During my research into the intuitive eating model, I came across a number of articles and people who mentioned how intuitive eating doesn’t work (or didn’t work) for them. But while you can fall off and get back on the wagons of diet culture, intuitive eating isn’t something you can fail at. The reason we think we're failing is because we're measuring our food choices and experiences using diet industry standards. If we aren't losing weight while eating intuitively, we feel like it's not working for us. If we can't stop eating chocolate cake, we feel like it's not working for us. If we gain weight, we feel like it's not working for us. I want you to work to actively release these thoughts and trust that your body will take the lead. It will not desert you. At some point, you will stop eating, satisfied by what you've eaten. At some point, you will crave foods other than pizza. At some point, you will be amazed at what your body can do all by itself.
Today I want to address 10 reasons you may be struggling with intuitive eating or felt at some point or another that it wasn't for you.
1 | Intuitive eating isn’t working for you because you can’t feel your hunger.
If you’ve been dieting, you’ve grown accustomed to external cues (lunch at noon, for example) rather than listening to internal hunger cues. On top of that, dieting teaches you to distrust your hunger and fullness signals and focus instead on numbers and portions. Where diet culture says you can’t possibly be hungry, intuitive eating says but I am.
Hunger can have various manifestations: headaches and migraines, low energy, fatigue, irritability, and more. At first you might eat on autopilot. Or maybe you need time to register what hunger feels like to you, especially if you’re recovering from an eating disorder. Like building any other relationship, this work takes time. But after a while you may find yourself relaxing around timing and portions.
Sometimes you’ll eat a big breakfast, amazingly famished; and other times you’ll feel satisfied with a smoothie or a piece of toast with peanut butter. Sometimes it seems like you can’t get full, while other times you don’t have much of an appetite. This is all part of normal hunger.
Questions to ask yourself:
- What does hunger feel like for me?
- Am I eating by the clock or am I honouring my hunger?
- Am I listening and trusting my body when it tells me it needs more fuel?
2 | Intuitive eating isn’t working for you because you don’t know when you’re full.
Some of us grew up with families who pressured us to eat beyond our fullness level and finish our plates. For some of us, we just don’t feel full unless we’re uncomfortably stuffed. And if you’ve been dieting, it’s likely you’re out of touch with your hunger — or accustomed to demonizing and distrusting it — and used to relying on points, numbers, and other determinants to stop eating.
I recommend thoroughly chewing your food, savouring your meal by eating it slowly, eating away from your desk (try your best to eat without distractions), and eating until you’re satisfied but not stuffed. For me, this is around 8/10. I eat until I’m no longer hungry and could eat more, but recognize that if I do I’ll be too full. This doesn’t mean you’ll never overeat. I certainly do, especially around the holidays. But it does mean you trust your body to tell you when it’s had enough and when you listen it’s to avoid discomfort.
3 | Intuitive eating isn’t working for you because you’re using intuitive eating to lose weight.
You cannot eat intuitively and try to lose weight at the same time. Why? If you’re craving a grilled cheese but feel a grilled cheese is inherently fattening, will you eat it? The reason weight loss must be placed on the back burner during the process is because it prevents you from getting in touch with what you actually want to eat and acting on that desire. Instead of enjoying a cookie or piece of cake, you’re still making food deals and promises in the back of your mind to compensate for eating “forbidden” foods.
Here’s another example. Say you ate a bowl of pasta for lunch and you’re craving pizza for dinner. Maybe you feel like this is too many carbohydrates and you believe carbs make you gain weight. So, you refuse to eat the pizza and serve yourself a salad instead. But what’s wrong with having pasta and pizza in the same day?
Trust that by listening to your body you will arrive at your natural set-point.
4 | Intuitive eating isn’t working for you because you’re still holding on to diet beliefs.
Counting carbs or fat grams, worrying about meeting your protein intake, or watching your sugar for weight loss purposes are all part of diet culture. This doesn’t mean these things are easy to release. They’re definitely not. In many ways, I’m still unlearning many of the messages I’ve grown up with and personally adhered to for many years. Just as eating full-fat foods can feel very foreign to someone who’s subsisted on low-fat and fat-free, eating rice, corn, and pasta after a long hiatus may also feel foreign. Try to practice self-compassion and show yourself patience during this process.
