Intuitive eating is about letting go…putting the tracker away, forgetting your concepts of what’s healthy or not healthy, and just allowing yourself to eat food based on what your body wants. It’s about for the first time, listening to your body wants, instead of constantly telling it what it can and cannot have.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably not interested in thinking about food so much anymore. The most important part of all of this is thinking. We need to stop it. Completely. Thinking allows us to understand what proteins, fats, and carbohydrates are. There is a place for that.
But we’ve come to a place now where it’s all we do. So here’s where intuitive eating comes in.
The Intuitive Eating Advantage
Overthinking our food has led to strange diet books and programs which often do nothing for you. They excite people for a period of time, help them lose some weight, but they return to their old ways. The diets fell short because they were often non-intuitive and didn’t give people what they really needed. Cravings result, and all is lost. It’s what happened to contestants in The Biggest Loser, and it’s what happens to people who prepare for fitness competitions after the dieting period.
The cravings that result from going on a diet are simply a result of low leptin levels among other mechanisms. And naturally, most people think that those cravings are bad. They try to “control” them. But they’re fighting a battle they can’t win, because it’s a hormonal mechanism designed to get you to optimal health. Therefore eating that cake or pizza after dieting is good for your health.
What your intuition is saying when it craves those foods is that it needs something from it. That’s another discussion, but for most dieters, it’s simply more calories. The tastiest foods are the ones that get our metabolisms back up the fastest after a period of dieting because they contain dense calories. This is what I learned after reading “Eat for Heat,” a one-of-a-kind book by an author who really helped me heal my disordered eating habits back in 2012-2013 and improve my thyroid health after dieting. Now, you’ll notice that it has 3.5 stars on Amazon with plenty of terse 1-star reviews.
A book that tells you to deliberately eat more “junk” food is really hard for some people to handle, because it challenges their attachments to the idea of eating “healthy.” Remember that in the first sentence of this book I said intuitive eating is about letting go. The people that wrote negative reviews for that book largely have trouble letting go of ideas. They claim that it’s not researched, even though Matt Stone (the author) has case studies of his technique working in there. It may not work for everyone, but if you’re afraid of eating that slice of pizza because you think it’s “unhealthy” you really won’t know until you find out.
And that is exactly what intuitive eating is about. It’s about letting go and finding out what your body likes or does not like.
The Importance of Feelings
Recap: conventional nutrition is about logic. The intuitive approach to eating is about feeling. The nutrition science one is about objectivity, and intuition is all about subjectivity. When was the last time you heard someone talk about how the way you feel about food is an important indicator of whether or not it’s good for you? I haven’t.
When we eat intuitively, we focus more on the feelings and sensations around the act of eating. This includes preparation, smell, taste, as well as sight. Consider the raw paleo movement. Thankfully it’s pretty small. But raw paleo is based on logical assertions about the health benefits of eating raw meat. It’s also based on some intuitive aspects. If the people who created it felt terrible on the diet, they wouldn’t be able to sustain it. But they feel okay enough I suppose (or perhaps they don’t know how they’re feeling and aren’t listening to their bodies like many people who cling to strange dietary ideologies :o).
It takes no time to understand where the pitfalls of this diet are on an intuitive level. Eating raw meat is non-intuitive for me personally, because I don’t want to only eat raw meat. I crave other foods. I crave cooked foods. I don’t need any logic to back it up. It’s what my body knows to be true. Bam, done.
But through experience, I’ve also found that cooked meats give me more energy than raw meats (I tried eating raw paleo years ago…it was not my cup of tea). That also is intuitive. Those are feelings and memories that my intuition uses to guide me to making healthy choices for my body in the future.
Wait. How Does it Work?
This is a challenging but fascinating topic. Intuition is truly our sixth sense. I know it’s crazy. I know it’s not scientific. But I don’t care anymore. Reading science regularly for years has only strengthened my belief that we can pick up on signals from the universe, or from other people, using mechanisms that are beyond the brain and involve collective consciousness.
So essentially what you’re doing when you’re eating intuitively is you’re letting these signals come to you. It’s inexplicable. But, there are components of intuition which can be understood a bit more objectively as well. For example, when you look at a piece of lettuce and see brown spots or holes in it, you won’t want to eat it as badly as lettuce that looks healthier. This is also intuition and it’s stupidly simple.
When you crave a brownie (I was craving some kind of sweet treat last night, and didn’t get it, and more than twelve hours later I still want something sweet) it could indicate a variety of things. It could indicate a need for minerals and more nutrition in general in the diet. Many people eat lots of empty calories, and their bodies crave them more and more because they’re so empty. Your body needs to try a variety of foods in order to understand what it likes.
One of my clients for example started eating intuitively and now knows what kinds of meals give her more longer-lasting energy and keep her fuller for longer. Now, her intuition knows that certain meals and food combinations give her this feeling, a new memory is formed, and she can go back to it next time she’s hungry.
