13. Debunking the Myths About Intuitive EatingAug 08, 2023
There is a lot of incomplete information about what Intuitive Eating is. If you’ve been learning about Intuitive Eating from social media, it’s easy to get the idea that it’s simply “not dieting" and eating whatever the hell you want. Wrong!
Intuitive Eating is SO much more than just "not dieting." Intuitive Eating IS…
➔ All about rebuilding trust, awareness, and connection with your body.
➔ Having unconditional permission to eat in attunement with your body's internal cues.
➔ An evidence-based practice with more than 200 evidence-based studies to date.
➔ A sustainable, life-long way of eating that ends the chronic diet-binge-guilt cycle.
Today I’m going to be debunking some of the most common misconceptions about Intuitive Eating so you have a clear understanding of why they are inaccurate and can feel more confident in making the decision to ditch restrictive dieting for good and pursue Intuitive Eating.
1. Intuitive Eating is an Eat All the Things, All the Time Style of Eating
One of the main misconceptions about Intuitive Eating is that it is an eat all you want, whenever you want, free-for-all eating fest. Nothing could be further from the truth. This perception distorts the premise of Intuitive Eating. The Intuitive Eating process is about making peace with all foods, eating foods that are satisfying to your pallet and as much as you need to satisfy your body’s need for nourishment. But what’s a critical and sometimes overlooked component is that you do this with attunement with your body and satiety cues. This is a really important part of the process. Eating whatever and whenever you feel like, without regard to hunger and fullness and how the food feels in your body, will likely not be a very satisfying experience and can cause physical discomfort.
Intuitive Eating promotes finding a way of eating that makes you feel your best, honors your health, and yes, gives you unconditional permission to eat what FEELS good. Think about it, if you were eating an ice cream sundae for every meal, it’s extremely likely that you would end up craving something completely opposite like salads, fresh fruits or grilled chicken.
2. Intuitive Eating is Simply a Hunger/Fullness Diet
Intuitive Eating is not just a hunger/fullness diet. Intuitive Eating does work through listening to hunger and fullness cues, but there is so much more to it! It’s an entire eating framework and philosophy that changes your entire relationship with food. Unlike dieting, there’s no “right or wrong”, “black or white”, “on or off” with Intuitive Eating. In fact, obsessing about eating only at “perfect” levels of hunger and fullness is actually turning Intuitive Eating into a diet, which is the very behavior and mindset that Intuitive Eating seeks to help people break away from.
It is about approaching hunger and fullness with curiosity instead of judgement. Intuitive Eating teaches you how to learn from situations where you get too hungry or eat beyond fullness and how to move on with your life without guilt or shame. Intuitive Eating also embraces practical eating, for example, where you may need to eat before you are hungry to accommodate your schedule.
I was recently working with a client on becoming more attuned to her body’s internal cues and introduced her to a hunger/fullness scale to help her build awareness and reconnect with her personal hunger and fullness cues. She really liked having a guide to help her check in with her physical sensations. She found it easier to recognize the early signs of hunger, but it took a bit more trial and error practice in the beginning to understand the nuances of emerging fullness vs. when she was actually satisfied, satiated and ready to stop eating. She would often stop eating when she became slightly full and would find that her mind kept drifting to the food she didn’t finish. What she experienced was the early signs of emerging fullness, but she was not yet full and satisfied with the meal. This was a great learning exercise for her to have early on in her healing journey. It helped her recognize that when her body is truly full and satiated, thoughts of food dissipated and she was easily able to move on without recurring, obsessive thoughts about food.
If you struggle with recognizing and trusting your body’s hunger and fullness cues, I created a free resource guide - 5 Steps to Reconnect with Hunger and Fullness - that can help. In it, I teach you how to use the Hunger Fullness Scale to keep you fueled, energized, and prevent overeating. Just go to hungerfullness.com to get your free copy.
3. If I Allow Myself Permission to Eat All Foods, I’ll Just Eat Ice Cream and Cookies All Day and Be Unhealthy
When you’ve been deprived of certain foods - even if they’re just mentally off-limits - it’s can be very natural to go to town on those foods in the early days of Intuitive Eating. An important component to Intuitive Eating is breaking up with restrictive food rules and giving yourself permission to eat all foods. In the early phase of the Intuitive Eating journey when you’re working on making peace with food, some people experience a honeymoon phase and may eat more of their previously restricted foods. But this phase will pass and let me explain further why this is the case.
