From Dieter to Intuitive Eater: Should I *Always* Honour My Hunger?

Moving from dieting to intuitive eating can be fraught with all kinds of confusion and challenges. While dieting encourages you not to listen to your hunger — just drink water, right? — and to actively suppress it using all manner of things, intuitive eating is all. about. listening. 


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CONSEQUENCES OF NOT HONOURING HUNGER

Part of this is based on the Ancel Keys landmark food deprivation study conducted during World War II. Thirty-two healthy men with “superior psychobiological stamina” were selected for the study. During the first three months, the men ate as they liked (ate intuitively); during the next six months, the men endured semi-starvation. The effects studied and observed closely mirror the symptoms of dieting, including: 

  • 40% decrease in metabolic rate 

  • Obsession with food (the men experienced heightened food cravings, talked about food, and collected recipes)

  • Participants would ravenously gulp their food, stall, play with food, or dwindle over a meal (symptoms seen in those with eating disorders)

  • Episodes of bulimia and binge-eating 

  • Incidents of over-exercise to increase their food rations 

  • Changes in personality (i.e. the onset of apathy, depression, irritability, moodiness.)

But…should you always honour you hunger, Sarah? 

In short — yes. Yes, yes, yes.

Diet culture teaches us that our appetites can’t be trusted. Whether it’s carbs, macros, calories, sugar, fat, “clean foods”, and the like, we’re constantly being told what to do (um, bossed around) — and constantly left questioning whether we’re doing “it” right

Dieting really complicates eating, transforming everything we’re doing with food into a conflict to be resolved. And semi-starving us all the while.

Eating actually doesn’t have to be so hard. 

HUNGER IS ACTUALLY HEALTHY

One of the 10 principles of intuitive eating — the second one, in fact - is “honour your hunger.” It’s an important principle, and one that’s easy to get stuck on (particularly if the diet mentality hasn’t been fully rejected.) 

While hunger is a meaty topic that could easily cover several blog posts, I do want to illuminate the following today: your hunger is natural, healthy, helpful. Even if it doesn’t always seem that way. Honouring hunger is fundamental to feeling sane around food.

Ignoring it, dismissing it, or actively trying to suppress it can have unintended consequences. As Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole discuss in Intuitive Eating, “eating is so important that the nerve cells of appetite are located in the hypothalamus region of the brain. A variety of biological signals triggers eating. What many people believe to be an issue of willpower, is instead a biological drive. The power and intensity of the biological eating drive should not be underestimated.” (62)

For most of us, we breathe consistently without any work on our end. We don’t have to try, or think about it. We just do.

Our detoxification organs are always working for us, whether we realize it or not. 

And our hunger? It lights up when our energy stores are low and we need more food

Hunger isn’t a trick. It’s not a “problem” to be suppressed with all kids of low-cal diet foods, beverages, or “hacks.” It’s not out of control. Getting hungry often doesn't mean there’s something wrong (and in fact, there could be a whole lot right.)

Hunger varies. Sometimes you’ll be super hungry, and sometime less so. Sometime the reason will be apparent — and sometimes not. 

Sometimes you’ll need three snacks, and sometimes your three meals might be enough. 

So…how do you work with hunger instead of against it? 

You listen to it. 

You honour it.

You eat. 

Unsure of what hunger feels like? Let’s chat.



Three Questions to Ask to Stop Feeling Guilt and Shame Over “Bad” Foods

Whether you’re new to intuitive eating, deeper into learning about the non-diet approach, or at a different stage of your eating disorder recovery, it’s very possible you still feel guilt or shame about — or judge — the foods you’re eating. This can feel especially irritating if you’ve embraced body positivity and intellectually know restriction — or holding on to the diet mentality — isn’t serving you. 

Guilt and shame around “forbidden” foods is one of the most common conflicts I address in my nutrition practice. And you know what? It has nothing to do with the food. 

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An apple and potato chips would be morally neutral if it weren’t for diet culture’s interventions. Moving away from restrictive tendencies and toward a more liberated approach to food requires vigilant questioning and criticism of the diet industry and its trappings. Who decides what’s “healthy”? How have I come to my beliefs about food? Why do I feel like eating multiple servings of a “forbidden” food is too much? What’s wrong with enjoying a chocolate bar? 

Dissolving judgment, guilt, and shame around food takes ample time, and isn’t easy or straightforward, here’s 3 questions to start asking yourself to make peace with food. 

1. How do I believe my feelings are benefitting me? 

When we speak about judgment, guilt, and shame about food, chances are good we’re talking about judgment, guilt, and shame about body. If you’re unsure if this is true, ask yourself this: If I totally loved my body and how it gets received in the world, would I care about the double cheese pizza I’m eating right now

I want you to get really curious: are you holding on to your thoughts and beliefs about food because you feel they’re benefitting you in some way? Maybe you feel a distinct charge around “carbs” because you believe they will lead to weight gain (false), or around sugar because you’re inherently “addicted” (no such thing.) 

If you are still trying to manipulate your body size or shape in some form or another — even in subtle ways — they can lead to feelings of guilt and shame around food. While food exposure therapy can be helpful at normalizing “forbidden” foods, deeper body image work and fat acceptance are necessary for completely neutralizing the charge. Fully recovering from diet culture and disordered eating requires complete acceptance of your natural body. 


