I’ve been wanting to write a post like this for a while, so when someone told me the other day that she could never be an intuitive eater because “people just eat nacho cheese all day, ignore their health, and gain weight,” I decided that it was time.
I mean, let’s not hate on nacho cheese…
But also, I really appreciated her comment because I think it touches upon three fears that people often have when they discover intuitive eating: permission to eat foods previously off limits; health; & weight.
Let’s talk about permission to eat all foods, which is also sometimes referred to as food legalization or my favorite of “making peace with foods.”
Many people come to intuitive eating after years of dieting and following certain food rules. When I think about my own journey, I came to intuitive eating with a history that had made most every food off limit at one point or another because of all the different diets and detoxes I had followed (think: sugar, caffeine, dairy, beans, grains, meat, eggs, nightshade veggies, starches, fruit, nuts, seeds… the whole gang is here!). There were a lot of “shoulds” swirling around in my head, which naturally made it hard to hear what my body actually needed. So, at the beginning of the process there was a season of making peace with all foods (with the exception of gluten, since I have Celiac disease). I had to learn that my morality wasn’t tied to my decision to eat a bowl of ice cream over a bowl of kale. I had to let go of a lot of guilt and judgement about myself around certain foods. I had to overcome a lot of fear. For me personally, and for SO many women who I know, this is just essential. Without this step, certain foods hold pretend power over us – which can trigger binges, make it incredibly hard (if not impossible) to hear what we really need, and also falsely affect our worth.
So, I think the misconception that intuitive eaters just sit around all day drenching ourselves in nacho cheese comes from the idea of food legalization.
I am going to be 100% honest: I ate a lot of things regularly during this phase that I don’t eat regularly now. I wasn’t worried about how food made me feel physically when I was making peace with foods, I was focused on feeling SAFE with them. I had a whole month where I was committed to making peace with dairy. I ate yogurt daily, so much half and half in my coffee, and cheese on eveeerrrryyyything. While dairy doesn’t feel amazing in my tummy (I will spare you the details), that took a backseat for me in favor of feeling safe to eat it. Once I got to a place where I no longer saw dairy as the devil or myself as a failure when I ate it, I could then have conversations with myself like “how does this yogurt make you feel? Is that how you want to feel today?” without judgement or guilt. Today, dairy (including nacho cheese) doesn’t feel scary or bad to me at all. It is just a food like any other food. It has no power and I can feel totally relaxed around it, allowing me to make choices that honor my own body.
I also had to make peace with things like salads, too. Because it’s not all about feeling safe with baked goods and tortilla chips, I also had to let go of thoughts I had about “good foods,” too! Like, no Simi you aren’t a better person if you drink a green juice. I had to knock some of those “clean” foods off the pedestal, again so I would be able to feel calm enough to honor my body.
If you’ve never struggled with food guilt, binges, or restriction, then talking about making peace with foods might seem silly. But, for those of us who have, it is a really big deal.
So, while intuitive eating isn’t all nacho cheese for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it also might mean making peace with nacho cheese if that’s a food you struggle with.
Are there any foods that would feel good to make peace with?
Now, onto health.
Our culture is so diet-centric and we have been led to believe that going on a diet is the way to be healthy. I have been there! I get it! But let’s just look at it for a second…
Let me ask you this… do you think the following things would help someone to experience true health?
- Ignoring body’s hunger signals in favor of eating at a time and in a quantity determined by someone who has no idea about a specific person’s condition, needs, or what it feels like to live in that person’s body
- Skipping out on human connection in favor of ensuring that you can count everything in your food
- Eating in a way that is unsustainable in the long term, triggers your body’s survival mechanisms which result in a binge, and ultimately make your body’s weight set point rise
- Determining how you are allowed to feel about yourself and what you’re allowed to do in your life based on your most recent food choice or the number on the scale
- Living with an all or nothing mentality
- Letting the number on the scale be the main indicator of health
- Exercising for calorie or fat burn, regardless of how it makes you feel physically or mentally
- Following a plan that has been proven to fail in 95% of cases, yet still makes you feel like a failure
- Neglecting mental, physical, and emotional needs in favor of a definition of health that really means “skinny,” and is being modeled by people who (1) may or may not be actually healthy and (2) often don’t even look like what you’re seeing because of photoshop
Healthy or unhealthy?
Now, let me ask you this… do you think the following things would help someone to experience true health?
