Are You Ready for Intuitive Eating?

By Katie, 5:38 am

Have you tried to eat more intuitively – listening to your body’s natural cues rather than some external structure – only to get frustrated and retreat back into the world of calories and points and fat grams?

That happened to me, more than once actually. I jumped head first onto the intuitive eating band wagon, only to fall right off the minute I got stressed, or gained an ounce of weight, or felt frightened by my own appetite.

Why does that happen? Why is it sometimes so difficult to adhere to such a simple and natural approach to eating?

(Source)

The reason, I think, is that we need to be ready for intuitive eating, both physically and emotionally.

When I went to hear Evelyn Tribole speak, she gave the example of a broken arm. If you break your arm, she said, you’re probably not going to start physical therapy the next day. Rather, you wait until the bone has healed a bit, and then you begin the process of normalizing your functioning.

The same goes for intuitive eating.

On the physical side, sometimes our bodies just aren’t ready for it. A friend of mine who struggles with extreme food restriction recently came out of residential treatment. While she’s certainly in better shape than she was a few months ago, no one is suggesting she try to eat intuitively right now, as her illness has thrown her hunger and fullness cues totally off course. Instead, she’ll be following a structured meal plan until she’s ready to transition into intuitive eating.

On the emotional side, many people know they’re ready for intuitive eating because they’re just so fed up with every other option. This was certainly the case with me. I could only fully grasp the idea of listening to my body after I’d tried so many plans, counted so many calories, and tallied so many fat grams that I was blue in the face. I got to the point where I just wanted to scream, “No more!” Fighting with my body had become downright exhausting. That’s when I was truly ready.

One of my favorite bloggers, Elina from Healthy and Sane, recently announced that she’s done with dieting. While I can’t know what’s going on in Elina’s heart and mind, I have a feeling that she’s ready for intuitive eating. She is fed up emotionally with everything diet related, she’s tired of fighting what feels like a losing battle over and over again.

It’s important to recognize that just because we’re ready for intuitive eating doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy-breezy. Whether we’re ready or not, there are going to be struggles. Inevitably we go through mountains and valleys, inevitably we feel the urge to diet and the urge to overeat. It’s part of the process.

I also want to say that there’s no shame or embarrassment in not being ready. Maybe you really, really want to drop the calorie calculator and give intuitive eating a go, but deep down you know you’re not quite there yet. That’s perfectly fine, and it’s part of the beauty of this approach: you can go at your own Pace, move at your own speed.

You can take the leap whenever you’re ready.

What has your experience been like? Have you tried eating intuitively, only to go back to a more structured plan? If you consider yourself an intuitive eater, how did you know you were ready to begin?

64 Responses to “Are You Ready for Intuitive Eating?”

  1. Sportsgirl says:

    Have you read “Mindless Eating”? If you haven’t already I thoroughly recommend it. I just wrote a review of the book on my blog actually.

    Personally, I hate calorie counting. To get around it, I now eat healthy and restrict other foods which means I eat lots of fruit, vegetables, lean meat, eggs, nuts, dried fruit and some dairy. I stay away from processed grains (anything in packets) and eat other grains in moderation. It’s not really “intuitive” but I definitely feel full and satisfied AND I am loving all the fruit. I don’t have cravings for things like candy, chocolate, baked goods which has never happened to me before. I’m very happy!

  2. Awesome post, Katie.

    This is something I have experienced both personally and professionally. With my personal journey, I started out and went back to the diet and binge cycle a for almost two years before I was finally emotionally ready. My tipping point was the day I realized I had been on Weight Watchers for two weeks and had gained 4 pounds. It was a huge wake up call – I was so over doing that to myself over and over again.

    With my clients, I see the same thing. We have to be in a place where we know, and there is no longer any inkling of hope, that a diet is going to work or “fix” it. It takes time and patience but as you are well aware, the benefits are worth it.

    • Katie says:

      It really does take a lot of time and patience, which can be so challenging. When I tell people about it, I often find myself reminding them that if it were a quick fix, then it would just be another diet!