2. What’s consistent about the foods I carry negative feelings for? 

We can get so caught up in the diet mentality bubble that we often miss its trappings. It’s important to question — and keep questioning — your beliefs and reactions about food. What’s similar about the foods you’re reacting to? Are you always eating these “forbidden foods” at the same time? In the same way?

It’s helpful to look at your food and eating patterns. Are there certain food groups that provoke a deeper reaction from you than others? Do you feel safe around fat, but not around sugar? What sorts of messages are you exposed to on a regular basis? Which foods are demonized at your office? In the room? Within your friend groups? 

Food exposure therapy doesn’t just happen at the table. It happens out in the world.

3. What do I think about when I’m eating these foods?

Do donuts remind you of anyone or anything? What about French fries? In the same way that certain foods carry positive connotations — enjoying fresh-picked raspberries with your grandmother, for example, or savouring an ice cream cone with your best friend on a hot summer’s day — we also carry more negative food experiences with us (I’m looking at you, negativity bias). Are those negative moments making it tough to neutralize certain foods? 

It’s important to look at the framework around the foods you feel guilt or shame toward. In my professional experience, the medium can be as important as the message. 

Now, I want to know: which of the three questions above do you find the most helpful? Does one resonate more than the others?

I’m Doing This Intuitive Eating Thing — So Why Do I Keep Overeating?

“I’ve been doing this intuitive eating thing, but…I keep overeating. You said I would feel sane around food if I gave myself permission to eat whatever I wanted, so what gives?”

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As an intuitive eating counsellor and nutritionist — someone who helps women all over the world to stop bingeing, make peace with food, and feel at ease in whatever body they happen to find themselves in — one of the chief concerns I encounter involves “overeating.”

Because “overeating” isn’t as clear a term as you’d think, let’s start there.

Eating more than you did when you were dieting is not “overeating.”

Eating more than what your fitness tracker recommends is not “overeating.”

Eating what you feel is a large volume of food is not “overeating.”

Eating beyond the “portion” on the label is not “overeating.”

Eating more than what’s on your meal plan is not necessarily “overeating.”


Quite “simply” (ha — is anything ever simple when it comes to food and body?!) — “overeating” means eating beyond fullness. It can occur at any time (during a scheduled meal, over the holidays, or while snacking), and for any reason (by accident, because you’re recovering from an eating disorder and you need to overeat, because you’re trying to mitigate anxiety or uncomfortable feelings, and so on.)


Intuitive eaters seldom overeat. Not because we’re a superior brand of species, but because we know we can eat what we want, when we want, and in the amount that we want. Truly. Madly. Deeply.

But if you’re perpetually overeating, does it mean you’re “failing” at intuitive eating?

It’s one thing to logically give yourself unconditional permission to eat.

It’s another to live it

Here’s a few reasons why you’re still overeating:

  1. You’re judging what you eat, the amount you eat, or when you eat.

Darling, judging is another word for restriction — and is the furthest thing from unconditional permission. In my experience, this judgment usually stems from a fear of what your “intuitive eating experiments” will do to your body. When you’re panicked about how much weight you’ll gain or how your shape will change from not dieting, you’ll resort to your primary and most comforting coping mechanism: food.

This is why I feel intuitive eating (or recovery from diet culture or an eating disorder) works most effectively when combined with body image work, self-compassion, self-care, and psychotherapy. 

I’m blue in the face from saying it, but truly: restriction always leads to “eating issues.”

I cover this extensively in my coaching practice, but this gives you a head start.


2. You’re worried about your weight. 

This concern feels very real and I have a ton of empathy for it. But honestly? This worry is never about the weight exclusively. Thinness doesn’t live in a vacuum. 

Why do you care about becoming or staying thin?

…Maybe you believe it will help your chances of meeting the love of your life.

…Or help you to feel more confident sporting that string bikini on the beach.

…Help you to make friends and feel a sense of belonging.

…Allow you to finally accept your body so you stop killing yourself at the gym. 

…Get your [parental figure] off your back and finally experience their acceptance. 

Yes, being thin comes with specific privileges (“thin privilege” is real), but we also carry a number of convictions about thinness (and fatness) and its symbolism that inform our eating choices and how we view our relationship with food.

3. It’s your only coping mechanism.

“Emotional eating” isn’t pathological; I’m a big believer in legalizing emotional eating. 
But as you dive deeper into intuitive eating, you’ll find 1) food no longer offers the comfort it once did 2) you may wish to process your feelings a little differently.


Some things I recommend implementing that were personally helpful: 

  1. Being extremely diligent about your self-care. This may mean having standard sleep and wake times, taking an evening bath, trying a skincare routine, participating in joyful movement (if this is available to you at this time), spending time with friends or family, taking regular breaks, eating regularly and adequately, keeping hydrated, diffusing essential oils, limiting caffeine and/or alcohol, and so on. It needs to be personally meaningful and something you can do without much effort. Also: it doesn’t have to cost anything.

  2. Finding a therapist — ideally a weight-neutral, eating disorder-informed one.

  3. Actively try other coping mechanisms, like journalling, calling a friend, going for a walk, meditating, listening to music, etc. It takes time to foster new habits, so be patient with this.

  4. Meet yourself with self-compassion. I highly recommend Dr. Kirstin Neff’s Self-Compassion.


Is this something you struggle (or struggled) with while starting intuitive eating? Let me know in the comments!