Intuitive Eating has been a personal journey for me. Although I’ve used the science and practices of it in my work with disordered eating I’ve never made a point about what it’s meant for me and it’s never been the main focus of my work. However, recently a lot of people have asked me about it and I’ve decided I’m ready to share both my experience and enthusiasm for this way of relating to food.
About six or seven years ago I was trying really hard to be healthy and felt like it was a huge effort. I was aware of calories, I often tried to eat a bit less, tried a diet here or there and was always looking for a way to eat the way I thought I should: salads and lean protein - good, most things I liked - bad. I felt guilty when I had candy and sometimes ate lots of food and snacks in the evenings after being “good” the whole day. I wasn't unhappy - lots of other things in my life were good, but I just wasn't relaxed around food. I thought it was me, I just couldn’t do it, I couldn’t eat right, I didn’t have enough discipline or willpower.
I was a personal trainer back then, before becoming a counsellor, and I exercised more than now. Through my work I came to learn a lot about nutrition - I helped clients plan their diets and I tested all the different diets myself. I mixed my own protein shakes to enhance my sports performance. It was a time of lots of trial and error; it was interesting but a bit exhausting, never settling for any one approach. Then one day I stumbled upon a nutritionist who talked about a more relaxed relationship to food. His advice in a nutshell was to stick to the basics and not worry too much about the details. He talked about eating as an important part of life, but certainly not the only one.
That was my first introduction to Intuitive Eating, and since then I haven’t been on a diet. I'm done with them. I’ve gone through major life transitions – including getting married and moving to a new country with all the challenges it entailed – and none of them has influenced my weight or my eating in any big way. Food, eating, exercise – there's a flow to them that supports and balances my days so that I can focus on the things that are important to me.
Intuitive Eating is about a lot of things. It’s about learning to trust your body and to follow its lead. It’s about learning to recognize signals of hunger and fullness and let them guide your eating. It’s about balancing out your eating nutritionally so that your body gets what it needs in a fairly predictable way. On special occasions you eat whatever and enjoy the novelty of it, but those occasions are not as special as they used to be because you kind of eat what you like most days anyway.
In the beginning Intuitive Eating isn’t very intuitive, because you’re learning. You work on tasting the food, eating slowly and being present while you’re eating. You explore how you really feel about foods that you’ve had cravings for. Some of them you will keep eating, some of them will become less interesting, but here’s the thing – you will most likely start reacting less to them in the long run. I used to think I couldn’t have candy in the house – now it gathers dust in corners in the cupboard. Not because I don’t eat it, but because I eat it whenever I want I also sometimes forget about it when I don’t want it. I’m not constantly aware of the candy in the cupboard.
Intuitive Eating is also about taking morality and black-and-white thinking out of the equation. There aren’t good or bad foods – just different foods for different reasons, situations, and people. That voice in your head that says “don’t have that chocolate cake you love because it’s BAD – or have it but only if you’re going to the gym later” – that voice can be challenged. Sure – living on only white bread, chocolate and pizza wouldn’t work in the long run, but none of those foods are bad when they just come around now and then. And enjoyment is an essential part of eating. If you enjoy what you eat, you have less cravings because you’re much more satisfied in general. Cravings are not part of your personality; they are usually results of having a deprived diet, either nutritionally or experientially.
The last part of Intuitive Eating is about learning to experience emotions instead of trying to make them go away by distracting ourselves with eating, exercising, watching Netflix – any activity that has a numbing effect. For many of the people I work with this is the hardest part – emotional eating is something we often learn early on in our childhood and come to rely on. It’s very common and it’s definitely not the worst coping mechanism out there – but if it’s around too much it can be stressful and unhelpful, and lead to health issues as well. Building up other ways of coping is great in the long run and you might find out that feelings you’ve run away from are not as bad as they seemed. You might even find that they were just chasing you to try to tell you something.