Many of us have heard the phrase “intuitive eating” before on social media, in conversation, or, if you’re like me, from a dietitian or other nutrition and/or eating disorder specialist. But what exactly does it mean? Simply put, intuitive eating is an evidence-based approach to eating that encourages making food choices without guilt, honoring hunger cues, respecting fullness, and enjoying the pleasure of eating. It was introduced in 1995 by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch and in eating disorder treatment is considered the “gold standard” and the ultimate goal in recovery.
My journey to achieve intuitive eating has been a roller coaster ride. When I was struggling with anorexia, I didn’t respect my body in the slightest. I was convinced that if I listened to my hunger cues and ate when I was hungry, I’d gain five pounds and go up two clothing sizes. So, I did the exact opposite and denied my body the nourishment it desperately needed. I praised myself for my willpower and ability to resist temptations, not realizing until much later the damage this deliberate deprivation was inflicting on my body and mind.
It wasn’t until I was actively in recovery that I was able to challenge those irrational beliefs. I was on the Exchange System then, which was helping me gradually regain the control and independence my eating disorder had stripped from me. Like everything at that point in my life, intuitive eating was a long and tiresome journey that largely boiled down to time, patience, and exposure. After all, I’d spent years convinced my body was trying to screw me over so learning how to trust and adequately feed it again was unimaginably difficult.
What made this journey all-the-more arduous was the diet mentality that consumes society. As I began to rebuild my social life (returning to school, getting a job, etc.), I quickly realized that there was no shortage of disordered thinking when it came to food. I vividly remember how casually and frequently the office staff at my first job would talk about their failed diets and struggles with weight, all the while sneaking candies from their infamous Chocolate Drawer and subsequently scolding themselves for “giving in to temptation.” At school, my female peers would compare clothing sizes in the locker room and boast about losing three pounds as if it was the greatest accomplishment in the world. Then, of course, there was social media. I was pretty new to Instagram then and struggled for the longest time to weed out the thinspiration and fitspiration sites consuming my feed and making me feel inadequate.
Navigating this constant bombardment of diet mentality that opposed everything I was trying to accomplish with intuitive eating was exhausting. I often wondered how I’d ever fully recover in a society that was so obsessed with diet and weight loss. And yet, five years later, I’m just about there. Adhering to a consistent eating schedule and balanced diet helped me make smart food choices and avoid falling back into restrictive behaviors. Educating myself on nutrition and physiology shifted my thinking and enabled me to recognize the misinformation in my peers’ and colleagues’ attitudes towards food. Unfollowing those toxic thinspo accounts on social media and following body positive and pro-recovery ones instead eliminated unnecessary negativity and triggers from my online life and reinforced the possibility of a full recovery. As I became more confident in my ability to feed myself, I was able to start taking seconds and grazing in-between meals and snacks when I was hungry without fear or shame holding me back.
If any of this sounds easy, it wasn’t. But it was one-hundred-percent worth the effort to reach a place in my recovery where I’m able to eat intuitively, independently, and in moderation while allowing myself to have fun with food when the occasion calls for it. My relationship with food today isn’t perfect but it’s a tremendous improvement from those years when I was consumed by disordered thinking and diet mentality. I needed a kinder, better, and healthier approach to help me get my life back on track, and I found that with intuitive eating.