Intuitive Eating and Structure: Can They Co-Exist?

By Katie, 5:55 am

“I can’t practice intuitive eating because I need more structure than that.”

How many times have I heard that? Heck, how many times have I said that?

For those of us who have spent years following some sort of diet plan – counting calories or points or macronutrients or whatever – the idea of letting go of all the rules and just listening to our bodies sounds a little loosey-goosey, no? We’re the type of people who make lists and plans and outlines; we abide by schedules and time-tables and deadlines. We feel most comfortable when things are predictable and routine.

Or is that just me? ;-)


So I understand firsthand the “structure argument” against intuitive eating. I have heard that voice in my head shout, “You can’t do this! You can’t be trusted!”

I have heard that voice in my head coax, “It’s ok. That whole trusting-your-body thing might work for other people, but you thrive on structure. You need structure. That’s just how you are.”

I have heard that voice threaten, “Fine, go ahead and listen to your body. But when all you eat is chocolate chip cookies and rocky road ice cream, don’t say I didn’t warn you!”

But here’s the thing: as I look back on my experiences with intuitive eating, I have to say, it doesn’t really seem like it is the complete antithesis of structure. It doesn’t seem like because I listen to my body, my eating habits are completely and totally erratic.

I think that intuitive eating and structure can co-exist…it’s just a different kind of structure.

You see, when I would actively try to lose weight by planning out my food intake and strictly adhering to the “rules,” I was following a structure created externally. I was listening to diet magazines, weight loss forums, and even my own head, which was filled with the messages of society.

The structure of intuitive eating is different in a very important way: it’s internal. It comes from my body instead of a book. As Evelyn Tribole said when I heard her speak, intuitive eating is about being your own expert.

So yes, I think my body has a natural structure. I generally get hungry at the same times every day, and usually crave the same kinds of foods that make my body feel its best. But the difference is that that groove is my groove, nobody else’s. It’s like when you stop using an alarm clock, and eventually your body adjusts to your lifestyle and you start waking up at the same time every day. Your body has found its natural rhythm.

And the best part of this intuitive eating “structure” is that it’s incredibly flexible. I honestly used to freak out on holidays or other occasions where following a meal plan was virtually impossible. But my body’s “meal plan,” if you will, can deal with any curve ball I throw at it. I don’t have to waste my time figuring out how to “make up for” a little holiday indulgence, because my body’s natural structure already has that covered for me.

It can be scary as heck to let go of external eating structures – believe me, I know. But I have found that when you really stick with it – when you really honor your body throughout this process – the result is not a totally arbitrary, completely unpredictable appetite. There’s still a certain degree of structure, it just has a very different nature. It’s a structure that comes from within.

What do you think? Can intuitive eating and structure co-exist in this way? Do you think your body has a natural structure that you can tap into?

31 Responses to “Intuitive Eating and Structure: Can They Co-Exist?”


    Seriously, you should sing this post from the rooftops.

    And if you don’t, I will.

    • Katie says:

      Thanks, Christie! I definitely think the “structure argument” against IE shows how misunderstood it is.

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Christie Inge, Katie McLaughlin. Katie McLaughlin said: Intuitive Eating and Structure: Can They Co-Exist? [...]

  3. Joy Tanksley says:

    Oh, honey, this is gooooood. You nailed it. I’m with Christie.

  4. I do think the two can co-exist. Finding that internal structure is a long process but one that’s very possible… and deeply enlightening when found.

    Practically speaking, I used to make the same structure argument. However, now I’m finding ways to allow it to work. For example, rather than pack “a lunch” to take to work every day, I pack several snacks. That way, I can eat when I want and however much I want. If I want yogurt and fruit at 10am… so be it. If I don’t, that’s fine too… it will be there later.

    Lovely lovely post!!

  5. Definitely true. Part of me wants to go “Girl, do you really need a third carb-heavy meal today?” but I realize that yes, if I’m craving the bread, I really must need it! I’ve definitely been craving lots of fresh and light things ever since Thanksgiving – that has to be my body’s way to trying to balance out the feasting.

  6. Katie says:

    I totally agree that your body has its own natural structure. If you truly practice intuitive eating, over time your body will tell you its hungry on a somewhat predictable schedule. I can remember in high school before I had any disordered eating, I would get hungry around the same time every day. A few days might be different, like around your period, but overall your body develops its own “clock”.

  7. You are so right!

    There IS an internal structure there albeit always changing but as long as we trust the body and know it’s not the mind, then things will be fine :)

    You are one smart cookie, Katie.

    PS- I am a CRAZY list maker . . . I mean crazy . . .

    • Katie says:

      Thanks, Val! And believe me, I’m a crazy list maker too. I’m one of those people who writes a list and then re-writes it throughout the day because I think it starts to look too messy from crossing stuff off. HA!

