Intuitive Eating Intro: Is Eating What You Want Anti-Health?

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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

Hey there! I’m so excited to announce that I’m hosting a FREE live masterclass on Thursday, January 28 at 12pm. The Enjoy It All Method: How to Take the Bite Out of Food Guilt and Find Food Freedom is going to address 3 BIG reasons you haven’t been able to stop dieting or binge eating, one of top strategies for decoding weight loss goals and feeling more comfortable in your current body, and the main reason you’re struggling to embody IE — that no one’s talking about. <<Click to sign up>>

Do you believe Intuitive Eating is “anti-health”?

You’re not alone.

It can be tough to imagine how eating what you want, when you want can possibly be “healthy.” And if you’re new to Intuitive Eating or haven’t read much about it, you might mistake eating according to the wisdom of your body as nothing more than a free-for-all.

I get it because I’ve been there. 

Repeat After Me: Intuitive Eating Is Not a Set of Rules

Before I really committed myself to Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size®, it seemed like the anti-diet community lived on donuts and pizza. A quick scan of Intuitive Eating Instagram hashtags and you might be thinking the same! Can I eat a salad as an Intuitive Eater? What about green juice? Should I only be doing fun, basic movement, or am I allowed to lift weights? What am I “allowed” to eat on intuitive Eating?

When we’re still withdrawing from dieting, we can easily turn this self-care framework into another set of rules to live by, rather than a bridge to embodiment. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with eating donuts and pizza, Intuitive Eating is not about what you eat or how the food looks. If you ask me, it’s an ongoing practice about knowing what you want (work in itself) and having the experience of getting it.

Healing from Diet Culture Trauma

And it’s a slippery slope. Mindset — intention — ultimately determines whether something is Intuitive or not. Yet, re-introducing “wellness” foods too soon, or those associated with your dieting days, can trigger or perpetuate restrictive thinking. So yes, all foods can fit in your Intuitive Eating practice — including vegetables! — but if you’re still uncomfortable eating a wide range of foods, it might be too soon for you to consider gentle nutrition. If you’ve spent months, years, or decades living on diet foods, you might just benefit from eating more high-fat, high-sugar foods than you’re accustomed to as a pathway to healing from the effects of chronic physical and emotional restriction. I know kale and quinoa get all the credit when we talk about “nutrient dense” foods, but I’d argue donuts and Doritos give us exactly what we need when we’re processing what is often decades of diet culture trauma.

“Health” is Complex

I also want to acknowledge that “health” is far more complex than diet and exercise, and that the pursuit of health is not a moral imperative. Nobody owes anyone else “health”, however you define that, and people have the right to choose not to move their bodies or eat nutritious foods if they choose to. Intuitive Eating is intimately aligned with Health at Every Size®, after all, which promotes body liberation and body autonomy.  Your body, your choice.

But if you are concerned with honouring your well-being, here’s 5 ways Intuitive Eating does just that — whether you’re totally green or more “advanced”:

  1. Intuitive Eating is Founded on Self-Care.

    Unlike the rigid rules and prescriptions endorsed by diet culture, Intuitive Eating is rooted in self-care. In fact, it’s challenging to eat intuitively when your body is not getting its basic needs met. Intuitive Eating promotes balanced and regular eating, getting adequate rest and sleep, having some kind of spiritual practice (religious or otherwise), taking breaks, moving joyfully (if available), developing hobbies and pastimes, connecting with others, drinking water, and generally taking holistic care of ourselves.

    While goal-setting is a part of Intuitive Eating, it’s generally filtered through the lens of flexibility. For example, you might plan to add a vegetable to your dinner nightly or lift weights three times per week. But maybe you want pepperoni pizza one night and don’t want a vegetable — that’s cool! Or maybe you generally lift weights three times per week, but on a planned workout day, you come down with a cold and decide to take the day off. Intuitive Eating is all about honouring your physical needs and your emotional ones without guilt or shame. Health is an ongoing practice, not another goal on the checklist to achieve.

  2. Intuitive Eating is a mindfulness-based practice that helps us to re-connect with our bodies.

    While dieting disconnects us from our bodies — particularly from our hunger and fullness signals — Intuitive Eating helps us to come home to our bodies. Intuitive Eating is a dynamic interplay of instinct, emotion, and thought, and asks us to tune into how a food tastes as well as how it might digest, energize us, and fill us up. At its core, Intuitive Eating is a mindfulness-based practice considerate of the entirety of the eating experience.

    Many mistakenly believe that Intuitive Eating is purely instinctual — which couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, instinct plays a role, but it’s just a part. And I’d argue it’s easier to make food choices that honour the needs of our tastebuds and our bodies when we don’t restrict food and activate the sympathetic branch (fight-or-flight) of our nervous system.

  3. Intuitive Eaters have higher self-esteem, as well as a greater acceptance and appreciation for their bodies.

    This says it all, doesn’t it? While food restriction has been linked to disordered eating, clinical eating disorder symptomatology, and poor body image, Intuitive Eating asks us to challenge self-objectification by its very existence, and give airplay to the wants and needs of our body. Rather than ask yourself whether you can have, say, a brownie, Intuitive Eating asks whether you want the brownie, how much of it you want, whether you want it now, whether you might want to serve it with something else (whipped cream? Raspberries?), if you want to eat dinner first, how it might feel in your belly, whether it’ll give you the energy you’re looking for, and so on; with movement, the focus is on internal motivation and how the movement makes you feel. All of this promotes holistic health.

  4. Intuitive Eaters do less emotional eating and engage in less disordered eating, and derive more pleasure from food.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with emotional eating — I’ve spoken at length about legalizing emotional eating and treating it as just one tool for coping with strong emotion — it can’t help you truly process an event or experience the way, say, speaking with a therapist can. That said, many people I work with are looking to feel more in charge of their emotional eating rather than being routinely swept away by it, or find their emotional eating interferes with their quality of life. Yes, all of us eat emotionally sometimes — including yours truly! — but Intuitive Eaters do generally do it far less than dieters and feel no guilt or shame for doing so. For example, I don’t know many Intuitive Eaters who refer to their emotional eating as emotional eating. In fact, we consider emotional eating a regular and normal part of the eating experience. Ordering pizza on a Friday night after a long week can totally serve as an act of self-care, as can going for ice cream because it’s the first hot, sunny day of the year (I can’t be the only one dreaming about this.)

5. Studies demonstrate or suggest that Intuitive Eaters have better health outcomes than dieters.

Over 120 research studies conducted on Intuitive Eating show many positive health outcomes, including: improved cholesterol levels (higher HDL, the “healthy” cholesterol); improved metabolism; decreased inflammation; and more overall satisfaction from life. Anecdotally, many of my past clients have experienced digestive improvements, a reduction in anxiety and depression, and more peace and calm around food and in general, especially when Intuitive Eating is coupled with some somatic approaches.

Over to you: What questions do you have about pursuing health within an Intuitive Eating framework?

If you’re interested in learning more about Intuitive Eating, be sure to get a copy of my signature framework for finding food freedom by <<clicking here>>. You’ll also get an invite to my upcoming masterclass, “The Enjoy It All Method: Take the Bite Out of Food Guilt and Find Food Freedom.”

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