Intuitive eating seems to be gaining a lot of traction in the health and fitness realm, which is great! However, there is also a sufficient amount of confusion regarding the concept, as everyone defines it differently.
Some also discount it completely, as it’s not black and white, but the hard-core, rigid dieting rules are the reason so many of us find ourselves in the bottom of the dieting rabbit hole to begin with. These camps lead you to believe that intuitive eating will lead to binging 24/7 and that it's impossible to develop a relationship with our bodies based on awareness and trust.
The overarching premise behind intuitive eating is that we eat in accordance with our bodies’ signals, in addition to the added layers of preference, lifestyle, activities, and goals.
Solely eating according to our bodies signals can create additional spirals of guilt and shame, as there are times when we simply want to eat and drink for pleasure. The dessert after dinner? Definitely not hungry, but we choose to enjoy some.
The extra glass of wine? Our bodies aren’t necessarily asking for it - our brains and emotions are. And these reasons are just as valid in the right context.
So if we’re supposed listen to our bodies, but we’re also free to listen to our emotions and thoughts, then how do we go about this, exactly? I completely understand the confusion.
How to get started
1. First, we need to understand that this process takes time, as there isn’t one blueprint that everyone can follow. This means we can’t just look to Instagram or our friends to see how we should be eating—the onus is on us to learn what’s best for our bodies. Trial and error while practicing awareness is an absolute requirement as we unlearn the rules we’ve been given. Viewing this as a quick fix is a sure way to see the practice as a failure.
2. Begin assessing your body’s feedback to understand what it likes and dislikes, and evaluate how it aligns with your actual taste preferences. For example, my taste buds love cheese and ice cream, but the rest of my body is not a fan in the least. Can I choose to eat dairy? Absolutely, and there are times I do, but I don’t make a habit of it. That would akin to hearing my body speak and essentially telling it to f*ck off. Not exactly the way to lay a foundation of trust, eh?
We can assess whether our bodies are jiving with said foods by taking inventory of changes in our skin, digestion, hormones, athletic performance, brain fog, and emotions.
3. Become acquainted with your hunger and satiety signals (full post on how to do so here). I can’t emphasize how important this aspect is to the process. This isn’t to say that you’re unable choose to consciously override these signals. The key here is being aware enough to choose. However, you do need to become very familiar with what these signals feel like for you.
If you’re coming from any kind of dieting background, ignoring hunger signals is usually the element that needs the most attention. The more you give yourself permission to eat, the more hunger you’ll feel. Trust is essential here.
I’m a former member of the “clean your plate club” while simultaneously waiting until I felt like I was going to faint before eating, so I fully understand how uncomfortable and difficult this can be in the beginning. Over time you’ll be able to better understand what levels of hunger and satiety feel best for you, and you can adjust your food choices accordingly.
Why is this important? In order to accurately assess our hunger and satiety stages, we must practice awareness, and awareness lays the foundation of this entire practice. Additionally, becoming familiar with these cues is the gateway to understanding feedback from our bodies after ignoring them for so long, and it's an excellent trust builder.
4. Awareness of why you make the choices you do. This is closely tied to point number three, as when we really pay attention to the times we eat when we’re not hungry, eat beyond satisfaction, intentionally under-eat, or ignore our hunger signals, we’re forced to face the potential discomfort of why we’re doing it.
Boredom, distraction, numbing, fear of eating full meals (we subsequently snack all the time), and feelings of unworthiness are common reasons, in addition to pleasure, connection with others, fuel for activities, and experiencing different cultures. As you can see, motivations can run the gamut, and confronting them isn't always easy. This step absolutely cannot be skipped, and while it can be uncomfortable, we’re better off for it.
5. Assess how foods affect your athletic endeavors. I love to partake in strength training and crossfit, both of which require carbohydrates as the preferred fuel source. Through quite a bit of trial and error (another reason a coach is helpful—so you don’t have to endure that part for as long as I did!), I realized that my body needs upwards of 150g of carbs per day to feel happy and content (estimate, as I don’t track). This is my minimum on most days, as I feel better eating more than this when I’m crossfitting frequently.
I learned this lesson the hard way after listening to the latest diet craze in lieu of listening to my body. Please don’t do that! Pay attention to how your body feels during and after workouts, including sleep, and make adjustments to your food choices and intake accordingly. Changes may include more food before a workout, eating more or less of a macronutrient before working out (more carbs for me, always), and/or eating more food in general.
Our bodies don’t know that we’re about to participate in a difficult workout, so don’t expect it to magically appear with hunger signals and cravings right before (as I did). This is where deviation from our hunger signals is absolutely warranted and encouraged. Although, I want to be clear that you can choose to override your hunger and satiety signals at any point, with the preference being that it's conscious.
6. Become familiar with what is worth it to you. This is what I consider to be the final step, as we can’t make a proper evaluation of what foods and drink are worth it to us if we haven’t completed the steps above. We must first incur sufficient trial and error to understand if under or overeating, not sleeping, screwing up our hormones or digestion, numbing or distracting, and performing better or worse in our physical pursuits is worth it to us when we’re evaluating the choices in front of us.
Some examples: I usually find two glasses of wine to be worth it, but a third isn’t on most days. Is it worth it to eat when I’m not hungry before a workout so that I’m able to perform better? Absolutely. Is a slice of pizza or bowl of ice cream worth the digestive distress I’ll experience later? Sometimes—depends on the company I’m with and how special the food is. I’m not going to put myself through that level of discomfort for some basic, run of the mill foods, you know?
As you can see, the concept of intuitive eating requires time and effort, most notably in the beginning, and it most certainly necessitates a high level of awareness. This leads to many people’s eyes glazing over, as they don’t want to make that investment.
Being told what, how, and when to eat removes much of the burden, and I fully understand the appeal. Not only does it allow us to turn our brains off, but we also believe this method will lead to clearly defined results.
But play that out in the long run—where does that path lead you over the next 5-10 years? Chances are, you see yourself desperately clinging to another plan, still lacking any semblance of trust in your choices and your body.
Through the practice of intuitive eating, we’re able to finally join the same team as our bodies, we’re empowered to trust in the signals we receive and our subsequent choices, and we’re able to make room for the shit that really matters in life.
Are you ready?
Email me for more information on one-on-one coaching to get started!