  8. Bonnie says:

    I completely agree. I realized I needed to step back from all the strict food rules and calorie/macro counting when I started attaching my moods and feelings of self worth to how well I stayed within my self-imposed guidelines. My mental health is infinitely better now that I try to be more aware of what my body is asking for – and actually needs. I’m learning to distinguish between “that sounds really good” and “my body needs that.” Plus, I think all the calorie counting has made me more aware of foods and I can more easily control my portions while eating foods that I used to overindulge in.

  9. You always hit EVERY point and explain things so well. I certainly have some structure to my life with eating (heck, I have to otherwise I would starve if I didn’t eat those few moments I get), but I can still be intuitive in choosing what I enjoy eating and paying attention to my fullness, allowing more/less if need be. In other words, I have structure but I’m still in control. Great post!

  10. Yes yes yes!! And the beautiful part of it is that once you figure out your very own “structure” amazing things happen! It is worth the extra time it might take (versus following someone else’s structure)!

  11. When I first read Geneen Roth’s books years ago, I could not get the hang of intuitive eating. I tried it and threw it out a dozen times. But I knew it made sense. I just couldn’t hear my body’s needs. (That takes work, I have to admit!) I lost over 70 lbs. and I’ve kept that weight off 10+ years now and I did it by learning how my body works. We are all so different. Dieting and diet mentality is a structure from outside, and all my clients are totally screwed by it when they come to me. They cling to belief in it, because they want to believe SOMETHING will work! Looking back, I think every pound I lost was permanent loss because it brought me more trust in myself.

    Pat Barone, CPCC, PCC
    America’s Weight Loss Catalyst

  12. i definitely think they can…it’s all about knowing yourself and your limits! :)

  13. I agree that the body really does know what is best. Just that sometimes we ignore the body’s messages so much that they tend to be weak and hard to pinpoint. But as we aim to find and listen to our body’s natural cues more, those signals will emerge louder and they would tend lead us to eat and act in a way that suits us the best.

  14. Lisa says:

    I lost my weight (over 100 pounds) through calorie counting. It was tried and true. Then I tried intuitive eating and just got lazy…for me “intuitive eating” meant “eat whatever I want” and I gained some weight back. It’s just not for me. Calorie counting works and I’ve kept the weight off!

  15. Katie, I LOVE this post! Like Christie said, you should absolutely shout this from the rooftops! I think you got to the core of the misunderstandings that surround intuitive eating. Ever since I’ve started eating intuitively, I feel this amazing sense of peace and a sense of love for my body. It’s helped me to create a positive shift in my life. I love listening to my body and it feels good when I do. I feel like I’m respecting it. My body definitely has a routine regarding when I get hungry and full. But it’s also flexible, which is a great thing, too.

    Again, this post is an absolute must-read!!! So articulate!

  16. While dieting I would make lists and plans. I would fill me planner up with what I was going to eat for every meal and what exercise I was going to do. Then I would binge when I couldn’t keep up with my tasks.

    I’m still working on eating what my body wants–right now a lot of the time my mind is still calling the shots. I have stopped gaining weight though, and that is a magnificent feeling know I can eat what I like and not gain weight.

  17. What a fantastic way of describing this! I struggle answering this question a lot. I think that many of us believe that listening to our bodies will result in chaos, when in fact our bodies don’t like chaos at all. They like homeostasis and stability. It’s what we do to our bodies that creates the lack of structure.

  18. Sarah says:

    I agree intuitive eating has become easier for me. Mostly because I have a schedule for sleep and exercise. This has allowed me to listen to my body more and taught me the value of healthy snacking. But, I find intuitive eating challenging when my sleep schedule and exercise schedule are out of whack.

  19. Loved this post. We have to understand the intuitive eating is a process of learning to trust ourselves and not a destination. We are always changing & so are our bodies needs. We can use eating and our relationship with food to deepen our understanding of and relationship to ourselves.

    I listened to a great lecture by Geneen Roth last week for my course at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and she described her eating guidelines as “The North Star.” They are meant to guide us.

    We can use our experiences to create our own structure and food rules, instead of trying to impose external rules upon ourselves, which is so freeing.

  20. Gail says:

    There’s no way to stabilize or lose weight unless you put boundries (structure) around your food somehow…intuitive eating always seemed like chaos and “no boundries” to me but your post has created a real “Aha” moment for me. I think part of me is just scared to let go of all the food drama.

    • Katie says:

      I get where you’re coming from. For me, as frustrating as the food drama was, it was also comforting in a way. So it really is good to know that intuitive eating doesn’t have to mean total chaos!

  21. Such a thought-provoking post! I will be saving this one – intuitive eating is honestly, like, a life goal for me. I know it will be a challenge given my natural desire for structure, structure, structure. But it’s comforting to see that others have acheived it – or are at least always learning and growing with it!

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