First, a word about what intuitive eating is. In our culture, we are often taught that we cannot trust ourselves to guide our food choices. Instead, we use apps to track our calories and macronutrients, food models and sections of our hands to dictate portion sizes, and various books and online resources that tell us which foods to eat and which ones to avoid.
Eating based on external factors is problematic and often unnecessary. These behaviors instill and reinforce issues of guilt and deprivation regarding our food choices, and they also give the impression that some algorithm knows better than our bodies how we should be eating, which is typically nonsense.
Our bodies are actually quite good at guiding our eating behaviors – young children, for example, are generally great at knowing when, what, and how much to eat (that is, until we screw them up by teaching them to override these cues). We just have to get back to listening to and trusting our bodies again, and that is what intuitive eating is about.
The way I sometimes explain it to patients is to recall Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and discuss that in nutrition we have a similar structure. At the base, someone needs food. Period. If food security is an issue – and such scarcity can be brought on by external issues like finances or access, or they can be self-imposed, such as by dieting – then not much else matters. At the very top is medical nutrition therapy, which is how we eat in order to manage issues with our health, such as high blood pressure.
The middle layer is comprised of our relationship with food: How do we decide what, when, and how much to eat? People oftentimes want to jump right to the top, which is understandable. After all, if someone is concerned about a medical condition, of course they want to dive right in and talk about how they can help the issue through food. The problem, though, is that if we ignore the middle layer, then we do not have a proper context for incorporating the medical nutrition therapy, which can consequently come across as a diet.
Situations do exist in which jumping right to the top is the best course of action. If someone comes in with Celiac disease, for example, discussing matters like safe and unsafe foods, hidden ingredients, and cross-contamination will be high on our to-do list. The difference between this kind of scenario and most others is that with Celiac disease, the issue is more black and white: unsafe foods for this person really do exist and the patient must completely abstain from them. The same could be said for someone who comes in with a life-threatening food allergy.
In contrast, most nutrition-related conditions, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and blood sugar concerns, exist in a gray area. We have guidelines, but not rules, so the patient is going to have to make food decisions every single time they eat. Do they really want to be relying on some app, meal plan, or an oversimplified list of “good” and “bad” foods to tell them what to eat for the rest of their lives, or do they want to develop a healthier relationship with food that will enable them to incorporate the medical nutrition therapy in a way that still honors their hunger/fullness cues and cravings? That is why we focus on intuitive eating as a precursor to medical nutrition therapy.
With all that said, the most common way I find that people misuse intuitive eating is the belief that if they eat when they are hungry, stop when they are full, and eat the foods that their bodies seem to be asking for, they will automatically lose weight. This belief is understandable; after all, the idea of energy balance (calories in versus calories out) is so pervasive in our society that people just assume that if they reduce how much they eat, then of course they will lose weight.
In reality, while energy balance is certainly true from a thermodynamic point of view, our bodies are complex open systems, and the math is not as straightforward as our apps would have us believe. If someone consumes a 100-calorie slice of bread, the number of calories he actually absorbs from it will depend on factors such as his genetics and his gut microbiome, whereas someone else could eat that same slice of bread and absorb a different amount of calories. Furthermore, calories consumed affect our calories expended (Think of someone whose metabolism slows as a result of restriction.), so the two sides of energy balance are not as independent as many believe.
Despite my warnings, some patients still believe that if they just learn to eat intuitively, they will lose weight. Thus, they treat intuitive eating as a diet, which is a setup for failure. Time and time again, I have seen such people develop some basic intuitive eating skills early on, but their progress stalls as soon as their weight loss does. Someone might be able to keep one foot in the weight loss and intuitive eating worlds for a short while, but quickly this straddling leads to stumbling.
In order to extensively rediscover our intuitive eating skills, we absolutely must ditch any expectations regarding physical changes, such as weight or body composition, that our bodies will make as a consequence of our pursuits. In other words, if you are using intuitive eating to lose weight, then really you are just dieting, and the results are probably going to be as dismal as they would be with any other weight loss pursuit.
As many of you know, a lot of the work that Jonah and I do with our clients is around helping them become intuitive eaters. While on the surface the concept of intuitive eating seems quite simple – eat what you are hungry for in the amount that feels comfortable and satiating to your body – there are a number of complicating factors that can get in the way of an individual being able to do this. In some cases, even though an individual might truly want to be an intuitive eater, they might not really be able to do so. The clearest example of this is when I am working with patients struggling with eating disorders (ED).
When an individual engages in eating disorder behaviors, such as restriction, bingeing, purging, or overexercise, oftentimes this will take a toll on their digestive system and their ability to distinguish hunger and fullness cues. As such, I have heard from many patients that they either never feel hungry or never feel full (or in some cases, they cannot even describe what hunger/fullness feels like to them). Since being an intuitive eater depends on the individual being able to not only recognize their hunger and fullness cues but also be able to attend to these cues appropriately, those individuals with ED can find it to be nearly impossible to eat intuitively.
Patients who come to see me and are early on in their recovery process will often bring in with them a meal plan they have been following. In general, I am not usually a fan of meal plans, as I discuss here, but in some cases, they are necessary to help individuals with EDs reestablish their hunger and fullness cues. Making sure that the body is receiving 3 meals and a few snacks throughout the day helps to undo some of the damage that the ED has done to these cues. The body comes to expect that it will be fed at regular intervals; therefore, you will feel hungry at certain times. Feeling hungry periodically is a normal body process, a survival mechanism that tells you when your energy stores are low and your body needs fuel. When a patient with an ED goes long periods of time without eating or not eating enough, the body actually habituates to its hunger signals, and eventually the individual cannot even recognize or feel hunger. Meal plans are an essential step (for some) to get their body back into a natural rhythm of fueling their body when they are hungry.
Sometimes when I have been working for a short while with a patient struggling with ED, they will express the desire to try eating intuitively. While helping my patients become intuitive eaters is the ultimate goal in my work, it is not something I often dive into headfirst with my ED patients. On a number of occasions, I have had individuals try to eat intuitively too soon in their recovery process, and they will find themselves either not eating enough (as they still do not have accurate hunger cues) or eating more than their body is asking for due to a fear of getting hungry.
I like to encourage these patients to try out an approach that is halfway between meal plan and intuitive eating. To achieve this, I will use a “modified” intuitive eating meal plan as a stepping stone to intuitive eating. The plan typically involves having the patient eat every 3-4 hours (during waking hours, of course!) and making sure that they have carbohydrate, protein, fat, and either a fruit or vegetable at each meal. Instead of specifying that the patient needs to have X number of carbohydrate exchanges, I give more of a range (e.g., “have 2-4 carbohydrate exchanges at breakfast”) as this gives the patient some flexibility to eat more if they are hungry for it or eat a bit less if they are not. In a way, it is giving the patient some intrinsic choice around their food while still giving them the structure that their body needs. Once the patient has mastered this “in-between” meal plan for a substantial period of time, we would discuss trying to work on eating more intuitively.
In the end, the goal is to help my patients learn to trust their body’s innate wisdom – that it will tell them when they are hungry, what they are hungry for, and how much is enough to satisfy them. As long as the individual does not jump into intuitive eating too quickly (i.e., before they are ready), they will be well on their way to developing a healthier relationship with food and their body.