Will Intuitive Eating Stop My Sugar Cravings?

I’ll be honest: most of the clients who come to me want to lose weight (or at least are looking to maintain or “manage” their weight without a restrictive meal plan or eating style.) Weight loss goals must be shelved when pursuing intuitive eating, for even the perception of restriction can compromise your ability to tune in to your internal wisdom and embrace an intuitive approach. This is really intuitive eating pre-work, a mindset shift that must occur for intuitive eating to truly be effective (you know, to experience food freedom.)

But let’s say you’ve done the pre-work to shelve the weight loss goals. Ready, set, go. 

Not so fast.

Even if you’ve shelved the hope of weight loss, it can come up again in the desire to limit “forbidden foods” like cookies, cake, and ice cream by becoming an intuitive eater — which is just another layer of restriction. 

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If restricting sugar doesn’t work, maybe giving myself unconditional permission will, right? 

While intuitive eating is a wonderful tool for reducing the charge associated with some of your favourite (off-limits) foods, it doesn’t mean you’ll eat fewer of them or enjoy them any less. 

If you’re embarking on or are currently working your way through intuitive eating in the hopes that one day, when you are cured of your dieting ways, you will be completely satisfied eating carrots and hummus, never dare dreaming of those to-die-for chocolate chip cookies at the coffee house down the street, I have three words for you: hold up, homeslice.

What do you hope you will gain by limiting your sugar intake? 

For some people, this desire to stop “eating so much sugar” arrives in the guise of health. We've been conditioned to believe the every bite of chocolate, every nibble of donut, and every spoonful of ice cream is slowly leading to disease and killing us. 

While all nutritional information or recommendations necessitate context to be of any real value, even the World Health Organization — who lean more conservative when it comes to sugar consumption — deem deriving up to 10% of your daily energy needs from added sugar to be safe. Translation: you can enjoy dessert every day, allowing your cravings and food interests to guide the way.

The notion that every food choice is healing or harming oversimplifies a terrifically complicated interaction. 

Keep in mind the root word of disease literally stems from desaise (Old French), meaning discomfort, distress. This unease isn’t limited to the physical realm, but applies equally to the psychological. If you spend more time stressing over the chocolate cake than eating it, talking about how you’re going to compensate for the chocolate bar you ate too quickly to enjoy, or overthinking the potato chips you ate at last night’s party, it’s time to consider your mental state in the maintenance of good health.

For other people, the desire to limit sugary foods while intuitive eating is more covert. Diet culture can be super sneaky, and you may find the desire for weight loss pops up wearing different clothes (such as in concerns over sugar consumption.) 

I say this with a lot of compassion.

It’s tough work to give up the trappings of diet culture and embrace the wild world of intuitive eating when diets have provided so much safety and comfort for so long. But it’s also important to unpack what diet culture has (or hasn’t) provided you with, and how you can get your needs met in a deeper way. 

Ultimately, though, intuitive eating may or may not lead to a diminished desire for sugar. What’s possible is that by developing a healthier relationship with sugar you will feel less out of control around the office cookie jar, actually enjoy the chocolate you do eat, and have that coffee shop pastry on Saturday morning without post-experience guilt and shame. 

While you may sometimes want more “nutritious” foods over fun foods, this can’t be the goal of intuitive eating. In the same way that work must be balanced with play (or time off) to prevent burnout and promote self-care, it’s completely natural to want to balance intake of nutritious foods with a steady supply of pleasurable foods. Prioritizing extrinsic values — like needing or expecting your eating to look a certain way to feel okay — will interfere with your ability to connect with your internal wisdom and ultimately come to a place of self-acceptance regarding yourself and your body.




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?