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Why I Don't Recommend Intuitive Eating

May 25, 2024

What's wrong with Intuitive Eating

I spent this morning browsing through #IntuitiveEating on social media and searching for online resources trying to understand what Intuitive Eating is. Just like it sounds, Intuitive Eating advocates eating according to the signals your body sends you. Eat what and when you want until you’re full. At its heart, Intuitive Eating pushes back against diet culture and attempts to heal dysfunctional relationships surrounding food and body image.  

Rule number one on intuitiveeating.org is

Throw out the diet books and magazine articles that offer you the false hope of losing weight quickly, easily, and permanently. Get angry at diet culture that promotes weight loss and the lies that have led you to feel as if you were a failure every time a new diet stopped working and you gained back all of the weight.

Both yoga and Intuitive Eating encourage greater sensitivity and awareness towards our body and I’m onboard with mastering and understanding the body's signals and input. However, I see too many problems with Intuitive Eating and I can’t recommend it as a starting point for people who want to improve their health and fitness, and find a healthier relationship with food.

Intuition in Health and Wellness

I work as a massage therapist and when my colleagues and I occasionally talk about ‘how to give a good massage’, I most often hear something along the lines of ‘I go in with a loose plan, but follow my intuition’. Likewise when I ask yoga teachers how they ‘teach a good yoga class’ they tell me they have a general plan, but follow their intuition based on what they observe.

Intuition definitely plays a role in everything we do. But intuition is built on a foundation of learned knowledge and experience. On the first day of massage school everybody follows the plan. On the first day of yoga teacher training everybody sticks to the sequence they plan. We learn very un-intuitive material like anatomy and kinesiology until it becomes second nature, before relying on intuition as a guide.

Think of any new skill or discipline you’ve ever mastered. Did you start with an intuitive mastery of the subject? Of course not, you had to learn. 

Learning to eat

But surely eating is different. You’ve been eating your whole life. You have innate biological processes that tell you when and what to eat. That must be enough of a foundation to intuitively understand what your body needs…right?

I agree. If you’ve been raised on food sources that your body has evolved to digest and recognize (also called ‘food’), then you probably do have an intuitive sense of what your body needs. Congratulations, you’re in the minority and probably grew up living under a rock.

For the rest of us living in modern industrial-capitalist society, a large portion of our diet has, from birth, consisted of ‘products’ not food. Unlike food, ‘products’ are not created with the intention of being nutritious or filling. They are created with the intention of being bought and consumed. To enhance flavor and preserve shelf-life even basics like bread and milk contain ingredients that our biology hasn’t evolved to recognize. Signals like appetite and satiation don’t respond the same way to the sugar rich, ultra-processed standard western diet. That means that our intuition with regard to eating habits like portion sizes and food selection is stunted and unreliable. Yes, it’s possible to develop an intuition for what to eat when, but that intuition has to be retrained before it can be a reliable guide.

 

How to start eating intuitively?

I understand Intuitive Eating to mean knowing, without measuring, what kind of fuel and in what amount your body needs to perform the way you want. That means Intuitive Eating is only possible while consuming fuel your body recognizes as ‘food’ and after spending enough time training in your chosen activity that you can feel how changes in diet affects you. Intuitive Eating is NOT possible if you are consuming foods that subvert your natural appetite signals or if you are beginning a new training program.

Yes, it’s possible to develop an intuitive sense for what to eat. But, like any intuitive skill it takes some effort and brain-space to get there.

To build a strong foundation for your intuition I recommend instilling the following habits until they become second nature.

Track portion sizes

That doesn’t mean you need to change the way you eat, the amount you eat or feel bad about food. It just means developing a general sense of awareness. There are lots of ways you can do this. You can take pictures. You can estimate with your fist. You can use an app. Personally, I read the nutrition labels and keep a running estimate of how much protein I get in a day.

 

Limit or avoid ultra-processed food

These are industrial formulations typically with five or more and usually many ingredients, including substances not typically found in home kitchens. Examples include carbonated drinks; sweet or savory packaged snacks; ice-cream, chocolate, candies; mass-produced packaged breads and buns; margarines and spreads; cookies, pastries, cakes, and cake mixes; breakfast cereals, energy bars; energy drinks; milk drinks, 'fruit’ yogurts and ‘fruit’ drinks; cocoa drinks; meat and chicken extracts and sauces. etc.

For more information on ultra processed foods check out these resources.

I am all in favor of intuitive eating. In an ideal world the food we want to eat is the food we need to eat. I think it's an achievable goal.

It's unfortunate that we need to be 'food police' as Intuitive Eating calls it. But we don't live a world that has our health and best interest in mind. The anti-diet reactionary interpretation, ‘giving yourself permission to eat anything you like.’ is just as harmful as obsessively worrying about body image and calories. Diet culture can be insidious and toxic, but some awareness around what we are eating is essential for staying healthy in a society that treats food as a commodity. 

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