Intuitive eating proponents make a lot of claims related to freeing you from your long-time struggle with food. As you’ll see, though, it’s not without significant issues in its premise and strategy. Have a seat for this one – you’re about to discover the truth about intuitive eating.
In principle, intuitive sounds amazing. It’s one of those things that when you hear about it for the first time you think to yourself, “who wouldn’t want to eat like this?”
There’s a few things we need to discuss when it comes to practical application, though.
I do want to start by explicitly saying that I agree with a lot of strategies and tactics that proponents of intuitive eating promote. So, I agree with both the principle of intuitive eating as well as many of the day-to-day recommendations for practicing it.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t any problems, though. And that brings me to my general argument: in some cases, intuitive eating doesn’t go far enough and in other cases it goes too far without important context and prerequisites.
Before we get to the details of my criticisms, let’s cover some important bases…
What Does the Word “Intuitive” Even Mean?
The definition of “intuitive” is pretty simple: Based on what one feels to be true even without conscious reasoning; instinctive.
And instinctive? Relating to or prompted by instinct; apparently unconscious or automatic.
By these definitions, intuitive eating should mean something along the lines of eating foods and quantities of foods that feel true without conscious thought (such as following specific guidelines or using other forms of logic and reason, e.g. counting calories).
I could nitpick here and say that intuitive eating can’t really be “practiced.” If you’re “practicing” intuitive eating, then you’re not eating intuitively, by definition.
Barking up that specific tree this early might not be productive, so I’ll save this argument for later. Don’t forget it, though, because when we start to unpack everything else you’ll see exactly how important this point is.
Here are two other important questions we need to explore…
- What is our intuition based on?
- Is following our intuition a good thing?
Eating “intuitively” is almost always talked about as a positive thing. That’s the premise. But if the premise is false, everything that follows is potentially corrupted.
Understanding this, it’s very important to take a closer look at this premise.
Can you think of any other examples of where following your intuition or your instincts can create destructive outcomes?
I can think of plenty. So, we can’t hear the word “intuitive” and automatically associate that with, “good,” can we?
What is our intuition based on?
Is your intuition based on genetics or environment?
If you look at most animals in nature (we are animals, too) you’ll probably come to the conclusion that it’s both.
It’s safe to say that there’s influence from genetic programming and influence from learned experiences. The actions that you take – the ones driven by subconscious thought – are influenced by both of these factors.
But the environment we live in now is not the same as the environment that created our genetic makeup, is it? That might be a problem.
Is following your intuition a good thing?
I’ve talked a lot about the challenge of evolutionary mismatch in the past – the fact that our genetics are primarily programmed for a world we don’t actually live in.
One prime example of how our genetic programming doesn’t align with the current environment we live in is Optimal Foraging Theory – a genetic driver of overeating.
This is one example that points to the fact that our food intuition might not be properly honed and it’s certainly not the only one.
This begs the question, “If we follow pure intuition, will we end up where we want to be?”
If your answer is, “Yes,” how do you know?
What is Intuitive Eating, Really?
Intuitive eating is one of those terms that is defined slightly differently depending on who you ask. Personally, I think Wikipedia does a fair job of defining it…
Intuitive eating is a nutrition philosophy based on the premise that becoming more attuned to the body’s natural hunger signals is a more effective way to attain a healthy weight, rather than keeping track of the amounts of energy and fats in foods. It’s a process that is intended to create a healthy relationship with food, mind and body, making it a popular treatment for disordered eating and eating disorders.
Okay, so the second premise is that human beings should be able to listen to their body and tune in to their hunger and satiety signals. And again, if we’re nitpicking, there’s nothing “intuitive” about this if it has to be done intentionally.
Let’s be real about this. Intuitive eating is a tactic. It’s a strategy.
The underlying premise is true, though. Humans, like all animals, should be able to self-regulate food intake.
We have an intricate internal calculation system and if you can use that system effectively, it’s way better than using the highly problematic calories-in, calories-out manual tracking strategy.
