What is Intuitive Eating, Really?

For the better half of the last two years, I have referred to myself as an intuitive eater. And yet, for the first time in a very long time, with a brand new fitness routine that coincided with a brand new outlook on nutrition, I feel an ah-ha moment, like I am finally on the path to practicing the principle.

Intuitive eating. It’s a term that continues to grow in popularity among the health and wellness sphere, and a term I used leading up to this point to describe a method of eating that did not involve tracking caloric or macronutrient intake. I was an “intuitive eater” who attributed morality to certain foods, ate ravenously and mindlessly, and didn’t fully understand my body’s physical response to food. But I didn’t restrict, track, or count. I was intuitive, right?

Not quite.

When you hear the term intuitive eating, you might think of not counting calories, food freedom, and eating without restriction. And sure, these things are well and true and have their respective places within the practice. But just as intuitive eating isn’t guided by rules, it also isn’t eating whatever-whenever-just-’cause, with no rhyme or reason. It’s way deeper than that, it’s biological.

So, what is intuitive eating, really?

Intuitive eating, a term coined by Evelyn Tribole, RD, and Elyse Resch, RDN, is a nutrition philosophy proposing the negation of externally imposed dietary regimens in favor of following the guidance of the body’s internal cues.

Intuitive choices are informed by an individual’s physical, mental, and emotional responses to food. That, and only that.

There’s an all too often dialogue that goes something like this, “I was good all week, I deserve it.” Which translates too, “I ate salad every day for lunch this week, salad is good, which makes my choice good, which makes me good, which justifies the fact that I feel like eating a donut, which is a bad food, which in turn dirties my morality.”

If this dialogue was moderated by intuitive eating, it would sound more like this, “I am choosing to eat this salad because I am hungry, the macronutrient profile supports my energy levels in the afternoon, and the flavor profile caters to my preferences.”

Intuitive eating is nothing new, but it’s gotten farther and farther out of touch, until our internal and external conversations more commonly resemble my first example than my second.

We are born intuitive eaters.

As babies, we cry when we are hungry and we eat until we are full – the cycle continues. Food is our physical, mental, and emotional fuel, and we allow it to function as such without judgement or consciousness.

Then…

We become children who are told to “finish our plates,” who are offered dessert as a reward and denied it as a punishment, who are told to eat our vegetables before our sweets.

We grow into demographic segments who are bombarded by media, with physical “beauty” standards infused into our thoughts through all of our impressionable senses, from lyrics, to commercials, to movies.

We observe our peers banter about body image. We watch our families start and stop diets. We learn to notice, and dislike, and avoid our reflection.

We become consumers, faced with purchasing decisions, who are inundated with marketing, branding, taglines, and buzzwords that implore us to blindly attribute morality, health halos, guilt, and innocence to foods.

We restrict ourselves to half portions on Mondays to make up for bingeing on food and alcohol from Friday through Sunday.

We exercise because we believe it earns us food that doesn’t serve us nutritionally. We sweat on the elliptical and calculate as the caloric output erases our breakfast, snacks, lunch, and dinner.

We eat because we are bored, lonely, or stressed, and look for food to fill emotional needs.

We become so uncomfortable and out-of-tune with our bodies that we merely resemble shells of ourselves.

We follow a nutrition plan, meal by meal, day by day, week by week. We eat from “approved” food groups. We finish our plates when they are empty, not when they are full. We eat when we are told, not when we are hungry.

No matter if we consider ourselves to be “healthy” eaters or not, we find ourselves eating according to external instruction, not internal guidance. And that is problematic.

But we can, in fact, get back to basics. Despite living in a world saturated with opinion and influence, we can re-learn how to rely on our own personal intuition. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a never-ending, on-going process that takes continual practice and reinforcement. But dang, when you start connecting to your body on that biological level, some sort of magic happens, baby.

