Letting Go: What is Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive eating has gained a lot of attention in the past few years. “Intuitive” has even become a buzzword in diet culture (ex. intuitive fasting – can we see the irony in this?). A common question I hear in my practice is: What is intuitive eating and what does it mean for my health?

What is intuitive eating?

So let’s dive into it. Have you ever heard (or even thought yourself) “If I was to intuitively eat I would be eating nothing but ice cream” or “Intuitive eating seems like an excuse to eat whatever you want”. These thoughts are a big reason why so many people fear that if they try to eat intuitively, they’ll get out of control with food. But, impulsive eating is not intuitive eating. Rachel Hartley said it best: “With intuitive eating, you do have the permission to eat whatever you want, when you want. But, the keyword here is permission. Intuitive eating also helps you build skills and connect to your body to help make intentional choices with food rather than impulsive ones.” Intuitive eating is rooted in listening to your body but also teaches you to listen to your brain – a brain that isn’t filled with diet culture’s nonsense about food and eating.

We are born intuitive eaters. We have the instinct to know when we are hungry and how much we need to eat. I often use the analogy of babies feeding when giving an example of intuitive eaters. They cry when they are hungry and stop eating/nursing when they are full. There are no rules as to how they should be eating or how much. There are no external factors to tell them there is morality to food and the “type of person” they are if they eat one way or another. There are no “right” portions nor are there good or bad foods. It’s just babies listening to their body’s wisdom and their cues to help them stay alive.

We tend to move away from intuitive eating as we grow.

But, somewhere along the way into adulthood, we learn to stop trusting our bodies. We learn that food is the enemy and we should overcome our biological needs to conquer it. We disconnect from our bodies and eat based on rules, calorie counting, trendy diets, and fear. The fear that we as humans do not know how to eat despite centuries of doing so. We forget the essential need for food and the purpose of our hunger and fullness cues for our survival. We forget the wisdom our bodies have that we once trusted.

When discussing this with clients, I compare it to the need to go pee. You feel it coming on, you know why your body needs to go and that you should go soon, then you get up and go to the bathroom. We do not ignore it and hope it’ll go away. And, we don’t try to convince ourselves that peeing is unnecessary and you can only do it in a set time frame with a set of rules on how it should happen. So, why do we treat food this way?

How body knowledge affects our eating habits

Body knowledge consists of hunger and fullness cues, food preferences, cravings, and how food makes you feel. It’s the information you get by listening to your body and understanding what it’s trying to tell you. Body knowledge is often tainted by diet culture and the fear that if we listened to our body, we would lose control of it. Our bodies are still those wise bodies that we once trusted, we have just forgotten how to listen.

Check in with your body, what is it telling you? Do you need a snack? A hug? A walk? A break from work? Fuzzy socks for cold feet? I try to check in with my body between transitions in my day but you can also set reminders on your phone to check in. Like any good relationship, it takes both sides to listen and respond to each other to be maintained.

How brain knowledge affects our eating and nutrition

Brain knowledge is using what you know to be true about nutrition, not all of the mumbo jumbo diet culture has taught you. Intuitive eating helps you unlearn all of the inaccurate, overblown, and unhelpful information that creates stress around food and replaces it with information about nutrition and food that is useful.

A quote I love from Christine Byrne states “Intuitive eating isn’t about erasing nutrition science. It’s about erasing all of the guilt, shame, obsession, food morality, anti-fatness, and disordered eating behavior that nutrition science (and nutrition scientists) have played a part in perpetuating.” Brain knowledge also includes ethical beliefs, medical conditions, timing, and availability.

Examples of using combined brain and body knowledge include:

  • You are craving noodles but you have Celiac disease and you know your body does not respond well to gluten. So, you choose to have rice instead.

  • You choose to have black bean burgers on occasion instead of beef burgers (which you enjoy) because you are trying to cut back on animal proteins for environmental reasons.

  • You eat past fullness because you know you have back-to-back classes and it will be a while before you eat again.

  • You don’t eat as much as you wanted because you have yoga and you don’t feel good being in a headstand with a full belly.

  • You want mac and cheese but you choose to have whole grains and veggies because you haven’t pooped in a few days and you know your body could use the fiber.

  • You eat even when you are not hungry because you are recovering from an eating disorder and know that you need to establish a consistent eating pattern and the hunger/fullness cues are not reliable yet.

* Note that these are just examples based on hypothetical situations and not choices you should be making. The idea is you learn to reconnect with your body and regain your confidence as the expert on your body and its needs.

To sum it up, intuitive eating is a way to connect the brain and body to regain the confidence lost to fear created by diet culture. People often misunderstand intuitive eating to be “letting themselves go”. However, what you are really letting go of is a culture of toxic misinformation, self-hate, and distrust against our biology. If you’re new to intuitive eating, I hope reading this is helpful for you in understanding the possibilities that come with cultivating a practice. Remember, your brain is part of your body. As long as it’s thinking independently of diet culture, it can be trusted!


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