
Circadian rhythm means that our body goes through a cycle in a 24h period, the thousands of functions going on in our bodies have ups and downs, and this includes hunger hormones, which are increased at certain times and decreased at other times of day.
All of this is normal and needs to be taken into account when considering Intuitive Eating.
BUT SHOULDN’T IT BE EASY?
While intuitive eating is extremely simple, it can be very, very hard for several reasons:
Unlearning anything, especially habits that have helped shape our identity, our values and how we feel about ourselves, is difficult and takes intention and time. It’s necessary to unlearn concepts that we may hold as absolute truths and relearn how to listen to our body’s cues.
Relationship with food
Food isn’t neutral. Food is social, emotional, something we do many times a day, not just nourishment – we don’t eat nutrients, we eat food. Food carries with it so many memories, but also so many rules that we never really stop to think about. Are there good and bad foods? Are there foods that are forbidden or should be eaten in secret? Are there foods that make me feel better about myself as a person? Are there foods that I’m ashamed to like? These questions are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our relationship with food.
It’s not neutral. And Intuitive Eating needs to come from a place of a healthy, balanced, free relationship with food.
Types of food
We live in an age where hyper palatable ultra processed foods are readily available. Calories are increasingly cheap, and nutrition is increasingly expensive. It is almost impossible to eat hyper palatable foods intuitively. On the tail of healing a relationship with food it’s important to understand types of food and how our bodies respond to them. Think of apple and pizza… it’s much easier to sense fullness with the apple than with the pizza, therefore, it’s much easier to eat the apple intuitively than the pizza.
Just saying “eat intuitively” doesn’t help. Just like “eat less, move more” doesn’t help for weight loss. Food is more than just nourishment, and those other components of eating – mental health, relationships, environment, culture… all these pose difficulties to eating intuitively.
THE TRUTH ABOUT INTUITIVE EATING
Intuitive Eating is beautiful. It’s just that we don’t know how to do it.
It seems like a perfect way to manage health, and it really is wonderful, but we don’t intuitively know how to do it. Unless you learn how to eat for your body… simply jumping into intuitive eating is going to backfire.
What the intuitive eating influencers are not going to tell you is that the people who are successful with intuitive eating went through a process of learning their body’s energy needs, learning calories and portions. They went through a process of healing their relationship with food.
People who successfully eat intuitively don’t qualify foods as good or bad, don’t qualify foods as forbidden and permitted. People who eat intuitively successfully don’t say “I can never eat this or that”. Unless there is a legitimate medical reason to remove certain foods, people who eat intuitively just look at food as food, and they are able to make choices based on their goals and the type of food that they want to eat. They are able to nuance types of food and how their body is responding.
There’s a whole relationship with food that has been dealt with, and an understanding of your body and how it responds to different foods.
HOW TO EAT INTUITIVELY
FIRST STEP – RELATIONSHIP
The first step is to take a good look in the mirror and be honest about your relationship with food. Pay attention to how you react and respond to different foods.
In your opinion…
- are there any foods that are inherently fattening or inherently slimming?
- are there foods that you’re not supposed to eat? (this excludes medically confirmed allergies and diseases such as celiac)
- is it stressful for you to eat at a restaurant?
- is it stressful to go to someone’s house?
- if someone gifts you food, is there any anxiety in receiving and eating that gift?
- do you feel particularly good because you eat only eat certain types of things? (organic, non-GMO, vegetarian, etc
- do you ever have “cheat” meals?
- do you ever feel like you’ve been bad after eating a certain amount or type of food?
Answering yes to any of these (plus other) questions is your first red flag that before you can eat intuitively you need to improve that relationship with food in order to do this well.
SECOND STEP – ENERGY BALANCE
The second thing that’s essential if you are going to eat intuitively is an understanding of your body’s needs. People who successfully manage their weight with intuitive eating have spent time learning energy balance, learning what calories translate to on a plate, what portion sizes are, how much things weigh. They have come to understand how much their body needs to function at their goal, and what that looks like in food.
The fastest way to achieve this is learning some sort of portion control. Counting calories and/or macros are the most popular.
This understanding of how much the body uses and what this looks like in terms of how much food this is translates into the ability to eat intuitively.
Now you might say that kids don’t have this information and they eat intuitively. Yes, so do people who don’t struggle with weight management. The reason why is essentially that they have not unlearned how to listen to their bodies. This can happen for a number of reasons such as environment in which they were raised, type of diet that they grew up with, etc. The point is that if you struggle with weight management, be it loss, maintenance or gain, it’s important to relearn how to listen to your body.
The process of Intuitive Eating is fantastic once you understand your body needs compared to the food you actually eat. What most people won’t tell you is that more people eat intuitively than you would think.
Anyone who’s done a good, healthy bulk (build muscle and gain weight) or loss can come to the point of maintenance with intuitive eating. It’s important to work with a coach that will not only help you reach your goals, but teach you how to maintain them. Few people count calories or macros or portions for the rest of their lives, this minutia is done during specific seasons, but most people, after the learning curve, go on to eat intuitively for maintenance.
What I do with clients is that we go through a fat loss phase, and when they move into maintenance there is a whole other set of tools that we work on in a maintenance coaching phase which is designed specifically to lead you into intuitive eating. The maintenance coaching is designed to teach you how to go from a highly structured system into intuitive eating.
DANGERS OF INTUITIVE EATING
There is a very danger here of this being one more step in the yoyo diet cycle.
Jumping into Intuitive Eating without going through the process of learning what your body actually needs, how much you need to eat for your goals, and without healing your relationship with food is a recipe for simply having one more failed diet under your belt.
Because here’s the thing: if you can’t eat a cookie without feeling guilty, you can’t do Intuitive Eating. And the cookie is an example, but it can be anything, cookie, cake, fast food, pizza, non organic vegetables.
If you feel like you’re amazing because you ate a salad, or because you have a list of foods that do not touch your body, you can’t eat intuitively because this relationship needs to be mended. You need to be able to be neutral with food.
All that being said, this isn’t perfect. Our true struggles are things we wrestle with for life, so I’m not saying you’ll get perfect at this, but you do need the tools to heal this relationship and understand what your body needs before you go into Intuitive Eating.
A good nutrition coaching program will teach you to reach your fat loss or bulk goal, and then go with you into maintenance to ideally help you detach yourself from the structured system and move into intuitive eating.
INTUITIVE EATING AND FAT LOSS OR BULKING
It’s very difficult to lose fat or bulk with intuitive eating because those goals demand that you either eat below or above satisfaction levels, it’s an intentional period of ignoring the satisfaction cue in your body.
When doing a bulk or a cut, it’s important to have a system that guides you beyond your body cues because our bodies will shift those cues because of this stressor of bulk or loss.
If you do a good, healthy, balanced “work” phase, meaning the phase you are either actively losing weight or bulking weight, you can go into supported maintenance to home in to those body cues of satisfaction. The beauty of maintenance is that you know that if you have done a good work phase and you’ve had some support going into your maintenance, you can learn to eat intuitively. Again, I do not recommend intuitive eating for weight loss or weight gain, that is something that has to be done intentionally.
It’s very easy to accidentally gain weight with Intuitive Eating. It’s extremely difficult to lose weight or bulk with Intuitive Eating.
A last note is that people who eat intuitively are seldom going to rely on supplements, pills or shakes to manage their weight.
These are valid tools, but they should be used with caution and proper support.
If you would like support in your journey, either to learn to maintain your weight with Intuitive Eating, or to first do a cut or bulk, let’s chat! Send me an email at email@example.com or fill out the form on the coaching page in the top right menu.