Intuitive Eating Explained!
Today we are talking about intuitive eating, which really doesn’t have one clear definition and embodies several different styles of eating both for weight loss and overall general health. We’re going to talk about what Intuitive Eating IS, what Intuitive Eating IS NOT and how take the next steps towards being ready for intuitive eating. Are you ready? Let’s do this!
I want to kick off this video by reviewing a few different definitions of intuitive eating and really identify what we mean when we say that…
BeNourished.org said that IE is an approach developed to help people heal from the side effects of chronic dieting… An intuitive eater is defined as a person who “makes food choices without experiencing guilt or an ethical dilemma, honors hunger, respects fullness and enjoys the pleasure of eating.
The NEDA website says “intuitive eating is about trusting your inner body wisdom to make choices around food that feel good in your body, without judgement and without influence from diet culture. We were all born with the skill to eat, to stop when we are full, to eat when we are hungry and to eat satisfying foods. As we grow up that can change for a variety of reasons. Many of us lose that freedom, and intuitive eating is learning to reclaim it.”
I absolutely love the perspective of this second definition — intuitive eating isn’t a special program, it’s literally just eating. It’s like we have to unlearn bad habits and mindsets that we’ve learned from other external sources. We were born with inherent signals about which foods are most satiating and when we need to eat them. There also used to be a time where the foods available were sourced locally and eaten in whole form – but in today’s modern world with our evolving food system, we’ve really lost touch with those original systems that naturally created boundaries for us to live healthy and eat healthy without putting much thought into the options.
I’ve also heard several similar terms recently that fall in line with what we’re talking about – the idea of understanding what your body wants and needs and responding by eating based on internal signals instead of external signals – as is traditional in the dieting culture.
Super quick let’s be clear that internal signals are those sent by your own body and recognized by your conscious brain, which then cues you to take action to resolve those needs. External signals include the way you were raised in terms of where food came from, how, when, how much and how frequently you learned to eat it, cultural norms, friends and family’s suggestions, marketing, etc.
So the first term and most popular is obviously the word “intuitive.” I also really like how Chalene Johnson calls it “informed” eating. Renee McGregor (a registered dietician and sports nutritionist in GB) has called it “instinctive” eating based on the natural ability each person has when they’re born to know what they need and when they need it (ya know, like the hungry newborn that understands how to nurse miraculously).
I believe that everyone has the ability to naturally eat “intuitively.” Maybe you’ve thought before, or you’re even thinking this right now… “I’m too broken. I’ll never eat normally. I don’t even know what normal is. This just isn’t in the cards for me, I’ve tried for years and I’m just going to accept now that food will always be a hang up for me and I’ll avoid my big triggers.”
I want to invite you right now into a new thought pattern. There’s no guilt and no shame here for your struggles with food, but one of the most important things you’re going to have to do for yourself and the quality of your life is to believe that you can find freedom and healing in this area. You can’t put boundaries around how healed you think you can become, or what that looks like… but you’ve got to find the faith and hope for this. Maybe that’s where you need to start today, just going on this journey to form new beliefs around what’s possible for you!
Because I’ll tell ya now… intuitive eating isn’t right for everyone – so let me tell you who it is right for and who it’s wrong for.
Intuitive, informed, instinctive or whatever you call it – this way of eating is not right for everyone. I believe that everyone needs to strive for this as the end goal, but based on your experiences and current relationship with food, it may not be right to jump straight into trying to eat intuitively, because your mind and/or body may not be ready for it.
If you’re wondering why your body wouldn’t be ready for something that seems like the most natural way of eating, let me explain… We can’t change the way our body responds to hardwired functions (like going into what you may have heard called starvation mode when you eat too few calories for a prolonged period of time). Your body has natural responses in place to protect itself, and when you put it through harsh conditions like extreme or even yo yo dieting, it will do whatever it takes to preserve your life and that can cause very adverse reactions to what your original goal may have been, like losing weight. When your body is held in a prolonged state or stress or malnourishment, as just two examples, it can cause hormonal imbalances, unreliable hunger cues, and much more.
