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!
I definitely identify with all of the problems you identified regarding IE in your first few paragraphs. I have the lovely combination of not having an on/off switch when it comes to food, having no fullness signals, having a voracious appetite and a bottomless pit of a stomach, intense mood swings and depression resulting in emotional eating and a terrible reliance on food just to get through the day AND a combination of BED and compulsive overeating that means I will literally eat to the point of making myself sick (not purging, but my stomach physically can’t hold any more…)…and then carry on eating. All of these factors taken into account, I am an all/nothing person and I have to be all ‘management’ – it’s exhausting being in a state of constant vigilance, but I have no other choice. Whole foods vs. sugary junk doesn’t make any difference (though obviously whole foods help with volume eating!) if I’m not mentally on point, because I can binge on two entire kabocha squash the same way I can an entire jar of PB & Co (both have happened in the past…) 99.9% of people would be absolutely disgusted and horrified by the amount of food I can put away, so I have to impose strict calorie and macro limits – I actually have to do this for my health as well as ‘vanity’ due to my PCOS, which I do worry is my fault due to being a fat and sugar-addicted teenager. I’m constantly on edge, anxious and scared that I will relapse back into bingeing though :(
I have to say that I think IE is inherently flawed – I’m not as optimistic as you. Our food environment these days is absolutely awful, and I don’t believe any ‘treat’ foods are really treats because they’re full of crap. Fine, we might like the taste, but since when is bodily abuse a ‘treat’? I don’t understand that concept at all!
Thumbs up for this post :)
I was hoping that you’d spot this post because I knew you’d have a great opinion on the topic! I think the thing for me with ‘treats’ which nowadays mostly are actually half decent, i.e. home baked cakes or muffins, but I do still have some crap filled stuff like the mini eggs – I suppose it’s a treat for me because they do still taste good and I guess have some kind of connection to my childhood for example. Plus I know what I can get like it I tell myself something is forbidden. The thing that really miffs me is people that talk about IE like it’s perfect and so easy, it makes us who need some form of management feel like failures, when for a lot of us it is down to a whole host of other factors!
I agree I’ve done a mindfulness course and been a Weight watchers member for 7 years (6 of which at my goal Weight). I really need the structure provided by the weight watchers plan combined with mindfulness to get balance I don’t naturally have. I thoroughly identify with your fullness issues, I do not have a sugar off switch and that includes fruit which I can gorge On as easily as chocolate. I still keep a daily food diary as writing down what I’m having allows me to have personal accountability for what I’m doing to my body. I agree with you Jess in that we say we are ‘treating’ ourselves with ‘treat’ foods but really it’s all nasty chemical’s, additives and sugary saltyness. You wouldent ‘treat’ your car to diesel if it ran on petrol x
Very good article Laura, all the best
Thanks Sandra, yep I know that feeling with fruit as well. Glad you’ve found an approach that works well for you!
This is so interesting..such a good discussion to bring up :) . Speaking for myself – I’m at a place now where, honestly; what I eat is based on the foods around me following solely my intuition and cravings. What I am pleased with is that among the cookies and cakes I can clearly distinguish more “whole food” cravings. But then again my idea of whole foods are not everyone’s plate of food after all ;) .
Glad that you are in such a good place with food!
I have to say I completely agree. I think it starts out with the management, as you need to be aware of what you are actually eating and WHY, and then (gradually…) this moves over into more intuitive eating as you get to know your body better and so you question it less. But even still, in the world we live in today with so many ‘foods’ (as many I wouldn’t actually class as real food) bombarding us from all sides, it can be hard to live in your own whole food bubble. Hell, I know living here in Buenos Aires at the moment, sometimes I’m really craving something simple like a kale stir fry, or some sheep yoghurt – but I can’t buy those things here, so I go for the next best thing. To quote someone in particular ;) it’s all about making the best decision in the situation you are in – and in order to do so, for me, this requires a balance of both mindfulness and management x
Absolutely, non of us live in those food bubbles really, and you are right about getting the next best thing when you can ;-) I definitely think that an in between approach is best :-)
I do agree that intuitive eating is probably what’s best for our bodies, but like you said does it really fit in with today’s environment? Forgive the rather strange analogy but… intuitive eating works perfectly for my dog. We put food in his bowl (kibble) and he eats it when he fancies. Sometimes he finishes the bowl and sometimes he leaves half of it. We just refill it when he’s done. He’s very good, he’ll probably eat once or twice a day and when we refill the bowl he never runs straight to it and gobbles it all up. He just waits until he’s ready for it. This doesn’t work so well for humans. We see food, we want food. We no longer purely eat to survive. We don’t need to. Food is always available. We eat for enjoyment, we eat out of boredom, we eat to celebrate, to socialise. Yes we eat to stop being hungry too but this is just one of the many reasons. We’ve taught our bodies this. We’ve been taught to eat everything on our plate as well. There are too many tasty things out there that we’re attracted to (like you said, high sugar and high fat – because we’re biologically predisposed to like those foods). Whereas my poor dog just gets kibble every day (and treats occasionally – we’re not monsters!). I’m sure he doesn’t think it’s the best food in the world, but it stops him being hungry and is nutritious for him.
