QUESTION: As I learn about intuitive eating, I’m starting to practice some of the principles. But it seems like I only want to eat unhealthy food right now. I know I’m supposed to be giving myself permission to eat it and make peace with it but I can’t help but think, what about nutrition and intuitive eating? There’s been hardly any mention of the nutritious qualities of foods so far and I’m just wondering when is the right time to start thinking about that again.
ANSWER: I love this question because it echoes so many of the concerns I hear from clients (and questions I had myself). When we first start to reject the diet mentality and let go of food rules, it can certainly seem like we only crave or desire foods we previously deemed “unhealthy” or “off limits”. More often than not, these foods are higher in calories, grams of sugar, fat, etc. and for whatever reason were allowed in limited amounts or not at all when we were previously dieting.
There’s a reason we often don’t crave nutritious foods in the beginning – for a full explanation, keep reading!
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Rebellion Is Normal
When we’re dieting, we’re caught in a cycle of restriction followed by a backlash. That could look like binging behaviors, overeating, eating very quickly, or any other version of feeling out of control or controlled by food or just a guilt or shameful feeling towards what we ate. The cycle continues because the next response to that is to return to restriction, AKA, starting over on the diet. You can think of it like a pendulum, where restriction is on one side and binging behaviors are on the other. Each time you return to restriction it’s like pulling the pendulum to one side, and when it’s released, it swings just as far to the other end of the extreme.
That’s what we sometimes call the restrict-rebel-repent cycle and it repeats each time a new dieting attempt is started.
It can be helpful to remind ourselves that this rebellious response to food rules is normal. Just like if I told you, “Don’t think about the color green.” What’s the very first thing your mind went to?
In much the same way, we crave what we can’t have (or what we tell ourselves we can’t have). Deprivation creates more preoccupation around a food and can lend it a level of novelty it wouldn’t otherwise have. This also creates a heightened response when we finally DO allow ourselves to have that restricted food item….so instead of enjoying it, we might eat very quickly, or mindlessly, or secretively, or whatever. That doesn’t make for a very pleasant eating experience and further drives the cycle of shame and regret that sends us right back to restriction.
What Happens If You Only Eat What You Crave?
In the beginning, I’ll be honest, it seems weird to follow your cravings or start experimenting with foods you previously restricted. It’s exciting, because you’re anticipating how good they taste and thinking about how long it’s been since you last had that food. But it’s also scary because you don’t trust yourself around it; you’re not sure if you’ll ever want to eat anything else, what will happen if you can’t/won’t/don’t stop, and so on. And we can really psych ourselves out of trusting the process and committing to it.
Here’s something to think about instead:
What if (play along with me here) you could have your all-time favorite food for every meal of every single day without any consequences. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. I mean…does that sound awesome or what?
And in the beginning it DOES sound awesome and you think, “Oh my god this is the best thing ever. I can have as much [insert favorite food here] as I want and this is amazing.” Just picture your favorite food for a moment and think of what it could be like to have unlimited access to it whenever you ate. You’d probably dive right in, maybe eating really fast or really quickly. You might register how great it tastes or that might not hit you until later. Regardless, you’re loving it.
Then, eventually, you start to think, “OK this is pretty nice but it’s getting a little old now. I still like this food but I don’t enjoy it as much as I did at first.” That’s the novelty wearing off. Because it’s no longer restricted and you’re no longer avoiding it, there’s no urge to rebel against a food rule because it doesn’t exist.
Fast forward a little more and you might realize you actually WANT to eat something else now. Maybe if your food was ice cream, you start to want something hot. Maybe if your food was pizza you start to want something cold. Maybe if your food was cheesecake you start to want something savory. Maybe if your food was movie theater buttery salty popcorn you start to want something sweet. You get it. The contract and variety in our meals and snacks can add to our satisfaction.
Not only that, but if you only ever ate any one of those foods, you might start to notice a little, uh…GI misbehavior. Maybe you experience some discomfort or other symptoms that leave you feeling less than your best. Or you feel less energized, less alert or focused. And you decide maybe changing things up could help so you reach for a nourishing food that you know can serve your body well.
Then, and only then, does nutrition finally start to come into focus for intuitive eating. It’s so important to first dismantle food rules, challenge and move through the rebellion that comes after dieting, and equip ourselves with the tools and other coping mechanisms to allow us to work through our other issues around food and our body.
What About Nutrition and Intuitive Eating?
Nutrition still matters. Intuitive eating was created by two dietitians who recognized that traditional or conventional nutrition interventions (AKA dieting) wasn’t working for their clients. They were frustrated, their clients were frustrated, and they figured there had to be a better way. From the very beginning, intuitive eating has included nutrition and acknowledges there are nutritional differences in food. You’d be hard pressed to find a dietitian who would claim all foods were nutritionally equal. But all foods are morally equal and that’s the distinction. Yes, nutrition is important but so are other considerations, like taste, appetite, time, budget, and so on.
Gentle Nutrition Comes Last
Principle 10 of intuitive eating states, “Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition.” The principles of intuitive eating aren’t really something you have to work through in order. The exceptions are the first (Reject the Diet Mentality) and last. In between, you’re working on things that support healthful behaviors, practicing self-care, reframing damaging thoughts, and learning to trust your body again.
Along the way, principles like “Respect Your Body” and “Respect Your Fullness” come into play. Intuitive eating is not at all about eating what you want, whenever you want. It doesn’t mean we throw nutrition knowledge or common sense out the window (although many people, particularly those on social media, might make it seem that way). This is my favorite way to respond when someone asks, “Well, what about nutrition and intuitive eating?” When we choose to respect our body and honor our health, nutrition and the way we eat becomes a tool to do just that, not a weapon in the war we wage on manipulating our body to a smaller, malnourished version of itself.
There is absolutely a place for nutrition within a non-diet, intuitive eating approach. That’s part of why I feel it so nicely complements MNT (medical nutrition therapy) for certain conditions. There will be more on that in a future post but in the meantime, just know that although nutrition is part of intuitive eating, it comes last for a reason. If it’s introduced because this other healing takes place, it can easily swing back into a diet mindset where nutrition knowledge is the primary driver behind a food choice.
And that’s really just another form of dieting.
Have you fully committed to the work it takes to become an intuitive eater? It’s not easy, but it’s so worth it! Have you gone through this experience to realize you want to eating delicious, nourishing foods again?
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And if you’re looking for more support for a non diet approach and intuitive eating, be sure to check out my Intuitive Eating Workbook. It’s full of resources and tools to help you kick the dieting mentality and find food freedom!