A lot has been written about intuitive eating, sometimes also thought of as mindfulness. It seems to be the holy grail in terms of having a healthy relationship with food. The ability to just eat what your body wants, when it wants, but yet maintain a healthy body and a healthy weight certainly sounds alluring, but it’s always been a concept I’ve struggled with. In the past I would swing from meticulously planning my meals to eating whatever I wanted when I wanted it. However, my ‘intuitive eating’ led to me eating pretty much a tonne of crap.
I think there’s a few issues with intuitive eating for me. Firstly we just don’t live in a natural food environment. Food is everywhere, and worst of all, it’s not healthy food that is in such abundance, it’s total rubbish most of the time. When our bodies are biologically wired to seek out high fat, sugar and salt in foods it actually can take some effort to resist the foods that are so cleverly engineered to give us that hit.
Secondly, for some of us including me, after years and years of well, a f**ked up relationship with food, it can take a very long time to recalibrate what is ‘normal’ for us. Taking notice of my habits and patterns, all compounded by doing the Super Conscious Living Programme reminded me of this. For example, I don’t believe I have a normal fullness signal or ‘off’ switch. I can definitely put away a decent amount of food before I feel any sensations of being full. I believe this is due to years of ignoring that sensation (both fullness and hunger), although with practice I am regaining it slowly but surely. However my point here is that if I were to eat completely intuitively I feel that I would still eat more than my body needs because of that messed up signal.
I also feel that unless you are eating a very high amount of whole foods – 95 – 99% it is very difficult to know when hunger or a craving is a true physical one. We know that sugar is addictive, and even sugar from fruit can affect blood sugar and hunger levels. Depending on your own unique body, you might be able to eat more sugary foods than others and not experience that, but others would be different.
Add to that the effect of emotions, stress and boredom, it can become a lot harder than it seems.
All of that sounds pretty negative, but I certainly haven’t given up on intuitive eating all together, far from it. I do still believe that it’s key to a healthy relationship with food, but I think getting there is more complex and some people would have you believe. In fact I feel it’s a bit of a disservice to others not to highlight that this takes some work. You don’t just suddenly start wanting apples instead of chocolate!
For me, that is where some form of management comes in. A huge thing that has been reaffirmed for me since I started health coaching others was that some people need rules and guidelines, plain and simple. As much as we all wish we could live happily in that ‘place in the middle’ some of us function better within the frame work of a set approach, whether that’s a ‘diet’ (I do shudder when I write that but hear me out) or some other kind of plan. Approaches like calorie counting and 5:2 style fasting can work for some people because an aspect of the decision making is taken away from them, so it becomes easier. However, the issue there is that it’s never sustainable to live by a set of rules or guidelines long term, which is where these approaches fall down.
So if you have mindfulness and intuitive eating at one end of the scale and management, aka ‘diets’ at the other end, where does that leave us?
I’ve been pondering that question for myself and my clients for a while. How can you have the best of both worlds, and work towards that mindful and intuitive approach? This for me is where mindfulness and management meet, and thinking of things in that way has worked wonderfully for me over the last few months. For example, I know that if I was to eat completely intuitively I would likely eat a little too much, so to temper that I use the management approach of portion control. This has been helpful in recalibrating my fullness signals. At the same time, I do work on the mindfulness technique of stopping while I’m eating and assessing how full I am. It’s a two pronged approach. I also know, especially now while I’m pregnant, I would ‘intuitively’ eat more high sugar foods than I know is good for me. I manage that by making purposeful choices during the week, and then going more with the flow at the weekend. I also allow myself to go with my cravings if they are whole, real foods. This might change in the future, but for now if I fancy sliced pepper dipped in lots of tahini for lunch, then that’s what I’ll have. I temper that a little by being aware of overall nutritional balance, such as the need for protein and green veggies occasionally! I have a few little guidelines here and there to help me manage things within an overall more mindful intuitive approach. They aren’t rules, so the guidelines I give myself can change when they need to, and flexibility is certainly key when your pregnant!
It’s certainly an approach that works well for me at the moment, but like everything, it can be wise to reassess and review as time goes on.
What are your thoughts on mindfulness v management? Do you feel you eat completely and honestly intuitively? Or does part of your mind ‘manage’ things by encouraging you to make those healthier choices? Or perhaps you are at more of the management end of the scale? I’d love to know your thoughts and experiences on this one!