Have you ever said the following:
I want to eat intuitively...but nothing seems to work?
I am eating intuitively...but I can't seem to lose any weight?
I am eating intuitively, but...
I can't sleep
I have cravings,
The gym sucks
I have energy crashes.
Does this sound familiar?
If so, then it means you've tried intuitive eating...but likely are doing it wrong or at least for the wrong reasons.
There's a lot of debate when it comes to intuitive eating and "dieting". In most cases, intuitive eating is the golden standard...what everyone is striving to achieve. In fact, most clients struggle with this concept the most. They want to lose weight without having to track. They want all the results by doing what everyone else is seemingly doing...not putting in any effort. Tracking your intake has been demonized and villianized against intuitive eating. Tracking intake is often seen as triggering, disordered, obsessive, etc. while intuitive eating is natural and easy and effortless.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest mistakes with intuitive eating is treating it as the magic solution to all your weight loss struggles. In most cases, as you'll learn through this article, you'll see that intuitive eating, in most cases, isn't the solution to losing weight.
What I hope to teach you in today's blog is a bit more about what intuitive eating is, why the movement started, what its original intention was, and why it may not be working for you.
History of Intuitive Eating
The term "Intuitive Eating" was first coined in 1995 by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribolet. It came to the forefront in the diet culture as the "anti-diet"...the ultimate fight against the constant diet mentality. It had been around much earlier than the 90s with some mention of intuitive eating in the late 70s and early 80s. But it wasn't until the 90s then further in the early 2000s where it really grabbed momentum.
10 Principles of Intuitive Eating
The idea behind intuitive eating is that it's the "anti-diet", the diet that ends all diets. It's based on the fact that babies are born with the intuition to eat when they should and to STOP eating when they should. Same goes for animals. Have you ever been somewhat envious of your pet [if you have a cat] or animals in the wild for just knowing when to eat and when to not and not ballooning up? Kids and animals are natural intuitive eaters. Intuitive eating is based on you returning to that intuitive state. The problem is, however, that as you aged you were met with numerous rules and regulations around foods. "Eat 3 meals/day." "Eat 6 meals/day." "Carbs are bad for you." "Protein will damage your kidneys." "Protein is needed for muscle growth and survival." "You're always supposed to be hungry." "Don't eat more than xxxx number of calories." "Finish the food on your plate." "Only eat half the food on your plate." You learn what foods are rewards and what foods are punishments. You learn what foods are "good" and what foods are "bad". The list goes on and on...and gets worse and more ingrained in your mind as you age. This is why older people struggle with their nutrition so much more than their younger counterparts...because they have more rules and regulations getting in the way.
The intuitive eating movement aims to get rid of these rules and regulations and return to a time where you USED to eat intuitively. The goal is to reframe your relationship around food and adopt a more healthy and natural approach to eating food. At least, that's what it's supposed to do.
There are 10 principles that define intuitive eating and its goal. I'll list them here, but they can be found on the main organization's website here:
1. Reject the diet mentality
Reject the constant reminder that you should be losing weight, looking a certain way, doing certain exercises, and living a certain way. Throw out magazines and books. Unfollow accounts that encourage unhealthy ways of living. Quit trying to lose weight.
2. Honor your hunger
You're not meant to be hungry all the time. You also are meant to be hungry every once in a while. Keep your body fed and nourished. Under-eating leads to a slower metabolism and higher desire for cravings and binges. Eat foods that satisfy your hunger.
3. Make peace with food
Stop fighting with food every chance you get.
4. Challenge the food police
Your brain is a constant source of investigation and prosecution, deciding which foods are bad and require burpee punishments, which foods are banned, which foods are allowed, what rules to follow, etc. When you feel those thoughts arise, sit with them and challenge them.
5. Discover the satisfaction factor
Enjoy your foods. So many people now a days don't eat meals with flavor [because salt is bad for you, remember???]. This means your eating foods that don't fulfill you. Eat foods that will nourish you but also make your taste buds turn on. Eating lackluster foods only creates cravings and desire for more more more.
6. Feel your fullness
Eat foods that are satiating. Take time eating your meals. Chew slowly...actually chew your food. Rest between bites. Pause and ask if you're still hungry.
