The Ebb & Flow of Intuitive Eating
Diet & nutrition advice, trends, and fads are exhausting. It seems everywhere you turn there is a new way to eat that will make you healthy, help you lose weight and improve your performance all at once. It can be a full-time job keeping up with it all. To top off, it usually all seems too good to be true. And while a lot of it is good information, you don’t get the whole story. Intuitive eating falls into this mix.
Diets are not black and white, they are not right or wrong and they are not one-size-fits-all. Just because something works for you, does not mean it will work for someone else. And there lies in the problem.
So many times we find something that resonates with us or works for us, and we, therefore, want to shout from the rooftop “TRY THIS OUT!” Hoping that it will validate our results and help others in the process. I hate to squash that excitement, but, you are your own unique self and we all need different things as far as our diet and nutrition go.
For as long as I am a dietitian, I know I will deal with fads, trends, and advice from everyone, I’m not naive to think any different. However, I want to help you take control of your health so as not to buy into every fad or fear mongering podcast you listen to.
There are 5 million & 1 fads out there (disclaimer: that is not a real statistic), today I’m going to focus on one. I hate to call it a fad, let’s call it a topic of the day. I feel the need to explain what intuitive eating is today as it’s been ebbing and flowing in the nutrition world for a while. I love the idea of intuitive eating, but recognize that it is NOT all that intuitive for most, so let’s see what it is, how to use it or if you should even bother with it in the first place.
What is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating is more or less the anti-diet. It is going back to your roots and eating based on hunger and satiety cues. Back to your roots? Yes, believe it or not, babies are notorious for eating based on hunger and nothing else. That means at some point in your life, you have intuitively eaten. We as adults, however, eat for stress, boredom, anger, sadness, anxiety, and WAY more than just hunger.
We are out of touch with our hunger and let emotions drive our eating behaviors. I have no problem with you treating yourself once in a while, after all, I’m very much into wine, chocolate & cheese. However, it is when it becomes a habit to reward emotion that we fall victim to an unhealthy relationship with food and our diet. Our lives are anything but simple and easy, so diet is no different. While intuitive eating is the goal, it’s not really all that intuitive when we have stressful lives and convenience foods at our fingertips. If it is the goal, how do we know where to begin? Let’s take a brief look at what it all means.
Intuitive Eating 101
Intuitive eating is meant to be just that, intuitive or as Merriam-Webster would say, “known or perceived by intuition.” Based on the name, we shouldn’t need a blog post about this, we should just know it. Welp, I’m going to make a wild guess that most of us do NOT find any of this intuitive. The main drivers of this diet approach are:
- Hunger vs. emotions. Intuitive eating encourages eating when hungry and not when you are not hungry. This means training yourself to not eat based on emotions, only based on your physiological hunger. You know, when your stomach growls, you feel weak, and your body needs food to function. (Note: this is not hanger, but just plain old hunger)
- Satiety vs. fullness. Intuitive eating teaches you to eat to satiety and not to over-eat to the point of being full. We all know that point when we’ve gone too far. Deep breathing sets in and we wish we had stretchier pants and more restraint. Satiety is when we have fed the hunger but not the emotion. Fullness is when we have ignored the hunger and gone past what our primal body needs.
- Diet vs. health mentality. Instead of focusing on the diet mentality of what you can/can’t eat or what you should/shouldn’t eat, instead, you should eat for health. Eating for health looks different for everyone so it is a broad recommendation to do what feels right for you and to ignore the so-called “Food Police”.
Who is Intuitive Eating For?
But, it just depends. Not everyone can intuitively listen to their body and not everyone is READY to intuitively listen to their body. Sometimes it’s based on their readiness to change and sometimes it can be a deeper problem, like those created by hormone imbalances. I’m not saying you can blame your hormones for your lack of intuitiveness with your diet, but sometimes it’s not as easy as saying “only eat when you’re hungry and not when you’re not.” Afterall, if it were that easy we’d be healthier as a society.
While this approach is for everyone, it is not for everyone at all times. Sometimes we have to take a more quantitative approach to nutrition & diet before we can expect someone to know qualitatively what they need. That means tracking intake and understanding emotions vs. hunger vs. hormonal imbalances. It’s taking the guesswork out of eating until intuition can step back in. This does not mean you are a bad person or an unhealthy person, it just means you are not at a place to eat intuitively yet AND THAT’S OKAY.
What’s not okay is pretending you are eating intuitively to hide the need for a more quantitative and methodical approach. That being said, I have my own way of going about all this hubbub.
My Approach to Intuitive Eating
I believe that being as intuitive as possible with your eating is a great QUALITATIVE approach to your diet. However, not everyone is able to know how much, when or even what to eat. They may read the label of a product that says “heart healthy” or “organic” and think “hmm, that must be healthy” only to find their body becomes addicted to said food and they over-indulge.
Diet and nutrition are not usually 100% intuitive these days, so that’s where my approach comes in. It is a hybrid of qualitative + quantitative nutrition and that blend looks different for everyone. Here are the main points in my approach:
- Find your food & nutrition triggers. These are the foods that you have no intuition with. Let’s take ice cream for example. If you bring ice cream into the house and eat the whole quart without thinking about it, perhaps we should leave the ice cream out of the house and instead go get a scoop of ice cream outside of the house. What I am not saying here is to eliminate ice cream, what I am saying is to eliminate the temptation. This allows intuition to be born.
- Learn your emotional eating habits. This may require some journaling, counseling or just straight up introspection. Learn what emotions derail your intuitive approach. Is it a stressful workday? Is it sadness? Is it boredom? Find your triggers so you can recognize what causes you to self-sabotage. Be honest.
- Track when needed. This is not forever, this is to help you understand what your eating habits are like and understand when emotions are coming into play. (See above). This is the quantitative piece to see how much, when and what you need to eat for health. I suggest working with someone when tracking to make the most out of the experience. IF you find that tracking makes you obsessive, please stop tracking, it’s not worth your sanity and relationship with food.
- Release negative feelings around food & your diet. Talking negatively about a food or about your diet is not going to improve your health. Instead, I find it makes intuition even harder to achieve. Be positive and you will find food and nutrition become more enjoyable and health is easier to achieve.
Here’s the thing, there is no perfect solution to eating healthy. Everyone is different for so many reasons, including genetics, lifestyle, environment, disease, etc. and we cannot make one broad recommendation. So I will leave you with my approach knowing that if you struggle with your diet, nutrition, health, etc. you probably need to talk to a professional, one who has experience and is trustworthy, not just one who read something on google that one time.