Intuitive eating (IE) is not just for those recovering from a restrictive eating disorder or disordered eating. Although intuitive eating can sometimes be interpreted as something for those with restrictive eating patterns….that is far from the truth. Intuitive eating is also very much the way to freedom from binge eating disorder (or any degree of binge eating) and establishing peace with food and your body.
Often, people tend to start with the the emotional work of binge eating disorder (BED) and while that is important, it’s not the first priority. First you have to build a foundation. And that foundation comes by working through the first few key principles of intuitive eating.
1) Reject the Diet Mentality
2) Honor Your Hunger
3) Make Peace With Food
This probably feels terrifying and anxiety provoking if you’ve been experiencing food in a chaotic way for some time. You might be thinking…”If I give myself permission to eat any and all foods, I’ll eat everything!” Maybe that makes you think you’re going to feel even more out of control around food.
The reason this first piece is so important is because you cannot recover and heal from BED if you are physically, mentally or emotionally restricting your food. If there is any form (any form) of restriction happening, the body’s evolutionary survival mechanisms in your brain start firing which drives you to eat.
When your brain receives messages of restriction (physically or mentally/emotionally) your body is desensitized to leptin. And leptin is your satiety hormone. It tells your body, “Hey, we’re full…no need to continue eating for now.” It makes sense that restriction in any form would cause your body to stop listening to leptin. Your body things it’s survival is threatened and therefore, you are driven to eat. It makes perfect biological sense!
Conscious reasoning (aka the diet mentality) will not override the rational, automatic part of your brain. And to fight the rational, automatic part of your brain 24/7 when you are restricting in any way, shape or form is totally exhausting! You might be able to overdrive this survival mechanism in the short term, but over time…your body’s primal drive to eat will win out.
Typically what results when that primal drive takes over is guilt and shame and judgment…and the cycle continues. It is only when all the restrictions are lifted and you give yourself full permission to give up dieting, pursue health over weight loss, honor your hunger and eat any and all foods that you begin to experience freedom from binging and feeling crazy around food.
I’ve certainly experienced a binge eating episode as a result of my body’s primal drive to eat. If you have to, you’re not alone. I think there’s an important thing to remember…you’re not a failure or destined for a life where you feel out of control around food if you’ve being doing a lot of the “emotional work” without experiencing any freedom. Maybe working through unfulfilled voids or a set of limiting beliefs is not the sole reason you’re experiencing binge eating. Maybe instead, it’s your body’s physiological needs that are not being met and that is where you need to begin.
The physiological piece has to be addressed first. And you don’t have to heal everything about yourself emotionally or fill every emotional void before you can begin to experience freedom from the constant noise.
SOME QUESTIONS TO ASK…
Am I thinking about food all the time?
Do I ask myself what I should or shouldn’t be eating on a daily basis?
Do I worry about food before, during or after a meal?
Am I hyper focused on your body?
If you said yes to any of that…then you are experiencing some element of restriction on a daily basis. I would feel crazy around food too with all that restriction. I remember in college I would drunk eat pizza all. the. time. And then be pissed off the next morning about it. Looking back, of course I ate pizza late night because I had restricted my calories during the day in preparation for all the alcohol calories I planned on consuming. This would also happen when I vowed to eat clean or eat vegan or whenever I subjected myself to any other set of arbitrary food rules.
At the same thing though, just eliminating restriction alone doesn’t lead to healing and recovery from BED, that’s not the message I want to send. But it’s the starting point. And the first three principles of intuitive eating are imperative in doing that first phase of work. Therefore, intuitive eating is indeed for those with restrictive eating patterns, but also very much so for those of you that struggle with binge eating and feeling out of control around food.
This is really hard work. It’s okay to be where you’re at. If you can recognize that judgment, hate, and negative self talk are not sustainable…that’s a good starting point. If you can focus on nourishing and honoring your body and see that doing that is sustainable…that’s a good starting point.
