Weekends with Womack

Hidden values in intuitive eating, or can I eat a Big Mac intuitively?

A couple of weeks ago, I posted here with some worries about intuitive eating, which is a key component of the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement. Here’s another brief installment.

There are a lot of things to love about HAES—it’s body-positive, emphasizing weight and body and self-acceptance. It also promotes physical activity of all sorts, stressing that bodies of all shapes, sizes, and capacities can be physically engaged, active, and fit. And this blog is all about that, as am I.

But their emphasis on intuitive eating gives me pause. In my previous post, I listed the principles of intuitive eating from a book about it that Tracy discussed here .  Here they are again:

  1. reject the diet mentality
  2. honor your hunger
  3. make peace with food
  4. challenge the food police
  5. feel your fullness
  6. discover the satisfaction factor
  7. cope with your emotions without using food
  8. respect your body
  9. exercise: feel the difference
  10. honor your health with gentle nutrition

All of these make a lot of sense as a reaction to the feelings of deprivation and anxiety that often result from dieting.   I mean, who wants to be stuck eating only this all the time?


Intuitive eating is supposed to liberate us from the tyranny of all-salad-all-the-time. Of course I love salad as much as the next person, although maybe not as much as all those online happy women alone eating salad. You know, like this woman:


But sometimes I really want a burger and fries. Or cake. Or doughnuts. Or tempura. Or fried dumplings. Or macaroni and cheese. Sometimes I really want foods that I know are not especially healthy for me, are very calorie-dense, are highly processed, and which contain a lot of sugar, salt, fat, simple carbs, or other ingredients that I know play a part in overeating or unhealthy eating FOR ME. Like these:

bad food

And yet at the time I want them. I really want them. I want them now. There’s no ambiguity about this at all. And when I eat them, I feel satisfaction.

Of course, the intuitive eating plan has a response to this feeling of wanting these sorts of foods—you invoke rule 7: cope with your emotions without using food, and also rule 10: honor your health with gentle nutrition.

My problem here, though, is this: my feelings or intuitions about what foods I happen to want at any given time are not always very fine-tuned. Yes, of course, we can often recognize feelings like the rush of momentary desire that results from say, walking at a street fair and smelling fried dough or cotton candy and thinking, “wow, wouldn’t it be great to have something like that?” For me, I try to acknowledge that feeling and keep walking past booths like this one:

fried dough

I do so because I really subscribe to rule 10: honor your health with gentle nutrition. But there are also times like this past week when I was out and about, wanted a late lunch, passed this place in Harvard Square and thought to myself, oh yeah, I’d love a burger and fries. That sounds perfect. And it was– I ordered the People’s Republic of Cambridge burger with cole slaw and Russian dressing. Eating it felt fine and satisfying and yummy.

The problem is, my intuitions about what I want at any given time may lead me to gentle nutrition, but I know for a fact that they also lead me to corn dogs. In order to say no to corn dogs (which, for me, is what I would like to do in general for a bunch of reasons), I have to enlist other faculties:

  • my powers of judgment
  • my knowledge about nutrition
  • my desires to develop and maintain patterns of healthy eating FOR ME
  • my will to override any other momentary desires (or peer pressure, or other emotions triggered by the presence of some food)

Enlisting these faculties means ignoring or overriding messages from my body or my feelings or my intuitions or my desires. Of course we all know this—it’s no news. But it does present me with a problem: in the moment, it can be very hard to distinguish between eating intuitively and eating in a way that runs counter to my desire to honor my body with gentle nutrition. In order to make a judgment call at the time, I have to go outside the intuitive eating paradigm and invoke standard nutritional rules, like the one that says, “give me a break—corn dogs? Really? I don’t think so.”

I’m still thinking and working on these ideas, so I welcome others’ experiences and comments here.

15 thoughts on “Hidden values in intuitive eating, or can I eat a Big Mac intuitively?

  1. Thanks! Love this. I’ve got so many thoughts…

    We share a lot of worries about intuitive eating. In an environment without processed food, maybe I’d be okay. But in this environment which is full of processed food designed to make us crave it, not so much. There’s an assumption built into intuitive eating that naturally we’d come to want what’s best for us. But we’re also sugar, fat, salt craving creatures whose food impulses come from a history of feast and famine. Note it’s feast, all the time, for many of us in this part of the world.

    I’m also leery of claims about knowing when we’re hungry given the role hormonal and environmental cues play in that.

    So yes, for me, there are foods that I don’t trust my impulses around. Like me and television, I need rules!

  2. I’m still figuring food out too.
    Rules worked we for me for years weight wise, but constant restriction and then the guilt and shame that comes with occasionally breaking your own rules, wore me down.

    As a result I eat anything I want-sort of. If I feel like a hamburger, cake, chips I allow myself to have it.

    But I feel I have veered from over restricting to over permitting. Maybe this is a normal step. To understand the middle ground you must try both sides?

