“Intuitive eating” has become a bit of a trendy term these days in the health and fitness space. As with ANYTHING that becomes trendy, intuitive eating has become bastardized. I’ve been teaching clients how to eat intuitively for health and fitness for years, and let me tell you, what is being communicated today is TOTALLY wrong.
To be fair, part of the problem is the name itself. The “intuitive” in intuitive eating is a bit misleading. The process of getting to a point where you can intuitively eat is a long road filled with lots of practice. It’s not instinctual or automatic, or at least, it isn’t for a long time.
Before I teach you the steps to get to a point of intuitive eating, I think it’s important to define what it is. Intuitive eating is being able to go about your day, stress free and to choose and WANT the best foods for your overall health. Notice I said “overall health.” I am referring to ALL of the things that make up your health.
It’s obvious that what you eat can benefit or harm your physiology. If you eat the wrong foods or you eat too much food you can become obese, sick and prone to chronic disease, but food does much more than contribute to physiological health. Food can affect your mental health and emotional health too. Sometimes you may need to positively impact one part of yourself with a food that may not help another.
For example, let’s say its Christmas and you are visiting with family that you haven’t seen in a while. Your aunt brings her famous apple pie and your dad wants to have a glass of wine with you. In that instance, it may be very healthy for your mental and emotional health to foster relationships with your aunt and dad over those foods. Although that wine and apple pie might not be physiologically healthy, it was healthy overall. Intuitive eating is the ability to make these decisions with minimal thought. Intuitive eating is being able to say, “I don’t want any” versus “I can’t have any.”
Now that we understand what intuitive eating is, I will say this, it takes active self-awareness and practice to get to a place where you can eat this way. We don’t understand the full value of food and we don’t fully understand our own bodies, so trying to eat intuitively right away will only lead to failure.
There are four stages of learning. The first stage is unconscious unconsciousness. In this stage you literally don’t know what you don’t know. You are clueless about what you DON’T know. The transition to the second stage is fast. It’s the conscious unconsciousness stage. This is when you are aware of what you don’t know. The third stage is conscious consciousness. This is where you have to consciously think about what you know. The final stage is unconscious consciousness. This is when you don’t need to consciously think about what you know; it just happens naturally. The fourth stage is where intuitive eating happens.
Remember when you first learned how to ride a bike? When you first got on a bike you started in the first stage and quickly moved to the second stage when you realized how much you did not know about riding a bike. Through practice you moved to the third stage where you had to really focus on your balance and your feet, legs and hands in order to ride your bike. Eventually, with enough practice, riding your bike became automatic as you moved into the fourth stage.
You are likely in the second stage of learning with your nutrition. You know you don’t know what the right number of calories, proteins, fats and carbs are for your body and you struggle with food choices falling into a restrict/overeat pattern. Don’t feel bad, most people who want to eat better for their overall health are in this stage.
To move out of it, you will need to become conscious about all of the food you put into your body and how it affects you. You need to move into the third stage. Get yourself a food tracker and start entering in your food. Figure out how many calories, grams of proteins, fats and carbs you need to accomplish your goals. Once you do this just aim for your calories and macros. You can accomplish amazing physical progress in this stage. Master your calories and macros and you will know exactly what to eat to get lean and physically healthy. BUT you don’t want to stay here forever. It can become pathological and stressful to always count calories and macros. No one wants to live in a space where everything needs to be tracked forever.
While you are aiming for a target number of calories and macros (proteins, fats and carbs), also pay close attention to how you feel before, during and after you eat. What motivated you to eat the food you chose? How did you feel eating it? Did you eat it fast or slow? How did you feel after you ate it physically, mentally and emotionally? This is a slow process of LEARNING. As you become more aware about why you eat what you eat and how specific foods affect you, you will start to understand the whole value of food.
Slowly, include days where you don’t aim for a calorie or macro target. These are intuitive days. Start with one day a week and once that becomes comfortable, add another. Over time you will move into a more natural state of eating.
One word of caution, you must consciously remind yourself that you truly CARE about yourself. If you are filled with self-hate, then the food choices you make will reflect this. Eat in a way that takes care of you in the fullest sense.
You may also want to avoid heavily processed foods. These foods are engineered to be hyper palatable and studies show that people consistently overeat when they make up a large part of their diet. Heavily processed foods are foods that come in boxes, wrappers or they are fully prepared frozen foods. The vast majority of the money that goes into creating these foods goes into making them so palatable and hedonistic that they override your natural sense of satiety. When you are learning to intuitively eat you are probably better off avoiding these foods at first.
This process can take a long time, so be patient. You may also find that you need to move in and out of tracking for a while. This is normal. Stay the course and eventually eating healthy and maintaining a heathy body can become a stress-free natural process.