Where to start? I’m glad you asked…

Like I wrote earlier, intuitive eating isn’t a random act, it’s a strategic and selective philosophy outlined by 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating. I’m going to walk type you through what they mean to me, and share some Al-ecdotes 😉 along the way:

  1. Reject the Diet Mentality
    Let go of eating within rules and restrictions. Silence false promises and generalized results. Reject external influence. Forget food as a fix, solution, or means to an end, and embrace it as a physical fuel source with social and emotional benefits.
  2. Honor your Hunger
    Pay attention to your body’s unique hunger cues (from minor stomach rumbling to extreme lack of focus or light headedness), trust them, and honor them with informed decisions. So, you realize you are hungry. That’s great! This is just another instruction from your body (as biological as breathing and using the restroom). Instead of shaming it, acknowledge and analyze it. Do you need a meal or a snack? Do you need to eat within an hour or within 5 minutes. What are you craving? Often times, when we ignore hunger cues, we lead ourselves into a series of less than desirable side effects that range from irritability, to low energy, to over-eating.

    Here’s an example of an internal dialogue that dishonors hunger: “Oh no, my stomach is rumbling already [eyeroll]. I shouldn’t be hungry this soon. What did I do wrong? Maybe I’m just thirsty. That’s it. I’ll chug some water and push this feeling off.” Here’s an example of an internal dialogue that honors hunger: “My stomach just rumbled. I’m getting hungry. Based on how I feel today, I’ll have a snack complete with protein, carbs, and fat within the next 30 minutes to satisfy my needs.”

  3. Make Peace with Food
    Food is not good or bad, it does not contain morality. Food, from kale to cake, simply contains a nutrient profile of carbs, protein, and fat. Sure, some foods are more nutrient-dense than others, they will affect your body in different ways, but they are all nutrients in the end. When we assign morality to food, we transpose it upon ourselves, concluding that we are inherently good or bad because a food we ate was good or bad. We listen to how food makes us “feel” from a sense of guilt or pride, but we silence how food actually makes us feel from digestion, to mental clarity, to energy levels and taste.

    Enter me, and cheese… Pre-2016, my consumption of cheese was reckless and in excess. I could not have cheese in the refrigerator without constantly thinking about its presence. True story, I ate minimum 1 lb of American Cheese per week, and that’s not including the additional shakes of parmesan on my pasta or melted mozzarella on my pizza. Then, in 2016, I joined the Tone It Up nutrition plan in what I consider the official start of my fitness journey. Between 2016-2018, I could count the number of times I ate cheese on one hand because it was not part of my “approved” food groups, and so I believed it was bad, and the sole contributor to my lack of satisfaction in my previous performance and appearance. I believed that if I ate cheese, I would return to the former version of myself I had worked so hard to escape. I found myself purchasing cheese substitutes full of artificial ingredients that didn’t align with my food philosophy. In 2018, with the help of research, science, and honestly, a CrossFit mindset, I realized that cheese is simply protein, carbs, and fat, and that it can play an excellent role in helping me to meet my daily nutritional needs, and also that it’s freakin’ delicious. Today, literally at this moment, I have a whole block of mozzarella and partially used containers of goat and parmesan, sitting in the refrigerator and I have zero desire to eat it outside of when I planned to. And get this, I’m even realizing that the cheese sources I used to binge on like cheese strings and shredded mozzarella no longer please my tastebuds. I made peace with cheese, and it no longer controls me. It’s funny like that, when we can make peace with food, suddenly almonds can sit unopened in the cupboard. Suddenly, we can have just one piece of chocolate instead of a whole bar. Suddenly, we don’t associate feelings of shame or guilt with eating. We simply eat or do not eat, and we move on.

  4. Challenge the Food Police
    When we no longer allow intuition to determine our food choices, we turn over authority to the Food Police: the rules we create, inherit, follow, and ultimately rebel against for our eating habits and dietary preferences. Where intuition makes suggestions to us based on our preferences and function, the Food Police dictate based on morality and social construct. Rules like: no carbs after lunch, no eating after 8 pm, vacation calories don’t count. And it doesn’t stop with internal rules, the Food Police can begin to project outward onto those who don’t make the same choices we do: Vegetarians don’t consume enough protein, Paleo eaters are in a cult, IIFYM eaters disregard nutrition. How can we challenge these Food Police? We must base decisions on personal wants and needs rather than internal or external coulds an shoulds.

