Today I want to talk through very common misconception about Intuitive Eating. When people ask me what IE is I struggle with answering in a way that addresses all of it. There are 10 principles, and they’re all so important! It’s hard to compress that into a short elevator pitch, but I’m working on it. If you have a good one, let me know. When I get to the part of giving yourself permission to eat food you enjoy whenever you want, I often get blank stares and confused faces.
“If I ate what I wanted, when I wanted, I would just eat pizza/cookies/cupcakes all day.” I hear this so often. And I totally get it, because I know I would have said the exact same thing a few years ago. In our diet-obsessed world saying something like “full permission to eat” can be really jarring and confusing. It’s so common to label things like cookies as off-limits and create rules around when and how to eat them. Surely that’s all we would eat if allowed, right?
In short, the answer is no. Let me break it down into a few points to avoid excessive rambling.
Have you ever made a dinner that was delicious, but by day 3 of leftovers you’re like, “OMG I cannot even look at this food anymore!”? That’s because of a lovely thing called food habituation. Our taste buds get bored of eating the same food over and over. If I ate pizza all day, or salads all day, I would eventually crave something different.
Let’s say you are restricting cookies right now. Cookies, I’m so sorry to pick on you. I do love you, it’s just one that comes up commonly in my conversations with people. It was hard for me to pick a food for this blog post because I don’t want to villainize any foods, so please know that I’m not doing that. Anyway, what if I told you “Hey, eating a cookie is totally fine and doesn’t mean you are unhealthy or being ‘bad.’ You can have a cookie whenever you want. Nobody is ever going to take them away from you again.”
Woah, is it me, or did cookies just get a lot less sexy!? Please don’t misconstrue this and think that it’s some type of diet trick, because y’all, IE is not a diet. Giving yourself permission to eat all foods can make some foods less attractive than they once were. Of course you’ll still eat them because hello you’re human and you can. My point is that you may find you don’t actually want to eat that certain food all day every day once you give yourself permission. Knowing you won’t have another diet in the future means you won’t feel that desire to get em while it’s hot.
My friend and classmate Grace wrote a great post on letting dessert being dessert, and she included some fab research about this phenomenon. Go read her post, but here’s the gist: Two groups of participants were given the exact same milkshake. One group was told it was a “sensible,” low-cal shake, and the other group was told it was “indulgent”. People who ate the “indulgent” shake reported feeling more satisfied, while the ones eating the “sensible” shake reported feeling less satisfied and had a higher level of ghelin (a hunger hormone). Taking away these labels of food puts them on the same playing field, and now you can make a decision about what sounds best to you and what will satisfy you without all that noise clouding your head.
Sure, I could eat cookies/dessert all day, but I probably wouldn’t feel great. Similarly, I could eat broccoli all day but I would likely be starving and have an incredible stomach ache.
Your body craves variety and balance. It really does! This absolutely looks different person to person, but in general our bodies get bored eating the same foods. See my point above. And they want to feel good. Following your body’s cues and the guidance of gentle nutrition (when you are ready) means you will eat a wide range of foods that make you feel your best. And yes, that will include cookies at times! And you might go through times where you eat more foods like that, whether it’s because it’s a holiday or for no reason at all. That is normal, too.
There has been a lot of research conducted on IE-I’ll just highlight one study here. In 2006, a study of 343 male and female college students found that those who scored high on the Hawks Intuitive Eating scale ate a more diverse diet. There was no association between IE and the amount of “junk food” eaten in the diet. I hate that phrase, but I include this because I want to show that IE does have positive effects on health and nutrition-not to mention body image and less preoccupation with food, among other markers of health like lower cholesterol. As a reminder, it’s important to go through the process and save gentle nutrition for when you are ready to revisit it and can do so with no judgment/without turning it into a diet. My point is that overall, IE is an evidence-based, ethical approach to nutrition education and counseling.
That’s totally normal. Think about giving a baby a fake phone to play with and then giving them the REAL DEAL. It’s exciting and new and they aren’t going to give it up easily. That might be a bad example. My point is that it’s normal to eat, and even overeat, foods you’ve kept yourself from eating for a long time. I know that can be discouraging and feel chaotic. I would encourage you to work with a professional if you want or need to. Please keep in mind I am not yet a nutrition professional or credentialed to give individualized advice on this! Everything I’m saying here is from personal experience as well as my own research and education.
I want to end by acknowledging that moving away from food rules and embracing Intuitive Eating takes time. Months, years even. I don’t want to come across as “yeah just ditch the diet and then tomorrow you will be perfectly in tune with your body and eat in a way that feels great and all those guilty thoughts will be gone!” Because it is hard. But it’s so worth it to be free from thinking about food all the time and wondering if you’re doing it “right.” You have all the information you need to feed yourself well and take care of your body. If you’re interested, you can search for an intuitive eating counselor near you here, order the Intuitive Eating book here, and find the Intuitive Eating workbook here.