For me I know that I am fairly regimented in my eating. I eat at pretty much similar times every day – I have to because of work. I can’t decide that I fancy eating lunch at 3pm because that wouldn’t work in my office.
I agree, in an ideal world intuitive eating is great. But realistically I just don’t know. I just think there are too many factors that go against it.
Haha, no I know exactly what you mean about your dog! It’s so straightforward for animals bless them. I completely agree on the work thing, I think that throws any change of being completely intuitive out the window when you have set times to eat x
I definitely need guidelines. I have rules I apply to my eating that I know work for me when I stick to them. I allow myself to eat more freely although still healthily at the weekends. I then eat a bit less and more healthily during the week. It took me a long while to find a balance though but this definitely works for me and helps me set a good example to the family. I don’t want to set a bad example of Mummy doesn’t eat this or that. If I want cake I have it at the weekend, if I want cake in the week it would be once or a smaller portion. I would also eat more if I was left to concentrate on my fullness signal which I have overidden for many a year. Still learning…. When I was pregnant I craved salty foods, you don’t seem to. I used to fantasise about crisps which I don’t really eat any more and cheese, I definitely still eat that.
It sounds like you have a brilliant balance, that’s pretty much the approach I use as well. I think having kids throws a new perspective into it as well! I think I had a salty phase earlier in my pregnancy, particularly around when I felt sick, I was loving crisps and cheese toasties! Now my cravings are for fruit which I have to say I’m pretty happy with!
I totally agree with the points you make here Laura. We are all (mostly) so fortunate that there is an abundance of food readily available to us. I don’t believe humans have yet evolved to this, so our natural instinct is to eat until we are full and beyond. I read The Day Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond (amazing book) and I think he cited a tribe that, when there was an abundance of food, would simply eat and eat and eat until they were sick.
I do think you can learn what the right amount of food for you is but it is often after sticking to a regime of sorts that you find it – for some that might be simply the three meals and two snacks at certain times they were provided by their parents and for others it is more complex and takes longer.
I also think that a lot has to do with a person’s individual needs. I was talking to my Mum about this yesterday and she was saying that so much of a woman’s appetite is driven by hormones and her body wanting to be ready for carrying a child – so it might want to store more body fat/have excess energy. She said her weight and cravings stabilised completely after having children. (I appreciate this might not be the case for everyone!).
Sometimes I feel like I have this ‘mindful eating’ thing all worked out and other times I get completely lost and have to revert back to something stricter to find that balance again.
You are definitely right about having a regime or routine, I know that helps me hugely! I agree with your Mum on the hormones thing, they play such a huge role, then coupled with the higher sugar carbs available it’s a recipe for disaster really! I think it’s often a case of swinging one way to then swing back the other, all part of the process :-)
I definitely spent a lot of time at the ‘diet’ end of the spectrum on Weight Watchers on and off for many years. Each time I would go on the diet I would lose weight, but without fail I would put it back on again once I started eating more ‘intuitively’ and by the end I think my body gave up on that approach and I could no longer stick to counting points. For me now I am working towards a middle-ground concentrating on eating whole-foods and choosing foods that will nourish my body rather than what I can get away with, and trying to focus on getting strong at the gym rather than just how long I can run for. I think perhaps I need a slightly more regimented approach as I do tend to overdo it on the healthy fats…I’ll get there!!
