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What to Do When Intuitive Eating Just Isn't Sticking

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Photo: Ahmed Mahmoud/EyeEm/Getty Images

Intuitive eating sounds simple enough. Eat when you're hungry, and stop when you feel full (but not stuffed). No foods are off-limits, and there's no need to eat when you're not hungry. What could go wrong?

Well, considering how many people are locked into a diet mentality—counting calories, yo-yo dieting, feeling guilty for eating certain foods—intuititive eating can be much harder to put into practice than you'd expect. For many people, it takes some work to learn how to eat intuitively, and because of that, it's easy to give up on it without really giving it a chance.

Here's why it can be so challenging to get started, plus how to troubleshoot common issues, according to experts in the field.

What is intuitive eating?

"The goals of Intuitive Eating (IE) are to foster a healthy relationship with food, and to learn that no food is off limits and there is no such thing as a 'good' food or 'bad' food," says Maryann Walsh, a registered dietitian.

The definitive book on the eating style, called Intuitive Eating, outlines the principles and serves as a guide for anyone who wants to try it or guide others to try it.

That said, different practitioners use the principles in varied ways. According to Monica Auslander Moreno, a registered dietitian, some goals of IE are:

  • Making eating a positive, cognitive, mindful experience that also nourishes your body
  • Learning to separate physical hunger from the emotional desire to eat
  • Appreciating food from farm to plate and paying attention to the experience of a food from birth to death or harvest to shelf, along with the people's lives the food has influenced
  • Focusing on self-care and self-prioritization by making food choices that make you feel good
  • Eliminating 'food worry' and anxiety about food

Who is IE right for?

Most people can benefit from an IE lifestyle, experts say, but there are a few specific populations who may want to think carefully before trying it out.

IE is not suitable for everyone," Moreno says. "Imagine a diabetic 'intuitively eating'—it could become downright dangerous," she points out.

This is a somewhat controversial view among IE practitioners since IE is supposed to be for everyone, but it's worth noting that people with some health issues may need to get a little extra help from a dietitian or their physician if they want to try IE out. "I have Crohn's disease," Moreno adds. "I cannot intuitively eat some things, or my gut will react poorly."

Next up, if you have a serious fitness goal, IE may or may not be a good fit for you. "An example would be if you're a runner who is trying to practice intuitive eating, but you find your appetite is never high enough to fuel your runs," Walsh explains. "You find yourself feeling lethargic or tired after a run. You may need to consciously incorporate additional snacks or food items on days when you are planning to run, even if you aren't necessarily hungry for the extra calories."

The most common issues with IE

Overeating: "People who are new to intuitive eating commonly exhibit what I call 'diet rebellion,'" says Lauren Muhlheim, Psy.D., a psychologist and author of When Your Teen Has an Eating Disorder: Practical Strategies to Help Your Teen Recover from Anorexia, Bulimia, and Binge Eating.

"When the diet rules are suspended, they eat large quantities of the foods they've restricted for many years," she says. "They may feel out of control, which can be terrifying."

Weight gain: "Some people gain weight initially, which depending on your goal, can be upsetting," Walsh says. "It's important to realize that weight gain may just be temporary as you figure out how to respond to your innate hunger and fullness cues or weight gain may be favorable for those who have struggled with an eating disorder in the past, this is why it's important to work with a registered dietitian or mental health professional if you have a history of an eating disorder."

Not eating a balanced diet: "Having an understanding of the food on your plate including the type (protein, carbs, and fats) and amount of food you're consuming (calories) is essential to success with IE," says Mimi Secor, DNP, a women's health nurse practitioner. This may seem counter-intuitive since you're not supposed to be counting calories or macros. But as noted above, sometimes the freedom to eat whatever you want can lead to overindulging in certain types of foods over others. You shouldn't obsess about these things, but a little bit of knowledge about your nutrition needs is important to ensure you're eating a balanced diet with enough overall calories, fruits, veggies, protein, fiber, and healthy fats (plus some treats, too, of course.)

How to troubleshoot

Ditch the diet mentality: This may be easier said than done, but it's important to take small steps toward this ultimate goal. "Intuitive eating is sort of a mental 'cleanse' of all of the diet language we are exposed to on a daily basis," Walsh says. "It may be beneficial to be aware of social media's place in your intuitive eating journey. You may benefit from unfollowing certain profiles or staying off social media altogether." She also recommends putting aside the scale and deleting food tracking apps from your phone as you adjust. (Related: The Anti-Diet Movement Is Not an Anti-Health Campaign)

Let go of what you think IE is supposed to be like: "Even those who practice and promote intuitive eating professionally (myself included) are not always perfect IE'ers themselves," Walsh says. "It's about being happy and having an improved relationship with food, and as the saying goes, no relationship is perfect."

Try journaling: "I address challenges with clients/patients by encouraging them to utilize simple journaling," Walsh says. "Paper and pen is best, or even jotting down feelings and thoughts in the note section of your phone. Sometimes getting feelings, thoughts, and concerns out on paper is a great way to make them less powerful in your mind." (This dietician is a big fan of journaling.)

Trust the process: This is particularly important for those struggling with overeating thanks to their newfound food "freedom." "With sufficient time—which varies by the individual—and trust in the process, people adapt to this new permission to eat what they want and return to eating reasonable quantities of indulgent foods and a more balanced diet overall," Dr. Muhlheim says. "As with any relationship, it takes time to build your body's trust that it can really have what it wants and needs."

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