    Anyway, because I am celiac I do often have to wait to satisfy cravings. I am very serious about food bring gluten free as the changes with my diagnosis were shockingly obvious. So having that small bit of builtbinrestrictionactuskky keeps me in check sometimes.

    I have probably gained a clothes size as a result of the ending of my enforced dieting. But I was quite thin, so now I’m more average. But I haven’t gained and gained. It has been18 months.

    Finding gentle nutrition is not simple. I just want to like food. I feel like I do now.
    And even more, I don’t hate myself because of it.

  3. Great post! This is something I struggle with, too. Lately I’ve been really evaluating my typical use of food as a emotional release. If I’m stressed, I eat a burger. (I loooove burgers.) If I’m emotionally exhausted (I work as a counselor so this happens a lot), I grab and devour a pint of Ben & Jerry’s in one sitting. If I’m happy, I bake cookies and eat them. It’s this emotional connection to food that has created bad habits. So, recently, I’ve been catching myself evaluating my thoughts and feelings when I am craving a “bad” food. Do I want those fries because I’m truly hungry and that’s what my body says it wants right now, or do I want them because I’m anxious about money? Am I craving chocolate because I’m lonely or because a sweet treat would hit the spot for my body right now? I really really really try and evaluate – hard – about what it is that’s causing these cravings. I certainly don’t deprive myself – if I want a burger, I’m gonna have one. But I want to have it for the right reasons and not be so emotionally connected to my eating. It should be to sustain my body, not my emotions. We live in a world where burgers and cakes exist – and why should we deprive ourselves of that completely? It’s all about making good choices. I usually gravitate towards a salad or smoothie, but heck. A burger is what I NEED sometimes, too, ya know?

  4. I agree with Sam. I’d be way more okay with saying “eat what you think is right” if we could take all the lies and processed foods out of it. Presented with a buffet of whole, good foods vs the world we in, where it’s easy, cheap and fast to make choices lower on the nutritional scale? I’m not sure it’s a fair thing.

  5. As a dietitian, I think the concept of intuitive eating is great. But it’s much easier to use the skills “honor your hunger” and “feel your fullness” when you are eating “real food”. Let’s face the facts, processed food is crap. Don’t get me wrong, we all want it (me included), but I have found the less I eat it, the less I crave it. For example, I absolutely love love love cheesecake. But I probably only have it once or twice a year. Probably because I have been eating healthy-ish most of my life.. therefore, I also love love love vegetables.
    The food companies have a one-up on all of us.. they make foods sooooooo irresistible (loads of money and research towards finding the “perfect taste”) that we literally CAN’T stop eating the food. I would say it’s a slippery slope when we tell people to eat “everything”.. intuitively.
    I think intuitive eating is a skill that takes practice.. but over time can be invaluable.
    This is a complex topic.. Thanks for bringing it up 🙂

  6. I hear you on this one. Good food isn’t always healthy food, even if it isn’t junk food. Parties are the hardest for me because everyone else is enjoying the delicious offerings, some of which are gourmet delights that I can’t just have any old time. I want to be able to enjoy the pleasure of eating like everyone else. But I just can’t (without consequences). Intuitive eating would not necessarily serve my other health goals. It isn’t mindless eating or emotional eating, but it still doesn’t work for me.

  7. this was really interesting to read. I have been intuitively eating for a while now but I still find myself creating this rules towards food. I can never tell if I actually want the food that my brain is telling me it wants, or if I just want it because it’s being put in front of me. I think it all depends on my surroundings. When I’m in Paris for instance and all I see are baguettes and sweets, that’s what I crave but then when I’m elsewhere such as Spain, I found that I wanted tapas and more of a cooked cuisine. Of course when I’m in Canada and my influences are the billboards that are telling me what to eat, then that has an impact as well.

  8. I can’t eat sugar safely. If I have a bite I am off on a run. So I do use substitutes. I have not had sugar for 7 years.

    I eat mostly gluten free. Lots of vegis and fruits and some meat. If I need a cheeseburger with French fries very occasionally I will indulge. Other than that I find something that fills the need but doesn’t hurt me.

  9. I find intuitive eating with a focus on gentle nutrition has really been working for me these days. And while I appreciate people’s concerns about not always being aware of hunger signals and that sort of thing, I think the idea of getting reconnected with some of the physical cues about hunger and satiety is an important thing for chronic dieters who have learned not to pay attention to those signals. When I first tried to do intuitive eating, I didn’t even know what physical hunger really felt like. I did know what super-stuffed felt like though, and that’s because I had a really awful sense of when I’d eaten enough until it was way too late. Portions and knowing when to stop are still struggles of mine. But paying attention has helped.

    I think the point about gentle nutrition is to place a sort of “check” on intuitive eating. For one thing, our emotions often lead us in the direction of comfort foods which are not always nutritious (mine do anyway). To me, intuitive eating is a process that helps me eat with some awareness rather than tuning out on auto-pilot. It’s a good anti-dote to dieting, which simply doesn’t work for me. It’s not easy and it’s not for everyone, and it’s not for every occasion (for example, when I’m running for a long time it’s not as if I feel hungry but I do know that I need to take in some nutrition or I will whither), but as a rough guide to eating in a way that lets me trust myself, satisfy my desires, and pay attention to my feelings and what’s motivating me to eat, I like it.