If you’re interested, I’m running a Facebook Live this Saturday at 12pm EST in my Riots Over Diets group. Join me to learn how to unravel some of this thinking and start taking action toward healing your relationship with “forbidden” foods.
5 | Intuitive eating isn’t working for you because you feel pressured to make “healthy” choices.
Intuitive eating was difficult for me initially because I still felt so much pressure to eat only healthy food. I mean, I’m a nutritionist; would people really trust me if I Instagrammed my take-out, wine nights, cookies, pizza, and potato chips? Wasn’t I suppose to eat healthy foods? This one can really trip people up because dieting and health are usually portrayed as one in the same. It took me a while to realize that I could be healthy without rules and boundaries around food. I could be healthy even if I didn’t eat “healthy” 100% of the time. So while I know the benefits of whole foods and I think nutrient density is important, we need to consider the satisfaction factor and the role of self-care in developing a healthy relationship with food.
Intuitive eating is a way to connect with your body. It’s a set of tools, not another set of rules.
6 | Intuitive eating isn’t working for you because you’re not giving yourself unconditional permission to eat.
Intuitive eating may not be working for you if you’re denying yourself food after 7pm or not allowing yourself seconds even when you’re still hungry. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a late-night snack or bowl of popcorn with a movie, in the same way that there’s nothing wrong with returning for seconds if you aren’t satisfied. Sometimes all you need is two bites of cake, while other times you might want two slices.
7 | Intuitive eating isn’t working for you because you’re carrying limiting beliefs around your body and food.
Look, I’m short. I’m not even 5’2”. Growing up several inches shorter than all of my family members, I fell victim to so many perpetuated stereotypes like…
You shouldn’t eat as much as your tall friends.
You need to watch what you eat to avoid becoming stocky.
You gain weight faster than tall people.
It’s harder for short people to lose weight.
Short people need to watch it.
Petite women need to be on special, restricted diets.
None of this was or is actually true or relevant. We will all eat the appropriate amount for our bodies according to our internal signals. What limiting beliefs are you carrying around with you regarding food and body?
8 | Intuitive eating isn’t working for you because you’re recovering from an eating disorder.
While some can slowly ease into intuitive eating, many people in recovery need more time working through food rules, hunger and fullness, and many other principles. There’s nothing wrong with this and it isn’t a race to the “finish line”, so my advice is to show yourself compassion and patience along the way. And if you feel more comfortable with a meal plan and a bit more structure than intuitive eating to feel safe, that’s totally fine, too. I recommend seeking out the advice of a qualified practitioner who specializes in intuitive eating to support you in your recovery.
9 | Intuitive eating isn’t working for you because you’re not ready.
Intuitive eating isn’t easy. Even when I first discovered it, I wasn’t ready to hear the messages. Giving up the fantasy, the goals, the chase we’ve been conditioned to believe is so important…it feels like giving up in a really messed up way. And even though on an intellectual level you may realize diets don’t work and you can’t continue going the way you are, you may not be ready to take the next step. That’s okay. Just keep it in your back pocket, ready to return to it if you’d like to.
10 | Intuitive eating isn’t working for you because you’re stressed out.
Intuitive eating won’t work if you’re stressed out. Why, you ask? A number of reasons. If you’re stressed, your hunger and fullness signals are going to be way out of whack. Short-term stress reduces appetite (hypophagia) while chronic stress tends to enlarge appetite (hyperphagia.) Secondly, regularly “feeling stressed” is a sign you’re unbalanced and not taking time for self-care. Sleep is compromised. Eating is compromised. Movement is compromised. Recovery is compromised. Intuitive eating depends on self-care for survival, because it grows from it. If you’re interested in becoming an intuitive eater but you feel overwhelmed, my suggestion is to figure out what needs to go and what needs to stay to make your life easier to manage. And then you can start implementing some of the principles of intuitive eating. Sound good?