  3. I actually JUST wrote a post on my experience as a guest post for someone. It seriously is like Twilight Zone with our thoughts sometimes. LOL

    My experience was I got fed up with all the other options and knew I had to stop limiting myself. Initially that led to some binges, but then I got more in tune with my body’s cues and tastes and haven’t looked back since. :)

    • Katie says:

      Is the guest post published yet? I can’t wait to read it! And there’s no one else I’d rather be in the Twilight Zone with! ;)

  4. I tried intuitive eating a long while back in college, and I most definitely wasn’t ready. But after going on another 2 year long diet of writing down every morsel of food and its calorie count, I just had enough of it. And even though anyone who reads my blog knows I’ve gone through some struggles with wanting to diet in the past month because of a little bit of weight gain, I KNOW deep down I won’t do it because I just don’t have it in me anymore. I actually feel a small bit of repulsion when I think about dieting now, which I never felt in the past. I’m definitely done with it regardless of what fleeting thoughts about it may come my way.

    • Katie says:

      AMEN! I can commiserate – even though I too still have some fleeting thoughts, I also just don’t have it in me anymore. I just CAN’T, which is a blessing really.

  5. Tracy says:

    Have you ever posted about hormonal cycles and intuitive eating? Around “day 25,” my intuition screams more carbs! more chocolate! more carbs! more carbs! even more carbs! and a little more chocolate, please!

    • Katie says:

      Gosh, I never even thought about IE in that light. Thanks for the awesome idea!

  6. Becca says:

    I’m definitely not ready yet. I’m about 60lbs above what is generally considered the maximum healthy weight for my height. I know that BMI isn’t exact, but as I don’t have a muscular physique, I know that it’s not 60lbs wrong. I believe that we have the capability to maintain our weight through intuitive eating, but as for losing it? I don’t have that much faith.

    I don’t believe that calorie counting has to be bad, if you’re able to do it without a triggering effect. If you approach it by getting all your targets for protein, vitamins, minerals and fibre (in natural, unprocessed forms – no supplements), then any calories you have left over are there to play with. Calorie counting doesn’t have to be feared, it just has to be used thoughtfully, when you’re at a stage where you feel comfortable.

    • Katie says:

      Yeah, for me calorie counting is always a negative, but for people who don’t have my history with food it can certainly be a different story.

  7. Bubu says:

    I find myself somewhere in between – I’ve been tracking and eating healthy long enough now that a lot of things are ingrained, so I stay more or less on track most of the time. But if I find myself getting really off-kilter, eating all screwy, then tracking and planning help me get back on track and feel less at sea. However you get there, I think the key for me was 1) starting to really unpack the emotions around eating and 2) planning and choosing whole, healthful foods that don’t trigger negative reactions. With those central things in place, the tracking or not tracking has become much less important. I know how I feel, physically and emotionally, when my eating is in balance, both in terms of what I choose and how much. And I like to feel that way, and don’t like it when I feel like the food is controlling me, rather than the other way around.

  8. I think intuitive eating is scary, because it requires that we trust ourselves. And as I recently wrote, following a diet is easier because it outsources the responsibility–we get to convince ourselves that we won’t mess up, because the requirements are in place and we don’t have to make as many decisions. Listening to our internal hunger–emotional and physical–can be daunting.

  9. Nicole, RD says:

    This is a timely post for me. I was just thinking how my schedule and lack of free time/flexibility has caused me to not eat intutively, especially as of late. Since starting teaching at night I snack (even if not hungry) before class because I know that I won’t be able to eat for the following 3 hours. I try and eat more intuitively during the day, but class has really challenged me.

    • Katie says:

      Yeah, I definitely have times where I’m not necessarily eating totally intuitively because of scheduling, and yet for me that’s better than letting myself get totally ravenous, you know?

  10. I def think you need to be ready physically and mentally. I can’t even count the number of times i have gone off and off the IE bandwagon but there is always something missing. working with my counselor helps but like you said, you just gotta go at your own pace. one day i’ll get there, no more dieting or restricting and will enjoy the food and energy that it gives me.

  11. Lisa says:

    I do a hybrid of Intuitive Eating and calorie counting. I tried to stop counting my calories and just do IE for awhile but gained. It just doesn’t work for me. I do IE now but I still count my calories. It works.