So if you’ve been under severe stress, dieting, binge eating, purging, cycling through multiple patterns of disordered eating, working out too much (the list goes on) then the internal signals sent to you by your body may not be reliable. If you’ve ever severely restricted calories then fell into a binge where you literally couldn’t stop yourself from eating copious amounts of food until you were sick, it’s not because you’re bad or weak willed. It’s because your body’s signals were overpowering you with their need for food and nutrients. You can also naturally have hormonal and other imbalances in the body caused by genetics or disease, for example, and your body may be telling you that you’re not hungry when really you need fuel. So in this matter of trusting our bodies, we need to work on the physical piece and the mental piece before we’re ready for IE.
Here’s some other markers to see if IE is right for you.
IT’S RIGHT FOR YOU IF YOU’RE: Biochemically and hormonally optimal (you’re looking after yourself and you know how to listen to your internal cues) (have a good hormonal profile and relationship with food, or getting that way)
It’s important to learn to trust your body – that’s part of the process. This may take years.
IT’S WRONG FOR: anyone who is underweight, has a bad relationship with food / disordered eating / or has been overly restricting
So how do you move towards being able to eat intuitively then?
You start by eating mechanically and move into intuitive eating as your body begins to regulate and you can trust yourself to know about your body and what it needs and your ability to fulfill those needs.
Mechanical eating is a supervised and tracked regiment of eating a specific amount of food at certain times. When you work with a professional to determine your needs, you can practice fulfilling those needs by following guidelines. Over time, fulfilling needs becomes more instinctive, your body becomes regulated because it has all it needs, and you are able to move away from tracking your food (which is a tool, not a forever lifestyle) and solely rely on internal cues.
If you hang around with me towards the end of the video I’m going to share a few of the practical steps I took when learning to eat intuitively.
To recap what I’ve said so far…
You need to be mentally and physically ready for intuitive eating
You need to become biochemically and hormonally regulated. Renee Mcgregor suggests using mechanical eating to eat a sensible balanced meal and eat every 3 to 4 hours – you can try intuitive eating only when you’ve done that and the threat of starvation has disappeared and your weight has been restored. You may need to manage this for years.
The biggest key to accomplish your health goals is surrender. You can’t trick your body, you can’t outsmart the process of starting slow and establishing healthyness in your mind and body one decision at a time.
If you look at food as friends, you can think about it like knowing that you need to spend more or less time with certain friends – who will make you feel best right now and also in the long term / or who will best support your goals and lifestyle?
Base your meals around lots of fruit and veg, whole grains, beans, good sources of protein and don’t skimp on essential fats. Sugar isn’t off limits, it should just be the smallest part of your intake.
If you like the term informed eating, here’s how Chalene puts it: “Informed eating means not that you’re informed of someone else’s rules but you’re informed on how the body works – your unique calorie needs, sleep, digestion, and many normal bodily functions including hormone production – and the role of epigenetics that determines your unique needs (where you live, how you grew up, the way your genes express themselves based on the things you are exposed to).You need to be informed of how most bodies and hormones work BUT ALSO know how yours’ specifically work. You will need to know more than what the average person knows today about which foods are inflammatory to you – if we’re informed of those things that are inflammatory to us and then choose to eat them, that’s okay.
You may hear that certain things are good like diet bars, protein shakes, quinoa or certain veg or fruits – but your unique body may not do well with those foods even though they’re considered healthy.
> she suggests gut testing, and if that’s something you’re at all interested in I’m leaving the link to a popular and verified gut testing company in the description below.
Now don’t freak out about all the things you may be eating that aren’t ideal for your system, look at the big picture — don’t subscribe to universal rules about good or bad foods.
Eating may need to be regulated at times, but the goal we’re working towards is getting a stable and healthy body and being able to rely on our own knowledge and needs and not those of others. Btw… If the way that you eat has an end date on it – that’s a diet!