Intuitive eating gets this right. Unfortunately, it’s one of those areas where intuitive eating doesn’t provide enough context or pragmatism and I don’t think I’ve ever heard intuitive eating proponents discuss these caveats in a meaningful way.
In fact, they often seem like they’re trying to pretend the caveats don’t exist.
What are the caveats? I’ll cover them in detail shortly.
Are Intuitive Eating & Mindful Eating the Same Thing?
This is a really interesting question.
Intuitive eating and mindful eating are often talked about in the same breath. But, based on definitions and principles, “intuitive eating” should really be classified as “mindless eating.”
That’s going to piss a lot of intuitive eating people off, but can you argue with it? Intuitive eating is supposed to be *not conscious.* It’s supposed to be “instinctual” and “without thought.”
What is “without thought” other than mindlessness?
Mindlessness is defined as “not thinking of or concerned about.” Another definition: “so simple or repetitive as to be performed automatically without thought or skill.”
Now, there’s a third definition that people might prefer to point to: “acting or done without justification or concern for the consequences.” But that doesn’t really fit the use of the term “mindless eating” does it?
I don’t know – a lot of these terms are thrown around willy nilly and it doesn’t seem like much thought is put into them at all.
Is it more about appealing to emotion? We know that doing something “intuitively” sounds *good* and doing something “mindlessly” sounds *bad.*
Is that all that’s going on here?
Are Intuitive Eating Principles, Strategies, and Tactics Helpful at All?
I made it a point in the beginning to note that there’s a lot of good within the concepts and teachings of intuitive eating proponents.
I’d like to run down a list of the core principles, clearly explaining the pros as well as pointing out any lapses and gaps.
These principles are from the book Intuitive Eating by Evenlyn Tribole and the quotes are from the author herself related to each principle.
Reject the Diet Mentality.
Throw out the diet books and magazine articles that offer you false hope of losing weight quickly, easily, and permanently. Get angry at the lies that have led you to feel as if you were a failure every time a new diet stopped working and you gained back all of the weight. If you allow even one small hope to linger that a new and better diet might be lurking around the corner, it will prevent you from being free to rediscover Intuitive Eating.
I do think it’s important for people to reject the diet mentality in general, but I don’t think it’s intellectually honest to equate wanting permanent weight loss with wanting quick and easy weight loss.
Note: This is aside from the fact that I’ve explicitly and consistently taught that weight loss is meaningless and fat loss is really the metric that matters.
Contrary to the message many are sending, it’s not wrong to want to change your body composition. It’s not wrong to want to lose body fat. It’s not wrong to claim that lots of excess body fat is unhealthy.
This first principle paints intuitive eating as the only viable answer. But, what if it’s not? What if it’s the wrong answer? Or what if it’s only a partial answer?
Honor your Hunger
Keep your body biologically fed with adequate energy and carbohydrates. Otherwise you can trigger a primal drive to overeat. Once you reach the moment of excessive hunger, all intentions of moderate, conscious eating are fleeting and irrelevant. Learning to honor this first biological signal sets the stage for re-building trust with yourself and food.
This principle means well, but I think it fails when context is added to the mix.
What this principle is basically saying is, “Don’t arbitrarily withhold food because some diet told you that you ate all your allotted ‘points’ for the day.”
That’s fantastic advice.
At the same time, though, this principle seems to rule out sound strategies like intermittent fasting, or fasting in general, choosing instead to direct you to “keep your body biologically fed.”
I can’t get on board with that. For most people, at most times, it’s the appropriate course of action. But, it’s too black and white to be given as blanket advice.
I think it’s also odd to single-out carbohydrates as a necessity. I’m not anti-carbohydrate by any means, but why single it out?
If someone chooses problematic sources of carbohydrates and puts themselves on the blood sugar roller coaster, that’s going to trigger a drive to overeat. Does that happen with fat or protein?
No, it doesn’t. So this directive to eat carbohydrates specifically, seems odd.
Also, the part of this principle that talks about the primal drive to overeat is factually inaccurate. Most people who have fasted before know that pushing beyond the initial hunger pangs causes a rapid decrease in hunger.