So in the case of sugar cravings and other “unhealthy” cravings, we have to learn through trial and error how our bodies respond. This takes considerable awareness on your part. When I first started eating sugar again to increase my metabolism, I felt pure bliss. It was like drinking water after walking through a dessert. My intuition told me that this was much needed for my body. But now, I don’t respond to sugar like that. I don’t need it as much, but in moderation it helps me feel balanced. I can’t get addicted to it because I know that I won’t feel good if I eat too much, and my body stops craving it after I get enough.
This is one of the most important points in Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch’s book “Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works.” Hunger signals are not a focus in my coaching sessions or in my upcoming book on intuitive eating. My methods involve understanding what intuition is, learning how to follow it, and once this is achieved, not only will you know when to start and stop eating, your intuition will aid you in the rest of your life.
But I must address hunger signals as most people who becoming interested in intuitive eating come from a background of eating disorders and restrictive dieting. The hunger mechanism can get screwed up from too much dieting. When I first began eating intuitively I had to eat a lot more than usual. I wasn’t entirely sure when I was full. But I ate until I didn’t want to anymore. I gained 18 pounds in a couple months and maintain that weight to this day (that was in 2014). My metabolism needed it. In 2014 I was exercising like a maniac, and although I was eating more food, my metabolism needed to heal further by me resting and exercising less.
So, if your hunger signals are messed up from restrictive dieting, intuitive eating will be a challenge at first. Eating more than you think you need may help you, but you can figure out if it’s working by paying close attention and listening to your body. Eventually, you’ll be able to regulate without any tracking whatsoever.
Now, I eat when I’m hungry, I know when I’m hungry, and stop eating when I’m full. It’s quite simple. I also know what signs I get when I’m hungry. My thinking will change, and I will just know that I won’t last too much longer without some food. By last, I mean I won’t be as productive in whatever I’m doing, and the cellular processes in my body just won’t run as smoothly.
My focus for the time being is to eat regular meals, never skip breakfast, and eat what I truly want, until my metabolism gets to the point where it could consider losing some fat again. But despite how many years I’ve been eating intuitively, I’ve still had habits from my restrictive dieting mentality of the past and from the desire to stay lean, that have prevented me from truly letting go and eating more. For example, I will often add a tiny bit of milk and sugar in my coffee, when my intuition really asks for much more milk and a little more sugar. Now when I drink chai or coffee, I add more and the taste is just so much better for me.
Intuitive Eating vs Eating Whatever You Want
Intuitive eating in many ways involves eating whatever you want, whenever you want, but I don’t like this language. My methods of intuitive eating involve understanding what you want in the first place. What we think we want from a logical perspective and based on the other memories and experiences we have may not always be what our bodies really really want.
An alcoholic for example may want more alcohol. Well, he or she isn’t eating intuitively by going for another sip of alcohol. Addiction derails intuition. And addiction involves attachment. So if you’re attached to a type of food based on a past memory, your craving for it may not be entirely intuitive.
Figuring out what your intuitive cravings are versus what your addictive cravings are takes some work and is beyond the scope of this post, but below we’ll work on a couple exercises to hone your intuition that can perhaps help.
Two tips on honing your intuition
So I think by now you’re understanding the basics of intuitive eating. It involves letting go, trying new things, and finding out how you feel. It involves turning our logical minds off, removing labels, and simply allowing our bodies to communicate to us. To get your intuition going, try these two visualization exercises below.
- Imagine yourself right now as a prehistoric human being who lived as a hunter-gatherer 100,000 years ago. You wouldn’t think about fats, proteins, carbs, or minerals. Instead, you’d think about what foods help you survive. What foods help you not get hungry again, and what foods of course make you feel good. Attempt to put yourself in that prehistoric state, free of food labels, and just look at food as a tool to help you feel better, give you energy, and keep you alive. Next time you get hungry or look at food, put yourself in this mental state, and let your intuition tell you
2. Now think about a friend, partner or person you really enjoy having in your life. Think about the way they make you feel. Now, think about who they are as a person. Their facts. Their resumes. Their jobs. Which aspect of them makes you like them? Is it their resumes or is it who they are as people? Unless you’re a sociopath, it’s who they are, because that ultimately determines how we feel around them. Similarly, imagine a food now, and do the same thing. Forget what the food is on paper. Think entirely now how it makes you feel, and what it really is on the inside and how it benefits your life, just like how the person you chose for this example does.
Intuitive eating is not a diet, and although there are some principles, there are no rules. It’s my recommended way to stop dieting forever and find a way to eat that optimizes your energy levels, mood, health, and vitality.
There’s a lot of confusion about intuitive eating however. It doesn’t mean the same thing as “eat whatever you want.” It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t any “bad” foods whatsoever. You can avoid certain types of food to achieve optimal health while following your intuition. (Read next, “5 Intuitive Eating Myths”)
Another benefit is less confusion on what to eat, with more freedom. It’s the opposite of the way most people are taught to think about “healthy” eating. Intuitive eating is the converse of the dietary guidelines set by the government.
There are no guidelines here. There is just you, food, and what you want. Then, there’s what works for you. And then, there’s remembering what that is, so you can guide yourself appropriately and freely to your next meal. There is no obsessive thoughts of food, because you have been satisfied by actually listening to your body for once. Enjoy your journey into the world of intuitive eating, and read part II: how to eat!