7. Cope with your emotions with kindness
Restriction triggers a loss of control. When your emotions are high, this lack of control leads to binges and cravings...leading to more stress, worsened emotions, and more binges. Find ways to cope with your emotions outside of food. Address the root causes for your emotions. Are you sad? Lonely? Stressed? What can you do to alleviate that without gravitating towards compensating with food. Food is only a short term solution.
8. Respect your body
Your body is your body. Your genetics do dictate a lot that goes on with how you look and even how you perceive your body. I'm a size 7.5 shoe...I wear size 7.5 shoes. I don't try to wear size 10 shoes. I respect that about my feet. Same goes for your body type. Respect your body where it is NOW. It does a lot of good for you.
Get active and feel the difference. Don't focus on the calorie burn or running yourself into the ground. Feel how good you feel when you get out and move without restriction, punishment, or a hidden calorie agenda.
10. Honor your health
Food nourishes you. It fuels you. It supports your health. It promotes muscle growth. It boosts your immune system. Be gentle with yourself. Choose foods that will keep you healthy but will satisfy cravings and make your taste buds happy.
Intuitive Eating Isn't a DIET
As you can see, intuitive eating's main goal has never been to lose weight.
In fact, it's been the contrary. Simply go to principle #1 "reject the diet mentality". The goal of intuitive eating is to not diet or lose weight and to opt to a more natural approach to EATING...not to losing weight.
Yet everyone (except for maybe 1% of the population, if that) treats intuitive eating as the gold standard to losing weight.
How did this happen? I honestly couldn't tell you the exact reason. If I had to guess from my experience working with hundreds of people on their nutrition, one of two things happened.
People switched to true authentic intuitive eating and finally stopped stressing. They liberated themselves from the rules around dieting, the stress they felt about their body, the emotional feelings around the foods they were eating...and just ate to serve their bodies. They nourished their bodies rather than punished or restricted them. They accepted their body for what it was. As a result, their bodies finally behaved how they were meant to behave. Inflammation went down, stress improved, energy levels improved, hormones were optimized, motivation went up, sleep improved, all resulting in less water retention and maybe a little weight loss.
People's "intuitive eating" was really just a cop out to NOT eating enough food...putting them in a calorie deficit and causing them to lose weight. They, then, told this to others that "this was the solution." People bought into the methods of intuitive eating, not the ideology, but called it the same. If I had to further guess, this is the dominant one...which means they weren't really intuitive eating.
Intuitive eating has mislead you into thinking that you can and SHOULD lose weight...but this idea and mentality goes against the fundamental principles behind the concept.
Intuitive eating to lose weight is idealistic thinking. The catch is that it requires healthy relationships with food, which most of us do not have and also do not know how to get because of years of rules, regulations, and tribulations. Highly palatable foods, emotional barriers, and the constantly changing nature of food and nutrition gets in the way.
Go back to the opening questions of this article. If you've ever said any of those things or asked those questions, then you're 1. not eating intuitively and 2. not supposed to eat intuitively. By the very definition and nature of intuitive eating, you should feel nourished, energized, and complete. If you're not eating to the point where your sleep is suffering, your only goal is weight loss, your energy sucks, and you have cravings AND/OR binges, then you're not actually eating intuitively. You're restricting your food and maybe or maybe not losing weight.
Tracking Your Intake To Lose Weight
Now, at this point, you might be thinking: "Well shit, can I even lose weight? SHOULD I even lose weight?"
The answer is YES. IF you're at a point where you need or want to lose weight, that is okay. We aren't babies or animals. We have conscious thinking. We have thumbs. We have a prefrontal cortex that lets us think and plan in complex concepts, something that animals nor babies can do.
Weight loss isn't meant to be intuitive. It isn't natural. Babies and animals in the wild don't eat to lose weight...they eat to eat. If they under eat and eat in a calorie deficit (what is needed to lose weight), then the goal is to eat more until they are well fed. Babies cry. Animals hunt. In weight loss, your hunger is prevalent. Leptin, your hunger hormone, is elevated. If this is intentional, this violates principle #2 of intuitive eating.
What is needed to overcome the lack of intuition is a way to measure and track your food. In many cases, tracking calories and/or macros is the solution. This isn't a requirement. You could track and measure out portions...but the idea is that you're measuring the food you're putting in your mouth to ensure that you, in fact, are eating in a deficit.