It doesn’t cause you to overeat. In fact, it makes hunger and satiety extremely steady, predictable, and manageable assuming that when you do eat, you eat real food.
I’m not some ultra-proponent of fasting or anything, but establishing this principle of “keep your body fed at all times” is almost forcing me to point to fasting as a huge question mark.
Make Peace with Food
Call a truce, stop the food fight! Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. If you tell yourself that you can’t or shouldn’t have a particular food, it can lead to intense feelings of deprivation that build into uncontrollable cravings and, often, bingeing. When you finally “give-in” to your forbidden food, eating will be experienced with such intensity, it usually results in Last Supper overeating, and overwhelming guilt.
The moralizing of food and the oppositional relationship people tend to have with food is definitely a problem and can lead to “intense feelings of deprivation that build into uncontrollable cravings.”
That’s right on the money.
But this: “Give yourself unconditional permission to eat.” That, I have a real problem with. And as you’ll see, this is where intuitive eating really starts to crumble.
Let me see if I can parse this very clearly so you understand that this is much bigger than semantics.
I’ll do it with two statements:
- The *end game* of a healthy relationship with food is unconditional permission to eat.
- Telling someone who hasn’t hit specific milestones to give themselves unconditional permission to eat usually ends in disaster.
If not, I’ll explain more later.
Challenge the Food Police
Scream a loud “NO” to thoughts in your head that declare you’re “good” for eating minimal calories or “bad” because you ate a piece of chocolate cake. The Food Police monitor the unreasonable rules that dieting has created . The police station is housed deep in your psyche, and its loud speaker shouts negative barbs, hopeless phrases, and guilt-provoking indictments. Chasing the Food Police away is a critical step in returning to Intuitive Eating.
I just talked about the pitfalls of moralization in the last point, so no need to rehash that.
Do I think you should scream “No!” to certain thoughts in your head? No, I don’t. I don’t think that’s very helpful. It’s certainly not an example of cultivating self-compassion.
When you consider that most negative self-talk is not really self-talk and that Internal Personas drive most triggered behavior, you begin to understand why screaming at certain thoughts is basically like screaming at wounded parts of yourself.
That doesn’t end the cycle, it fuels it.
You don’t heal by silencing certain parts of your personality. You heal by hearing them.
Respect your Fullness
Listen for the body signals that tell you that you are no longer hungry. Observe the signs that show that you’re comfortably full. Pause in the middle of a meal or food and ask yourself how the food tastes, and what is your current fullness level?
Just to be clear on this again – when you do this as a tactic, you’re not eating intuitively.
So, the premise must be that through practice, this *becomes* intuitive.
Again, not semantics. I’m truly not sold on the idea of this being the case. Let’s look to other animals as an example.
Animals are often victims of circumstance. The reason wolves aren’t obese is because their natural wild diet and lifestyle never give them the opportunity.
The same was true for hunter-gatherers. It turns out that when there isn’t a McDonalds on every corner and 80% of your food supply isn’t processed and hyper-palatable, you stay pretty healthy and within narrower body composition ranges.
Once a wolf is domesticated into a dog and given the opportunity and means to become obese, all bets are off. It’s not just that they become overweight, they suffer all sorts of other issues as well.
Obese humans who are “out of touch” with food and body are just products of domestication all the same. It’s the *intuition* to “eat what tastes good” that gets us and all other animals into trouble.
A dog won’t deny table scraps, citing offense to her intuitive nature. That dog will eat and eat until it can’t eat anymore. And it’ll continue doing that until it’s fat and sick.
Dogs rely on their owner rationing out food to them. Does this mean that dogs just need to *practice* intuitive eating? Or, is it intuition that leads the animal into trouble in the first place?
Discover the Satisfaction Factor
The Japanese have the wisdom to promote pleasure as one of their goals of healthy living In our fury to be thin and healthy, we often overlook one of the most basic gifts of existence–the pleasure and satisfaction that can be found in the eating experience. When you eat what you really want, in an environment that is inviting and conducive, the pleasure you derive will be a powerful force in helping you feel satisfied and content. By providing this experience for yourself, you will find that it takes much less food to decide you’ve had “enough”.