- Taking intentional steps to reconnect with the body’s natural signals
- Learning to speak with compassion, honesty, and respect to yourself
- Trading judgement for curiosity, so that you can learn more about yourself and your needs
- Developing the skills to nourish and nurture yourself, balancing your physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual needs depending on the situation and circumstances
- Feeling safe, rather than terrified or triggered, around food, so that you can make empowered and calm choices about what would feel good to you
- Listening to your body’s messages about what you need rather than someone else who knows nothing about your personally
- Practicing flexibility
- Looking at overall wellbeing to indicate health
- Moving your body in ways that enhance and support you
- Experiencing joy, presence, flexibility, and connection in ways that honor who you are
- Caring for your body TODAY, regardless of whether certain “conditions” (like being a certain weight) have been met (aka unconditional self-care)
- Learning to embrace your body’s healthiest and happiest shape/size with the understanding that bodies are made to change
Healthy or unhealthy?
You guys, I can’t even tell you the number of times I dropped hundreds of dollars on cleanses, potions, and superfoods to cleanse the unhealthy out of me. I wanted to be “healthy” so badly! But, all of that behavior led me to incredibly unhealthy imbalance. I felt isolated, anxious, and like a total failure when I couldn’t stick with it. Dieting did NOT make me healthy! It made me feel crazy.
When I first discovered intuitive eating, it felt so scary to me. It was so counter-cultural to LISTEN TO MY BODY (I had, after all, been told my body was not to be trusted and needed to be controlled). But, intuitive eating helped me to develop skills that have increased my overall wellbeing (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual) in ways that I never could have imagined. It also helped me broaden my definition of health – from the number on the scale to a holistic view of health.
And, research supports intuitive eating is a “healthy” approach, too:
- “There is considerable evidence that intuitive eating skills can be learned, and that intuitive eating is associated with improved nutrient intake, reduced eating disorder symptomology – and not with weight gain.” (Bacon and Aphramor, 2011)
- “Internal body awareness is required to be able to know when something is “not right” with their bodies as well as attend to their bodies’ physical and psychological needs.” (Tylka et al., 2014)
- The focus on weight loss for health “is not only ineffective at producing thinner, healthier bodies, but may also have unintended consequences, contributing to food and body preoccupation, repeated cycles of weight loss and regain, distraction from other personal health goals and wider health determinants, reduced self-esteem, eating disorders, other health decrement, and weight stigmatization and discrimination.” (Bacon & Aphramor, 2011).
(FYI — these above stats were compiled/shared by Be Nourished, which is an incredible resource).
If you were talking to a child, how would you define health to her?
Lastly, let’s talk about weight.
Intuitive eaters aren’t trying to make everyone gain weight. Intuitive eating is a weight neutral approach! It isn’t about weight loss or weight gain, it is about BODY TRUST.
What does this mean? To me, it means that when I listen to my body and take care of her accordingly, I trust that her size, shape, weight (I don’t weigh myself anymore, but of course I weigh something even if I don’t know what that number is) are where she needs to be right now. And, I believe the same thing for you, too.
We are not all meant to look the same or be the same size! Some people are bigger, some are smaller, some are taller, some are shorter, some are fatter, some are thinner. This body-diversity is NORMAL. And the idea that it is not is an idea pushed by the diet industry and a society that makes money off of our efforts to all try to look the same.
It can be hard (and sad) to discover that your body’s healthiest place is not the same place as your favorite model or celebrity. At least it was for me, at first! I had to mourn the loss of the hope that I would one day look like an Olsen twin. So, if you’re experiencing that, it is OK and it is normal. For me, mourning that was part of the process. But, releasing weight expectations and giving my body permission to be herself has given me more joy and freedom than any fantasy that I used to harbor about what my body “could be.”
Intuitive eating has allowed me to shift my thinking from “will this help me lose weight?” to “what is my body asking for? What do I truly need? What would feel good & supportive to my whole self?”
There were so many times where I was behaving in incredibly unhealthy ways to lose weight. Something I say to myself now and to my clients is that “your body’s healthy weight will NEVER require you to do unhealthy things to get there.” I believe this so much.
If weight loss wasn’t your focus, how would you take care of your body today?
So, in short (my dad always says this when he has told us something VERY not short. I guess I am becoming my father…), I really believe intuitive eating is about embracing rather than rejecting true health!
If you’re looking for support on your intuitive eating journey, I would love to invite you to join us in Finally Free Program (the intuitive eating coaching program + community I co-created with Paige!). We are open for enrollment until May 1! I also LOVE the books Health At Every Size, Intuitive Eating, and Body Kindness.
Sending you lots of love!