Does Intuitive Eating ignore health?
Updated: Nov 3, 2022
If I stop strictly controlling my food, won’t my health decline??
Please enjoy this month’s guest post by Stefanie Bonastia, below!
I used to believe that if I gave up dieting and tried Intuitive Eating, I would eat ice cream and sugary cereal for the rest of my life.
I thought things like, “micromanaging my food is exhausting but at least it’s keeping me healthy. Intuitive Eating wants me to sacrifice my physical health for food freedom — there must be a better way.”
In case you’re unfamiliar, Intuitive Eating (IE) is a framework developed by two dieticians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, who advocate for rejecting all forms of dieting in favor of listening to your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues. According to the principles of IE, our bodies can be trusted to tell us what we need, how much we need, and when we need it, if we can learn how to attune to the body and disengage from rules imposed by dieting and diet culture.
At first glance, it’s easy to think — yeah, right. Sounds like a fairy tale. If I could eat intuitively, I would. The problem is that I can’t!
Critics of Intuitive Eating embrace this skepticism by claiming that if we listened to our natural cues, we would only eat junk food and be more out of control than we already are — that the purpose of dieting and restricting is to temper the inner food addict, as if we are all actually greedy food monsters who can’t be trusted to self-regulate.
This opinion is further promoted via health and wellness citations that claim iTs NoT aBoUt WeIgHt, it’s about health. Skeptics assume we would end up eating mountains of french fries every day, and our health would be neglected. (As if there is no universe in which we would naturally want fruits and vegetables.)
I get it.
I spent a lot of time pursuing health by making chia seed smoothies and avocado ice cream. Without the vigilance of sugar-free, dairy-free, gluten-free living, I was sure I would crash and burn in a pool of crusty white bread and Ben & Jerry's.
Intuitive? That’s where I’d end up if I was “intuitive.”
The truth is, I didn’t pursue Intuitive Eating for its own sake because it sounded like magical thinking. But when I became so exhausted by the chronic cycle of bingeing and restricting (fueled by the pursuit of weight loss and “health,” ironically), I went through a process of recovery that landed me in a place that looked a heck of a lot like Intuitive Eating.
No more binges. No more diets. No more obsessing. No more calculating.
More listening, knowing, attuning.
And the strangest thing? My health markers actually improved. Not only did my thyroid and liver numbers improve, but my anxiety became more manageable and I stopped having panic attacks.
Studies of Intuitive Eating show that intuitive eaters actually experience INCREASED levels of good cholesterol, body satisfaction, metabolic efficiency, self esteem, and life satisfaction, with DECREASED levels of stress, inflammation, and blood pressure.
But how? How can adding in foods that are supposed to be “bad for you” impact your health in a positive way? I wouldn’t have believed it if it didn’t happen to me, but after several years of eating intuitively, I’ve come to understand four primary reasons for this:
1. We overemphasize nutrition as a determinant of health over holistic components of
Diet culture wants to control our beliefs about food, so nutrition has become the target of health, weight, and wellness marketing. We have absorbed the idea that “health” is a product of what we eat and how much we exercise — and they are, in fact, valid pieces of the puzzle. But we tend to minimize the impact of stress, community, purpose, and positive self-regard on our health. When we learn to trust our bodies and embrace who we are (and what we look like), our stress levels tend to decrease over time and we are able to be present with others. The impact of improved mental health cannot be disregarded as a part of the mind-body connection when it comes to overall health.
2. The initial frenzy of eating All The Things subsides to make room for balanced,
secure eating habits.
That initial phase of Ben & Jerry’s? It eventually stops. The honeymoon period of Intuitive Eating (when your instinct drives you to “just let go” and goes after all the previously forbidden foods) is what gives IE a bad rap when it comes to health. What gets left out of the conversation is that this stage is a means to an end, and that once the excitement gets out of our systems (a process called “habituation”), we land in a much more even-keeled, grounded place of being able to choose a wider variety of foods in amounts that more closely match our body’s actual needs. (The binge-restrict cycle could never do that.)
3. Intuitive Eating increases the likelihood of engaging in health promoting behaviors
outside of weight loss.
When weight loss is our goal, we tend to hyperfocus on doing more, more, more — more restriction, more control, more exercise. This often leads to an imbalance that ends in burnout, both physically and mentally. IE reduces the pressure around weight loss and encourages tapping into health promoting behaviors you actually enjoy — for example, going for a 20-minute walk to be out in nature, saying yes to hanging out with friends instead of staying home to avoid the food temptations, eating a home-cooked meal without pent-up stress about how this will affect your macro count for the day. When we eat with rules, pressure, stress, and unrealistic expectations get in the way of these things. Over time, our health window becomes more and more narrow.
You might be thinking: okay, that sounds reasonable, but I still can’t just become an intuitive eater. And you’re right — it’s not a simple choice that we make.
Eating intuitively is a process of learning, but mostly of unlearning years and years of believing that we can’t trust ourselves, that food alone is responsible for our health, that our bodies must be controlled in order for us to be healthy and happy. These un-doings take time and primary energy.
If you’re interested in learning more, you can start by following Intuitive Eating accounts on social media, or head straight to the source and read the book! There are courses (I’m opening enrollment for an IE course for binge/emotional recovery in a few weeks), coaches, and registered dieticians that can help you move through this process with support.
Health and Intuitive Eating are, in fact, compatible.
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