This sounds great. Really, really great. Who wouldn’t *want* to agree with this?
And yes, I do think it should be the goal. Being so feng shui and zen about our eating habits would be optimal, I’m sure.
But I’ll counter this with my own concept from a foreign land, introduced to me by the work of Gabor Mate – the concept of the hungry ghosts.
In Chinese Buddhism, a Hungry Ghost describes a person who is driven by intense emotional needs in an animalistic way.
The inhabitants of the Hungry Ghost Realm are depicted as creatures with scrawny necks, small mouths, emaciated limbs and large, bloated, empty bellies. This is the domain of addiction, where we constantly seek something outside ourselves to curb an insatiable yearning for relief or fulfillment. The aching emptiness is perpetual because the substances, objects or pursuits we hope will soothe it are not what we really need. We don’t know what we need, and so long as we stay in the hungry ghost mode, we’ll never know. We haunt our lives without being fully present. – Gabor Mate
The people who are truly struggling in their relationship with food are hungry ghosts. And to put it as palatably and as straightforward as I possibly can: You can’t cure hungry ghosts with sound-good meditative eating practices.
Honor Your Feelings without Using Food
Find ways to comfort, nurture, distract, and resolve your issues without using food. Anxiety, loneliness, boredom, anger are emotions we all experience throughout life. Each has its own trigger, and each has its own appeasement. Food won’t fix any of these feelings. It may comfort for the short term, distract from the pain, or even numb you into a food hangover. But food won’t solve the problem. If anything, eating for an emotional hunger will only make you feel worse in the long run. You’ll ultimately have to deal with the source of the emotion, as well as the discomfort of overeating.
This is the end game, for sure. But once again, it’s not just a tactic you can employ.
I see this error in coaching methodology over and over again – coaches confusing tactics with abilities.
It’s like the willpower and discipline thing. Willpower and discipline are often talked about as skills that need to be practiced or as tactics that need to be employed.
In reality, willpower and discipline are better understood as abilities – abilities that are “unlocked,” often through courses of action unrelated from the practice of these things specifically.
Respect your Body
Accept your genetic blueprint. Just as a person with a shoe size of eight would not expect to realistically squeeze into a size six, it is equally as futile (and uncomfortable) to have the same expectation with body size. But mostly, respect your body, so you can feel better about who you are. It’s hard to reject the diet mentality if you are unrealistic and overly critical about your body shape.
As with all the others, there’s some productiveness and some destructiveness here. I’m not a proponent of the “health at every size” (HAES) movement by any means. I think that it’s not only highly destructive message in many cases, but the name itself makes zero rational sense.
I don’t know if “health at every size” is exactly what the author is getting at here, but I wanted to throw that out there. I know for a fact that many, if not most, intuitive eating proponents align themselves with HAES.
With that said, it’s highly unlikely that were “genetically determined” to be a 200 pound 5’4 female. Okay?
So, what does “accept your genetic blueprint” mean? This seems to contradict the earlier principle of not trying to lose weight.
If my genetic blueprint says I’m not supposed to be a 200 pound 5’4 female – and I’m going to respect that, as instructed – then I need to lose weight (body fat), don’t I?
Exercise – Feel the Difference
Forget militant exercise. Just get active and feel the difference. Shift your focus to how it feels to move your body, rather than the calorie burning effect of exercise. If you focus on how you feel from working out, such as energized, it can make the difference between rolling out of bed for a brisk morning walk or hitting the snooze alarm. If when you wake up, your only goal is to lose weight, it’s usually not a motivating factor in that moment of time.
I really can’t agree with this more. In fact, I’ll take it a step further…
You will be highly rewarded, both physically and psychologically, if you design a daily fitness practice around activities that you actually love and enjoy rather than traditional “exercise” or “workouts.”
