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Intuitive eating — beyond sports nutrition

Image description: a single fresh strawberry with leaf still attached to the top.

As long time readers may know, I am a big fan when it comes to intuitive eating. I’ve written about it lots, including this post “Intuitive Eating: What It Is and Why I Love It.” So I was excited to see an article in Outside online singing its praises as the “ultimate anti-diet.”

Not everyone around here is sold on intuitive eating. Sam has written about her four worries about intuitive eating. I agree that it’s not a cure all that works for everyone. And as Sam says, it depends what you mean by “works.” She puts it like this: “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? “

For me, it goes back to the anti-diet idea outlined in the Outside article. Dieting breeds obsession. As someone with a history of chronic dieting and disordered eating, intuitive eating has freed me from that. It took awhile (see my post, “It only took 27 years but now I’m a bona fide intuitive eater”), but as an intuitive eater I am way more well-adjusted about food than I ever was before. Intuitive eating is more a response to chronic dieting. Granted, it may not work for everyone, but it does work for some.

In my reply (in the comments) to Sam’s worries, I said the following:

…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.

That’s why it’s inaccurate to say it’s only about listening to your body. As Christine Byrne, author of the article in Outside notes, there are lots of dimensions to intuitive eating besides “listen to your body.” On its own, for all sorts of reasons, “listen to your body” isn’t helpful advice. Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole, authors of the 1995 book Intuitive Eating, identified a number of other features of intuitive eating, including the idea of challenging the food police (whether they’re other people or live in your head) and no longer moralizing food (it’s not good or evil).

Byrne also talks about the importance of a nuanced approach. A dietician interviewed for the article, Heather Caplan, comments: “For the purpose of sports nutrition, I’ll often have someone eat when they’re not hungry, before or after a hard workout,” Caplan says. “Not everyone feels like eating at 6 A.M., I identify with that. But I also identify with not eating and being hungry 15 minutes into a run.” Instead of honoring hunger, think of it as figuring out how food makes your body feel in different situations and honoring those feelings. If eating when you’re not hungry helps fuel a better workout or minimize post-workout soreness, it’s a good choice.”

A good choice serves your workouts and helps you with recovery. It’s not only about hunger signals.

I like how Byrne puts it: “Ultimately, intuitive eating is a way to make sure your needs are being met. What separates intuitive eating from traditional diets is that it’s 100 percent flexible—it can (and will) look different for everyone.”

That’s what makes it the opposite of dieting. Dieting is not about meeting our needs. Dieting isn’t flexible. The hallmark of a fad diet is that it looks the same for everyone.

If you’ve been avoiding intuitive eating because you worry that it seems not to fit with the nutritional needs of your sports activities, then thinking of it as a way to make sure your needs are being met might offer a new angle on it. My guess is that if you do not struggle or have not struggled with dieting, where food is an all-consuming mental obsession, then you really have no reason to feel drawn to this approach. But if chronic dieting of that kind is a thing in your history, then intuitive eating in all of its dimensions is an attractive alternative that can help bring some peace to your vexed relationship with food and your body. At least that is how it worked for me.

Does intuitive eating have any appeal for you?

4 thoughts on “Intuitive eating — beyond sports nutrition

  1. I found Intuitive Eating through the posts here! The first two things I’ve been working on are to Eat when I’m eating (not watch tv, surf the web, etc.) And to pay attention to cues that I’ve eaten enough (before I’ve over-eaten), these are surprisingly harder than it sounds. I’ve also just started Crossfit (blaming that on your book…) and have been learning how to fuel for the early workouts!

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  2. There are a lot of things to like about intuitive eating. I’ve always been very big on listening to my body (I’ve been a yogi for at least 15 years) and wholly believe that diet and healthy living is very individualized–what works for one person, does not necessarily work for everyone. Intuitive eating is flexible and is about the individual, which I definitely like.

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  3. (Trigger warning–I’m going to reference weight loss strategies in my response.)

    I think I have too many eating guidelines to count as an intuitive eater, although I can relate to much of it (especially not moralizing our food choices and eating mindfully). As a lifter, it is important for me to get enough protein to build muscle, and as a former vegetarian, without tracking I would not meet those goals most days. I feel better when I get enough protein, but what I reach for “intuitively” tends to be mostly carbohydrates.

    I am also a former fat person, and I choose to manage my weight/size consciously. I did not get smaller on a formal diet, however. I taught myself some guidelines that work for me, help control my appetite and keep my total food consumption within a range that helps me stay smaller. The foods I was raised on, and that feel “natural” or “normal” were foods that helped me stay fatter. Much of what I do now feels mostly habitual, but without some regular maintenance, I think those habits would slide and my size would go up again. The work of maintaining and tweaking these habits is ongoing, but not onerous. Still, I suspect that keeps me from counting as an “intuitive eater.”

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