I found a cool list outlining the principles of IE online and while I don’t know how qualified this source is for information, these ideas really spoke to me.
10 Principles of Intuitive Eating:
Reject the Diet Mentality- Throw out the diet books and magazine articles that offer you false hope of losing weight quickly, easily, and permanently. Get angry at the lies that have led you to feel as if you were a failure every time a new diet stopped working and you gained back all of the weight. If you allow even one small hope to linger that a new and better diet might be lurking around the corner, it will prevent you from being free to rediscover Intuitive Eating.
Honor Your Hunger- Keep your body biologically fed with adequate energy and carbohydrates. Otherwise you can trigger a primal drive to overeat. Once you reach the moment of excessive hunger, all intentions of moderate, conscious eating are fleeting and irrelevant. Learning to honor this first biological signal sets the stage for re-building trust with yourself and food.
Make Peace with Food- Call a truce, stop the food fight! Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. If you tell yourself that you can’t or shouldn’t have a particular food, it can lead to intense feelings of deprivation that build into uncontrollable cravings and, often, bingeing. When you finally “give-in” to your forbidden food, eating will be experienced with such intensity, it usually results in Last Supper overeating, and overwhelming guilt.
Challenge the Food Police- Scream a loud “NO” to thoughts in your head that declare you’re “good” for eating minimal calories or “bad” because you ate a piece of chocolate cake. The Food Police monitor the unreasonable rules that dieting has created. The police station is housed deep in your psyche, and its loud speaker shouts negative barbs, hopeless phrases, and guilt-provoking indictments. Chasing the Food Police away is a critical step in returning to Intuitive Eating.
Respect Your Fullness- Listen for the body signals that tell you that you are no longer hungry. Observe the signs that show that you’re comfortably full. Pause in the middle of a meal or food and ask yourself how the food tastes, and what is your current fullness level?
Discover the Satisfaction Factor- The Japanese have the wisdom to promote pleasure as one of their goals of healthy living. In our fury to be thin and healthy, we often overlook one of the most basic gifts of existence–the pleasure and satisfaction that can be found in the eating experience. When you eat what you really want, in an environment that is inviting and conducive, the pleasure you derive will be a powerful force in helping you feel satisfied and content. By providing this experience for yourself, you will find that it takes much less food to decide you’ve had “enough”.
Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food- Find ways to comfort, nurture, distract, and resolve your issues without using food. Anxiety, loneliness, boredom, anger are emotions we all experience throughout life. Each has its own trigger, and each has its own appeasement. Food won’t fix any of these feelings. It may comfort for the short term, distract from the pain, or even numb you into a food hangover. But food won’t solve the problem. If anything, eating for an emotional hunger will only make you feel worse in the long run. You’ll ultimately have to deal with the source of the emotion, as well as the discomfort of overeating.
Respect Your Body- Accept your genetic blueprint. Just as a person with a shoe size of eight would not expect to realistically squeeze into a size six, it is equally as futile (and uncomfortable) to have the same expectation with body size. But mostly, respect your body, so you can feel better about who you are. It’s hard to reject the diet mentality if you are unrealistic and overly critical about your body shape.
Exercise—Feel the Difference- Forget militant exercise. Just get active and feel the difference. Shift your focus to how it feels to move your body, rather than the calorie burning effect of exercise. If you focus on how you feel from working out, such as energized, it can make the difference between rolling out of bed for a brisk morning walk or hitting the snooze alarm. If when you wake up, your only goal is to lose weight, it’s usually not a motivating factor in that moment of time.
Honor Your Health- Gentle Nutrition makes food choices that honor your health and tastebuds while making you feel well. Remember that you don’t have to eat a perfect diet to be healthy. You will not suddenly get a nutrient deficiency or gain weight from one snack, one meal, or one day of eating. It’s what you eat consistently over time that matters, progress not perfection is what counts.
