I was not taught much about intuitive eating in my Nutrition program. It is a concept I have wrangled with myself for years. The idea is that if we listen to our bodies and trust our hunger signals, we will naturally eat the right amount of food and choose a balanced healthy diet. Intuitive eating is different from dieting in that it is not about weight, though it may lead one to their natural stable weight. Intuitive eating is different from mindful eating (although not incompatible with it) in that it focuses more on when, what, and how much to eat while mindful eating is a way of eating that keeps you present and aware. Intuitive eating is how an infant knows to cry when it is hungry and stop feeding when it is full, yet for most adults, being able to eat intuitively is an advanced practice.
Many of us were raised in an environment in which were required to eat foods we didn't like or didn't want. Conversely, foods such as desserts were given as a reward for clearing the plate, or withheld as a form of punishment. Or consider that a child not being offered enough food to become full on a regular basis, creating a constant sense of hunger, might overeat given the opportunity. In addition to feeding experiences during our formative years, in this country we are constantly exposed to food advertisements and other forms of media messaging that are designed to stimulate our senses and provoke our interest in foods regardless of whether or not we feel hungry. It is no wonder that at some point during childhood, many individuals lost their instinctive ability to manage their hunger based on biological signals alone.
One of the biggest tenets of intuitive eating is that no foods should be restricted. If you are someone who “watches what they eat”, there are two distinct ways you might react to this notion. The first, utter excitement - nothing is off limits! Great! I can eat ice cream and potato chips all day long in the name of intuitive eating! The second, stifling fear - I will eat nothing but ice cream and potato chips. I will gain 100 pounds. I will never want to eat a vegetable again. I will have no energy and my health will decline. The result for many people is that their actions reflect one or the other end of this spectrum; they binge with abandon, or they restrict mercilessly. A lot of people end up somewhere between the poles, but with a tendency to overeat or restrict. Intuitive eating however, is something different than finding the exact mid-point between the extremes. It requires getting off the continuum and really listening to your body along with having access to plentiful resources and the ability to prepare or provide nutritious foods for oneself at the time when the need arises. Like I said, it is an advanced practice.
Although intuitive eating is the gold standard, I sometimes question whether it is realistic for everyone. In the world we live in, if we didn’t feel like we had to eat vegetables for our health, would we ever be drawn to them? You could go months without even seeing one if you didn’t want to. Whereas fast food and junk food are hard to escape – even if we don’t eat them, we encounter them everywhere. Our environment shapes our impulses and our tastes and preferences. It can be hard to sense your own intuitive messages through the noise of advertising and information alongside a blunted inner awareness. If we have adapted to an unhealthy style of eating, we made need to change deeply ingrained habits before we can expect our intuition to lead us onto a healthy path.
Some other obstacles to effective intuitive eating may include:
Other issues might need to be addressed before one has the facility or sensitivity to tackle the challenge of eating intuitively and be successful. That doesn't mean don't try. However, if you are someone who has been eating poorly for a very long time, or if you struggle with disordered eating, it could be necessary to change some habits, even if it does not feel intuitive at first, just to get to a more neutral place.
There are also circumstances in which eating intuitively would be contraindicated. For example, a diabetic needs to monitor what they eat, and although their body will send signals if blood sugars are too low or high, it is far better to keep glucose levels balanced before they reach the stage of causing a physical reaction. There are other medical conditions that may require people to eat at certain times or choose specific foods for health reasons alone. Intuitive eating is best practiced by those that are otherwise healthy, both physically and mentally.
So, should intuitive eating be encouraged? Is it worth undertaking? Well, it does beat many of the alternatives (bingeing, dieting, extreme eating practices). Listening to your body and relying on hunger and fullness cues to know when and how much to eat is brilliant, but as a dietitian, I think it is also valuable to understand that there are health benefits to be gained from including whole foods such as fruits and vegetables and whole grains in your diet. It may take some intentional work to incorporate healthful foods into your life before your body will begin to “intuitively” want them. You may need to become less reliant on processed foods so that you can break their addictive hold on you. Eating behaviors rooted in stress or emotion may not be resolved without addressing the underlying issues. Thus, it would not be a bad idea to find someone to work with to help you navigate the path so you can avoid mistaking impulse for intuition and restriction for restraint. “Trusting your gut” is a great idea, but you may need to train your gut a bit first.
My name is Lorelei Sturm. Some of you may know me as a yoga instructor with Chicago’s Neighborhood Fitness Centers. I am also a Registered Dietitian with a Master’s degree in Nutrition. CNF is committed to helping its members lead healthier lives by encouraging wellness and a healthy lifestyle in addition to fitness. So, what burning nutrition questions do you have? Let me know in the comments below.