Is intuitive eating for everyone? I don’t think so. I may take some flak for saying this, but success with intuitive eating is not something that every person will be able to achieve, but with a lot of work most can.
I myself have been working toward it for years and in all honesty, I am not there yet. Will I completely get there someday? Maybe. Do I have to track every morsel I eat every day? No, but I do need to track my intake on a weekly basis and guesstimate when I don’t track.
I don’t often discuss the fact that I had an eating disorder in my teen years, but I did and I firmly believe that my disordered eating during those crucial developmental years altered my ability to have normal hunger/fullness cues. I can’t find the reference (believe me I have tried), but a few years ago while listening to a podcast with Layne Norton and Sohee Lee she mentioned a study that indicated that girls (and I am sure boys too) who experienced disordered eating during their developmental years had diminished ability to experience normal hunger and fullness cues. Bingo…that made so much sense to me and spoke to my experience.
Please know this can work both ways; some people have an increased need to track their intake in order to make sure they eat enough, while others need to do so to ensure they don’t overeat, and yet others have zero need to track and truly can intuitively listen to their body’s needs. Throughout all of my years of working with clients, I have seen so many different eating behaviors. I’ve had clients who have very little appetite in general, those who are not able to control their urges to overeat, and still others who eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full.
I have found that both under and overeating issues generally stem from unbalanced Sugar Handling (Hyperglycemia, Hypoglycemia, Insulin Resistance, etc.), so the solution to more normalized appetite tends to be getting their sugar balance in line through eating the majority of their calories from whole unprocessed foods and consuming enough protein and healthy fats for their specific activity levels. When we eat nutrient dense food that’s been properly prepared, our hunger signals will be more normalized. This is not to say that emotional issues aren’t at play; I think we can all agree that there can be a heavy tie between emotional state and appetite.
As I mentioned, I have been working toward a more intuitive approach to eating for years with many unsuccessful attempts along the way, however, each failure has taught me something that has improved my experience the next go around. Now my approach is tiered as I slowly work toward intuitively knowing what my body needs. I have tracked for so long now that when I do go out to eat I can estimate what is on my plate and do not need to weigh or measure it, but I do loosely track it in My Fitness Pal. I also have at least 3-4 meals a week where I simply work to build a balanced plate with no need to weigh or measure.
One of the biggest mistakes I made when moving away from tracking was to completely stop tracking versus taking baby steps. I went from weighing, measuring, and inputting every morsel I ate into My Fitness Pal to a free-for-all (lesson learned). I am now at the point where I am able to go out of town and simply eat reasonably yet still within my whole foods healthy manner. I simply make the best decisions I can when we eat out and when I get home I track my meals to make sure I am eating a good macro split that supports my health and the type of athletic training I like to do.
Another key for me has been to make sure that I stay away from processed sugars completely because they send me down a horrible path. I know this about myself and have made the conscious decision to stay away from them because I literally can’t control myself…it’s like one bite and I’m done for…any semblance of control is gone. So, when I have something sweet (which is daily) I make sure it is made with as little processing as possible like a smoothie sweetened with dates or an RX Bar. If we have a birthday coming-up in our family and I make the decision that I want to partake in the treat, I will make a homemade paleo dessert and then I am able to have one serving and be done.
An important piece of the puzzle has also been sleep. Getting proper sleep is a critical factor in appetite management. Sleep deprivation is a major contributing factor to increases in appetite. We need those precious hours of sleep to rest and repair and provide our body with the energy it needs. If we do not get that sleep, our body will trigger hormones that will increase our appetite because our body needs to get energy from somewhere and if we are not getting it from sleep, then food is the next best thing.
At the end of the day, we are all on our own personal health journeys and I don’t want anyone feeling poorly about themselves because they haven’t been able to master the recently labeled eating style of “Intuitive Eating.” While I think that eating healthfully with an intuitive eating goal in mind is a good goal to strive for, it is not something anyone should feel they have to do. We all have our eating pasts and those help dictate where we currently are in our journey.
I used to feel bad that I wasn’t able to experience normal hunger cues and felt guilty about the choices I made as a teen, but I no longer allow those feelings of guilt to take hold of me because they truly serve no purpose. I can’t change my past choices, but I can make sure that my kid’s have a normal and healthy relationship with food. I made the choices I made in the past and now I am doing what I need to do in order to remain healthy and give my body the nutrients it needs for health.
As long as we focus on overall health, how we get there versus how someone else gets there shouldn’t matter. If you are someone who needs to track their intake and the person next to you doesn’t, that’s A-OK.