By Alex Raymond, RDN, LDN
I’ve been getting a lot of questions from clients about intuitive eating.
I think this concept sounds both appealing and overwhelming as people progress in building their relationship with food. Why appealing? Because intuitive eating promises food freedom. It’s a way to trust your body to tell you what it needs. Whether that’s food, water, sleep or other forms of self care. Why overwhelming? Because intuitive eating has no rules. In order to be an “intuitive eater,” one have to live in the grey are of nutrition. Meaning, letting go of controlling food and body and the thoughts that there is a right or wrong way to eat.
Here is what I have been hearing:
- Well, if I eat intuitively, I’m afraid of eating “too much.”
- What about nutrition? You can’t just eat whatever all day long.
- I’ve been struggling with my ED for so long, how can I just flip the switch and eat intuitively?
- What if my body changes when I listen to its signals?
I very much appreciate these questions. This whole concept of intuitive eating, and what it actually means, is confusing and often times scary.
Let me tell you, it can be difficult to begin to listen to your body if you’ve spent so long trying to fight it. Give yourself a bit of compassion during this process.
First off, let’s start with a definition of intuitive eating. An intuitive eater is a person who “makes food choices without experiencing guilt or an ethical dilemma, honors hunger, respects fullness and enjoys the pleasure of eating.” I also think it’s important to emphasize intuitive eating is an ongoing process. In which you cannot fail. Yes, that’s right. Unlike a diet or rules in your eating disorder, intuitive eating is a lifelong journey to become more in touch with our bodies’ signals. It does get much easier over time. Lastly, understand that being an intuitive eater is not just “eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full.” Sure, that’s part of it and we also have to understand that there are: 1) Times when we will eat past fullness and that’s okay. 2) Times when we might not be able to get to food when we’re hungry and that’s okay. 3) We can eat foods that make us feel full but not satisfied, and we need to work on finding both. Foods that help us feel satisfied and feel full.
You may be thinking what’s the difference? Fullness is a physical feeling of being done eating. You’re tummy feels comfortable and you probably won’t start to get hunger signals for another few hours. Satisfaction is the emotional feeling of being done after eating. You’ve enjoyed the meal. You feel like the meal “hit the spot” so to speak.
I’ve been educating many of my clients on the idea of “gentle nutrition.”
This comes from the 10th principle from the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elise Resch. That is: “Honor your health with gentle nutrition.” This concept means you will learn how to trust your body signals as well as use your nutrition knowledge to appropriately fuel your body. And there are no judgements. Or preconceived notions on how your body should be fueled. For example, To quote Tribole and Resch: ““Make food choices that honor your health and taste buds while making you feel well….. It’s what you eat consistently over time that matters – progress not perfection is what counts.”
Tribole and Resch are basically saying that for nutrition, you can look at averages over time. One meal, one day of even one week of eating off a schedule isn’t going to detrimentally affect your health. It’s about giving yourself permission to enjoy food (and enjoy life). You trust that your body will lead the way.
With the concept of gentle nutrition in mind, let me answer the questions from earlier.
1) Well, if I eat intuitively, I’m afraid of going “the other way” and eat “too much.”
So, what does eating too much actually mean? Does it mean feeling really full? Or mean eating more than your meal plan? Does it mean that you’re feeling hungrier, are honoring that, and are therefore eating more than what you would on other days? Many times, I’ll explore with clients what worries them about “eating too much.” If this is something that resonates with you, I encourage you to journal about it.
I also want to point out that “eating too much” (meaning eating past the point of satisfaction or fullness) is actually a totally normal part of the eating experience. Yes, sometimes we want to continue eating because the food we have tastes so good! Just as other times, we may want to stop eating because we’re eating completely satisfied or just not feeling what’s on our plate.
So, “eating too much” is bound to happen at some point during our lives. Remind yourself that’s normal. If you’re early on in your journey, you might find there are many meals when you feel fuller or want more. That’s actually the body’s natural response to being restricted for so long. Now, it’s finally happy that it’s being fed again! Again, remind yourself that this is normal. If you’re really concerned or confused about the signals your body is sending, I’d encourage you to talk more with your dietitian.
2) What about nutrition? You can’t just eat whatever all day long.
To that I say, “well actually you can!” I’ve seen so many clients work through the process of intuitive eating and it’s amazing to see when they transition into trusting their bodies. These clients actually DO eat “whatever” all day long. And their meals consist of a variety of different foods that are nutritionally adequate and balanced. This includes, but is not limited to, veggies, proteins, dairy products, grains, desserts, fried foods, pizza, tacos, salads, oatmeal, nachos, stir frys, roasted veggies…etc. Gentle nutrition doesn’t mean you will start eating or not eating a certain food (unless it’s halotop, we should all really stop eating halotop “ice cream”). Yes, you can keep nutrition in mind and increase fruit and vegetable intake. But, it doesn’t make you a terrible person if you go a few days without having fruits and veggies. You’re body will tell you when it needs them!
3) I’ve been struggling for ED for so long, how can I just flip the switch and eat intuitively?
Well, this might not be the sexy and exciting answer you’re looking for.. But you have to keep in mind that intuitive eating is an ongoing process that takes time. Unfortunately, you can’t just flip a switch. When I am working on this idea with clients, we take a session or two to dive into the very first principle of intuitive eating, which is “reject the diet mentality.” It might be a good idea to order a copy of the book to read more :).
Basically, it’s important to feel out where your eating disorder or diet culture still has control. Now, we all live in a diet culture world, so navigating it’s messages can often be tricky. We need to listen to advertisements, especially ones that advertise body changes, with a critical ear. This way, you can work on identifying what’s BS and have the tools to move on from it.
4) What if my body changes when I listen to its signals?
Well, it might. And dietitians who do this work with clients can’t make any promises that it won’t. But, think about it… our bodies are going to change over our lifetimes anyway. I’m assuming you’re not a newborn reading this… so think about how your body has changed so far. It’s impossible to look the same forever or to never age. Now, a huge part of intuitive eating is accepting, and hopefully embracing, the fact that you cannot control your weight. Much of it is based in genetics. I think that can be a scary concept for many of us and it’s also a life changing one. This can lead to… respecting your body and fueling it properly. Tapping into what you’re body is actually telling you vs. using outside signals. Practicing true body acceptance from the inside out.
To learn more about gentle nutrition and the other principles of intuitive eating, read the book! I’d love to hear what you think about. If you have any questions about intuitive eating or gentle nutrition reach out to me at email@example.com.