Honoring your hunger and respecting your fullness are two components of Intuitive Eating. But I often feel like these two principles can carry way too much weight and in turn, actually cause more anxiety and stress around food. Intuitive Eating can quickly become another diet if you’re only eating when hungry.
It’s important to note that if you’re recovering from an eating disorder or disordered thoughts and behaviors around food, even your physical hunger/fullness cues aren’t reliable and intuitive eating isn’t appropriate. You may never truly feel hungry throughout the day or feel physically full quickly. This is when working with a dietitian you trust to learn how to adequately nourish yourself can be helpful.
It’s an uncomfortable place to shift from listening to external cues like calorie counting, macro counting, no sugar/grain free/paleo/vegan dogma as a way to guide food choices and instead tune into your body’s own internal cues. Eating is a complex, emotional experience that goes beyond satisfying physical hunger. Food is intimately intertwined into our cultural and social behaviors – and we also eat for sheer pleasure, experience and for emotional reasons.
Listening to your body does not equate to not listening to your brain.
Your body can tell you physical needs, while your brain can tell you emotional needs. Your body may communicate physical hunger and fullness but your brain helps you determine cravings and satisfaction.
When we switch from diet culture and external cues telling us how to eat and let go of the zillion food rules that dictate what goes in our mouths and simply let our selves eat….that can be a scary process. Suddenly, we are eating foods we would have never eaten before (typically foods like chips, bagels, pasta…or maybe things like granola or cheese) The goal is to stop feeling neurotic and crazy around food. To let food just be food. But it takes a while to get to that place.
I’ve heard people say, “if I let myself eat whatever I want, I’ll end up eating brownies and pizza and cookies all day.” You might in the beginning when you first shake off all the restrictions you’ve had around food. But with time, you learn that intuitive eating enables you to move away from standing in front of the pantry eating an entire bag chips or cookies and instead be around these highly palatable foods and not feel out of control. In the beginning, you might eat 4 brownies, and that’s okay. You most likely will feel a little ill afterward and then you’ll remember that feeling. And with time, that food experience will shape your next encounter with brownies. And next time maybe you eat one brownie and learn that, “oh yea, that’s my sweet spot where I feel satisfied mentally and I feel good physically.”
Restricting your food in any way does not make you feel more competent around these highly palatable foods. It makes you feel more crazy and sets you up to binge later on. You won’t always crave these highly palatable food for every meal or snack (because most of the time, these don’t make you feel physically awesome) but until you give yourself full permission to eat them any time you want in whatever quantity you want….you will crave them all the time because there’s still a part of you that is restricting these foods. Both physical and mental restriction leads to “emotional eating” and binging (it likely isn’t emotional at all, but rather resistance against food rules) Remember this is a process and a journey and that can take a lot of time. That’s okay.
Even when you become confident as an intuitive eater, there will be times when you eat past fullness because the food tastes THAT good. You might feel mild discomfort (I wouldn’t recommend eating past fullness to where you feel nauseous, ill or stomach pains) but if it’s a food experience that is worth the short term discomfort, you can consciously make that decision and fully enjoy that experience. If you find that you are frequently justifying eating past fullness, that might be something to explore.
This journey can be unknown and grey and uncertain because it requires moving through these feelings of being too full or feeling not so great because too much of xyz food or sitting with the anxiety of eating an “unhealthy” food. But within that discomfort is where we learn to eat for more than sheer physical hunger – it’s where we learn the satisfaction factor of food. It’s where we learn what we really need. Sometimes what we need is food….but sometimes what we need is something other than food.
Beyond eating for satisfaction in addition to physical hunger, intuitive eating often involves listening to your brain to navigate circumstances where you don’t have the flexibility to eat whenever you feel hungry.
If you’re going somewhere and you might not have access to food or you might not be able to eat for a while (maybe you’re working and don’t get a snack/lunch break) you might purposefully overeat beforehand. When I was in nursing school and had to wait 5-6 hours between breakfast and lunch I would purposefully overeat past fullness. Was I a little uncomfortable for an hour after eating…yes. But I was able to stay fuller, longer and not be ravenous 2 hours before lunch with zero opportunity for a snack.
If you know that you’re going to an event where there will be lots of delicious food you might eat a lighter snack where you don’t feel completely satisfied mentally or physically. This might allow you to not show up to the event ravenous, but to also have an appetite to fully enjoy all the different foods.
When you’ve had a stressful day, you might not be physically hungry. The “fight or flight” response activates your sympathetic nervous system which pulls blood away from your GI system. Stress can kill our appetite and even make us feel nauseous. But not eating only intensifies the body’s stress response. In this case, eating even when you’re not physically hungry is a part of self care.