  12. Kelly says:

    I totally relate to this! I’ve done IE for a while now but have only went back and forth between what I would consider successful IE and unsuccessful IE. It took me quite some time before I was ready. I had read the books, the articles, I had made the decision to do it. But actually living it took a good deal longer. I hope I’m not jinxing myself, but I’m in a really happy comfortable place right now with IE. Even when I’ve gained a bit of weight, I have remained composed and knew that by getting back in touch with my body’s needs and signals, everything would even out in the end. But you’re totally right, having the knowledge of IE and making the decision is not enough. You really have to be ready for it and you can’t always dictate how ready you are. It’s a growth process like getting over an addiction. When you’ve used something as a coping mechanism for so long, you can’t just flip a switch and change your behavior. But I truly believe it will come if you continue to work at it.

  13. Bubu says:

    What books or sites do you recommend for information on this? It sounds, well, intuitive, but is there more to it than that?

  14. This makes so much sense to me! I think regardless of where you are coming from on your journey, you have to be in a “good enough” place to start the intuitive eating journey. My relationship with food has been all over the place (from very restrictive to stuffing my feelings with food to the extreme). Certainly, when I was in one of the extreme places, I couldn’t have started eating intuitively. My body wasn’t ready. My mind wasn’t ready.

    I do eat quite intuitively these days, but I have more “structure” than what is considered true intuitive eating. But it works for me. I think our relationship with food is always a work in progress, and often we aren’t patient (just like with other relationships…) and want things too quickly.

  15. Teddi says:

    Hi Katie, yes, I’d love to do a guest post for you. :-) Anytime. Give me a topic and I’m there. As far as this post goes, I must admit that although I am a normal body weight for my height, I still diet and still find it to be a frustrating journey. I usually chalk it up to the normal insecurities of any woman in America, however, I do hope to one day come to a place of much more peace.

    • Katie says:

      I do think that almost every American woman struggles with these kinds of insecurities, but I also believe that it doesn’t have to be that way! It really is a struggle, though. I will be in touch about the guest post – YAY! :)

  16. MK says:

    This reminds me of a conversation I had with my yoga teacher about meditation — I am just not “ready” for it, not yet. Not now.

    But IE? I am good at it sometimes. When I am less stressed, when I have a bit more free time. When I get overwhelmed, it’s almost like I can no longer hear my body. But it got easier when I accepted that my body has had about a 20 lb. range in my adult life, and so long as I feel healthy and well, I no longer care where I am in that range. As long as I am feeding myself well enough to do my every day life, to take care of the necessities (work) and joys (yoga, time with friends) and feel good, I do not care what I weigh. Or I try really hard not to let that matter. So if I want nachos for dinner, I have nachos for dinner, and the world does not end.

    • Katie says:

      AMEN! You said it! I’m the same way – when I’m stressed or anxious or anything like that, my body’s signals become very difficult to hear.

  17. Katie, this is such an amazing post! You always have the best posts girl!

    I love that you adressed intuitive eating. And you are so right. It’s not only physical, but mental. We have to be ready in both ways. I strive to eat intuitively. It’s hard some days, but I know that as I continually work on it, it can become more natural.

    xoxo
    Kathleen

    P.S. Just added you to my Blog Roll! :)

  18. I started off okay with IE for about a month or so, then went berserk. Started eating everything in sight and gaining. I’m still not exactly sure why. Rather than toss in the towel, I got help because I knew that going back to dieting would make me even crazier than I felt at the time (and I did feel crazed!). Found a therapist that specializes in eating disorders and IE (I don’t have a full fledged eating disorder, just the normal dieting “wackiness”). Never thought of myself as needing therapy (was always one who told myself to just get over myself and get on with it!), but it was the best thing I’ve done in a long time. Made me realize all the reasons I was eating that had nothing to do with hunger and gave me some tools to deal with them. After four months of working with her, I’m now starting to work with an RD that she partners with because I do have a considerable amount of weight to lose.

    I think that the therapist is helping me get my head in the right place and the RD will help me fine tune the food part so that I can ultimately reach my natural weight (which I have no idea what it is, but am pretty darn sure it’s not what I weigh now). I can’t say, enough, how important it has been to get professional help with this. I’ve still got a long way to go, but I really don’t think I’d be where I am now if I’d kept at it on my own. I’m extraordinarily lucky to have really good health insurance that’s covering a good portion of the therapy costs. Not so sure if it’ll pay for the RD, but we’ll see. But it would be worth it even if it didn’t. Can’t begin to match what I’ve shelled out for books, potions, plans, pills, (you name it!) over 30 years of dieting.