If you have more questions about if intuitive eating is right for you and how to get started, please comment! The discussion is not over when this video ends. There’s so much stigma surrounding food, body types, disordered eating and fitness in general that I’d love to keep talking about this with anyone willing.
As for the steps I took to get where I am today… here’s what my journey looked like.
2014 – I started CrossFit and I quickly became scared that I would feel bad or hurt my body if I binged and purged food because I was training hard for the first time ever. I wanted to get some muscle and I knew that my eating habits were hurting me and my performance.
2015 – After I had overcome the battle with bulimia once and for all, I was in a better emotional place with food but still didn’t know much about what to eat. I used the Zone Diet to lean out for my wedding so that I could sustain muscle growth while shedding fat. This is the preferred CrossFit method of managing weight and nutrition as outlined in their L1 Training Guide (which I’ve also linked to below for my nerdy friends who love to read and research). I ate a certain number of blocks of each food type (protein / carbs / fats) each day, and had lots of options I could choose for each block. Most of my food options were whole foods, literally just food in its whole form, not processed or boxed options. This taught me that the focus was on the macronutrients and micronutrients, not calories.
2016/2017 – I started working with a few nutrition coaches to calculate and track my macronutrients. I was given a specific # of grams of protein, carbs and fats to eat each day, and I could use an app like My Fitness Pal to literally eat anything that would get me to hit those #’s equally. This gave me even more flexibility yet was still regimented so I learned how to fuel my body because my goals were based a lot on performance while also cutting fat.
2017/2018 – I stopped tracking at all. I felt fully ready for the first time to make my own food decisions and wanted nothing to do with anything about tracking. I wanted no boundaries except those I felt were right for myself, and I finally had a healthy understanding of what those boundaries needed to be.
2019 – I got my own nutrition coaching license to teach others the science behind what I had experienced and knew to be true about my own body and how to learn to fuel it best.
I still go through spells where I feel like it’s right to track or more-closely monitor my decisions, but I daily fight against the voice that tells me in order to be a fitness coach I need to be leaner and look the part.
Idk if you heard me clearly… but I hear that voice every single day almost! And I will tell you that every time I tell it NO that it gets easier and easier and easier. I almost commit to tracking my food again several times a week because I feel like a fraud if I’m teaching others to do something that I’m not doing myself.
But the honest truth is that I am no longer at a place where I need those defined boundaries to teach me about food and to trust myself.
If I want to lose any weight in the future, I know how to do so safely. If I want to stay the same weight but just increase my nutrient intake or start growing more plants myself or only shopping locally, I can do that, and I am excited about finding out how to reconnect with the earth and the original food system.
But I still get Pho with my hubby every time he comes home from a trip, we grab donuts or cookies afterwards and watch Netflix. I love pizza and of course usually don’t say No to a good ole American burger. But I challenge myself to expand myself to eating new veggies, to assessing whether my current habits are truly supporting a healthy lifestyle and helping me recover from my hard daily training.
The journey never ends, we just progress through each phase to a new phase where hopefully we experience more freedom and joy along the way.
I hope that this video has given you some insight into what eating intuitively really means and if it’s right for you right now, or how to take steps to eating this way.
>> intuitive eating is not a tool for weight loss/gain
>> IE is not just “eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full”
>> IE is not “giving up” and just eating whatever the heck you want
>> IE is a peace movement. It’s ending the war with your body, learning to accept our diverse genetic blueprint. Diet culture would have us believe all the rules we have around food as gospel because they are all, in some way, focused on the thin ideal.
Obese to Beast (YouTube) also explains the potential issues with intuitive eating so well!
NEDA’s explanation of intuitive eating: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/what-does-intuitive-eating-mean
Be Nourished’s take on intuitive eating: https://benourished.org/intuitive-eating/
Gut testing: https://viome.com/
10 principles of Intuitive Eating: https://sunbasket.com/stories/principles-of-intuitive-eating
Email me: [email protected]