    As for whether there are some foods I can’t eat intuitively, that’s a great question. For me, those would be foods that I’ve attached a lot of other meanings to (mostly emotional, mostly comfort). In other words, there are some foods that it’s hard for me to keep a clear head around and know what’s leading me there. But that’s okay. I don’t see that as a general argument against Intuitive eating. Rather, I see it as an argument for keeping nutrition in mind and staying aware of emotions and the way food can be used as a drug, to soothe and escape. Big Macs aren’t inherently like that — but for some people they can be. Similarly cupcakes — I’m not going to lose control around cupcakes, but others will — and potato chips — another thing I can have around for ages and not over do it with. But dates and dried mango! That’s another story. Cherries? I can easily eat a pound before I realize it.

  10. What does make it tough is that MacDonald’s does offer low cost burgers, etc.

    I blogged about my comfort foods which I’ve accumulated the top 3 over the last few decades. They are all ethnic: baked German pretzel, savoury steamed custard (Chinese peasant dish) and a Lebanese basic flatbread (which I had as a destination bike ride..and part of my injury recovery) with just sumac and spritz of hot sauce. Yummers!

    I only make 1 dish from scratch (Chinese dish, a childhood comfort favourite) while the others I must leave home and buy it. This already is a restriction on myself. That’s how I reduce (not avoid completely) temptation of ice cream (which takes over a month for me to finish half a litre), fancy baked desserts, etc.

    It works for me by not simply buying it for home /pantry/fridge. Out of sight, is often out of mind for me.

    I guess I’ve been eating intuitively most of my life after I left my parents’ home which is since my 20’s. It is true that it helps to have been raised on a healthy suite of food dishes/diet as child/teen.

    That said, I HAVE changed bits of what I consume:
    *last 6 years onward, hardly any white rice. A huge change for me. I feel lousy when I eat a lot of rice now. This was related to blood sugar control..yet I still eat a dessert. So I have sushi 2-4 times per YEAR. I make sure I eat good sushi and sashimi to off-set too much rice. I replaced that with egg white noodles and light Asian noodles, couscous and occasion artisan bread.

    *cutting back tea and coffee intake by 50%. In the past 4 months I’ve dropped from 6 cups to approx. 3 cups per day. I make sure I stop drinking it by mid-afternoon. To help me realign my sleep after sleep loss due to recovering from my head concussion. I’m doing all the sleep habits/hygiene to …sleep properly at night.

    *rarely have any deep fried foods. Maybe less than 6-8 times per year. I don’t deep fry at home at all. I like tempura but I normally don’t order that for Japanese cuisine. No, I’m not into deep fried chicken. Yes, I’ll have a donut from workplace box for everyone.

    But my mother didn’t deep fry. So that probably explains why my palate isn’t interested in deep fried foods at all.

    Intuitive eating for me works best when combined with daily exercise. After a good bike ride, I like to eat but don’t feel as good to chomp away on something deep fried.

  11. I’m really enjoying these posts on intuitive eating, particularly since it’s something I try to practice. I also appreciate more than I can say the discussion about better eating as a woman without the impricit or explicit central themes of dieting and weight loss. Eating is important! And food is enjoyable.

    My personal experience is that intuitive eating is hard. The only time I’ve been able to reliably trust my judgement on cravings was when I was having a hard time eating (and digesting/assimilating!) enough useable calories to keep up with my activity level. Saturated fats, vegetables with a high water content, and processed sugars all started sounding and smelling unappealing. Increasing my knowledge about nutrition, exploring new foods, and eating with non-judgemental people or people who had similar eating habits to the ones I hoped to develop were incredibly helpful. My intake/output ratio is a lot more balanced now, and I feel like I’ve developed better habits, which makes it easier to enjoy it when I want to indulge (for me it’s cookies, not corndogs). But it also makes it easier to stop before I’ve done something like tried to make a meal out of sweets or eaten fried or fast food more than once in a [enter the frequency that makes you feel good without upsetting your body’s balance here].

    I think you’re right: it takes deep knowledge of your body, of your internalized attitudes towards foods and of your relationship with your own passing desires to be able to skip the part where you sometimes have to tell yourself, “No. Nope. Not today. Maybe later.” I still try to compensate by making an effort to replace foods from passing cravings with responsible foods I truly enjoy eating, rather than meals that bring no gustatory or sensory enjoyment.

  12. Great post and great comments too! In general, I trust my body and eat what I want. But I also have rules. I eat vegetables (and lots of them) and avoid processed shit. And like others have commented already, the less I eat it, the less I want it. In fact, if I eat certain processed foods (or too many), I actually feel sick. I actually crave vegetables and healthy foods now – which seemed impossible before.

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