One of the big schools of thought in the nutrition world is Intuitive Eating. As someone who has gone through recovery from an eating disorder, the doctrine of intuitive eating was drilled into my brain from Day 1 of the recovery journey. At the beginning, I loved the idea of complete freedom with food and exercise.
It was like the biggest and most promising green light that I had ever received. I trusted the Dietitians completely when they told me that intuitive eating would be amazing, freeing, and would lead to the healthiest relationship with food possible.
However, as I moved through my journey and gained more knowledge of nutrition, I began to have some issues with the intuitive eating philosophy. With each new life experience that involved my “failing” at intuitive eating, I wondered if there was something wrong with me or if I just didn’t have what it takes to achieve the total food freedom that intuitive eating promises. Finally, after one too many times of feeling like an intuitive eating failure, I decided that there must be a better way.
I couldn’t ignore the gaps and holes that I saw in the program and I decided to do things my own way for a while. Ironically, when I gave up trying to follow the intuitive eating guidelines to a T, food freedom had never been easier. Throughout the years since embarking on my own, I have witnessed countless others struggle and wonder why the intuitive eating program isn’t working for them. I get questions like “Why won’t this work for me?” or “Is there something wrong with me?” or “Why do I always fail at this program?”
I’ve seen too many people get fed up with intuitive eating and give up on the idea of food freedom. I’ve seen too many people completely disheartened, feeling like there is something wrong with them because they can’t seem to achieve the goals set out in the intuitive eating guidelines. I’ve officially reached the point where I can no longer hold my thoughts to myself for fear of offending others. So here you go. These are five reasons why intuitive eating doesn’t work for everyone.
The idea that we can eat whatever we want when we want (as long as we are honoring hunger and fullness) is great in theory, but in practice, what happens when someone following the intuitive eating guidelines has food allergies or sensitivities? As someone with Celiac disease and a dairy allergy, a healthy relationship with food does not include eating whatever gluten and/or dairy filled foods that I want.
When I was first diagnosed with Celiac disease in my early twenties, I craved gluten filled goodies like nobody’s business. The intuitive eating philosophy would have me believe that I can have those gluten filled foods and that it is A-OK for me to eat them. In reality, when my mindset told me that I could have those foods and it was okay for me to eat them, it hindered my acceptance of the gluten free lifestyle that was essential for my own, personal healing.
The “eat whatever you want” mindset made it even harder for me to look at the positives of going gluten free because I was “supposed to” have the mindset that all foods were OK for me to eat. The same process happened for me with dairy. I have had many clients voice the same issues, so if you feel this way, you are not alone.
While it’s great that intuitive eating says that we should eat to honor our bodies, it is flawed in the logic that giving ourselves permission to have whatever foods or drinks we want is the best way to go about things. For me, that mindset just fueled my inner rebel and gave it ammo whenever I decided that I deserved to have a slice of regular pizza or some frozen yogurt, instead of choosing the gluten free, dairy free, option.
Similarly, another example of intuitive eating being great in theory, but difficult in practice, comes in the form of those people who have other medical conditions like Diabetes, Hashimotos, Chronic Fatigue, IBS, High Blood Pressure, etc. In each of these conditions, the “all foods are A-OK” model doesn’t fit. What happens when you have diabetes and are told to have the mindset that all foods are equal and you can eat whatever you want?
That model just doesn’t work in practice because diabetics must watch sugar and carbohydrate intake. The idea that you can eat whatever you want is potentially dangerous for any diabetic, yet, would be perfectly acceptable under the intuitive eating guidelines.
I understand that having a totally restricted mindset can lead to bingeing on certain foods, but there is no logic or balance in the intuitive eating model. I suggest that having a mindset of “I choose not to eat _____ because it can be potentially detrimental to my health” is way better than a mindset of “I can eat whatever I want because I shouldn’t restrict any foods.”
Another example I encountered in my own journey came when I was diagnosed with Hashimotos. During those first months with the disease, I was so tired I could barely function. I lost my appetite at times, and turned to sugar a lot just to give myself a pseudo feeling of energy. While the intuitive eating model would suggest that it was okay that I was eating sugary cereal multiple times a day (as long as I was honoring hunger/fullness and my food desires), logic and years of nutrition education has taught me that the method of eating I was employing was definitely not serving me properly.
Finally, I couldn’t trust my hunger/fullness cues when I was first diagnosed with Celiac disease. My GI tract was so damaged that my body wasn’t absorbing things and I felt hungry all of the time. My brain kept telling my body that I was hungry because I was so nutrient deficient, when in reality, I had just eaten a calorically dense meal and didn’t actually need to eat again. So while the idea of intuitive eating is great in theory, I believe that the guidelines are so general that it makes it difficult for those with medical conditions to implement and maintain intuitive eating guidelines in practice. Now on to reason #2…
2. Intuitive eating doesn’t take into account environmental influences.
Intuitive eating beats in the idea that everything will be good, as long as you are eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full. Now, setting aside the fact that it is hard for any person to discover what their hunger and fullness set points are, research shows that our environment plays a big role in our food choices and the quantity of food we consume.
