Today I want to talk about Intuitive Eating, and one of the biggest myths I see people fall into when they try to incorporate this new way of nourishing themselves.
Whether you’re new to Intuitive Eating (IE) or have been working with this framework for a while, bravo! I’m so excited you’re here and proud of you for bucking the conventional diet culture that’s all around us. It takes guts to dig in and do the hard work of learning about your body’s needs, be they emotional or physiological.
Of course, it’s difficult to have a conversation about a method of consuming food when we’re surrounded by a culture of dieting. Because Intuitive Eating doesn’t have any hard or fast rules, it can seem like a counterintuitive approach to nutrition in a culture that’s hyper-focused on metrics.
Diet Culture: An Obsession with Counting
I’ve talked before about my frustrations with our Western diet culture and obsession with counting everything – from macros to calories to number on the scale – but it’s a relevant conversation when discussing the principles of Intuitive Eating.
When I work with clients, one of the most common problems I see is that portions are too small – a direct byproduct of years of dieting or having a weight loss mentality. Those old guidelines for food or portion sizes can have enormous negative consequences physically, mentally, or emotionally. In fact, studies show that eating too little (or dieting in general) is both physiologically and psychologically stressful and can lead to increased cortisol levels (more on that later).1
If you’ve come from a background where you’ve been told exactly how and when to eat, it might be difficult to ditch the all-or-nothing mentality and start tuning into to your body’s signals. In some ways, it’s much easier to stick to the “always eat this” or “never eat that” of the diet industry.
But easier isn’t always better, and Intuitive Eating doesn’t have to be hard (though at the beginning it takes extra focus and attention, over time, that intensity begins to wane.) In some ways, it’s as much a mindset shift as it is a new way of consuming food. However, there’s a huge issue I see when people start to shift towards a more intuitive approach.
Huge IE Myth
Myth: Intuitive Eating means only eating when you feel the sensation of hunger.
This is one of the most common myths I see associated with Intuitive Eating. But here’s the thing: the connection between your body’s signals and recognizing them may be offline. Or the signals may be coming through only weakly.
There are a few reasons this might be the case. Some people might not have reliable hunger or fullness signals. Those with eating disorders (ED), especially anorexia, may struggle with this.2 (As an aside, people with ED should seek treatment and will need to follow a path to healing that’s supervised by their treatment team.)
For these reasons, it’s hard to only rely on your body’s signals as the only method for determining when to eat, especially if you’re newer to Intuitive Eating. I get concerned when I see people going for long periods without eating simply because they can’t feel their own hunger.
Your body needs energy and nourishment, whether or not you can sense it.
Intuitive Eating combines body sensations, emotions, and logic. It’s not an either or.
Evelyn Tribole put it this way in The Intuitive Eating Workbook: “This [eating when you aren’t hungry] might seem like it goes against the Intuitive Eating protocol of listening to your body, but in situations where your hunger cues are offline, it [eating] is really a type of self-care in the form of nourishment.” (p. 53)
To put it another way, feeding yourself out of self-care is a totally valid facet of Intuitive Eating.
For example, you may not “feel” hungry now but when you realize you haven’t eaten in 16 hours and won’t get the chance for another meal until tonight, consider using logic and rational thinking and decide to eat now.
Stress, Cortisol, and the IE Connection
Stress, something we’re all familiar with, can also block hunger signals. Even low-level stressors like traffic can interfere with feelings of satiation or hunger.3
Several hormones that affect how your body reacts to stress, but cortisol is considered the master stress hormone. It’s an essential hormone that regulates important functions like blood pressure and inflammation, and it plays a critical role in our survival instincts and ability to avoid dangerous situations.
However, few of us are in life-threatening situations on a day to day basis, meaning our cortisol levels shouldn’t be so high. But chronic stress, or stress sustained over a long period, has the same effect on cortisol levels as acute stress. Those excessive cortisol secretions are linked to appetite suppression and insulin resistance, a situation where the body is not responding properly to insulin.4,5
Of course, cortisol itself isn’t the problem – we need those flight-or-fight responses to survive, and some stress is helpful and necessary.
Instead, it’s the perpetual strain from our modern lifestyles that sends cortisol production into overdrive and lead to issues, including a loss of appetite. This makes sense on a logical level: if your body is preparing to run from a bear (an example of an acutely stressful situation) it’s not prioritizing eating, and therefore suppressing hunger.
Keeping stress and cortisol levels in check is an important key to regaining your appetite if you find that you’re not able to read your body’s hunger signals. General strategies include eating nourishing foods, prioritizing restful sleep, and working out in a healthy way (overexercising can be another form of chronic stress!)
It’s also important to support your mental health and learn to relax and take a deep breath, especially when life inevitably throws stressors like work deadlines, exams, or rush-hour traffic your way. The stressors themselves may not be going away anytime soon, think about what you can do to manage your response to them.
Why The All or Nothing Method Isn’t Working
Diet culture pushes the concept that hunger sensations and eating are things to fight, not an enjoyable process in which we nourish our bodies. Our culture demonizes food, making us feel guilty and contributing to negative self-talk when we inevitably “fail” or “fall off the wagon.”
So why do we keep dieting?
When life gets hectic, it’s understandable to want a set of rules you can fall back on so you don’t have to think so hard. In some ways, it’s so much easier to follow a diet with specific do’s and don’ts than it is to adapt your eating based on your individual needs. But not every body is built the same way, which is why a method of eating or working out might work for one person but not the next.
Instead, it comes down to learning to sense your body’s signals and building trust and connection over time. Sometimes it’s necessary to also ignore – or at the very least minimize – the input coming from diet culture. Intuitive Eating might require you to confront deeply held and societally reinforced beliefs about the food you consume, your body image, and your self-worth.
Those aren’t light subjects to tackle. You’re going to have to weather some storms and do the necessary work, and you’re going to need determination and self-compassion along the way.
But if food guidelines, elimination diets (even healing protocols), the scale, and how you’re eating are making you increasingly more stressed, anxious, and isolated, it’s time to ditch conventional diets completely and learn to listen to what your body needs.
To get started, sign up for my Listen to Your Body Newsletter to have encouragement, mindset tips, and IE wisdom and principles delivered to your inbox. Also, tune into my weekly Listen to Your Body Podcast.
I also recommend reading the book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works, or using the Intuitive Eating Workbook by the same authors.
Thoughts? Did this topic resonate with you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!