    • Katie says:

      YES, YES, YES!!! I too have worked with both a therapist and an RD, and it has made a world of difference. I would like to post about that soon, as I agree that it’s an incredibly important piece of the puzzle.

  19. bubu says:

    http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/28/go-easy-on-yourself-a-new-wave-of-research-urges/

    thought you might be interested, and seemed rather on point to this discussion

    • Katie says:

      Wow, yes! Thanks for sharing! I’m thinking it will be the jumping-off-point for another blog post! (I’ll credit you for sharing it with me, of course.) :)

  20. Thanks for the shout out, Katie! :)
    I really agree – you need to be ready physically and emotionally for it because it’s scary after so many years of “diet thinking.” It’s been wonderful so far but it’s been a few days and I know it’s going to get harder. I’m scared of gaining weight but I’m also ready for it, temporarily, while I figure things out for myself. I think it will be all worth it though (I was going to say “at the end” but there is not end, is there? eating intuitively is about continuing to listen to your body and mind).

    • Katie says:

      Absolutely – it really is more of a continual journey. And while it’s true that you might gain a little weight initially, it’s great to recognize that it really is only temporary.

  21. Simply Life says:

    Great info! I don’t think about intuitive eating enough!

  22. I think what is most challenging is forgetting to eat intuitively. I go through phases where I am very aware of my eating and my body…then somehow I just forget to listen and stuff my face. I’m definitely perfect at it, but that’s the beauty of it. We don’t have to be perfect eaters. Sometimes we eat for other reasons other than hunger. I know I do! I”m a work in progress and enjoying the journey!

  23. Alisuchi says:

    Katie, if you don’t mind, I am posting a link to an article I just found that ties in perfectly! It’s a bit long, but definitely worth a read. Thanks as always for a great post…

    http://www.alternet.org/food/149702/why_diets_make_you_fatter_–_and_what_to_do_about_it?page=entire

    • Katie says:

      THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU! Would you believe that I’ve been working on a project that this article is PERFECT for! I really appreciate you passing it along! :)

      • Alisuchi says:

        You’re welcome! Glad you found it as helpful as I did :)

  24. Tina says:

    I’m just new to intuitive eating. I think I still struggle with what I want and what I think I should be eating. How can I handle this?

  25. Tina says:

    I’m also curious to know if you were able to loose weight with intuitive eating?

    • Katie says:

      Hi, Tina. Thanks for your questions! In terms of your first one, I think that just comes with time. I went YEARS being obsessed with what I “should” be eating, so it took awhile to let go of that mentality, and sometimes I still struggle with it. For me it’s a matter of constantly coming back to my body and trying to listen to its signals instead of the voices in my head.

      Regarding weight loss, my weight had been up and down constantly from the cycles of dieting and overeating. So it’s hard to say whether I lost weight or not, since my weight wasn’t stable. I can say, however, that through intuitive eating my weight stabilized at a healthy place.

      I hope that helps! :)

  26. Missy says:

    You seem to always provide the words I need to read and for that I will forever be indebted.

    I am currently exactly right at this moment… (dinner still hasn’t been eaten cause I’m not hungry) … pondering this whole intuitive eating thing. I have an eating disorder.
    The thing is .. for me.. either I eat whenever, be it for comfort, habit or boredom…and learn my lessons and hope for a change or..I revert to a meal plan, which I will inevitably manipulate, restrict, diet and become more obsessed.
    I wish there was a meal plan for intuitive eating!

    Your post got my brain gears a good oil. Thanks!

    • Katie says:

      Hey Missy, I wanted to let you know that I definitely understand where you’re coming from. It’s especially difficult when struggling with an eating disorder. Are you working with a nutritionist at all? They can be very helpful in making the transition from meal plans to intuitive eating. Other than that my only advice would be to go slowly…maybe try eating one meal or snack intuitively, and then increase it as you feel comfortable. It’s definitely a challenge!

  27. [...] my post “Are You Ready for Intuitive Eating?” (one of my most popular posts to date!), a very helpful reader directed me to this New York Times [...]