For example, it can absolutely be easy to act super mindful about our food and eating when we are at home and in a silent space, but what are people supposed to do when they are out to dinner with friends, at a party, or in an a-typical eating situation? Meditate at the table? Another complaint that I have heard over and over again from my clients is that it is super hard to monitor hunger/fullness when they are with others.
There are multiple studies available which look at the food dynamics when we are in a social setting (1,2,3,4,5). Many of them show that the energy, mood, and choices of the group exert influence upon each of us. The reality is that often times, humans will change their order to conform with the group.
For the person who picks what they want and sticks with it…GREAT! But for every one of those type of people, there are 10 others who either avoid ordering what they wanted to eat in order to fit in with the rest of the group (especially in women dominated groups), or didn’t even realize that they were subconsciously influenced by their social setting. Do you still consider that intuitive eating??? I certainly do not.
Lastly, have you ever noticed that it is a lot easier to eat more and drink more when eating out with family or friends? I struggled so much with this part when I followed intuitive eating, because I wanted to engage fully in the conversation and dynamic of the group but ended up only half listening because I was trying to monitor whether or not I was full. True food freedom to me is knowing all of these factors and bringing some logic in the situation to help out.
For example, knowing how to ballpark portion sizes frees me up from constantly worrying about my fullness level and allows me to engage in the conversation because I just stop when I know I’ve had a portion and re-evaluate how I’m feeling in about five minutes. This practice allows me to engage fully with my surroundings and experience the present moment instead of constantly doing an internal check to see where I am at fullness-wise.
Now I want to reiterate that this is not a diet mentality…I give myself full permission to keep eating if I am still hungry, but I use my knowledge to support me in situations where hunger/fullness are hard to gauge and I can be easily influenced by the group dynamics. On to reason #3…
3. Intuitive eating doesn’t take into account emotions or mental state.
I’m sure you have experienced stress at some point in your life. Did it have an affect on your appetite? I’m guessing your answer is “uh, definitely!” Another major beef that I have with intuitive eating comes in this area. To me, the program completely disregards the effects that our emotions and mental states have on our food choices and appetite. For example, when I was in treatment for anorexia and I was super depressed, I would have absolutely told you that I was not hungry.
According to intuitive eating, that would mean that I should just not eat, but, at the time, I was severely underweight and needed to eat to survive, regardless of hunger/fullness. Have you ever been so stressed out that you just lose your appetite? Intuitive eating would say that you just refrain from eating, but your body needs good fuel to function optimally, no matter how stressed you are.
I remember when my dad had a heart attack. We took an overnight flight to Michigan and the last thing I wanted to do was eat. If I had listened to hunger/fullness, I would have been depriving my body of essential fuel. In that instance, intuitive eating went out the window and I needed to rely on my logic instead of my body cues.
What about if you are physically hungry and need food but you have had a crappy day at work? Do you think the emotions you are feeling are going to sway what you feel like eating?? YES! So would you say that is intuitive eating because you are eating what you want, or would you say that that is emotional eating? While some form of emotional eating is A-OK every now and then, doing it every single night is definitely not good for your body and soul.
I’ve had clients who are totally confused because they think that they are just making intuitive food choices instead of using food to soothe their emotional state. This is why intuitive eating is great in theory, but sometimes just doesn’t work in practice. Studies show that stress affects how we eat and the food choices we make (6,7,8,9).
Based on this, I definitely feel for every single person who has tried to eat intuitively but couldn’t understand why they were unable to stop eating to their fullness cues or were confused as to whether or not their food choices were according to the plan. Now for reason #4…
4. Intuitive eating doesn’t take into account personal history.
So what do I mean by personal history? Well, how were you brought up? On fast food? With healthy meals? Eating fruits and vegetables? Encouraged to try new foods? You see, our personal history has a big influence on our food choices. For me, I was brought up on a lot of fast foods and not many vegetables. I loved Doritos, Beef Stroganoff, and Ritz Bitz but hated vegetables.
With my proclivity towards fast food and my lack of experimentation eating vegetables and different fruits, how could I be expected to intuitively choose to eat things that were higher in nutrition content? How could I be expected to know that eating more fruits and vegetables might make my body feel better than after eating an entire box of Ritz Bitz? Given complete freedom to choose what foods I wanted to eat, I would have just continued eating what I was used to….not exactly a food plan that would have set me up for health success long-term. Science supports this idea as well.