Honor your Health
Make food choices that honor your health and tastebuds while making you feel well. Remember that you don’t have to eat a perfect diet to be healthy. You will not suddenly get a nutrient deficiency or gain weight from one snack, one meal, or one day of eating. It’s what you eat consistently over time that matters, progress not perfection is what counts.
Now we find ourselves back in Problematic Land.
As is true with the dog from our earlier example, it’s the food choices that “honor our tastebuds” that often get us into troubled waters.
Should we be perfectionistic and obsessive? Absolutely not. Perfect eating is symptomatic of having an unhealthy relationship with food.
At the same time, though, giving ourselves “unconditional permission to eat” as we were previously instructed to do will not end well.
I think there’s enough real-world evidence to support this conclusion at this point and it’s one of the main complaints I get from people trying to eat intuitively. It’s a huge source of fear, too.
Without rules and restrictions, people tend to feel lost and out of control. They swing from heavy restriction to unrestricted consumption. That’s not an argument for rules and restrictions, it’s just evidence of my argument that intuitive eating often doesn’t end well.
3 Reasons Intuitive Eating Won’t Help You
Okay, here’s the meat you were waiting for.
As you can see from my breakdown of the ten principles above, there are many problematic ideas underpinning the concept of intuitive eating.
Three of them are particularly egregious, though, so I want to cover those independently.
1. Certain foods screw up your body’s hunger and satiety signaling.
Ending arbitrary food rules and restrictions and calling a truce with food is an important part of the process of healing your relationship with food.
But, not all restrictions are arbitrary or harmful. I explained this in great detail in Eating Real Food is Too Restrictive! and Food Restriction, Orthorexia, and The Overton Window.
Most people who have long-term issues with food are dealing with both a physiological dependence and a psychological addiction. Contrary to mainstream belief, these two things are not the same.
As I explain my podcast episode RB189: Is Willpower Ever Necessary?, it can be very helpful to first defeat the physiological dependence and *then* start tackling the addiction piece.
For someone who is using food for comfort, control, and coping (emotional eating), it’s often necessary to create rules and restrictions within the first 2-4 weeks of the process to get their body to calm down and remove a major conflating factor – the dependence.
Your body has a fantastic internal calculator and regulation system. But processed, hyper-palatable foods effectively break that system.
Listening to your body is irrelevant if your body is sending all the wrong signals.
Beyond that, our eating can never be a free for all.
Sure, the concept of “honoring your body” with real, whole food sounds amazing, but at the end of the day we’re still animals. Put any animal in a domesticated environment and that environment is going to harm them.
As human beings, we have the unique ability to make conscious decisions that help us avoid the fate of mindlessness and avoid the fate of the environmental circumstances we find ourselves in.
We can make the conscious decision to avoid certain foods and manipulate our environment for our long-term benefit. But guess what? Using that unique ability means we’re *not* eating intuitively.
That’s a good thing.
2. Other factors can screw up your body’s hunger and satiety signaling.
It’s not just food that screws up your body’s signaling.
Sleep and stress and are the two main non-food factors that can easily drive overeating. Not just by triggering a desire for comfort, control, and coping, either. I’m talking about real physiological changes.
Three nights of poor sleep can down-regulate leptin (appetite suppressant hormone) production by up to 20%. It can up-regulate ghrelin (appetite stimulant hormone) production by up to 30%. And it can make your insulin resistance mimic that of a type II diabetic.
If you’re “eating intuitively” when this type of manipulation is happening to your signaling, then you’re overeating!
It takes conscious understanding of this manipulation to say, “this seemingly unending desire for food that I’m experiencing is directly related to the poor sleep I’ve been getting.”
Stress creates a similar hormonal manipulation.
The psychology of the individual is a huge part of people’s food issues, but in order to truly help people we must stop ignoring the very real and very powerful physiological triggers.
In fact, we have to go one step further than not ignoring them. We have to consciously work to understand them and game plan for them, e.g. not “navigate the situation intuitively.”
3. You might just overrule your body’s hunger and satiety signaling.
I saved the biggest obstacle for last.
This point brings us back to the concept of the hungry ghost.
