Intuitive eating is sometimes frowned upon in the fitness industry, with counting macros being the “superior” way to go. Most of the time intuitive eating is misunderstood though. It’s more to it than “just eat until you are full” and choosing foods based upon “what your body tells you”, because for most people this would mean bingeing on pizza and ice cream until they can’t walk anymore. Intuitive eating is a tool to develop a better feeling for hunger, satiety and health in general. How is it done? Read on!
What is intuitive eating?
As I’ve already mentioned in the intro, there is a lot more going on in intuitive eating than most people are aware of. There are ten principles that combine to create a positive environment for healthy habits to form and to establish a better relationship to yourself.
1. Reject the Diet Mentality
Fitness media likes to paint a skewed picture of dieting: everything comes easy and weight loss is extreme. The reality of fat loss is far less exciting. When this skewed expectation clashes with hard reality, frustration with the process is the consequence. Intuitive eating wants you to remove all expectations and even get rid of any idea of dieting to better focus on the process. In my opinion a great idea for everybody who feels overwhelmed by the pressure of dieting or who “just wants to be more healthy”. This also gets rid of the jo-jo-dieting problem: being “on it” and overly restricting, only to get “off it” to binge up even more.
2. Honor Your Hunger
Hunger is a completely normal state that signalises your body to get energy to keep going. Ignoring this signal can be problematic for people who are prone to bingeing. While I think that you don’t need to eat immediately when you feel the slightest trace of hunger, it is probably a good idea to get something to eat when you feel really hungry. However, many people have to relearn what real hunger feels like and how to distinguish it from other cues like boredom.
3. Make Peace with Food
We know that there are no “good” or “bad” foods out there. No food group or macro nutrient alone is problematic for weight loss. Creating an energy deficit and maintaining over a long term is the key to fat loss. Similarly, there are no unhealthy foods. However, there are foods which are more satiating, richer in micronutrients or foods which lack these properties. Your overall diet quality matters, not single meals or meal components. Being able to enjoy all foods without guilt and in proper quantities surely is a good thing to do. This also gets rid of the overrestrictive notion of many diets which create cravings for single foods that result in overeating and feelings of guilt when these restrictions are violated.
4. Challenge the Food Police
Related to 3., feeling good or bad for eating and exercising can be problematic. Feeling good for a day of eating as little calories as possible and then feeling bad for eating a piece of chocolate the next day. Feeling good for crushing yourself for two hours on the treadmill and then feeling guilty for not going to the gym the next day. We know that negative feelings are more memorable to our brain, so this emotional rollercoaster creates a bad emotional state sooner or later. It is much better to learn to love movement and eating well!
5. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Eating is a pleasure and when you are working on becoming healthier, all your meals should leave you happy and satisfied. Your food should be inviting, delicious and abundant enough to meet these criteria. Eating unsatisfactory food can lead to overeating by cheating later with more comforting food. This also has a lot to do with learning how to cook. If you’re still thinking that veggies just taste like crap, you simply are a bad cook. When you cooking skills are so good that your “health food” tastes better than most people’s “comfort food”, nutrition is going to be a breeze.
6. Feel Your Fullness
Not restricting the type and amount of food makes it easier to feel the fullness while eating. It eliminates guilt and restriction and allows for enjoyment. This raises attention for satiety cues and promotes mindfulness. This means also to fully concentrate on your meal and not working, watching tv, scrolling Instagram or sitting in front of the computer while you are eating. Ask yourself if you are already full while eating. And if you are full, why do you want to keep eating? Allow yourself to eat until you are comfortably full.
7. Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness
Food restriction can set you up for “breaking your laws”, triggering bad emotions and generally feeling like a failure. This can lead to a downward spiral of food deprivation, bingeing and feeling bad about it, only to punish yourself with an even more severe food deprivation to start over again. Usually there are negative feelings behind this behaviour that have nothing to do with food, but use food as a short time treatment to feel better. Finding kind ways to deal with your emotions and tackling the underlying problem is the way to go.
8. Respect Your Body
Many people have unrealistic body images in their mind. Fitness media is notorious for making everything look easy, fun and attractive. The shape of your favorite Insta-model might be completely unrealistic for you and often it is also heavily photoshopped. Most people just can’t walk around with a six-pack the whole year long. Get a realistic outlook on what you can achieve and what has to be done for it. Accept your body, appreciate it for what you are able to achieve with it and stop to with for something else. All bodies deserve dignity.