You’ll definitely get there Rachael! Sounds like you have a good approach, and one that is really that place in the middle :-)
I really enjoyed reading your take on this, Laura. I went from a place of 100% obsessive management to one that I would consider more or less intuitive. It was definitely a long process to get from where I was to where I am, with plenty of pitfalls and mistakes made along the way, but I’ve found that riding out those mistakes, forgiving myself, and not putting any kind of foods off-limits are what helped me the most. I have a huge sweet tooth that I have to tend to on a regular basis or my cravings get out of control and I get hit with overwhelming urges to eat ALL the sweets. On the other hand, I genuinely crave things like fresh fruits, veggies, lean proteins, and whole grains as well, so I consider it a good balance. Not every day is perfect, but it’s all about looking at the big picture.
I completely agree on not having any food as off limits, that really helped me. I think considering the bigger picture is really important, far too often people seem to over focus on the little things they consider ‘slip ups’ which are actually just their body finding a happier place x
I think for IE to be effective, you’d have to be com-ple-tely in tune to what, and how much food your body is craving. And for anyone who has ever dieted, payed attention to what the media has to say about our dietary intake, does a lot of exercise etc etc…it’s near on impossible. Coupled with the fact that addictive additives are pumped into food these days. Yeeaah I just don’t see it happening for most folk. Except children. I miss being a kid!
Haha absolutely Sarah, I think it is really hard once you’ve been exposed to that stuff! I worry that it’s even starting to get less with kids, really worrying :-/
I would say that I am mostly an intuitive eater. In the sense that I listen to my bodies hunger signals (I have become pretty good at working out what is real hunger and what is emotional) and I don’t eat at specific times, just when I feel I need to. I also eat difference amounts and different amounts of carbs or fat each day, depending on what my body needs that day. But, I do know roughly how many calories I am eating, so as my intuitive eating doesn’t lead me to eat however much I want.
I always have a little voice that can add up the calories if it needs to, but I choose to ignore it mostly, especially now!
I sometimes think I have a bottomless pit for a stomach as I can eat and eat and not feel full then other times I can go without food for ages and not feel hungry at all. For me it really depends on what I’m doing that day and how I am feeling. My mind can be saying “you shouldn’t be eating that much” but I’m also saying “I don’t care I’m gonna eat it!” I try not to think about it too much. 80% of my diet is good clean wholesome food and the other 20% could probably be eliminated but there we go…..I’m fit healthy and not over weight as such so I’m not too fused! Not sure any of that makes sense! ha x
It absolutely does Tam, I think you hit the nail on the head about your weight – if you have a good weight and are healthy eating mostly good stuff then there’s no problem really!
I found this such an interesting read, Laura – thank you! I don’t think that IE would work for me at all as despite having a generally “healthy” diet for the last few years I still don’t trust my body to crave things that are good for me – especially as I work in an office, often eat at least 2 meals at my desk and am surrounded by unhealthy “goodies” for birthdays etc. I try to use a management approach as I know I feel better when I don’t eat certain things (dairy, refined carbs etc) but if I really, really want something I let myself have it, even if it isn’t always a planned treat – I think anyone who has ever had an unhealthy relationship with food struggles with this and sometimes letting myself have something I’m craving is better than thinking about it all day!
Glad you enjoyed the post Lily! Sounds like you have a really good balance, I definitely agree with just having something and enjoying it rather than denying yourself it and thinking about it all day!
This is such an interesting topic.
For years I feel as though I have tried to control my eating through management (often feeling like a failure when I couldn’t manage it the way I wanted) until more recently when I have swayed towards the mindfulness way of eating. (Super proud of myself when I can pass on the biscuit tin at work now! I’m no longer fussed about shop bought ‘treats’.) I think we need a little mindfulness and management in order for our eating habits to stay balanced. So many people have such an unhealthy relationship with food and eating and I like the idea of it becoming more intuitive and a natural way of thinking. I still don’t believe that enough focus is given to a healthy diet, portion sizes and the necessity of varied meals within schools. A lot of the poor relationships with food stem from childhood eating habits. Children eat what they are given and how much they are given. When child portion sizes are frequently as large as adults, no wonder sensors in the body can no longer tell when a person is genuinely full.