Does Intuitive Eating Mean I Can Eat Whatever I Want?
I’ve heard that intuitive eating means I can eat whatever I want, whenever I want it. Is that true?
This is a really common misconception about intuitive eating. When I tell a client that she should begin to pay attention to her body’s signals and ask herself “what does my body want to eat?”, she commonly retorts: “My body says it wants donuts and wine! That can’t be healthy!” And she’s right. It’s not.
There’s a big difference between what your body wants and what your mind desires. Intuitive eating does not mean giving in to all your heart’s desires or stuffing yourself silly! It’s not an excuse to continue eating junk food! In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Practiced in the correct context with the correct mindset, an intuitive eater begins to discern between emotional hunger, physical hunger, and foods that actually make the body feel good.
But a person’s experience with intuitive eating, especially initially, also depends on where she is when she begins her journey…
Different stories, different intuitive eating journeys
To understand the full story, you must understand that different people are in different places, both emotionally and physically, when they start their intuitive eating journey.
When I started my IE journey I was a “weight suppressor”. I had been using strict diets, fasting, and extreme exercise to force my body to an unnatural level of leanness. I was actually very fearful of food and eating. Despite my attempts to control everything I ate, I felt totally out of control.
I lived in constant fear of myself. I believed I could lose control at any moment…and I frequently did, especially around anything containing sugar. I thought I was addicted to sugar and I tried to avoid it like a recovering cocaine addict. But avoidance was only making my problem worse and by the end of my dieting career, I was bingeing on sugar at least once a week. My trust in myself was at an all-time low.
So when I began my journey with intuitive eating, I actually did have to eat whatever I wanted. I needed to prove to myself that it wasn’t about the food…that I wouldn’t actually eat myself to death…that I could still trust myself.
So, for the first several weeks all I really wanted to eat was donuts. So that’s what I ate. Then it was bread and butter. Then it was cake. Then it was peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
It comes as no surprise that these were all the foods I would never allow myself to have – unless I was in the middle of a binge, of course — at which time I was eating massive quantities of these “forbidden foods” and feeling incredibly guilty and scared.
I had to systematically go through all the foods that I never allowed myself to have and all the foods I feared. I had to prove to myself that I could be trusted with these foods: that if I simply allowed myself to have them and enjoy them, I would – eventually – stop eating them.
This part of my IE journey was really frightening, especially since I was also terribly afraid of gaining weight, and I knew I’d probably gain at least a few pounds. But the diets were no longer working, I was bingeing more and more, and I was gaining weight anyway. So I threw caution to the wind, threw out my scale, and committed to this “intuitive eating” thing. And it worked.
At first, I did gain weight because I wanted donuts every day for every meal. I also frequently overate in the beginning — after all my brain and body were pretty convinced that I’d restrict again, so they were trying to get all they could while it was available. But after a few weeks of eating only donuts, then eating only bread and butter, and then eating only cake…my body said: “I want eggs and a salad…because the sugar is making me feel terrible…and eggs and veggies would make me feel really good right now”.
After that breakthrough, I was astonished at how often I chose (rather than forced myself) to eat healthy foods. I was floored to find that I really could be satisfied by just a few bites of a dessert. For the first time in years, I could voluntarily stop eating, even if there was still food on my plate. Most of all, I learned that I didn’t want to feel like shit from overeating or eating junk food all the time. The binges stopped and my weight stabilized and started coming down.
If intuitive eating doesn’t mean eat whatever I want, what does it mean? How does it differ for someone who hasn’t struggled with disordered eating patterns and just wants to get healthy and lose weight?
I started having problems with food, overeating, and binge eating because I took healthy eating and exercise to obsessively restrictive levels. So, yes, I had to eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted it in the beginning of my intuitive eating journey. But this won’t be the way everyone experiences intuitive eating.
If you don’t identify as a person who has major emotional food struggles, yet still tends to overeat and/or eat poorly, your IE journey will be very different than mine. Intuitive eating is not an excuse to continue eating whatever you want, whenever you want it, or to continue eating junk food.
For the woman who wants to get healthy and lose weight, intuitive eating can help her eat less and make better food choices by helping her do the following:
Pay attention to her body’s hunger signals so that she learns to eat before she’s ravenous.
Help her understand her food patterns. There are often good reasons for wanting to eat when not hungry, wanting to eat late at night, wanting to eat crunchy foods like chips, or craving salty and/or sweet snacks.
Slow down enough during meals to encourage awareness of her body’s subtle “I’m full” signal.
Connect the dots between what she eats and how food makes her feel physically. When she makes the connection between a lunch-time Big Mac and that horrible bloated, headache-y, and lethargic feeling she has an hour later, it eventually becomes much easier to make better choices.
Intuitive eating is, above all, a way to learn to honor the body. At its core, that means eating the right foods in the right amounts because it makes your body feel good.
If you’re looking for additional help and want to get started on your intuitive eating journey, join my online course! The next group starts on February 1st and there’s plenty of room for YOU! Click here for more info and get signed up today!
Blog Author: Kelly Bailey, IIN certified holistic nutrition coach, and NPTI certified personal trainer
Learn more about the author here.