    This principle lends itself to the foods society tells us we should eat, just as much as the marginalized foods we think we shouldn’t eat. For example, cauliflower is queen of the health and wellness world at the moment, serving as an alternative to everything from rice to pizza crust. But just because cauliflower is labeled as “healthy,” doesn’t mean it fits into your healthy diet. Does cauliflower leave you feeling just the right amount of full, satisfied, and please your palate like me? Great, eat up! But if cauliflower causes you bloat, cramps, discomfort, and leaves you feeling sluggish, it may not be working for your body.

  5. Respect your Fullness
    Just as we need to honor our hunger, we must respect our fullness. Some people (me!) like the feeling of being physically full, and will eat until it’s well surpassed. Others may feel extremely uncomfortable with any presence of fullness in the belly.    It’s important to recognize and respect that like hunger, fullness is a cue from the body (free of morality!) that let’s us know we’ve physically eaten enough to meet our current needs.

    When I embarked on my fitness journey, my approach to eating changed drastically – from portion size to ingredients. I spent over a year following recipes and meal plans to a T, which meant eating specific serving sizes on a strict schedule. In turn, I became accustomed to always finishing every morsel on my plate because I was supposed to. At times, this meant restricting or avoiding additional food even if I was still hungry, and at times, it meant pushing myself to finish a plate when I was button-bursting full. I’ve learned that, for me personally, eating a higher volume of foods that have a lower macronutrient density allows me to achieve that full feeling I desire without overeating.

  6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
    There’s a difference between consuming a meal and receiving fullness indicators, and doing all this plus being satisfied by the combination of ingredients entering the body. Often times if we ignore our cravings, we wind up attempting to compensate with  “better” alternative options only to be left unsatisfied and ultimately giving into our original craving in excess. I can’t tell you how many times I ate massive portions of almonds to try to curb a chocolate craving, when the appropriate portion of chocolate would have satisfied me at a lower caloric and macro input than the almonds. Similarly, when we push off our hunger (remember Principle #2: Honor Your Hunger?) until we are ravenous, we rush through the eating process and are left feeling completely empty despite an intake of calories and nutrients.

    Now, as someone who plans and preps my meals like clockwork, predicting my satisfaction levels can prove challenging, especially if trying a new recipe. When planning a weekly menu that you want to be as nutritious as it is satisfying, I’ve found a few factors helpful:

    1. Repurpose. If you’re trying a new veggie, try seasoning it with your favorite spice and vice versa, if you’re trying a new spice, try combining it with a veggie you know you love!
    2. Mindful of Macros. A well-balanced serving of protein, carbs, and fat will hit the spot!
    3. Pleasures of the Palate. How can you use texture, color, and aroma to create a satisfying experience?
    4. Cloudy with a Chance of __________. Not only is seasonal produce more nutrient-dense, it often aligns with our craving cues. Soups and stews compliment a blustery winter day, while crisp salads give off total summer vibes.
    5. Dedicate Time. As often as you can, dedicate a distraction-free zone for eating. Sitting down with a dish, eating slowly, chewing completely, and taking time to cut up your food will help you experience the flavors and leave you feeling much more satisfied than throwing back a bar in the car.
    6. Evaluate and Adjust. It’s okay if you take a risk on a dish that winds up not totally satisfying you. But instead of crossing it right off your menu, use this as an opportunity to get in tune with what you felt was missing and adjust! Maybe you need some more volume, a hint of flavor, or a little crunch to take it up a notch. Recently, I prepped Greek-inspired turkey burgers that I planned on serving with a portobello “bun” and eggplant & zucchini “fries”. I got it all plated and while it looked totally insta-worthy, the faux-bun was so not doing it for me. While I enjoyed the flavors of the dish, I immediately recognized I needed some tweaks the next time I ate it to feel as satisfied as I felt full. Two nights later, I roasted up the same veggies and heated up the same turkey burger, but I chose to serve it all over big bowl of romaine, sprinkle a little feta, and toss in some pickled cabbage. Voila, from unsatisfying burger n’ bun to hearty, mouthwatering Mediterranean bowl!
  7. Honor Your Feelings without Using Food
    Let’s be real. Sometimes, you’re going to eat peanut butter from the jar at the end of a mind-bending day. But it does not have to be the norm. Often times, we use mindless, limitless eating as a buffer for uncomfortable or undesirable emotions. The thing is, food is fuel, it affects the way our body functions, and while it plays a role in our social and mental wellbeing, the act of eating is not always the best way to honor emotions that require specific care. If you find yourself eating when you are not hungry, ask yourself: why? Is it because you are upset, stressed, angry, or bored? What acts of intentional self care can you engage to better support your emotions? Some ideas include:

    • Journaling
    • Taking a bath
    • Stretching or meditation
    • Organizing or cleaning
    • Taking a walk
    • Calling a trusted friend
    • Creating a safe space to feel your emotions (cry it out, baby!)
  8. Respect Your Body
    Many of us (yes, myself included!) seek out a Fitness Journey as a means to change our aesthetic appearance, in hopes that a transformation in body composition will will directly correlate with the level of satisfaction and happiness we feel in all areas of our lives. But the very important thing is, we can not measure our happiness, worth, satisfaction, or success in pounds or inches. Doing so is complete and utter self-sabotage. Here’s the deal, for certain individuals, there is a time and a place for aesthetic goals, and so long as those goals remain physical, and do not cross over into morality or worth, they can exist in a holistically healthy lifestyle. To me, this principle encompasses a few things:

    1. Accept Your Body. Here and now. In whatever form it may present or photograph and in whatever way it may perform.
    2. Separate your shape from your soul. Your size does not define you.
    3. Visualize your body’s function, not it’s form.
    4. Get real. It’s important to acknowledge that each unique individual is genetically predisposed to certain body compositions and features. Two individuals who follow the same exact workout routine will undoubtedly experience completely different physical results. Exercise and nutrition will not lead you to grow taller, sprout freckles, or change skin tones.
    5. Be an ally for your body. It will speak to you, but it is your job to listen and act.
  9. Exercise – Feel the Difference
    For longer than I’d like to admit, my exercise routine was motivated by an endless list of ever-shifting and contradicting aesthetic goals. A bigger booty, chiseled biceps, a flat stomach, “gaining muscle while leaning out and also losing weight” (SMH to that last one, y’all). Allow me to let you in on a secret. During this time, my body was changing and adapting daily (both in form and function), but my motivators left me completely blind. I found myself dissatisfied, nit-picking at my reflection, and struggling to silence my alarm in the morning. Which was sort of right back where I started this whole thing. One day, the realization hit me. I literally said to myself, “let’s be real, you are not going to be a body builder.” I wasn’t abandoning goals, but physique is not what I wanted my lifestyle to be about. And so I decided to shift my focus from specific physical goals to a routine that I found fun and stimulating. Let me tell you friends, that is a game changer when it comes to fitness… and nutrition! How does this principle tie back to eating? That focus on performance. How does exercise, like eating, make your body feel and respond – immediately, for the day, for the week, for the year?
    It’s important to note that exercise, and rest, are not a reward or a punishment for the nutrients you put into your body. Like eating, exercise is an activity, not a display of worth or morality. Our bodies are inherently built to move, and exercise (from walking to yoga to dance to CrossFit) is one way of honoring that.
  10. Honor Your Health
    This one, the last principle of intuitive eating, takes time. It culminates everything into one final statement. It asks us to define our own standard of health on our own terms. It asks us to identify our own personal core values of health and make choices that support them. Each of us have a different set of social, mental, physical, and environmental needs that require equally unique care and maintenance, and it’s our personal job to honor those in a way that fosters holistic happiness.

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