If there is any set of rules that govern your eating (either consciously or subconsciously) you will eventually rebel against them. It’s our biological makeup. And we can’t find biology. Just like you can’t overcome your genetic set point, your can’t override your primal drive to eat. Intuitive eating is not a hunger-and-fullness diet, or a don’t-emotionally-eat diet. If you believe there is a right and wrong way to eat or if your self esteem is dependent on your food choices…your body will eventually rebel against that.
So while the path to recovery looks different with restrictive vs binge eating patterns…intuitive eating is always the goal with any of the clients I work with. Because your body knows exactly what it needs to maintain a healthy weight. Your body is the master of it’s size, not you. And intuitive eating is the way to finding peace with food, your body and your mind.
I’ve experienced binge eating in two different ways. First, from deprivation due to an eating disorder (that physiological response to not getting enough food, so my body lashed out and I would binge). I recovered from that mainly by increasing my calorie intake, restoring my metabolism, and resting to give my body a chance to fully recover from ED.
Interestingly, about two years later, even though I was eating enough food and physically in a good place, I began experiencing binges again. I had a really hard time pinpointing WHY this was happening, because i knew I was eating enough food. I realized that I had lost touch with my physiological hunger cues and was approaching eating more emotionally (obviously there were things in my life that were the source of this emotion). In this case, I really had to work HARD to turn to intuitive eating (and intuitive exercise) to learn what my body’s true hunger and fullness cues were, what were my body’s cues signifying a need for rest (i.e., no workout that day), and what were my body’s cues signifying the need for movement. It was definitely one of the hardest things I’ve done, but I do feel that I am in a place where I can listen to and trust what my body is telling me.
Love this post! Such an important topic 🙂
It’s funny that this post came today because just last week I felt like I couldn’t continue with the diet/binge cycle. I have tried IE before but always went back to some sort of diet at some point (that’s the beauty of the industry thougj isn’t it). I have made a lot of progress over the year and at least now I know that a) it is not my fault and b) there is a way to eat without driving myself crazy.
Sometimes I feel like the road is so long I can’t see the end of it and fall and get up again but every time I learn something knew. I am hopeful.
Also, i have finally realized once and for all (I hope) that almost every binge was just after having gotten on the scales so they have to go too.
Thank you robyn!
I look forward to your posts. Thank you so much, for being a light and sharing the wealth of knowledge you have and guidance. You have helped me understand myself better than I could ever have on my own. I am starting PA school soon. I am working very hard to start intuitively eating so that I can leave all of these distractions at the door. Thanks for your help <3
I love this post Robyn. I believe this was one of the issues as to why I never fully recovered from my ED as a teen – was so much more focused on the emotional pieces and while I worked with a dietician etc, I never fully let go of rules. It reminds me of an alcoholic who is trying to heal their depression/anxiety while still drinking – it just cannot work.
Thanks so much for bringing light and perspective to these issues.
Love this post and very much agree. One question though, can you clarify how the path to recovery from restrictive eating looks different? Wouldn’t the approach be similar in ridding ourselves of diet mentality/rules/restriction to feel less crazy around food?
I have recovered mostly from the binge eating but I can’t quite heal the last part. I have diagnosed food sensitivities that cover several major food groups. I’ve tried super restrictive gut healing/leaky gut/candida protocols but I haven’t been able to go back to eating my food sensitivities. I’ve tried to add them in moderation but I either end up binging or I end up feeling sick and awful all the time. Do you have any advice for how to eat intuitively when you have to restrict major food groups for your health?
Emily Swanson says
It is SO amazing and humbling when you don’t restrict and say, ‘Yes’ to foods without restriction, because it is 100% true that I don’t usually over eat any of those foods. I think that’s a lie I believe, that I’ll eat too much if I allow myself to eat it, but it’s not true. I’m so thankful you keep sharing these messages Robyn; they are both freeing and encouraging to read.
Thanks for sharing that Emily, so very true <3
catherine c says
I love this post Robyn!