Humans love their habits and we tend to stick to habitual ways of eating. So while the intuitive eating plan may work well for someone who is used to eating fruits and vegetables as part of their everyday food plan, it doesn’t necessarily work for someone who hasn’t been as exposed to nutritious options. In that instance, I needed to set intuitive eating aside and say to myself “even though I really want the french fries, I am going to try these grilled vegetables because I haven’t eaten any veggies today.”
My taste buds were used to a certain type of eating and I craved those foods at the beginning. Instead of intuitively wanting to eat a salad or drink a smoothie, I wanted what I was used to…fast, and processed, foods. I am not saying that eating these foods makes you good or bad…au contraire…I’m just saying that some people (like me) need to use logic instead of intuition for some meals. At least until their taste buds change. Which brings me to point #5.
5. Intuitive eating doesn’t take into account the addictive nature of foods.
Now this is probably the most controversial reason on this list. There are many in the nutrition field who argue that foods aren’t addicting. Well, I firmly believe that this is not the case. I believe that processed foods have ingredients that affect our brains in ways that make them hard to get away from, highly crave-able, and yes, addictive.
More and more research is showing that processed foods and chemicals like aspartame and high fructose corn syrup elicit reactions in our brains that are associated with similar reward pathways to addictive drugs (10,11,12). Even without all of the new research, common sense should carry weight in this argument. Have you ever heard of anyone bingeing on broccoli or carrots? What about blueberries or apples? If you just look around you, you can see that people are able to eat a big bag of potato chips or a sleeve of cookies a lot easier than they are able to eat a huge batch of vegetables or fruits.
If processed foods had no affect on the brain, and fruits and vegetables were on equal ground with Oreos and Doritos, then don’t you think that people would choose the most nutrient dense option every time? The intuitive eating philosophy explains the choices of processed foods over whole foods by saying that people eat more processed foods because they feel that they are “restricted or bad” foods.
While I agree that restriction can play a role, I feel that a restrictive mindset alone is not a complete explanation for the proclivity towards these chemical laden options. The high amounts of refined flour, sugar, salt, etc. in the processed foods lining the aisles hook people on a biochemical level by triggering the reward centers in the brain. This leads to a desire for another hit of happy chemicals…which leads to another hit…and another…until you have a habit of eating something that provides very little nutritional value for the body.
The main theory for the intuitive eating philosophy stands on the premise that if you eat a certain food enough, it will lose its allure and you will tire of it and stop eating it. I don’t argue that the phenomenon of disinterest happens, but what the theory misses is that the frequent consumption of these foods alters the chemicals in our brain to crave them more.
Personally, I know that I tend to crave more sugar and processed foods when I eat them multiple times a day. For example, I noticed that on days when I used to eat cereal for breakfast (e.g. Frosted Flakes/Fruit Loops/the highly processed sugary stuff), I craved sweeter foods and more processed foods throughout my day. Have you ever noticed what I’m talking about? Ever raid the office vending machine at lunch, and then crave processed foods the rest of the day?
I have an issue with all of this because not many people realize what is going on with these types of patterns. I’ve seen people wanting to eat more fruits and vegetables and treat their body better over and over again, but get stuck in their habits when eating too many processed foods.
The last example I will end with is diet coke and high fructose corn syrup, two things that I feel really strongly about. No matter what anyone says, I cannot in good conscience tell a client that it is OK to have either of these two things in moderation (13,14).
I’ve seen people try to quit drinking diet coke, or drinks laden with high fructose corn syrup, and fail over and over again. I’ve seen them experience withdrawal symptoms such as mood swings, irritability, rashes, headaches, etc. (even when supplementing with equivalent caffeine intake). I personally experienced having to get off diet coke and, trust me, It.Was.Not.Pleasant.
Both my personal experiences and those of my clients are clear indicators to me that diet coke and anything with high fructose corn syrup should never be recommended to others or consumed if at all possible.
I think I’ve hammered this point home enough. I believe that there are some positives to having the anti-diet mentality but I believe it is vital to educate people as to the research out there. Overall, I think there are great benefits to having total food freedom. I do believe that the intuitive eating plan works for some people, especially those just starting out in their eating disorder recovery journey. However, I believe that nutrition is very much an art and a science. What works for one person may not work for another.
That is why I love working one-on-one with my clients to weed through all the noise out there in the world about what is “the best” nutrition plan. Logic and knowledge are also key aspects of developing a healthy and free relationship with food. When you learn to mix intuitive eating with educated decisions, self-love, and desire, that’s when you have a great recipe for total food freedom.
If you are feeling stuck in your food journey and are tired of trying diet plan after diet plan, then I would love to speak with you. Most of all, I want to help you feel better and discover the amazing feeling that comes from knowing what nutrition plan is right for you so you never have to question yourself or your diet ever again. You can schedule a completely free discovery call with me by emailing me HERE.