This is because forbidden foods remain exciting and novel for dieters because those foods are not subject to the habituation effect. Habituation explains what happens when you are repeatedly exposed to the same stimulus, whether it’s a car, relationship, or food. After repeated exposure, the novelty of it begins to wear off. In the case of eating, when you're exposed to a food often enough, you'll actually desire it less because your brain won't consider it to be a novelty. Habituation is the reason why leftovers become less appealing over time, even if it’s a favorite food.
Dieting heightens the novelty and desirability of “forbidden” foods. The problem for chronic dieters is that restriction and food rules prevent the habituation response. Instead, the vicious diet cycle continues. Think about it. Dieting begins with food restriction, which is not sustainable and eventually is followed by broken restraint and consumption of the foods you’ve been restricting. This triggers feelings of guilt and lack of control with those foods. That guilt and uncontrolled eating provides false evidence that the lack of control requires more rules to constrain the eating. Then you start back at square one with starting a new diet.
This cycle creates the conditions for a perfect storm of overeating restricted foods. What this deprivation backlash cycle is really showing is that the more someone diets, the more likely they are to engage in binge eating the foods they restrict. It may sound counterintuitive but giving yourself permission to eat is the antidote to this vicious cycle. When you finally make peace with food, and you know it’s available and you can have it any time, you will no longer be haunted by that chocolate, cupcake, pasta or other foods. If the food is not off-limits, that threat of “now-or-never” and “what-the-hell” overeating goes away, and it gives you the space to really think about your experience with eating the food.
For example: “Do I really like the taste of this food?”
“Do I like how this food feels in my body?”
“Would I choose to feel this way again after eating this meal or snack?”
“Would I choose to eat the amount, based on how it feels in my body?”
Once you’ve successfully habituated to your previously forbidden foods, you will start to feel freer to eat a wide variety of foods, including some that had previously been off-limits and others that were encouraged by the diets you’ve followed. It’s totally normal to crave fun foods like ice cream and cookies, but also begin to genuinely enjoy and want lots of other foods including things like fruits and vegetables.
I understand that this may feel like a pipe dream if you currently feel stuck in a never-ending loop of craving and guilt with foods you deem “bad,” but as I shared, the deprivation itself is so often what creates that out-of-control feeling with food. Not only does depriving yourself of certain foods make them more alluring, but overall calorie restriction may also make our brains more attuned to food-related stimuli—particularly to the foods we view as the most appetizing. But when you stop the physical and mental deprivation, eventually you will stop feeling as irresistibly drawn to those foods.
When you don’t truly believe that you can eat whatever food you like, you will continue to feel deprived, ultimately overeat and be blocked from feeling satisfied with your eating.
And when you are not satisfied, you’ll be on the prowl for more food.
When you know food will be allowed day after day, it doesn’t become so important to have. Food loses its power. The urgency to have larger quantities eventually dissipates.
It takes time, practice, and support to fully make peace with all foods and for some people, to get through the honeymoon phase. But once you get there, it becomes so much easier to start applying gentle nutrition and choose foods that both taste good and help you feel good.
Which leads me to the last myth I want to touch on which is…
4. There’s No Focus on Nutrition with Intuitive Eating A common misconception with Intuitive Eating is that health and nutrition goes out the window.
Many critics express concern that encouraging people to listen to their body encourages them to eat with reckless abandon resulting in poor nutrition. This is not the case at all!
Nutrition is an important aspect of Intuitive Eating. Intuitive Eating is about finding food freedom in a way that makes you feel good mentally and physically.
In fact, the last of the 10 IE principles is called Gentle Nutrition. I will be devoting an entire episode to gentle nutrition.
So, make sure to tune in next week to learn more about how nutrition plays an important role in the Intuitive Eating process. I’ll be sharing insight into how Intuitive Eating is associated with improved nutrition intake, eating a wider variety of foods, and reduced eating disorder and disordered eating symptoms. You’ll also learn some simple ways to start incorporating gentle nutrition into meals and snacks to keep you satiated, energized, and feeling your best.