Intuitive Eating: 5 Common Pitfalls (That Will Keep You Diet-Binge Cycling)

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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

There’s a reason — many reasons, actually — I don’t teach “pure” Intuitive Eating.

For one thing, it’s really easy to get stuck in common Intuitive Eating traps. I know because I spent a solid amount of time on the “Intuitive Eating diet”, convinced I wasn’t dieting.

Certainly there’s enormous value in changing our behaviours around food and learning to eat based on our internal cues. But it’s our beliefs or mindset about what, how, and why we eat that truly reflect our freedom from dieting. As long as there are beliefs about what we should and shouldn’t be doing with food, an invisible line in the sand we shouldn’t cross, right and wrong ways of eating, we will continue to fan the flames of the diet mentality. When we stop judging our wants and needs with food — when there is nothing to pass or fail at — we create space for self-compassion, self-care, and self-acceptance. We create the safety required to leave diet culture behind in the dust and eat “normally.”

Obviously, this takes work. Our beliefs don’t come undone in a blog post (or in a single session), and diet culture is so pervasive that our unsupportive beliefs often fly under the radar.

So in the interim, let’s start with identifying the most common Intuitive Eating pitfalls. 

5 of the most common pitfalls I see in Intuitive Eating include the following:

 

  1. Treating hunger and fullness like a set of rules.

Hunger and fullness are like tour guides. They can teach you a lot about your body’s needs, but those cues are not all there is to the eating experience. Sure, there’s value in eating when you’re hungry and getting really full, especially at the beginning of your diet recovery. But this doesn’t mean you can’t eat when you’re not hungry, or that you need to stop when you’re full. There will be countless times when you want to eat something just because it sounds good — and times when you’re just not ready to stop eating yet.

We know from studies on hunger and fullness (see: The Minnesota Starvation Experiment) that “physical hunger” is not the only sign that we need food. This is especially true when people are in recovery from a clinical eating disorder and even from dieting. Emotional or mental hunger, sometimes referred to as cellular hunger, is totally valid. And of course there’s plenty of people who may not experience the physical sensation of hunger due to surgery, illness, or medication, but still want or need to eat for survival. 

Hunger and fullness offer an arguably healthier, more accurate method for eating than counting calories, carbohydrates, macronutrients, and so on. But there will be plenty of times when choosing to eat in the absence of identifiable hunger cues is the more intuitive decision — when fullness is inaccurate, when desire trumps bodily comfort. Intuitive Eating is not some kind of hunger and fullness diet. It’s a self-care framework.

2. Conflating “physical allowance” with unconditional permission to eat.

There are three main forms of food restriction — physical, emotional, and behavioural. While physically allowing for food is important and necessary, physical restriction is not the only form of restriction. Unconditional permission to eat isn’t just about eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full, but allowing all forms and reasons for eating. This includes really legalizing emotional eating and allowing it as a coping strategy, whether the emotion is sadness, fear, boredom, happiness, anger, or anything else. Note that the faster you can allow all types of eating, the faster peace with food will inevitably come.

If you’re allowing yourself to eat whatever you want but still find yourself binge eating or engaging in unsupportive eating behaviour, it’s a sign you’re still trying to control (e.g. restrict) food. Note that guilt and shame are also symptoms of restriction because they imply that we are doing something bad — or are bad — for eating.

3. Assuming you’re doing Intuitive Eating “wrong” if you still want sweets.

We’re wired to love sugar. I can totally understand how you might feel you’re doing Intuitive Eating “wrong” if you want and eat sweets given the cultural obsession with “sugar addiction” and sugar alternatives. But before I give my answer, can you imagine living without sweets? Do you want to live in a world without cookies, ice cream, candy? Do you want to spend your time avoiding sweets and judging yourself when you eat them, or do you want to enjoy them fully and completely? Do you want more peace and calm around sugar, or more stress and anxiety?

Many come into Intuitive Eating hoping that once they eat all the sugar, they just don’t want it anymore. But even when you “burn out” on certain foods from eating plenty of them you might find you still crave them eventually. There’s a number of reasons ex-dieters crave sweets and hyper-palatable foods that extends beyond the scope of this post. But know that it’s very normal and natural to continue to want sweets even after the habituation period is over because sweets are normal foods, too.

4. Using Intuitive Eating for weight loss.

You’re definitely on the Intuitive Eating diet if you’re using the modality to fulfill the hope of weight loss. Intuitive Eating isn’t a weight loss system. It’s a self-care practice for making peace with food so that you have mental real estate for other meaningful pursuits in your life (while taking sweet, sweet care of yourself.)

5. Expecting to eat purely for fuel.

Eating is a pleasurable experience. I know this is a tough pill for many of us to swallow. We’ve been taught deriving pleasure from food makes us gluttons or morally corrupt. The truth is, we are wired for pleasure (something I discuss at length in my book), and it serves so many important functions. While getting our needs met with food is important, it’s unrealistic to expect ourselves to only eat for fuel (like only eating when we’re hungry and stopping when we’re full.) Food is many things, including a source of joy. And it can be profoundly intuitive to derive comfort from food when we are deprived of social connection.

Bonus: Vastly undershooting your energy needs.

Many of us expect to get by on truly tiny amounts of food. It’s not our fault. After all, diets condition us to get by on completely inadequate calorie limits. You might be surprised to learn you need a lot more food than you think. Many people continue to binge eat or feel out-of-control around food because they’re still under-feeding their bodies (unbeknownst to them!)

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