Let’s say you take all the necessary steps to (1) help your body accurately signal hunger and satiety and (2) learn to tune in to your body’s signaling on a consistent basis.
All is well, right?
Nope. The hungry ghost in you can – and will – choose to overrule your body’s signaling and drive you to eat.
Why? Because food is your drug. This is the big psychological hurdle.
Food doesn’t exist to nourish you. It doesn’t exist to “honor your tastebuds.” For you, the troubled eater, it exists to numb pain.
When a proponent of intuitive eating says, “Food won’t fix any of these feelings. It may comfort for the short term, distract from the pain, or even numb you into a food hangover. But food won’t solve the problem.” they are correct.
But, they are also impractical and disrespectful. And naive.
Telling someone, “food won’t fix that” is condescending when you understand why addicts behave the way that they behave.
Yes, we know that an addict’s choices have destructive outcomes. The addict knows this, too. This fact is what baffles people who wonder, “why don’t you just stop then?”
It doesn’t baffle me, though. It doesn’t baffle anyone who understands addiction and coping.
The explanation is simple: The pain from the consequences is not as great as the underlying pain the addict is trying to cope with.
Your hungry ghost would rather be fat and sick and on dialysis than live without her pain relief. And to say that’s wrong or irrational is disrespectful to the reality of every single individual who has real pain.
This is why, when you talk to a full-blown heroin addict about how they need to go to recovery, they often say “I just wish I were dead.”
Your relationship with food is not nearly at that level, but it’s not all that dissimilar either.
How to Heal Your Relationship With Food and Eat Like a Normal Person.
You know and I know that this problem can’t be solved with a few closing paragraphs. If you really want to address this issue, you need to enroll in a program like Decode Your Cravings.
I do want to discuss the big picture, though. And again, I’ll do my best to boil it down into three steps…
1. You have to commit to eating *mostly* real food.
Two points here:
- You have to nourish your body at the cellular level to the best of your ability for both physical and mental health.
- You have to commit to eating mostly real food because you’ll never be successful when you’re consistently eating foods that disorders your body’s signaling.
Feel free to download my free Real Food Playbook cheat sheet to help guide you.
2. You have to account for the other pillars of human health.
I focus primarily on what I’ve claimed are the six pillars of authentic human health.
Yes, inner-psychology is one of those pillars, but I’m mainly talking about all the others. Speciically, the pillars that directly influence your physiological state of being.
As is true with food, respecting these pillars is often *not* intuitive because our environment makes it necessary to be consciously alert of our behavior at all times and to consciously make decisions for our own good.
3. You have to get to the root of why you use food the way that you do.
This is the big one. It’s the missing link for most people.
You have to understand that knowing what to eat and how to eat, and all the other stuff that affects your physiology, is not enough.
It’s only enough if you already have a healthy relationship with food.
If you don’t have a healthy relationship with food, none of that knowledge will matter. Your hungry ghost will override your logic, reason, and “good sense.”
This is hard for most people to grasp because they go through periods where they do so well. So, let me explain…
Nobody is disputing your ability to be consistent for short periods of time. It’s the long-term trend line we’re looking at. It’s the macro pattern of behavior.
Your logic, reason, and amazing determination allow you to override your hungry ghost for a period of time. But, and this is a big but, your hungry ghost will never go away on its own.
In fact, the more you silence it, the more powerful it becomes. And when you can no longer keep it at bay, it bursts on to the scene with an intense desire to collect all the feel-good food goodies.
This has to be dealt with specifically if you ever want to truly be consistent and unlock the *ability* to eat like a normal person.
If you found this article to be helpful and insightful, please share it. There are millions of men and women walking this planet who struggle with various degrees of food issues who also struggle to understand their behavior around food and struggle to find the solutions that are truly needed to free them. We all appreciate your help in spreading this information.
Kevin Geary is the founder of RebootedBody.com and a respected expert on cravings, eating psychology, and long-term habit change. He’s worked with thousands of men and women in over 35 countries around the world through his online academy and programs like Shut Down Your Sugar Cravings.