food · overeating

Four worries Sam has about intuitive eating

Blue sky, grey water. A man wearing a suit up to his chest in water. He's got a very worried face and he's running his hands through his hair.
Search for “worries” on Unsplash and you get this guy. I’d be worried too if I were wearing a suit and I was up to my chest in water. Photo by Mubariz Mehdizadeh on Unsplash.

I think really that most of us aspire to eat intuitively, to have an uncomplicated relationship with food. You know the basic ideas, if you’ve been reading this blog for awhile: eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, no foods are off limits, listen to your body, and follow “gentle” nutrition. I admit it sounds heavenly. Me too. Me too. And I think it’s terrific for people who have a broken relationship with their body’s signals , people who eat what a diet says, when it says, ignoring all the cues our bodies give us. Getting in touch with hunger–which many of us have the privilege to not experience very often–can be super useful.

But I have so many worries about intuitive eating as a social phenomenon.

We talk about intuitive eating a lot around here since we’re all anti-dieting and against demonizing foods. Tracy is the biggest fan of intuitive eating. See Intuitive Eating: What It Is and Why I Love It! and It only took 27 years, but now I’m a bona fide intuitive eater.

But I’m the worrier. I’ve worried about it for awhile. See The weak link in intuitive eating, our hunger signals aren’t terribly reliable and I’ve written about my own experiences with misfiring hunger cues here, Forgetting to eat? Who are these people? and here and here.

And like me, Catherine is skeptical. See Hidden values in intuitive eating, or can I eat a Big Mac intuitively and Is intuitive eating enough? Inner capacities vs. outer food cues .

So I am going to try to sort out my concerns in a numbered list, like philosophers are in the habit of doing.

First, I worry that it’s often a disguised diet where “working” as in “does intuitive eating work for you?” is measured, in part, in terms of your weight. If there were more fat people, at stable weights, not obsessed with diets or food, held up as intuitive eating success stories, I’d be happier.

Second, I worry that it’s connected to another way of judging fat people. You’re supposed to only eat because you’re hungry. Intuitive eating, done right, is supposed to land you at the right weight for your size (see above). Therefore, larger people must be eating for reasons besides hunger. You’re supposed to be vigilant about emotional eating. So often there’s judgments about mental and emotional health of fat people, as if we can read your emotional well-being off the number on the scale. It assumes that if you take care of your mental and emotional health your weight will fix itself. And that you can tell that people–and here pretty much we mean women–are emotionally unstable, because they’re fat. Just no.

I’ve written in defense of food as comfort and emotional eating here.

Photo of yummy looking cinnamon buns with frosting.

There are many amazing photos of food on Unsplash. This is a tray of cinnamon buns. Photo by Otto Norin on Unsplash.

Okay, but these two worries are about intuitive eating as a thing, as a social phenomenon, about the way we think about it and talk about it. We could stop all that. We could hold up some fat people as successful intuitive eaters. We could stop assuming that fat people aren’t eating for hunger. We could do it right.

Third, I have worries about the actual practice of intuitive eating. I worry that hunger is not exactly the most reliable bodily signal in town. My own experiences in this area are pretty wild and they have to do with thyroid levels. I’ve had thyroid cancer and as a result take a synthetic version of thyroid hormones called synthroid. There’s a lot of juggling in getting your thyroid levels right. Lots of things can throw it off and the thing I notice is the most is how this affects hunger. I can go from raging hunger all day, like waking up during the night hungry, to not caring at all about food. It’s really striking.

Lots of women, not just those of us who have had cancer, have issues with thyroid levels. It’s very common. See International Women’s Day and How Thyroid Disease is a Feminist Issue and Why Hypothyroidism is a Feminist Issue .

It’s clear to me now that our hunger signals aren’t perfect at all. They’re pretty darn flexible.

The other group of people who experience this are formerly obese people. As a group they have much higher levels of the hormones that signal hunger.

Here’s one such study, from Science Daily.

The study involved 50 overweight or obese adults, with a BMI of between 27 and 40, and an average weight of 95kg, who enrolled in a 10-week weight loss program using a very low energy diet. Levels of appetite-regulating hormones were measured at baseline, at the end of the program and one year after initial weight loss.

Results showed that following initial weight loss of about 13 kgs, the levels of hormones that influence hunger changed in a way which would be expected to increase appetite. These changes were sustained for at least one year. Participants regained around 5kgs during the one-year period of study.

Professor Joseph Proietto from the University of Melbourne and Austin Health said the study revealed the important roles that hormones play in regulating body weight, making dietary and behavioral change less likely to work in the long-term.