9. Movement—Feel the Difference
Fall in love with movement again. Don’t punish yourself with cardio for eating that cupcake. Don’t “work out” just to burn calories. Go to the gym to get strong! Go for a walk to feel energised. Try different things out just for the fun of it. Get in touch with what movement feels, find something you enjoy and stick to it. And yes, movement is enjoyable, we as humans are built for it.
10. Honor Your Health—Gentle Nutrition
The last point on this list, but maybe the most important. Make food choices that foster your health and that you like to eat. Nutrition should be tasty, not something you are forced to do. Yes, you can make vegetables taste great. On the other hand, keep in mind that you are what you do most of the time for a long period of time. Which means that there is room for your favourite treats and comfort foods and no need to feel bad about them. Just cover your healthy basics first. Nutrition is the foundation for your health, as you are literally made of the stuff you eat.
Who should give intuitive eating a try?
Many people struggle with the idea of following a certain diet or having a training plan. Counting macros makes them nervous. Every social occasion that involves eating becomes a challenge. Going to the gym exactly three times a week seems overwhelming. Maybe they have certain trigger foods that cause them to binge. Maybe they have a tendency to punish themselves with fasting or exercise.
These people may find the relatively “soft” nature of intuitive eating more welcoming than traditional approaches. Maybe you have found some things mentioned in the ten principles of intuitive eating that raise a red flag? Do you categorize food as good/bad? Do you have unrealistic expectations regarding your body composition? Does eating provoke negative feelings? Do you have problems feeling hunger or satiety? In these cases intuitive eating may be the right approach for you.
Limits of intuitive eating
The soft nature of intuitive eating may be a little too much freedom for certain types of persons. Some need a little more guidance, especially if they have literally no idea of how a healthy diet should look like. Certain basics just have to be learned. If you didn’t know that avocado is essentially just a stick of butter that grows on trees, and you think that eating lots of avocados will help you lose weight, you need to work more on your education.
On the other hand, some people have more ambitious goals that need a little more control and precision than intuitive eating has to offer. If you compete in bodybuilding, prepare for a fotoshoot or play in a weight-class sport, intuitive eating might be too little. In these cases you have to push to uncomfortably low body fat levels, which make tracking macros almost always necessary.
Some people have the opposite problem: they just can’t gain weight. What seems like a dream for others, these people have a really hard time gaining or maintaining muscle. These individuals have incredibly low appetite and often simply forget to eat and many eat as little as 700-900kcal when not “forced” to eat more. In this case, tracking calories makes sure they get their macros and micros in day after day to finally build that thick booty they desire.
Tracking macros can also be an incredibly useful tool for educating yourself at nutrition. Day after day you see which food has which macros. You get a feeling for how much protein you have to get in and what foods are rich in it. Which foods are low in calories and which are literally calorie bombs? How many calories does a glass of wine add to the table? You get a better feeling for macros and energy density, which makes a phase of tracking a useful tool for many.
To sum it up
Intuitive eating is a tool for people who struggle with bad emotions regarding their nutrition or lifestyle. It is a gentle way to better get in touch with yourself and slowly develop healthy habits. It is not a strictly superior or worse tool, it is just different from more traditional methods.
Although intuitive eating doesn’t focus on weight loss and tracking to avoid pressure, losing weight and counting calories aren’t bad or disorderd per se. It’s always a question how they are implemented. Steering away from tracking for at least a little bit is, however, a good idea for most people who have been “on it” for prolonged periods of time. It reduces cognitive burden and makes it easier to focus on other things in life. There also might be benefit in offloading some tracking behaviours like only tracking protein, so intuitive eating and tracking don’t need to be two separate things, but rather a continuum.
Keep in mind that regardless of which way you go, diet quality and healthy food and lifestyle choices have to be the foundation! Basics like getting some form of exercise, eating plenty of veggies, fruits and protein are non-negotiable. However, there is no need to be obsessive about this, so enjoy life, you’ve only got one!
Are you struggling with a boring diet or are you not enjoying your training anymore? Contact us and let us talk how we can reach your body composition or strength goals and let training and eating be fun again!