A relatively new term for a millennia-spanning concept, intuitive eating can be described as a philosophy regarding nutrition that uses the body’s natural hunger and fullness cues and cravings to guide a person’s food choices. If you’re thinking Ha! If I did that I’d eat nothing but pasta and cake all day… I encourage you to read on and keep an open mind while I tell you a bit about the thing that has made me the healthiest and happiest I’ve ever been.
I’ll preface this discussion by admitting it’s hard for me to frame this appropriately. I say that because I’m incredibly passionate about food as medicine, and I believe many cases of chronic disease are preventable and can be attributed in part to nutrition. It’s crucial America moves away from the SAD (standard American diet) and eats more real food, so what I’m talking about here isn’t in contrast to that. However, as I’ve moved through this journey on my own and heard stories of other women I’ve come to realize the ridiculous amount of time women (and men!) spend analyzing every piece of food they eat, tracking the calories in MyFitnessPal, sitting with food guilt, or staying on the treadmill longer because God forbid they had a cookie at work. Consider the things you could do with that time if you were somehow able to break free from diet culture. Perhaps if you weren’t on a diet, you wouldn’t have wanted the cookie. I am certain that diet mentality is ruining the joy and value of food for the majority of people.
I definitely thought it was impossible for someone like me, who for many years felt obligated to diet, to eat ice cream guilt-free or to trust that my cravings told me what my body actually needed. I spent most daylight hours of my life suppressing cravings and then giving into them plus more after 8pm. This endless cycle left me wondering, do I just not have the will power it takes to control my food? Why can’t I just stick to foods I know are healthy? With experience, I can now say it was because I had told myself those foods weren’t “allowed,” and as much as my stubborn ass hates to admit it, my body is way smarter than me!
If you think in evolutionary terms, the only reason we’d think “I can’t eat this” was that it was going out of season, or our living community was moving to a new area and would walk for days, or a famine was coming. At that time, it was crucial for the body to develop mechanisms that ensured humans were eating PLENTY of food while it was available. When we give ourselves external restrictions, our bodies see it the same way. They’re scared that they won’t ever have that source of energy again, so if it’s in our freezer, or we can go pick it up at the store, you mind is gonna tell you to do just that! This may leave you feeling weak, disappointed, like you failed. It’s actually a pretty remarkable, awesome thing that our bodies do this. They take care of us.
Intuitive eating provides a means to an end of the cycle. There’s definitely a transitional period, though. I had to really let go, question my thoughts, and rewire some parts of my brain to experience success. It requires that you let go of food rules and trust your body to tell you what it needs. I know this sounds really woo-woo, but I’m an evidence-based pharmacy student, so stay with me here! Your body’s number one purpose is to stay alive and thrive. If you’re not getting enough fats in your meals, for example, perhaps you’ll crave nuts or butter. If you’re lacking Vitamin K, perhaps you’ll find yourself wanting a leafy salad for lunch. Your body possesses an innate wisdom that you can tap into to thrive, enjoy food, and live a healthful life. Intuitive eating teaches you to work as a partner with your body, instead of depriving it and forcing it to fit into whatever mold you’ve been told is appropriate.
Our ancestors who were extremely healthy didn’t think about if their well-being depended on going vegan, avoiding gluten, or doing Whole 30 for the new year. They ate real, traditional foods when they were hungry, and that was pretty much as picky as they got. Stress brought about by being hyper-concerned with losing weight is much more harmful to your body than eating the pizza you’ve been craving for two weeks. I promise.
As I write this, I’m realizing I will probably have endless posts regarding this topic as I learn more and find better ways to deliver advice. For now, I have some steps to get you on the path to intuitive eating.
- Throw away your freaking scale!!!
I can’t stress how important this is. Whether you call it a diet or a “lifestyle” if you tell yourself you can’t have certain foods, I’d bet money you’re hoping to lose weight. Again, your body is smarter than you, and weight is at the very bottom of the list I’d use to evaluate health. It’s not a good indicator of your health and will likely make you more frustrated than anything.
- Ease up on the meal prep if the structure is too rigid.
I do my fair share of food prep each week, but I discovered I hate having the same exact meals every single day. I mean seriously, where’s the fun in that?! Try instead, preparing some meal components in advance, but not the whole meal. For example, I love pasta-like bowls of something starchy with a meat, sauce, and veggies. So I might prep some Banza chickpea noodles and sweet potato gnocchi, along with a sirloin and ground turkey, and mix them throughout the week with broccoli and/or tomatoes and/or spinach. While the meals are similar, the flavor options are expansive so I never get sick of it or feel tied down. And I still save time by having the ingredients ready-to-go.
- Forget about the calories.
The calorie fear women have deserves several discussions alone, but relative to this topic I’ll keep it short and sweet. They don’t matter. If you have a good relationship with eating and consume nutrient-dense food on the regular, your body will tell you when you’ve had enough. This is the common theme of this post, but I’ll say it again. Your body is smart! And complex. There is so much more to appreciate about your body than the numbers you put into it.
- Get acquainted with new foods.
So often, Americans are so deep into diet mentality that they forget they love things other than chicken breast and broccoli. Step outside of your comfort zone and try vegetables and dishes that you haven’t tasted in a while. Variety is great for ensuring you’re getting an array of nutrients, and it makes eating more enjoyable. This is also the case for those on the opposite end, eating the SAD, who may not even realize how delicious real food can be. Pro tip if you’re new to vegetables: don’t let anyone tell you that your spinach isn’t healthy anymore if you cooked it with some cream and butter! If you cook it in a way you dislike, you’ll never eat it again.
- Acknowledge your feelings, then let them go.
If you do a great job ignoring your food anxiety but maybe went for seconds at dinner one too many times and now you’re feeling guilty, don’t ignore it. Keep a journal where you can write “I honored my hunger at dinner tonight. I’m really physically full now which doesn’t feel great, but I had great conversation with my family and the food was delicious. So it’s OK.” Then, move on! Your cravings and hunger will eventually balance out to what’s right for you, but be gentle and patient in the meantime.
- Submerge yourself in normal eating culture instead of diet culture.
Don’t partake in the talks with friends about body-hating or dieting or having to workout because you had dessert last night. I highly recommend the podcast that kind of introduced me to the actual phrase “intuitive eating” called the Nourishing Women Podcast. It’s free and available on iTunes as well as their website which is linked in the name above. The podcast features two registered dieticians that debunk the diet mentality and promote health without obsession. And they’re amazing.
- Enjoy all the foods!!
Nourish yourself with the foods that are packed with nutrients and vitamins that you actually enjoy, and feel free to indulge when your body says it wants to. Eventually, you might realize you don’t even like the foods that have been holding control and guilt over you for so long. For example, I’m not a big donut person. Once upon a time I would’ve had 3 in one sitting if I had the chance and the privacy, but now they are not even enticing to me because I know that I’d give myself permission to have one if I ever wanted to. It turns out that the restriction is what makes a lot of food seem so irresistible.
I just want to reiterate again, this is not me saying that low-quality, processed food has a place at every meal by any means. I am, however, concerned with the mental and physical health of American women, young and old, who feel exhausted from trying to figure out why they’re not happy or not losing weight. If you can navigate intuitive eating, you will find yourself craving real food, because that’s what your body ultimately wants when it’s in a balanced place.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. This topic is one that is near and dear to my heart, and I have so much more to say about it! I love chatting about it so please reach out to me if you want to learn more or just want someone to talk to and share the struggles you’re facing with this stuff right now.