“Our study has provided clues as to why obese people who have lost weight often relapse. The relapse has a strong physiological basis and is not simply the result of the voluntary resumption of old habits,” he said.”

Why does it matter? What’s this got to do with intuitive eating? My worry here is that intuitive eating assumes that our bodies are right about various things, that the signals they send us are correct. But if the formerly obese person eats when hungry, they’ll be eating a lot more often than is consistent with maintaining their weight. Still thinking about this? Want more information? Here’s two articles from Precision Nutrition that do a pretty good job of explaining the hormones that regulate hunger: Leptin, ghrelin, and weight loss and Weight loss & hunger hormones. It’s pretty complicated.

If your hunger cues are reliable, great. If you’re not a formerly obese person or someone who struggles getting their thyroid levels right, enjoy! But recognize that as a privilege and don’t assume that it will work for others.

Fourth, I worry about intuitive eating in an environment where some foods are designed to make us want them. Sugar + fat? Yum! Read here for how junk food is designed to both create cravings and convince your body that you’re not full and can keep eating more. From the article just cited, “Foods that rapidly vanish or “melt in your mouth” signal to your brain that you’re not eating as much as you actually are. In other words, these foods literally tell your brain that you’re not full, even though you’re eating a lot of calories. The result: you tend to overeat.”

We’re not all alike and if intuitive eating works for you, then great. But what do I mean by work? I don’t mean weight, that’s for sure. I mean if you eat this way are you, on reflection, happy with the food choices you’re making? Are you leading a life you enjoy? Are you meeting your own food goals around nutrition? Do you have energy to do the things you love? When I say it doesn’t work for me, I mean that sometimes I am hungry all of the time. I can be hungry 20 minutes after finishing a meal. Hungry again before bed. Hungry during the night. When I am like that I have to ignore hunger because I know I have eaten enough. At other times I am hardly hungry at all and I can skip meals without noticing. Then I have to make sure I still eat to fuel some of the activities I like, like riding my bike. So as long as this hunger fluctuation is part of my life there’s no strictly intuitive eating for me.

How about you? How well do your hunger cues track the need to eat? Do you listen to your body about what to eat? Are you happy with the choices you make?

15 thoughts on “Four worries Sam has about intuitive eating

  1. This post touches on some thoughts I’ve had myself about the intuitive eating language being used in fitness lately. I’ve noticed it’s mostly coming from women in their early-20s advocating it and I simply think that as you get older you undergo natural changes and your eating patterns have to adjust with them. I used to be able to down 3,000 calories in a day and not gain a pound or feel sluggish when I was 22 but at 32 that would make me feel like a dead snail. What I find is really great is having ladies who are in the same life stage as me to look up to in terms of fitness. It’s been a real great help to gain some perspective on what eating for hormone health and overall fitness actually looks like.

  2. I have too much food baggage. I can’t trust my own hunger cues.
    Waiting until I feel like eating is usually too late. If my blood sugar is too low I only want to eat cheese and cracker or chips.
    If I want to eat balanced, planned meals I need to eat at fairly regular intervals.

    1. I totally get this. When I’m in my “not hungry phrases” I sometimes notice that I am tired, short tempered, irritable. I should have eaten ages ago. But no hunger! And then if I wait til I actually get hungry, I want to EAT ALL THE CARB-Y SALTY THINGS right now. Better to plan healthy meals at reasonable intervals.

  3. Lots of feels here– your first two points are excellent. As far as the last two, I don’t know that my hunger signals naturally function properly on a typical diet. A year ago I was eating intuitively; I ate an array of healthful foods and was physically active. My weight was high but stable, and I didn’t stress about food– I was your poster child fat and healthy intuitive eater. Then to get after some fitness goals I adopted a low carb diet and lost some weight. The interesting thing is how much my hunger signals have changed after reducing my carb intake sharply– I no longer need to eat frequently to avoid “hangry” or hypoglycemia. In some ways, I’m eating more intuitively– the insulin hunger drive is gone, hunger feels rational and stomach-based now– but in other ways it’s totally un-intuitive (no, I cannot have the cake, because I will feel like utter crap and crave more of it forever). Sorry if this is inappropriate– I’m not trying to evangelize, it’s just that my experience with hunger now is so different in this N=1 experiment I’m doing.

    1. I guess that’s what shocked me too with the thyroid thing, how radically different things can feel. I think your comment is right on point about the many different things that affects our hunger drives.

