Intuitive eating: one of the newest health and lifestyle ‘buzzwords’ to rear its head in 2018. Now, it may be something you are familiar with, or it might be something you’ve never heard of before. Either way, we feel that, before we proceed, we should define what ‘intuitive eating’ is exactly. To keep it brief, intuitive eating is a method of eating where you try to listen to your body - your hunger signals, internal cues and satiety.
Now you might think that intuitive eating sounds like the way we should all be eating, it isn’t necessarily for everyone. If intuitive eating was easy, or suite to all of us, we would all be walking around at our ideal weight - there would be no obesity epidemic! Even though we are all born with the capabilities to know what,when and how much we need to eat, through diets, eating disorders etc…most of us have lost the ability to tune into our own bodies and eat the right amount without guidance or assistance.
In order to successfully eat ‘intuitively’, you need to be someone that is biochemically and hormonally optimal. You will be biochemically and hormonally optimal if you are somebody that is looking after yourself, you know and can pick up on your internal cues and therefore can listen to your hunger cues naturally.
Much of the research in the field of eating disorders has led to the suggestion that once you have regulated your hormones, and eliminated the threat of starvation, then you will be able to eat intuitively (in theory). However, if you are currently underweight or suffering from an eating disorder of some type (anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, binging), then you are not suited to intuitive eating. There are a few reasons for this.
Firstly, if you are not mentally, physically or hormonally ready for it, you will struggle to listen to your internal cues, which is key for intuitive eating. For example, if you have undergone a period of restriction, when you allow your body to eat, it won’t cue you to stop when you are full as the body is confused and doesn’t know when it will get food again, thus you will most likely eat to excess. Furthermore, if you are underweight or restricting your eating, you won’t be able to intuitively eat because your body will be receiving and sending out different signals. When you are underweight or restricting your eating, your leptin (the hormone that helps control appetite and energy expenditure) levels will constantly be low and if your leptin levels are low, then the message the hormone is sending to the body is that starvation is happening and, as a result, it won’t respond properly.
So, if you are in this boat where your body has undergone restriction or disordered eating, your first step will be regulating your eating. A registered dietician explained that the first step she takes with clients is to establish mechanical eating - which is essentially creating the habit of eating a balanced meal every 3-4 hours; consisting of carbs, protein, good fats, fruit and veg. In general this would lead to 3 full meals and 1-2 snacks per day.
It’s important to know that everyone can get to a point where they being in tune with their hunger cues is possible, but it does require you to be both hormonally, and biomechanically regulated. Now if you are metabolically regulated - you have a good hormone profile and a good relationship with food (or on the path to developing one) - then you may be ready for intuitive eating already. Intuitive eating can also be beneficial for those who have spent a large part of their life following diet after diet. This is because it could potentially help you to shift the focus from always being on bodyweight, and help you to be more accepting and positive about yourself.
Tracking calories had become increasingly popular over the past few years, and has plenty of merits, but it too is not necessarily for everyone. This is because it tends to mean you are not listening to internal, but rather external, cues and as a result means you aren’t listening to your body when it comes to nutrition. For example, you may get to the end of the day with 500 Kcals left in your allotted calories, but want to eat much more than that. You are forcing yourself to ignore your internal hunger signals. If you were listening to your own, internal hunger signals, you may consume 1500 Kcals on some days and 3000 Kcals on others: but over the course of an entire month, these would most likely balance out for many people and leave you consuming the right amount for your body. Again, this is not us saying that tracking is bad or intuitive eating is superior - but rather that we need to look at the merits and demerits of different nutritional approaches and select the one that makes the most sense for us (individually) at any given time of our life.
Ultimately, when we are in a good place (physiologically), our body is going to do it’s best to keep us there. When you see someone who manages to maintain the same weight on a long-term, consistent basis, it generally means that they are good at listening to their internal cues, but also their body works with them as a result of that. So, bear this in mind before committing to following an intuitive eating approach - it just might not be the right choice for you at this moment in time. That’s ok - it doesn’t mean it will never be the right approach for you - it may just be something you need to gradually move towards and implement. For some, those who have come from places of sustained or extreme dietary restriction, it is most likely going to take a few years.
DISCLAIMER: This blog should not be considered specific dietary advice. We are not dieticians, nor do we claim to be. This blog has been thoroughly and well-researched, but should only be taken as an explanation on intuitive eating itself - not a recommendation for anyone to follow it. Much of the information in this blog was taken from an interview with registered dietician, Renee McGregor.