Most people think they know what it means to eat intuitively, but some of the ideas are easily confusing. I wrote an article last month about my journey to Intuitive Eating and why I use it in practice when appropriate as a Registered Dietitian. This month, I want to take you through some common myths and misconceptions about intuitive eating (I even had these when learning about the method!) and give a little bit of an explanation for each.
Intuitive Eating is a method of eating coined by two registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. It is an eating approach about making peace with food and honoring your body’s hunger and fullness signals. The goals were to reduce anxiety, body image concerns, disruptive eating behaviors and beliefs, and to assist in discovering the pleasure and satisfaction in eating food. Tribole and Resh weaved together 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating that incorporate both physical cues of hunger, as well as mental and emotional cues of hunger.
The best example I can give someone as an elevator pitch is to eat the way kids eat. If you watch a child who has not had much exposure to diet culture, you’ll notice that they eat whatever they want, when they are hungry. They will ask for snacks or food when they are hungry and will refuse food when they are full. When given a wide array of foods with no prejudgement, they will sometimes choose the cookies and sometimes not. Sometimes they’ll like the garbanzo beans and sometimes they’ll want the broccoli.
While that paints a good picture, there are always some nuances and specifics, so let’s break it down by addressing common myths and misconceptions about Intuitive Eating.
Myth #1: I’ll just keep gaining weight!
Intuitive eating doesn’t mean nor guarantee that you’ll lose or gain weight. Intuitive eating will most likely lead you to be within the range of your natural set point but there really is no telling what that could look like. There are many factors that contribute to what the natural set point of your body is, and it is more than just what we eat. Some people end up at a higher weight, and some end up at a lower weight, but it’s a weight that is effortless to maintain when food is no longer the focus but rather hunger, satiety, and satisfaction are valued.
One more point is that it is near impossible to know exactly what the body will do as a result of your eating (and even exercise) habits. We can predict based on labs tests, metabolism, diet history, family history, etc., but it’s hard to actually know.
Myth #2: No dieting? “I’ll never stop eating _______!”
When I am with a client and mention intuitive eating, a response I usually get is that they will eat an ungodly amount of their most “forbidden” food. Someone who is not yet an intuitive eater may not understand that intuitive eating isn’t just a “green light forever” guideline, but rather a method to honor and nourish your body by considering your hunger, what food sounds great to eat at the moment, and how your body might feel after. Eating pizza all day might sound great, but we all know how uncomfortable it would feel to eat every pizza in sight.
After many times of allowing yourself to eat however much of your favorite food you like, you might find it’s not so novel or amazing. Dieters often covet the one thing they don’t allow themselves. Once you get into the swing of intuitive eating, you’ll learn that you can eat cookies any time you want and not just on cheat days. Most people would choose to eat the cookies when they are in a way that is enjoyable or truly pleasant – which can be really any time!
I’ve noticed this in myself as well. I was obsessed with getting acai bowls all the time a few years ago. I’d go almost every week, probably spending enough to pay for a modest wardrobe change. I took about a week-long break going out of town and when I came back, something about the acai bowls just didn’t vibe with me. I would get it a few times but each time I never felt satisfied. I realized I was passing through this phase and my body decided it didn’t want or need that anymore. I realized it was time to move on to something else. I do it with my daily meals as well. I went through a toast phase a few months ago and now I’m with oatmeal. Some of us are creatures of habit and when we are intuitively eating, going along with what the body craves is part of the habit.
Myth #3: “I eat intuitively, so I eat whatever I want, whenever I want”
While this is technically true, it is usually said in a way that puts “whatever” and “whenever” in a negative view. My response to this one is: What is the harm in eating what we want, whenever we want? When you start intuitively eating, all rules around food are lifted. This means meal times, meal portions, meal components. Of course, we consider other factors that are fair, but it is possible to meet a middle ground between satisfying, and mindful of nutrition at the same time. Intuitive eating also teaches you to respect your body, which means minding when you don’t feel good and when you feel nourished.
We won’t always want to eat 3 full plates from a buffet just like we won’t always want to eat something sweet. Paying attention to physical hunger cues to tell us when we want to eat vs controlling when we eat. If you embark on a juice fast, for example, you may want to eat when it’s over, but your body may tell you otherwise in a few hours.
Myth #4: Intuitive Eating simply means “stop when you feel full”
This seems to be what food freedom is in a nutshell, but that isn’t the whole truth. You can be eating intuitively and still choose to eat dessert after a hearty dinner. It might be confusing because two of the Intuitive Eating principles are about honoring your hunger and feeling your fullness. But these are just 2 of the 10 principles of Intuitive eating and to be an intuitive eater, it is wise to use all of them accordingly. Only eating when you’re hungry may lead you to missing out on a great culinary experience. Stopping when you’re full may cause you to be hungry sooner than you think or to undereat (especially when recovering from disordered eating or newly starting a plant-based diet).
We sometimes need to eat before we’re hungry in preparation for an event ahead of time (i.e. if you have a meeting that will be during dinner time and you may get hungry during the meeting). After making peace with food, eating without hunger for social reasons or pure pleasure is not as scary as it once was.
The main point is that when we intuitively eat, we consider what our bodies and minds are asking without giving more rules and restrictions.