  4. First my own bias: I love intuitive eating. I found it years ago (when I was a student I think) and have a rather dog-eared copy to peruse when I feel like it is helpful. And it can be helpful for many of my clients. But with that I think your points are true, and are definitely some of the caveats that critics have given. It’s important to acknowledge that having a) perfect hunger signals and b) the lifestyle to eating “intuitively” can be quite privileged. And what I mean by lifestyle is that some folks who promote intuitive eating talk about only eating when hungry, and well what if you’re in a meeting or work a job which doesn’t allow food on shift and has very specific break times (during which you aren’t hungry)? Or on a long bus ride/in the middle of nowhere? Or how does meal planning fit with intuitive eating?

    One of the alternatives I like is Ellyn Satter’s “normal eating” along with her eating competence. These are continuations of her themes for raising healthy eaters: it can be a happy medium between planning meals and eating in a more structured routine, but allows us to get away from the pathologizing of hunger and fullness that is so common in diet culture.

  5. Oh this post and the comments! So my life. (and I can “intuitive eat” junk food – or sometimes not want it at all – I can be hungry right after eating, thought it was only me, or hungry x amount of time after certain foods or empty stomach hungry but have no appetite…)

    Appreciate the thyca/thyroid issues mention (Hashi/hypo since 97, dx’d & treated starting 99, thyca with -ectomy in 2006). I’ve done Paleo but still plenty of carbs from veg/fruit, and had it help in the appetite way and in energy and athletic performance – for a while. I lost more weight than was healthy, not intentionally as I thought I was eating enough, got quite underweight but in general it didn’t bother me – but it apparently bothered my body health-wise. I am now dealing with long-term health issues because of it (even though I’ve regained). I’m there with emotional eating/stress eating (or not eating because of it in extreme cases – I’ve gone both ways). And menopause during the period I was eating to get back to normal weight, so it came back differently and I feel different. (and now I’ve we’re most sensitive to carbs post-meno, so eat less of them – and eat more protein – oh ffs) And I run, and that’s a big part of my identity, but also has weight interactions. And I’m a control freak, so that doesn’t help… (laughing but not at my data dump above)

    I agree – perfect hunger signals (and the ability to eat whatever whenever) are something of a privilege. And I like to meal plan – in general.

    I wish this wasn’t all a struggle for so many of us (some people eat without calculating I hear, without guilt!).
    Thanks all for making me feel less alone.

  6. Okay, so intuitive eating isn’t for everyone. Agreed. Your list of questions to ask about whether it “works” is supremely healthy and well-adjusted. Instead, I want to challenge that many people who are drawn to this approach are dealing with a more psychologically deep set of attitudes and behaviours around food that, if they can get to intuitive eating, they can be free of. It works for me because for the first time in my life I do not obsess about food every waking moment. I don’t panic when I am at an event with a buffet table. I don’t hate myself when I take a brownie. I don’t gorge myself beyond full because I can’t figure out when I’ve eaten enough. And I don’t go to bed every night full of regret over what I ate that day (and it’s not because I’m always making “healthy” choices) and wake up in the morning planning my meals and snacks to the last unrealistic detail. I can also go hungry without panicking and recognize that’s okay. And that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no food around, but there may be no food that will do and I would rather wait. It’s okay to subject any approach that doesn’t work for you to criticism. That is what we as philosophers do. But for myself, who has a history of extremely messed up thinking about food and of disordered eating, it’s been an absolute life saver that’s taken me 27 years to reach. I don’t have perfect hunger signals, but being in touch with my hunger feels more like a hard won battle than a privilege at this point.

    1. I see myself in your recounting of behavior, which is why I am interested in IE. I’m glad it is working for you!

  7. Reblogged this on FIT IS A FEMINIST ISSUE and commented:

    Yesterday Tracy re-blogged her ode to intuitive eating and while I’m really happy it works for her and I’m glad that her days of disordered eating are over, I’ve got lots of worries about intuitive eating. Here’s my list!

  8. hmm. I still intuitive eat and it works, provided I walk daily or cycle daily. It works for me,…..because there are certain I just don’t eat much while others I have to learn to cut back (desserts). I don’t eat certain foods…because it’s a cultural upbringing not to eat much/hardly any butter, cream, etc. I can’t drink much because I’m allergic to alcohol and so on. So when a person’s palate is already trained from childhood that doesn’t care to have certain foods often me that’s intuitive avoidance for me…which is part of intuitive eating also.

    Maybe we should look at this differently from intuitive avoidance,….which some cultural diets. For instance I don’t care much for deep fried foods. This is not Asian thing. My mother rarely deep fried food at home…so as result…I never developed craving for deep fried foods. That is for me, intuitive avoidance as part of intuitive eating.

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