How I Became an Intuitive Eater

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I’m Sarah (she/her), a Toronto-based writer, anti-diet nutritionist, and Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor. I teach folks how to have a healthy relationship with food and accept their natural body size.

Hi, I'm Sarah

While having wine with a friend — a common event around these parts — we got to talking about intuitive eating. That’s the problem with obsessions: they haunt you during the off-hours.

“What I would like to do is drink eight bourbon sours, eat a bag of chips, and follow it up with a poutine, but I know it’s not probably not the best, so I tend to make healthier choices. You know, like salad.” I understand this. I hear it. I get it.

Intuitive eating is part this, and part some other thing entirely.

We question intuitive eating. On some level, we feel we need guidelines and rules to live a healthy lifestyle. Someone to stand there with a stern look about her and a stick in hand and maybe a stained apron around her waist, advising us to eat our vegetables. Tell me what to do. As I flipped through the South Beach and Atkins books as a teenager, I could feel the anxiety rising up. The good foods, the bad foods, as concrete as the marble slab I take my photographs on. Intuitive eating would have been a fantasy, as elusive as as a fairy godmother or a twinkling firefly or you know, weight loss.

Should I count calories or fat grams? I distinctly remember heading out for ice cream with my family and a couple of my parent’s friends at the Waterfront. I chose what I thought was peach frozen yogurt — deemed an acceptable choice — but what turned out to be a scoop of creamy, satanic ice cream. I sat there fidgeting in my seat, questioning my order. Was it frozen yogurt? I was certain it wasn’t. My mother assured me it was.

As she talked, I blurted, “I think this is ice cream. Can I throw it out?” Moments later, it left its own milky residue against the black garbage bag. I wish I could say I regretted it, but I was too overcome with relief to notice much of anything. I was scared of so much at fifteen, but I wish I hadn’t counted food among those fears.

When I introduce people to the concept of intuitive eating, immediately they fear they will #eatallthethings. That, after years of being told to quit sugar or to never allow anything white to pass their lips or to fill up on frozen grapes, they will suddenly and irrationally and uncontrollably dive headfirst into an eternal binge.

For one thing, something called habituation settles in, where you get bored with what you’re eating. I mean, what would you think if I told you to eat chocolate ice cream for every meal? Initially you might feel pretty A-okay with it. But eventually you’re tire of it, long for grilled chicken salads or roasted potatoes or a bowl of split pea soup, and then you’d — gasp — say things like, “chocolate ice cream again?”

I became an intuitive eater by eating all of the things I’d previously denied myself, including foods that were too high in carbohydrates, deep-fried, or were simply things nutritionists shouldn’t eat. I ate Ethiopian stews over white rice (!!!). I kept ice cream and potato chips in the house (!!!), foods I’d previously binge on, to see if I could eat them and still feel sane using my newfound learnings. I ate sour gummy candy and stopped feeling guilty over my penchant for my glass of wine a night, particularly if it came with exceptional company and great conversation.

I started asking myself what I wanted to eat for meals and stopped pre-planning them. Sure, I made some things ahead of time, but instead of portioning things out, I ate whatever combination most appealed to me. I gave myself full, unconditional permission to call crackers and hummus lunch, to eat a processed protein bar on workshop-heavy days, and to drink however much coffee I deemed appropriate.

I think they call this trust.

Because of this, sometimes I choose dandelion tea instead of wine. I naturally gravitate towards kale salads, because I notice how much better I feel eating them. I drink more water, not because I’m told to, but because I feel more productive when optimally hydrated. I’ve started meditating. Sometimes eating means three square meals, and sometimes five large snacks; sometimes breakfast is eggs, bacon, and a bunch of greens, or avocado toast, or a couple scoops of plain yogurt between newspaper articles, or coffee until I realize I haven’t eaten. Sometimes it’s twice or three times as many calories as I used to allow myself, and sometimes meagre portions that leave me wondering where my love of food has gone.

I exercise however I like. Sometimes I prefer to go for long walks to clear my head, and sometimes I run for twenty minutes — not because I like running, becauseI don’t — but because it feels rewarding to push my lungs. I’ve realized I love pilates. And that starting now and into the new year, I want to learn how to lift heavy, which may seem light right now, given that most teenaged kids dwarf me.

What about your life would change if you gave yourself unconditional permission to enjoy all of it?

How to Become an Intuitive Eater

  1. Make a list of all the foods you feel you can’t keep in your house or find yourself overeating whenever they’re within arm’s reach. These foods can be things like cheesecake or clementines — it really doesn’t matter.

  2. Why do these foods make you feel a little cray?

  3. I’m going to ask you again. Why do these foods make you feel crazy? What about them scares you?

  4. How do you feel when you eat these foods? If you feel differently when eating different things, address each one separately.

  5. What do you think would happen if you allowed yourself to eat these foods? This is an unconditional, very liberated allowance, by the way.

  6. How do you feel about eating these foods in the company of other people?

  7. If you’re worried others would judge you or make you feel ashamed for choosing these foods, why do you feel this way?

  8. Go back as far as you can. When did you start classifying foods as “good” or “bad”, “healthy” or “unhealthy”?

  9. What prompted this practice?

  10. Homework: when grocery shopping, I want you to look around the store. Observe everything on offer. Resist the urge to judge. Instead, go by how you feel. What appeals to you? Notice the colours of the fruits and vegetables. What looks fresh? What do you feel like eating? When walking by the bakery department, what looks delicious? How would you enjoy it? Would you serve it with a cup of tea or coffee? Enjoy it with a friend over a glass of red wine?

  11. Next, I want you to select something “forbidden” — except this time, it’s on emotionally neutral ground. I want you to imagine a world where salt and vinegar potato chips, cheeseburgers, and pizza aren’t “bad foods.” Of course, we know vegetables are more nutritious, but this doesn’t mean alternatives to them don’t belong in a healthy diet. I want you to sit down at the table. Serve yourself a helping of this food. How much of it do you want to eat? Pay attention to the way it feels in your mouth, its flavours and textures, and any aromas. Avoid distractions or anything that would take away from the experience. Just taste. When you have had enough, put it away, knowing you can have it again at any time.

  12. Write down your feelings about the experience.

Want out of the diet cycle for good? Here’s how we can work together:

  1. Work with me 1:1. Together we’ll review your current relationship with food and your body, discuss your goals for our time together, and help you to feel safe with food and your body without #dietmath.
  2. New to Intuitive Eating and a non-diet approach? My book, Enjoy It All: Improve Your Health and Happiness with Intuitive Eating offers a guide to finding peace with food for good.

I attended an event this week featuring Molly Wizenberg, voice behind the legendary Orangette. On the dedication page, she wrote, enjoy it all. I love those three words, and I hope you carry them with you.

intuitive eater

Comments +

  1. Odile Sacoche says:

    Thanks for this great blogpost.
    My only goals this year is to love myself. Become an intuive eater is a part of this goal.
    I like this way of eating and I feel I can do it !
    Thank you for the advices <3

    • Sarah Berneche says:

      Aw thank you so much for the sweet words!

      I love your goal! Intuitive eating can certainly go a long way to helping a person love themselves (in my highly biased opinion ;)). I hope I can help you to manifest your resolution.

      Merci pour vos commentaires, Odile!

  2. Glenn Coco says:

    Hey, what about feeling bad for eating meat, not because you think is unhealthy, but because you think is unethical and environmentally not so good?

    • Sarah Berneche says:

      Hey Glenn! Apologies for the delayed response. If your decision is motivated by ethics/morals, then that’s considered OK.

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