I am currently three years out from recovering from anorexia, and shockingly still trying to find an intuitive way of eating. I (think) I definitely eat enough, but at night it’s like I crave all the carbs. I check in with myself and I’m really not hungry physically I don’t think, and I ask myself about what emotions I’m feeling. Usually these are both in check, yet I still find myself shoving carbs (and fats) in my face.. haha. It might start with a yogurt bowl of siggis, fruit, and nut butter then turns into some (healthy but still) baked good I have in my freezer, probably some nuts and ends with something savory to balance it all out.. like roasted broccoli and chicken or something, ha. I can’t figure out why! Maybe it’s a sign of subconscious restriction?? I’d love to hear your take or any guesses you have… Or maybe a post if you have had any others struggle with this.
I can definitely relate to you. I struggled more in the restrictive side of things, but since being in recovery for almost five years, I still “feel” like I need to end my day with a bowl of oatmeal and peanut butter. My meals are balanced and I do not struggle with the restrictive mindset, but feel like I cannot go to sleep without the oatmeal. I would like to dig deeper to see if it is an emotional response, or just my body needing something before a full night hour energy expenditure of sleeping.
Hi Catherine! Just a thought from another fellow reader. I think you’re right about the subconscious restriction. It sounds like when you’re binge eating it’s all “clean” foods. I’m not sure what your eating habits are like during the day, but it looks like you eat very healthy. Perhaps your body is possibly craving something else, like a piece of cake, ice-cream, or a bowl of chips? Again, just a thought! Hope this helps : )
I think this could be something to explore Catherine and hope it is encouraging!
I know 3 years feel like a long time but know that this can take years and years and that is OKAY. There could perhaps be judgments around food that you are still experiencing and that could be something to explore?
Definitely a good post idea!
I’m definitely going to exploring some of these questions and begin to challenge my belief system around food more proactively. Thank you so much for your encouragement and wisdom Robyn!
I grew up in a household that was very restrictive of what me and my sisters ate once our bodies changed and we got our hips. My mom is very restrictive which resulted in me bingeing and feeling crazy around food. About ten years later I am mostly free. I like to buy foods I used to feel crazy around and just enjoy them. I still struggle some days with feelings of guilt and body shaming myself, but I am reallly proud of how far I have come. Your blog posts have been a huge help and I like to read them when I’m feeling down about my body. Thank you
Kate that you for sharing! I think it’s important to realize what you’ve mentioned – that this is an ebb and a flow and a journey and that is OKAY <3
I have absolutely experienced freedom from Binge Eating by implementing intuitive eating. And that freedom took TIME and PATIENCE and TRUST. I found out about the book Intuitive Eating through this blog last year. I actually was reading it a year ago this month! I used each chapter as a lesson and worked through the various steps consciously. It wasn’t a perfect step by step process, in fact it was far from it. But I was dedicated to learn about myself, my thoughts towards food/exercise/my body and my habits. I finally feel a sense of freedom. That no food is good or bad. Are there times I overeat? Absolutely. Are there times my body craaaves a huge leafy, green salad? 100%. Are there days where I feel super bloated and have the thought of “I really shouldn’t eat x, y, z today.” Certainly. But its a journey and when I engage a curious and wise mind, experimenting with eating gets really groovy!
Thank you for emphasizing that Jane – I know so many women will find encouragement in that!
I am so thankful to have found intuitive eating when trying to recover from binge eating. I think I was mostly restricting mentally, still eating a good amount of food but my obsession with weighing and counting still made me feel restricted. Now when I eat freely without judgement or control I usually find I am full and satisfied with less food than before. It’s crazy what even mental restriction can do to you physically.
The beginning was so hard but I was lucky enough to have your blog as well as some other great resources. Thank you for these great posts!
Thank you for sharing how you were mainly mentally restricting – I think that is so helpful for people to hear! thanks for reading Jen <3
Thank you for writing on this topic, Robyn! I am in my mid-30s and was a SEVERE binge/restricter for almost 5 years. When I decided enough was enough in 2010 there was hardly any information on BED, unless tied to other EDs (which I didn’t have). Google was no help, so I put myself in therapy. She tied my bingeing to dieting, which I swear never occurred to me (I thought it was lack of willpower). You’d be proud – she also asked about my (missing) period and fit those pieces together too. That wonderful therapist was a great start, but the real impetus for lasting change came from a book called The Gabriel Method. It saved. my. life. and allowed me to find true food freedom in the craziest way. It wasn’t a quick fix, the active healing process probably took about three years, but that was four years ago and I am 100% diet and binge free and have a healthy, fit life. I have no ties to Gabriel other than personal experience, but I should work for them; I’ve given the book to so many people! Everyone takes something different from it, but everyone benefits and I highly recommend it to anyone here who is struggling. Thanks again for all you do, Robyn!
