Around the health and nutrition community online, intuitive eating has always been around–I like to think of the community as the cafeteria in North Shore High School: you have all your cliques sitting like little ducks in rows; the diets that have dominated the last decade included all kinds, such as the Mediterranean diet, raw vegan, Paleo, keto, juice cleansing, macro counting, plant-based, and of course, intuitive eating. Of course, the latter will be the main subject of this post because it has gained some of the WIDEST amount of traction in the past few years or so.
Like many diets, there are more than plenty of viewpoints on intuitive eating, from “It saved my life!” to “Intuitive eating absolutely SUCKS“. What makes intuitive eating sound extremely insightful is how it aims to break all the barriers of what diet culture imposes on a regular basis. Whenever you eat, you feel satisfied both physiologically, but mentally and spiritually. After all, food is meant to nourish you and it is used as a tool to be kind to yourself and your health. The question is…does intuitive eating work for every single person on the planet?
Below are some of the most amazing videos I have found on YouTube regarding intuitive eating. Each of them presents a unique argument (well-executed and researched, but not perfect) for intuitive eating’s purpose and how it can benefit or derail one’s diet. It would be a great idea if you watched the first five to ten minutes of each video, then turned back to this section after you read this blog post to formulate an opinion yourself, and then finish each video on your own time:
It was articulated before that everyone has the inherent ability to eat intuitively in a healthy lifestyle. While this is absolutely possible, it has grown much more challenging with industrialization and the emergence of more hyper-palatable foods (often packed in boxes or bags, but not always–I think dates and pistachios are VERY addictive). What needs to be done before one begins intuitively eating is to develop a strong foundation and understanding of one’s hunger cues and fullness signals. This is much less common than what we believe since our societal constructs have invented scheduled meal times such as breakfast, lunch, the afternoon snack, dinner, and dessert, where we feel obliged to eat at these times when we can abide by our physiological needs instead. Granted, abiding by the latter isn’t always wise. Imagine being hungry at 3 A.M. in the morning before a busy day ahead or returning to the kitchen just minutes after lunch for grazing. There’s no shame in wanting to eat at these times whatsoever, but eating extremely early in the morning is not practical for most people.
Most of the working class and students have to follow a structural routine in their day-to-day life. Their lunch breaks can be too early or too late for their physiological hunger, but not every job allows snacking, such as laboratory work. At schools, some teachers and professors prohibit eating in their classrooms. On the other hand, what if these people are not hungry at all while they work or school, but just end up eating everything in their fridges and cabinets after clocking out? Physiologically, it is critical to space out meals because time allows the body to digest food adequately and provide room in the stomach for water and more food.
Additionally, when you are hungry and go by personal signals, what if your food choices aren’t necessarily nutritionally adequate? This is why it is excruciatingly difficult to feed picky children–this is the age where they need to consume a wide variety of nourishing, nutrient-dense, and (mostly) calorie-dense foods since this stage serves as their foundation of growth and strength on a physical and mental scale. Of course, many kids don’t want to eat vegetables or anything that looks brown, even if it is mandatory for their health. When I was a child, all I wanted was macaroni and cheese, Trix cereal with milk, and grapes (talk about nutritionally complete). But on a more serious note, there are days where all we want are complex and refined carbohydrates with no protein and fat, whereas other days we want to eat out of a whole jar of peanut butter and call it a day. With nutritional deficiencies, we can crave extremely strange foods, even objects, instead of the specific sources of micronutrients we need (it’s a serious condition known as pica). Again, these decisions are simply not practical.
On the flip side, intuitive eating in and of itself does not promote a junk food only diet, but it does not promote a whole foods only diet. We cannot obsess over our food choices where it requires so much time and energy to ensure we consume the exact same amount of protein, fats, carbs, fiber, calcium, iron, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, potassium, anything else, in every meal and for every single day. Most intuitive eaters exemplify how one’s calorie intake balances out throughout the week–some days comprise of more eating than others, hence it is okay if there is a bit of inconsistency. Having said that, it is very challenging, given our current environment, to practice self-control over certain foods and make healthier choices when we do not want to do so. Apples just do not taste as yummy as vegan chocolate ice cream (please do not suggest chocolate “nice cream” as an alternative to people as well…for many of them, it doesn’t taste the same way and it still contains a lot of sugar). Not everyone has access to fresh produce and nutrient-dense sources of calories and protein (i.e. food deserts, the Arctic, etc.), nor can everyone afford them. If intuitive eating were this simple, the diet industry would not exist.
Lastly, no one is immune to the concern of being underweight or overweight. The majority of individuals who attempt intuitive eating come from a background of disordered eating or eating disorders, but not all–intuitive eating is emphasized as a tool that can aid in healthy weight loss, though this is not the main focus of the diet. Intuitive eating works if you can maintain a weight range that is perfectly healthy for you on a medical level. If you are overweight or obese, losing weight is still critically important. People have lost weight on intuitive eating, but plenty more struggle with the opposite. Still, there is no need for crash dieting and those who need to lose weight can easily accomplish this with focusing on nutrient-dense foods that aren’t as high in calories as their refined counterparts.
Personally, do I follow intuitive eating nowadays? In short, I do not. However, I integrate many principles of intuitive eating within my diet, such as making peace with food, discovering the satisfaction factor, and examining fullness. What I do not follow from intuitive eating is consciously choosing the exact foods I want at the moment. I choose lots of non-starchy vegetables because I prioritize their nutrient-density over how much I love them. There were many foods I had to adapt to enjoy for their health properties, as well as many others because I wanted to become vegan (i.e. soy proteins, certain varieties of beans, most vegan staples that a lot of non-vegans eat less frequently than vegan). Most importantly, there are food rules I abide by because they prompt me to make healthier choices for my body and for my well-being. I love my vegan junk food and integrate it ever so often (ranges from 2-3 times a week to 2-3 times per three weeks to a month).
Should YOU follow intuitive eating? If you are currently at a healthy and stable weight, do not have any hormonal imbalances or medical conditions that necessitate you to follow a lot of dietary guidelines, then you are more than welcome to try it. If you are currently recovering from an eating disorder, have disordered eating, are underweight or overweight by a little bit if not severely, or have medical conditions that mandate dietary restrictions and rules, then you should not follow intuitive eating. At the end of the day, the best medium between intuitive eating and clean eating is a focus on wholesome foods and nutritional balance that honors one’s physical health, physiological hunger cues, and mental liberation from diet culture. Oh yeah, and there is always room for some chocolate or a serving of chips at the end of the day.