If you're not sure how to do this or have tried but to no avail, hire a coach to guide you through the process. A coach will ensure that you're eating enough and still maintaining some freedom when it comes to your intake. If you struggle with the seemingly restriction created around dieting. a coach [a good one at least] will include some freedom to meet you where you're at so you can get the results you want to get but can enjoy the process as well. There are plenty of ways to cut your calories without just starving yourself. Implementing refeeds and diet breaks are highly effective in individualizing your weight loss to something you can follow and enjoy. I recently published an article on some non-traditional weight loss methods that I use every day with various clients.
Get your results then transition to intuitive eating.
Transition to Intuitive Eating
Most people want to achieve intuitive eating. In fact, this is my goal with every client of mine. You shouldn't be 90 years old, pulling out MFP and logging your food to stay on track. If a client leaves me still at the beck and call of their tracking app, then I didn't do my job on educating them on their body and their nutrition.
The biggest way to transition to intuitive eating is to PRACTICE.
Practice both the physical act of eating intuitively AND the mental side of things. You need both...physically how to eat and learn what fuels you and how to mentally approach food and eating.
Some practices to consider implementing to transition to IE:
➜ Learn to distinguish between emotional and physical hunger. They each have different cues and feelings. Physical hunger is often associated with a growling stomach, irritability, and fatigue. It usually is several hours after your last meal. There aren't many cravings associated with physical hunger, unless you've taken too long between meals and you're past Emotional hunger is, as it sounds, driven by emotions and isn't associated with the physical cues. Instead it's associated with feelings, often of sadness, loneliness, boredom and stress. It comes with cravings for highly palatable foods. It is at random times outside of your normal eating window.
➜ Learn what your body needs. This is the most important. Practice eating enough calories. Practice meal timing and consistency. Practice eating portions. You need to know how much food your body needs...and you do this by measuring--for a little bit--your intake. How do you know you're eating enough if you've never actually measured it out. One of the most common occurrences with clients is when I have them track their food and they immediately come back to me saying "woah! I had no idea I was eating that little...I felt like I was always eating". They were always eating. They were eating a veggie here and there, a small snack here, an egg there, a small dinner. Frequency-wise they were eating many times in the day, but nothing with substance...so they learned they only ate 1200 calories. They practiced eating more and learned how much better they were supposed to feel.
➜ Learn your biofeedback and how to interpret it. Learn what improves or worsens your sleep. Learn what causes your energy crashes. Learn how your cravings relate to your energy and sleep. Learn how your body changes day to day. Learn how you change closer to your period. Learn how stress impacts things. Make a tracker on Excel to log this daily just for a month or two and see what correlations you can make.
Do all of this during your tracking phase. AWARENESS is key. You need to know what you're doing and how it's all connected. Tracking food can be a nuisance. It can be triggering. It also can be an excellent tool to learning about your body and what your body needs. Clients learn that when they have carbs later in the day, they sleep soundly through the night. They now use MFP to ensure they're getting in enough carbs. They learn less than 200g causes them to not sleep. They learn that above 250g makes them bloated. There is no inherent meaning in self worth. If they eat less than 200g of carbs, they know they may not sleep as well. They aren't worthless if they eat 275g of carbs. They just know they may not feel 100%. When they're eating intuitively and they have consistently poor sleep, they can assume they're likely not eating enough carbs and can add some extra rice or snacks throughout the day. No worth is tied to this. It's all just data points.
When you've mastered most of this and about to put things into reality, start first weaning off tracking. I usually recommend you start by going through a day without tracking and logging your food at the end of the day to see how you did. Usually I recommend starting with a one day on, one day off approach. Practice one day and go back to a tracked/logged day. Practice the next day and the following day will be another planned day. IF you're not great at intuitive eating yet, too many "wrong" days in a row could affect you either mentally or physically. It will also give you more side by side comparisons to your biofeedback's response. As you get better at eating intuitively on those off days and you couldn't tell a difference between an intuitive day or a planned day, start increasing the number of intuitive days and decreasing the number of planned days.
Most importantly, know that you can always go back to tracking. I love eating intuitively, but sometimes I need a bit more structure. During really busy times, I tend to forget to eat and go most of the day without eating...which makes my workouts suck, gives me headaches, and causes a hunger than can't be satisfied. Usually I'll make it through 4-6 months of intuitive eating, then just go back in and check in with my macros and log for a month or so until I feel ready to return to intuitive eating.