Why Intuitive Eating Isn’t Always A Good Idea
I post this at the risk of rubbing a lot of people up the wrong way. There are a lot of nutritionists and dieticians out there that will tell anyone that will listen about the benefits of intuitive eating - which basically involves eating by listening to your body - eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full as well as rejecting the diet mentality.
However, looking at the principles of intuitive eating from a psychological perspective - and taking into account the research we have from the field of neuroscience - the principles of intuitive eating are not always appropriate for everyone.
Why? Well firstly - we know from the field of neuroscience that a lot of our eating patterns are just automatic habits. We typically eat foods because we have eaten the same foods in the days before. The part of our brain responsible for these decisions around food is just on auto-pilot mode. So this means that if I am in the HABIT of eating lots of cake and chocolate - and then decide that I am just going to listen to my body and eat what it craves, that I will then just crave those cakes and chocolate every day. YOUR BODY IS JUST TELLING YOU TO DO WHAT IT IS IN HABIT OF DOING. If you have always skipped breakfast, your body will keep telling you to skip breakfast - because it is just in the habit of not eating breakfast, even if eating this meal is actually good for your body. So eating intuitively is not a great idea until you have built healthy habits that will serve your health long term. This is why I always ensure that I help my clients to build healthy habits before I encourage them to then tune in to their body and listen to their hunger cues.
Secondly, a lot of people have an unhealthy relationship with food. Perhaps they are used to eating low calorie meals or skipping meals - and then over-eating/ bingeing on foods. Or perhaps they feel guilty when they eat certain foods. Now I will be the first person to tell you that the diet-mentality does not serve anyone - and I definitely support the principle of intuitive eating that encourages individuals not to diet anymore. However, asking anyone that has any form of disordered eating to just listen to their body and eat when they are hungry - is a recipe for disaster. Listening to their body may involve wanting to starve themselves - again because they have just built up the habit of doing this over many years. A lot of supporters of intuitive eating will warn that people with eating disorders should not use its principles. However, in my experience, many people (even those who don’t have eating disorders) have disordered eating patterns. Diet culture is so ingrained that many individuals have developed unhealthy patterns around food - starving themselves and then comfort eating. For these individuals - without changing these deeply ingrained patterns and giving them appropriate psychological support - just asking them to listen to their body, can be very damaging.
Thirdly - many individuals over-eat due to emotional reasons - such as sadness, stress, anxiety or boredom. Just encouraging someone to eat when they are hungry does not account for times when individuals are eating not due to hunger but due to other emotions. People eating emotionally often know that they are not PHYSICALLY hungry - they are instead eating just to cope. So we need to equip these individuals with coping mechanisms other than food as well as help them to resolve any underlying anxiety, boredom, stress and depression. A lot of the work that I do in helping individuals with their food choices actually involves optimising the state of their mental health.
So sadly I think that initiative eating has promise but it falls short in quite a few areas. Whilst intuitive eating might help someone drop the diet mindset initially and feel better around food - this needs to be coupled with building new healthy habits and optimising mental health - for long-term emotional, mental and physical good health.
"What lies behind you and what lies in front of you pales in comparison to what lies inside of you." – Ralph Waldo Emerson
If you would like some help to change the way you think about food and your body, to build new healthy habits around food and to feel happier, more positive and more confident - contact firstname.lastname@example.org to book in a 20 minute free consultation.