Exercise can also suppress appetite. You might find you’re rarely hungry after you exercise. And the greater the intensity, often the less hungry you are. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat because you don’t feel physical hunger. Learning your body and what it needs will allow you to know how to feed and care for yourself even when you’re not physically hungry.
And there also might be times when you’re not physically hungry, but in fact you eat for emotional reasons. Restriction and diet rules aside (like mentioned above), a bowl of ice cream at the end of a stressful day or a a few slices of pizza after you hear bad news….might be just what you need. You can make a conscious choice to emotionally eat. The problem is when eating becomes the only way to deal with emotions. Food can be one tool to soothe yourself, but it won’t be a healthy tool if it’s the only tool. Having multiple ways to deal with your emotions and learning to apply those ways appropriately is howe you can learn to best care for yourself.
The take home here I hope is that intuitive eating is not about perfection, it’s not another form of restriction or rules. But instead intuitive eating is about rejecting diet culture and tuning into your body’s own internal wisdom on how to best nourish and care for yourself. There will be times of overeating those “off limits” foods, overeating any foods, and going days without vegetables (among other experiences) before you settle into what balance looks like for you. I think a good question to always ask yourself is “how do I feel?” which directs you from external to internal cues. And remember, no matter how full or icky or anxious you feel….that feeling will pass.
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments on this and your intuitive eating journey!
I was wondering if you have any thoughts on disordered eating that does not center around restriction but rather the other extreme. I think the concept of intuitive eating is as difficult for someone with binge eating tendencies as it is for someone with restrictive or anorexic tendencies, but it seems like when eating disorders are addressed, they more often refer to restriction as opposed to the other extreme (I’m not saying that about you or your blog posts in particular, but just about healthy eating articles and essays in general seem to focus more on restrictive disordered eating). Do you feel the recovery from either disorder is similar, or is there a different approach with someone who deals with overeating as opposed to restrictive eating? Thanks for your thoughts on this!
This is a great question Lisa! I can definitely expand on this comment in a blog post – love this idea and think it’s SO important to focus on the eating disorders that don’t involve only food restriction. I see many patients like yourself so know your not alone. I wrote a post a few months ago on this topic. Please email me with more questions you have after reading and I’m happy to write about that!
M. E. Wood says
I’ve thought a lot about this! I think when recovering from an eating disorder intuitive eating is not appropriate. Individuals should first learn what a proper and nourishing portion is for them. (With help from a registered dietician! This can be more or less than their current intake, and mishandled by a variety of mental factors. (Poor mental health, mental illness.) Intuitive eating’s ‘restrict-not’ approach does not solve the root of the problem when considering emotional or binge eating disorders- which is why it’s important to understand balance, moderation, and healthy coping mechanisms. From my experience, intuitive eating plays a role after these problems have been worked through.
This is gold, as always 🙂 I’m at the beginnings of my intuitive eating journey, and I think mental restriction is the toughest thing for me. I love reading posts from you about the imperfections that are life and the I.E. journey. So encouraging! Have the best weekend!
thinking of you in this journey! Know it’s uncomfortable and murky but so worthwhile!
Amber @ Bloom Nutrition Therapy says
These are such great examples! Although I’ve had a very disordered eating past, I think the ability to connect with my body in how my eating made me physically feel afterwards was one of the first ways I was able to make headway into the practice of Intuitive Eating. I can remember as child and adolescent, my family had made it a normal practice to overeat at meals. I can remember many times being so ill and sick after mealtime that I was absolutely miserable. Eventually, I was able to make this connection as I got older and ceased this habit/behavior. But it’s interesting to look back and see that really the only reason I was eating this way is because I had observed other role models doing the same thing. I actually believed that I was SUPPOSED to feel that way after a meal. Crazy!
With learning IE, we usually always have to dismantle old habits and beliefs. Thanks for sharing Amber!
amanda @amanda-isms says
yes all around! I think the biggest thing for me has been learning to know its OK to eat even if I’m not hungry (but hello, the cookies in the break room are just calling my name and my patients are stressing me out!). I realize there’s a different line of balance for everyone, but learning that it’s OK to eat for fun reasons has been awesome for me. Thanks, Robyn!
It is OKAY. I’m so happy for you that you are learning this – rooting for you!
Victoria Masley says
^This^ the best post I think I have ever read. So honest, true & GOOD! Thank you. 🙂
So glad it resonated with you Victoria! <3
Thank you so much for this, Robin. I’ve been reading your blog for a couple months now & I love it. Your philosophy is so refreshing. I’m very new to the idea of intuitive eating, but it really resonates with me. Food and healthy eating has always been all or nothing for me, and I’ve grown tired of all the “rules.” Thanks again! God bless you!
