As I'm sure you know, everyone has a different definition of intuitive eating. Some believe it’s a general framework for each individual based on previous experience with tracking food or eating in a structured way (i.e. taking what we learn and applying it in a less rigid way), while others are against any form of structure whatsoever and believe our bodies and inclination towards pleasure (social and otherwise) should be our guide.
As per usual, I fall somewhere in the middle and believe that some structure can be really beneficial in the right context. You may benefit from structure if you:
- Have a history of restrictive eating: some women may actually be prone to undereating based on their history with dieting, especially if they gravitate towards a diet comprised of mostly whole foods that involve high levels of satiety. Tracking food intake can ensure you’re actually eating enough.
- Participate in intense or goal-oriented physical activity: Not being mindful of food choices when participating in intense activity, such as crossfit, can be really detrimental to our bodies (hello, fucked up hormones), and this can be done innocently. Leveraging evidence-based approaches to nutrition to support our bodies through athletic endeavors is something to be mindful of. Additionally, this structure can allow us to actually improve upon our sport!
- Are busy AF, as most of us are. This is a huge reason why I use structure when it comes to my own eating habits a lot of the time. I don’t have the luxury of cooking a fresh meal based on my cravings of the moment, so I utilize an eating framework specific to my needs and preferences that is quite flexible. This also enables us to spend a lot less time thinking about food in general.
- Have aesthetic goals: I’m not opposed to aesthetic goals, provided they’re coming from a place of calm, acceptance, and detachment from our value as human beings, and following some structure to ensure we’re pursuing our goals in a healthy and sustainable way is important.
With this context in mind, you may feel that eating with some structure is right for you—keeping in mind that this is outside of the general recommendation of honoring hunger and satiety signals most of the time.
We all know how difficult it can be to navigate the world of food after years of yo-yo dieting and sensationalistic rules about what’s “good” and “bad”.
You’re now able to choose for yourself, which can seem overwhelming, intimidating, and frustrating at times.
You may not know what questions to be asking yourself when developing your own personalized structure, so these tools are to be used as a guide when getting to know yourself and your body, in addition to the foundational principles of intuitive eating.
Five Tools to Build Your Personalized Eating Framework
1. Point of Diminishing Returns
We all know the feeling of taking the first few bites of something delicious, only to have the satisfaction diminish as the meal goes on. If you’re used to eating everything on your plate, regardless of the portion size, ask yourself how much you’re truly enjoying the food every few bites.
Is it still appetizing to you, or are you zoned out and mindlessly finishing everything in front of you? The more we eat, the less enjoyable food often becomes, so ask yourself if continuing to eat is worth it to you based on your pleasure in the moment, your body’s signals, and your goals.
It’s completely acceptable (and possible) to have a few bites of something and move on with some practice.
This occurs more quickly with bland, whole foods (unseasoned, limited cooking fats, lack of sweetness) and the inverse is true with highly palatable foods with high amounts of salt, sugar, and fat—neither of which are better or worse than the other. The key is to be mindful of the fact that foods in the latter category are going to require a greater degree of mindfulness.
Furthermore, those foods are usually calorically dense, so even a few bites can make a difference.
2. Enjoyment Gap
This was really enlightening to me after being on the low-carb diet train for so many years. I never stopped to ask myself if the copious amounts of fat were necessary for me to feel satisfied, let alone if my body responded well to them.
The premise of this tool is assessing whether we’re just as satisfied with a less calorically dense option as the high calorie option.
For example, I feel just as satisfied with chicken thigh or ground bison as I do with a ribeye or shredded pork (lower fat vs. high fat options), but I don’t find cauliflower rice to be a suitable substitute for white rice in most cases. It’s not worth the decreased number of calories, as I won’t be satisfied with my choice.
There isn’t a right or wrong way to make these decisions, and I encourage you to challenge what you think you know to be true about your preferences. You may be surprised by how heavily influenced you are from your former diet days!
3. Discretionary Calories
By having a simple, yet flexible structure on which we base many of our meals, such as including a serving of protein, carb, and vegetable in each meal to meet our fiber and micronutrient needs, we can then play around with the other food choices to fill in the rest of our caloric needs.
This may sound similar to “If it fits your macros”, where you can eat whatever you want as long as the total number of each macronutrient (fat, protein, carb) is within a target range each day, but there isn’t any counting involved here.
Additionally, I’m not advocating that you fill your day with foods that are devoid of nutritional value. This is where that whole concept of balance comes into play.
It’s simply a matter of ensuring you’re structuring most of your meals in a way that support your physiological needs, while also including foods that aren’t nutritious yet you really enjoy, such as ice cream, lattes, dessert, dark chocolate (holler).
For me, discretionary calories usually include chocolate, red wine or tequila, tortilla chips, and snack bars.
I know the big bases are covered with my staple meals due to the high protein and fiber content, and I enjoy the rest while staying mindful of the appropriate amount for me. This requires some trial and error as you get to know your true preferences and cravings.
4. Is it Worth It?
Ask yourself how much enjoyment you’re really going to get from the food and drink in front of you when you know it doesn’t support your body physically or any goals you may have.
The extra glass of wine may be worth it due to the amazing taste or the quality time you’re spending with family or friends despite a potential hangover, and other times, you may be at a miserable social gathering and don’t believe the hangover the next day will be remotely worth it.
Can you find a middle ground, where you’re enjoying yourself and are participating without going overboard?
You may want to pass on the cake in front of you, as it’s a stale, run-of-the-mill cake that you can get any day of the week, and you wouldn’t even be thinking about it unless it was right in front of you.
Alternatively, your grandma may have baked her famous cake for a birthday, and you’re going to relish in the special nature of it.
Not all experiences with food are created equally, and we owe it to ourselves to determine which ones are worth it to us.
5. Allow Ebb and Flow
This may seem contrary to everything I’ve written thus far, as these are tools for creating structure (albeit loosely), but I also firmly believe in the “intuitive” aspect of this way of eating.
Allow preferences to change, and always honor feedback from your own body. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
Furthermore, our lifestyles and preferences are always changing, so it can be to our detriment to hold firmly to this loose structure. After all, we’re trying to get away from rigidity, so don’t use this as an excuse to slip back into old patterns.
In fact, I would say that if the thought of using any form of remotely structured eating gives you a sense of anxiety or mistrust in your body, then don’t use it. You can always give this a go at another time if you feel inclines.
Allow your body and mind the time away from any thoughts about food and simply eat in a way that you enjoy.
These tools are essentially methods of checking in with ourselves to determine what our preferences are in the short and long-term. It takes time to navigate the appropriate answers for ourselves, and they may change frequently as our lifestyle and preferences do.
Years ago, the extra alcoholic beverage was always worth it, but it rarely is today.
I seldom partake in dessert at the office, as there isn’t anything special in taste or meaning the majority of the time. They’re not worth the caloric allotment, and I don’t feel as though I’m missing out on anything either.
The freshly baked chocolate chip cookies that I make with my cousins during Thanksgiving? Worth it 9 times out of 10.
The choices are always yours, and there isn’t a wrong way to do this, as your eating framework is created for you, by you.
Take it one decision, one meal, snack, drink at a time, and commit yourself to learning about yourself and your body.
It requires a larger investment upfront when comparing to rigid diet rules and meal templates, as you have to make your own decisions and learn slowly over time, but you'll thank yourself in a year.
And don't forget to have some fun with it!