Intuitive eating is a dynamic concept. It can’t be muddled down to eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full because there are so many other factors that play into our satiation and satisfaction with food. Emphasis on the satisfaction piece.
And although intuitive eating is always the end goal with any client we work with and the patients I see as a Nurse Practitioner, there’s a time and a place for the concept of intuitive eating to be applied. Intuitive eating isn’t for everyone in every circumstance….but I believe it is always the end goal.
The two main circumstances where I don’t direct someone towards intuitive eating first are:
1) when recovering from an eating disorder
2) when trying to break free from dieting (which is a form of disordered eating and possibly an eating disorder
If you’re recovering from an eating disorder, the first priority is to stabilize your relationship with food and get your body physically nourished and stop the body and brain starvation. That means eating frequently (including 3 meals) throughout the day with a balance of carbs, proteins and fats. In order to become an intuitive eater your cognitive function has to be intact so you’re able to tease apart a lot of thoughts and feeling and beliefs. If you’re not sure how to do that, work with a registered dietitian you trust. After your body is consistently nourished from an energy and nutrient standpoint, then you can move on to introducing some intuitive eating principles bit by bit in a way that is best for you.
If you’re someone who maybe hasn’t had an eating disorder but who has had some degree of a disordered relationship with food (which is like 90% of the population, including myself) then perhaps you need to learn what it means to adequately nourish your body. After a period of time restricting your food intake, overexercising, restricting and then binging – or some combination of any of those, women are often so out of touch with their own body and it’s needs that it’s difficult to tell hunger from fullness. With many of our clients, if I tell them to start eating when their hungry…they might not actually ever eat because they don’t feel hunger. They may feel other sensations like lightheadedness, irritability or fatigue…but eating based on physical hunger is really hard. And knowing how to respond to those different sensations within their body to meet a need feels really foreign.
hunger and fullness hormones ghrelin and leptin are out of sync and you have no idea what your body is telling you. So in the beginning stages, we help women simply learn to feed themselves adequately and often that means eating when you’re not necessarily hungry. But then your body starts to trust you again, hormones start to balance out (with the help of self care, sleep and non stressful movement too) and cortisol levels decrease. You learn to begin listening to what your body is telling you instead of getting external cues on how to eat and move and live your life.
Of course certain elements of intuitive eating can be applied during the first process of learning to feed your body adequately – like eating foods you crave and that have been off limits for so long, rejecting the diet mentality, honoring your feelings and so forth. But only after you learn to feed yourself and wake up your hunger/fullness cues do I think the rest of the intuitive eating principles can be explored.
It’s a journey and a process that takes total surrender to any particular body size or diet dogma. Sometimes years of allowing yourself to eat any and all foods, your weight fluctuate and find it’s set point, and to do the really hard mental and emotional work of coming to peace with food and your body. Intuitive eating is so much more than eating when your hungry and stopping when your full. It’s eating out of self care when you’re not necessarily hungry, but know your body needs nourishment. It’s eating out of pure pleasure. It’s eating for convenience even when it might not be the most satisfying food experience. It’s learning to become competent around all foods, including highly palatable foods like burgers and cupcakes and candy. It’s complex, but it’s so awesome and so freeing.
If you’ve been stuck in the depths of an eating disorder or a pattern of food noise and disordered thoughts around food, you aren’t too far gone. Your body hasn’t betrayed you…you’ve just broken trust with your body. But you can restore a healthy relationship with you body so it utilizes energy efficiently again, balance hormones so you’re more in tune with hunger and fullness and get to a healthy space where you can then continue on into intuitive eating.