  28. Nina says:

    Hi Katie,

    You have an amazing way of describing things perfectly. I was also “not ready” for a long time and my brain could not comprehend the idea of eating what I wanted. It took many years, diets and breakdowns to finally say “ENOUGH”. And the process is tricky and there is always that pull to diet, but if you get to that place of real rock bottom pain, the urge becomes much easier to fight off.
    I will never forget what that hell was like and I have been an intuitive eater for 4 years now and have never experienced such freedom and lack of obsession. Its truly a miracle and one that I do not want to let go of for the sake of a few pounds.

    Thanks again for an awesome post!

  29. Alexis says:

    I started this process when I realized I rarely eat for hunger, but mostly for emotional reasons. And even then couldn’t care less what I ate. I could have eaten dirt as long as it calmed me down. Then I started questioning if I’m really a OC or just an adult, who as a child, needed to hide in food to survive an abusive home. Also, I’ve grown up on a constant diet so my body awareness was killed off by the time I was 6. I talked to my sister about this. Her memories are of my parents forcing me to eat. I was picky and pretty disinterested in food. But through restrictions and self-hate I became obsessed with food and dieting. The way I feel about IE is that I’m getting back to the way I should have been all along. I plunged right in. I still read everything I can about it, although I can’t believe the misinformation and misconceptions out there. I joined a site that unfortunately didn’t work out. I’m still looking for a IE safe place.
    I think my advantage is I don’t care what I weight, just as long as my back doesn’t hurt. So the experimenting part is fine. I was comfortable that this takes time and that I might gain weight at first. Truthfully, anything is better than the hell I was living in, so a few pounds is nothing to sacrifice. It’s been a few months – so far no weight gain, not that I would have cared.
    The concept clicked for me when I realized intuitive eating is flexible, as in I can break down cravings into components. If I want noodles but know a bowl of flour will never satisfy my hunger I can see that I need carbs and eat a better quality of them. So far this is working out for me. I just have to not listen to anyone not doing this exact same thing, stay off the diet rat wheel, and trust myself.

    • Katie says:

      You are so insightful, Alexis. I’m so glad you’re out of the hell that dieting truly is. You’ve obviously come a long way, which is really exciting!

      I love what you said here about breaking cravings down into components. As long as it’s ok by you, I’d like to feature that as a post topic in the future. (Of course crediting you with the comment.)

  30. Alexis says:

    I would be honored. I hope the topic has a part in helping to ppl free themselves of the nightmare that is — living by someone eles’s rules. Honestly, though, how can we listen to anyone else about something as primal and basic as feeding ourselves. IMO, the diet industry is the scam to beat all scams. It created a need and then services that need. It’s self contained, which is weird in itself. In the future I would like to start my own blog site. This personal project has turned into a real crusade.

    • Katie says:

      If you ever do start your own blog, please let me know and I will do my best to help get the word out about it. I think you have a really important message to share!

      • Alexis says:

        Thank you for your offer and saying that. It’s really encouraging to hear that someone who’s words you respect has respect for your words as well. I was going to ask you for permission to link your site. I’ve been all over the web and this site is truly top notch.
        I’m over-riding the prefectionist, lol, outlining posts and collecting ideas. Also signed up for a dreamweaver class. I will let you know when I am up.

        • Katie says:

          Sounds great! And you can definitely link to my site. Thank you for your kind words about my blog and my writing. It’s people like you who make it all worthwhile, honestly!

    • nina says:

      I totally agree that it is absurd to accept a diet or eating plan created by someone else when it is our basic primal instinct! There is no nutritionist, dietitian or health expert that is wiser than my own body.
      And yes the diet industry is built on failure, guilt and then another diet.
      Nina

  31. Alexis says:

    Above is typo city. Excuse me.
    giggle! blush!

  32. Nina says:

    @Alexis
    “IMO, the diet industry is the scam to beat all scams. It created a need and then services that need. It’s self contained, which is weird in itself.”
    Alexis – this is SO true. It is built on a 98% failure rate so you go from one failed product to another until you have no self esteem, are broke and hopeless.
    Looking forward to seeing your blog!

    Nina

  33. Very interesting post. I’ve been hearing a lot about intuitive eating these days. As you say, I’ll have to think about it and get my mind behind the concept, but I’m tired of counting calories. So this might be the way to go.

    • Katie says:

      I reached the point where I thought I might explode if I had to count another calorie! The actual book called “Intuitive Eating” is a great resource for learning more about the process. Good luck! :)

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