Your therapist sounds incredible and well informed 🙂 I’ll have to look into that book for sure – thank you for sharing!
After calorie restricting for about 10 months and experience binge eating episodes that became more and more frequent, I finally had enough. Around then is when I found you and the HAES movement and I read Intuitive Eating 3 TIMES before I finally felt like I “got it”. I’m now at the stage where I don’t hate my body but I’m also not at the LOVE my body stage either… but it’s getting better every day and it’s a step.
However, I’ve recently (over the past 5 weeks) become vegan for both health (read: health, not WEIGHT) reasons as well as ethical reasons… Since I’m not doing it with a weightless mentality, would you still consider this restriction?
Thank you for what you do – you are an incredible person!
I think that’s a common place to be Lindsay, where you don’t hate your body but you also don’t love it and I think that’s really normal. I don’t love every inch of my body, but I can accept it and move on with my life so I think about my body less.
I think that you have to be honest with yourself and ask if you are restricting yourself in any way by eating vegan (mentally, emotionally or physically) and only you can determine that 🙂
It’s funny that just the other day I was reading through some articles discussing the many mechanisms that go into play when you restrict and/or over exercise— such as cortisol rising and suppressing active thyroid hormone (T3), your T4 turning more so into reverse T3 and not normal T3 — which lowers your metabolic rate and affects how you feel (lethargy, fatigue, coldness, etc). It also discussed the many ways in which your body prompts you to eat because it becomes leptin-resistant because your brain thinks it is starving and so it puts all its forces together to get you to eat. So fascinating how the body works!!
I have a long history of disordered eating patterns — I didn’t realize it at the time— I just was trying to be healthy. However, during the last 2 weeks I cut back my cardio from 13 miles a day to no more than 5 and I added in some resistance training to help build some much needed muscle. I also am getting 8 hours of sleep per night for the first time in years. MOST IMPORTANTLY — I am listening to my body’s cravings when it comes to food and I am also trying new things. I’ve eaten women ice cream almost every night for the past two weeks. I’ve eaten chicken, turkey, bagels, granola, and yogurt multiple times each day for the past couple weeks — and prior to that I hadn’t eaten any of those foods for 3-6 years (depending on the food). I feel so incredibly free and so much less stressed! It truly is a blessing! As a soon to be RD, I felt like sharing this with others would mark me as a failure to the dietetic profession. However, I think it shows that we (nutrition/fitness professionals) are human too, and we are far from perfect. Moving forward, I want to continue to try new things, enjoy life, and help others to do the same!
And start writing books because judging by this novel of a comment, I’d be really good at it! 🙂
We are all on our own journey Maxine 🙂 I am cheering for you as you continue on this path to peace with food, exercise and your body <3
Yes, I am recovering from binge eating/restriction. About a year ago I started to take the mental switch thanks to you and Kylie. All the above points to say yes too I used to be there. I knew that I shouldn’t feel that way even though my mom said that it was normal for women to feel like that. But I didn’t want to! I wanted to just eat what I want and put my focus on more important things in life. I started to hate restricting, meal planning, and thinking about my body constantly. I feel the freedom and I can’t wait to continue on this journey. I’m still struggling with my body as it changes, mostly for the good because of how I am gaining muscle, but also for the fat that I have developed on my belly (my trouble area). I have mantras and my faith to keep me focused on the good. I know I have come so far and that keeps me motivated.
Know that the behavior changes come before the mental shift and that bit by bit your mind WILL be transformed. Sending love to you!
