Have you ever said those two, little words: “I’m fine” when there was a whole bunch else beneath the surface? I’m guilty. The reality is, sometimes it’s the simplest phrases that harbor some of the more complex ideas and feelings. Intuitive Eating, or mindful eating as it’s sometimes called, is one of those phrases. Defining intuitive eating is easy enough – a style of eating that relies on your intuition AKA your hunger cues of when to start and stop. That’s intuitive eating at its core, but leaving it at that is like leaving a complicated conversation with “I’m fine.” There’s a lot more to be said and we’ve got to get it out in the open before deciding whether or not intuitive eating is the right choice for us.
First Order of Business: Identify Your Starting Point
Those of you who have been readers for awhile know that I am a huge fan of intuitive eating. I will always maintain that IE is the best way to establish a healthy and happy relationship with food – for anyone. BUT (and this is a big ‘ol butt) while intuitive eating is undeniable for everyone, it is not in everyone’s best interest at the same time. Let’s unpack that a bit. When it comes to intuitive eating, you have to be ready for it. We can think about IE as an end game – the finish line so to speak. In order to get there, you have to figure out where your starting point is, and use that to map out your journey towards food freedom. The next sections will cover three types of transitions into intuitive eating, and when they are appropriate.
The Disordered Eater’s Path to Intuitive Eating (Extreme)
People who know me today, and how I feel about counting calories or tracking macros, are often surprised to learn that my recovery from anorexia and orthorexia did not begin with intuitive eating. In fact, the beginning months of my recovery focused heavily on counting calories. There’s a few reasons for this.
Intuitive Eating is all about trusting your hunger cues and honoring your cravings. If you’ve been a disordered eater for an extended amount of time, it’s likely that your body has lost touch with its natural hunger cues due to them being replaced with self imposed “food rules” for so long. Don’t worry, this isn’t a death sentence and it is entirely possible to re-establish those hunger cues and transition into IE. And doing so is important, but for some disordered eaters, there are priorities that can and should take precedence over re-discovering hunger cues. For example, meal plans (AKA counting calories and meeting specific calorie goals) should be followed instead of your body’s cues (AKA intuitive eating) when:
- Your doctor or dietician has instructed you to meet specific calorie goals
- The risk of continuing to lose weight (or maintain a dangerously low weight) is putting your life at risk
- see HERE for help coping with weight gain
- You rarely feel hungry
- You have a tendency to overestimate serving sizes, snacks, and meals (AKA eat less because your perception is that it is too much)
It’s important to note that diagnosis does not factor into my definition of an extremely disordered eater. If you have not been diagnosed with an eating disorder, but identify with the above characteristics, then a meal plan and calorie goals may be a better choice for you than intuitive eating at this point in time. For the extremely disordered eater, counting calories may be necessary to heal and protect your physical health. IE will always be there to help heal your mental health and help you establish a healthy relationship with food after the fact.
The Disordered Eater’s Path to Intuitive Eating (Non-Extreme)
As we know, recovery from an eating disorder progresses in a variety of different stages. Your recovery will not be identical to mine nor will your recovery in June even be identical to your own recovery in July. The non-extreme disordered eater differs from the extreme disordered eater not in terms of diagnosis but in his or her time spent in recovery and the various recovery milestones he or she has reached. For example, characteristics of the non-extreme disordered eater may include:
- Having reached a healthy, stable, and safe weight physically but still battling with disordered habits mentally
- In the process of challenging fear foods, but still struggling to deviate from safe foods on a regular basis
- Eating enough calories, but having most of his or her intake as a night snack instead of eating normally throughout the day
- Still very dependent on calorie counting or macro tracking apps
- see HERE for 5 Tips to Quit Counting Calories for Good
- Not practicing severe restriction or binge / purge cycles, but still consumed by thoughts of food or poor body image
At this point in your recovery, intuitive eating is a great way to take the next step and really focus in on establishing a healthy and effortless relationship with food. Now is the time to learn how to quit counting calories, re-learn how to recognize hunger cues, and practice honoring cravings without letting them lead to binges. My IE cheat sheet – which you can download for free by clicking on any of the pink buttons above or below – spells out 9 of the biggest principles of intuitive eating, and how to apply them in your own life. When you start working them into your meal and snack times, you’ll slowly start to feel less anxious around food and more at peace with how it affects your body. When I say that intuitive eating saved me, I really mean it.
Intuitive eating for me is Ben & Jerry’s, fried rice, pizza, salmon + veggies, chicken salad, AND pasta. It’s beautiful balance.
The Dieters Path to Intuitive Eating
Now hold on a second, what if you’ve stumbled onto this post and you don’t fall into the eating disorder category. What if you’re just someone who is fed the f*** up with dieting, and looking for a way to feel at peace around food? Maybe you’re even someone on a weight loss journey, and feeling discouraged. Granted, I rarely speak about weight loss in this community, but this is one of those times when it’s appropriate. Because whether its in your best interest to gain weight or lose it, intuitive eating has got your back. With regards to weight loss, intuitive eating is more effective than dieting because:
- its principles show you how to eat from a place of self love not self hatred
- no foods are off limits (and you’ll never feel as though they should be)
- diets are man-made solutions to an evolutionary reaction (storing fat) whereas IE is your body’s natural solution to storing excess fat and weight
Unlike 99% of diets out there, the goal of IE isn’t to be a certain size, it’s to be happy and comfortable at your healthy set point. So while weight loss can be an outcome of intuitive eating, it’s not the most exciting or even enjoyable one by a long shot. Why do people diet? Mainly, to feel better about their bodies and more confident. Intuitive eating helps you separate self esteem and body image from the act of eating, allowing you to both love your shape and work towards making it healthy as can be simultaneously. To learn more about weight loss and intuitive eating, I recommend the books Intuitive Eating & Health at Every Size.
Intuitive Eating Myths
Sometimes I hear people scoff at the idea of IE as an excuse to take poor care of your health, or a cop out to eat whatever you want. This is only half true. Honestly, intuitive eating does allow you to eat whatever you want – and it’s frickin great. But not at the cost of your health (physical or otherwise). When you practice honoring your cravings and teach your body that restriction is no longer habit, your body responds by demanding less at a time to reach satisfaction. Will there still be times when you overeat? Yes. You are human. The difference being that IE allows you to frame that instance of overeating as an isolated event, rather than something to pay penance for and trigger a never ending restriction / binge cycle.
If you’re ready to see what a healthy and free relationship with food looks like. What enjoying rather than dreading the donuts that your co-worker brought feels like. What balance means – you’re ready for intuitive eating.
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