Welcome Kristen! Glad this is resonating <3
Abigail T says
In light of this post, I’m going to go eat a big bowl of Chipotle! Thanks for teaching us to be more in tune with our bodies, something I don’t do a great job of and something society doesn’t really do.
you go girl!
Stress is so huge; I don’t think I even realize it especially when it comes to travel, and I think I too often have made myself ignore my hunger signals during travel just because of stress.
I totally agree that especially a delicious restaurant or food experience is totally worth eating more than normal for; and it’s amazing how our bodies compensate and bounce back to where they need to be…
Love your insights on this topic. I feel like there’s so much confusion around intuitive eating, but you explained it so well!
glad you enjoyed!
Megan @ A Continual Feast says
So so good, Robyn. Intuition > dogma!!! I feel like intuitive eating is such a journey, but a fun one. I’m not sure I will ever “arrive” there which is totally what I thought at first, but now I realize it is way more dynamic than that and changes in different life stages, etc. Also I am totally with you on the “over” eating bc eating past fullness in the morning is the only way I can make it to lunchtime on work days when I don’t have time to snack! Gotta do what ya gotta do!
It is SUCH a journey. You never arrive, but rather you learn more and more about yourself so you can better take care of yourself. Like you said, seasons change and that’s okay!
Meah Konstanzer says
Food freedom and intuitive eating are such interesting topics! I can honestly say I think I’ve taken leaps and bounds towards food freedom in the past few months. Food freedom has meant not batting an eye about having a bag of chips at a party because that’s the carb source that’s available and enjoying them while knowing they may not be what my body regularly craves. It’s also meant being able to tag along to Chick-fil-a or another place because that’s where my friends want to go and eating there, even if I genuinely don’t seem to crave fast foods. Likewise, I’ve grown a lot more comfortable with eating if I know my body needs more food, even if my stomach is bloated because my digestion is a bit backed up or the other foods I ate that day were higher volume. It’s so freeing to be able to recognize this feeling as temporary and not judge myself. Another beautiful, inspiring post that continues to encourage me to just live and go with the food flow 🙂 .
I like how you point out the feeling is temporary – that’s so important so thank you!!
Aubrey Knudson says
As someone with constant GI issues and constipation, I am almost never hungry. Food almost never sounds appetizing, so eating for pleasure or for satisfaction doesn’t work. Instead, I use my emotions and brain to know when I’m hungry.
I think you make a great point Aubrey – your body can’t communicate some things right now so you use your brain and emotions to guide your eating. Thanks for sharing!
Imperfectly Perfect says
I have a question, I’ve heard that it’s “bad” to eat when you’re stressed because your body isn’t in digestion mode and won’t use the energy as effectively as when you are in parasympathetic mode. Is this true?
This is a great question! Can I add it to a Q&A post?
Can you talk more about how eating disorders affect hunger hormones, feelings of fullness, and satisfaction? I have 10+ years of recovery, but intuitive eating has not worked for me. My brain ALWAYS thinks it is starving (even though I am at a very healthy weight) and wants food even if I am physically full. I used to think it was because I was “emotionally” hungry, but more recently am discovering the hunger is there no matter what my emotional state is and no matter how much I’ve just eaten. Do the hormones and hunger cues ever become reliable again?
Yes they do Shana! Although at this point that is probably hard to believe. Even though you’re not “emotionally” hungry, perhaps you could still have mental restriction going on by telling yourself you can’t eat xyz food? Maybe no though. There are so many factors that go into intuitive eating beyond fullness and hunger and even a healthy weight might not be YOUR healthy weight — although you could also be at your healthy weight too. I don’t know you’re history so it’s hard to tell ..but I have written down this question as a blog post topic so look out for that in the future! 🙂
Jocelyn Holland says
I second Shana’s question, as I have the same thing: a history of anorexia/ disordered eating, and recovery, but the hunger is nearly almost always there, regardless of my emotional state or what I’ve eaten. Looking forward to a post on this topic! Thanks for all you do, Robyn!
I have it added to my list Jocelyn! I hope it’s comforting to know that you are not alone <3
Thank you for your thoughts, Robyn! As always, they are so incredibly helpful! I am 7 years into recovery from anorexia and am slowly embracing intuitive eating. I absolutely love the philosophy and the freedom it offers, but it is still hard for me to adopt. I find myself still following the safety of the meal plan my dietician prescribed for me during treatment. I have much more food freedom, but it’s hard to have complete freedom.
I’ve also noticed that under a lot of stress it is so hard for me to eat intuitively and balanced. Right now I am in the process of a big move and all the stress and emotions make it hard to really tune in. I feel out of balance and defeated…like I can’t really do this intuitive eating thing 🙁 Any words of encouragement or advice as I continue to learn intuitive eating?