Robyn, I love your posts and am always amazed at how perfectly you capture a lot of the feelings I have gone through! I struggled with an eating disorder that twisted and turned from orthorexia to bulimia to binge eating, and it has only been since I started practicing intuitive eating this past February that I’ve made peace with food. When I was going through periods of binging (my food of choice was cereal) I would get so mad at myself and tell myself it was because I was an “all or nothing” person and that if I were ever going to have freedom from binge eating I would have to cut it out of my diet completely (which, of course, only made the binges more frequent). So, in February, I decided that I could eat the food that I wanted to eat at the time, instead of what I thought I “should” eat, and haven’t binged since. Now I have a bowl of cereal for breakfast or desert when I want it, and don’t when I don’t. And it feels AMAZING. Food used to govern my life, but now it’s just a part of it 🙂 Thanks for all you do, you are a force for good in a pretty messed up culture.
Maggie thank you for sharing! I know those that are reading and feeling frustrated, hopeless and stuck will be so encouraged!<3
Since I started my IE journey from a place where I would restrict during the day and binge at night, I really liked your post. I would love to read more from you about that topic!
I think this is absolutely a critical piece in recovering from an sort of ED/disordered eating. However, at the beginning of my own journey from recovering from bulimia, I wasn’t able to ditch the diet mentality and buy into the first few principles of IE. Before I could even go there, I had to re-learn how to eat and feel my hunger a fullness cues. In order to do that, I had to do the very, unintuitive thing of getting on a meal plan. The meal plan was the silver bullet to starting my recovery journey to see and feel what it’s like to nourish my body. The IE stuff is just now coming, and maybe meal plans are just part of the road to getting there. I guess I just want to add to this conversation to say that, although I do believe IE is certainly the goal, I wonder if it’s not be totally feasible to do the first 3 IE principles until we get into a rhythm of eating, understand of what daily eating can feel like, and trust our bodies.
Katie I totally agree with you that sometimes what is appropriate is simply “reseting the system” so you can FEEL hunger/fullness again and from a physiologic standpoint build trust with your body that it will get consistent food. I think this post could be helpful as it is in line with what you’re talking about. Thank you for sharing – I know it will be helpful for others!
Ohhh ok yes yes, that’s right on and exactly what I was talking about. I didn’t want to leave out that piece, so thanks for that post 🙂 The first dietitian I saw for help with my eating disorder directed me straight to IE, and it ended up being quite damaging. I’m glad you “get it”! Anyway, thanks for being a light and doing the work you do…it’s so important!!
I’m filing this post to revisit when I’m ready. I’ve struggled with disordered eating since I was about 6. I’m 49 now, so it’s a tough habit to break. I have tried intuitive eating and I always gain weight and I’m not ready for that. I realize intellectually that a binge/restrict life is not healthy or sustainable, but emotionally I’m not ready to give it up.
It is SO TOUGH to break. I’ll be thinking of you <3
I really love this post having suffered with disordered eating in the past this post has been very helpful in reminding me about intuitive eating and I now intend to get back to a more intuitive way of eating as soon as possible for my health. Thanks for sharing.
glad it resonated Eme <3
Emily at The We Files says
I used to binge although I didn’t recognize it as bingeing at the time. It often came with a combination of physical and mental deprivation. Looking back, I can see that my labeling of certain foods as “bad” made me crave them all the more, and I would lose control around these foods as they were available. I used to dread social gatherings, clear all the “bad” things from my house, and then get so hungry at night that I’d send my poor husband out for something or even bake things! I have a lot of self-compassion for myself looking back though, not recognizing how I had been controlling food for so long and struggling with disordered eating. I’m still trying to work through it, but little by little realizing how problematic our attempts to control our food and body are – and how working towards trust and overall health (including mental health) is so much kinder and more beneficial.
I LOVE how you can look back on that season… “I had a lot of self compassion for myself then…” <3
After restricting for so long (for the past few months,) my body is beginning to fight back. After looking back on the first semester of college, I have comes to terms with the fact that I have been restricting so heavily…. thinking that me being skinnier would equal boys finding me attractive and girls thinking I’m approachable/fun/cool (new school and new people = me wanting to “reinvent myself.”) In reality, no one cares. Nobody is going to be hyper focused on the amount of fat on my stomach, how much I’m eating or the size of my thighs. Nobody is judging me on my body before my personality. Now that we are in the holiday season,I have found that my binge eating episodes are increasing and increasing… I guess because I told myself “tomorrow I will eat healthy, so you can’t eat these… why not go out with a bang” OR, I’ve restricted so heavily during the day that my body is crying for food, which leads me to eat out of control whenever my roommate isn’t around at night. Today, however, I woke up with a new mindset. I journaled, read your blog/immaeatthat’s blog to get myself in check. My binging won’t stop until I stop restricting… even if thats so scary because the idea of me gaining weight is still something that I need to learn to accept. I would love more posts on this/eating normally/ how to even begin eating normally (especially in college!!) My hunger cues are still there, but I almost don’t know how to make a proper meal after such a long time of restricting and binging. Thank you again for everything that you post 🙂
Melanie Lee says
It’s hard to figure out where to begin…. I was that annoying kid in high school. You know the one who could eat Oreos for breakfast lunch and dinner while still managing to lose weight. Even through college I never really gained the freshmen 15. People always warned me…oh just wait until your 20s. Thanks for the spoiler right?! UGHH so after a couple years in the real world I noticed that food stuck around a little longer. Thanks to social media I was constantly reminded of the weight I was gaining. But I didn’t want to give up food. I loooove food. So I didn’t. Instead I indulged. I ate it all. I ate everything. That’s when it started. The first couple of times it was after a long night of drinking where I could place the blame of binging on the alcohol. But before I knew it I was spiraling out of control….on a work day I’d run into DD to buy 3 donuts, swing through McDonalds for a chocolate shake & fried, then pop into the 7-11 for $20 worth of junk food. In the matter of 30 minutes I’d consume a week’s worth of calories. But bite after bite I would shove as much as I could until the point of agony. It would hurt so bad but I couldn’t stop. I told myself I’d eat so healthy the next day if at all….then I’d purge. Even though I promised it would end the next day or on Monday it didn’t. So I did the only thing I could think of. I told myself no more sweets and NO MORE BINGING! That was it. And guess what. I still haven’t binged since. Insert confetti here. I can’t say the same for sweets. But for the time bye bye to the 3 boxes of girl scout cookies at one time or the entire economy bag of reeses I would eat in one sitting. And guess what?! I crushed it. No sweets and it was easy. So I thought…you know what?! I am going to do the same with bread and super carby things. Hello to lettuce wraps and grilled appetizers. And I was killing it. People were noticing my self control, my now husband bragged about me to his friends. So obviously I would give up dairy next. Woot Woot! Bye bye cheese curds, cream cheese dips, and fun. Guess what. I was SKINNY again. I mean turning heads. Well that lasted 6 months. All it took was a mini snicker bar. Why did I eat that thing? I could have stayed skinny forever I thought. So then it was over. My self-control flew out the window faster than a balloon in the windy city. The restrictive diet I created of no sweets, no carbs, and no dairy was NO GOOD. So it was back to the drawing board. What was the plan?! Obviously the plan was dumb because it was and still is diet fad after diet fad. I’ve read a few books on BED, gone to therapy, paid a nutritionist, had a personal trainer, used online tools like TIU and counting macros. You name it I’ve done it or will do it or will pay dumb money for it. And guess what in between every diet I end up binging. I did last night. And here I am feeling that guilt over the mini hostess muffin bag, popcorn, and French fries I didn’t need to eat in bed. Someday I hope to not have the guilt. The guilt from eating 1 potato chip, that leads to eating the entire bad. Which makes me think the rest of the day is free game to eat junk because guess what I’ll start again tomorrow. And maybe that will work. Maybe I’ll be healthy or be able to control my eating for that day or the next, maybe even a week. But then it happens again. Not sure the next steps. But I do know it was great to read this article even if it was from awhile back.
Do you think not eating enough during the day could be a trigger for binging at night? I often feel like I have a good meal int he evenings but then I seem to reach for other stuff and before I know it I have binged. It’s been happening quite a lot recently and I know my day time eating hasn’t been the best!
Hi Annie – absolutely not eating enough during the day can put you in a vulnerable place for a chaotic/binging eating experience. That is causing physical deprivation. Hope that helps!