A common misconception that people often have when they hear about Intuitive Eating is that intuitive eaters don’t need to take nutrition into account. When I hear people saying this kind of thing, it always sends a chill up my spine because it couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, one of the principles of Intuitive Eating is to “honor your health with gentle nutrition”. This is how the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD and Elyse Resch, MS, RD describe principle 10:
“Make food choices that honor your health and taste buds while making you feel well. Remember that you don’t have to eat perfectly 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 we eat consistently over time that matters — progress not perfection is what counts.”
I really like this explanation, but I want to add something to it that has really helped me to understand this principle even more. To me, gentle nutrition also includes not going to extremes with our food. So, for example, going to an extreme to me would be to never eat any food that contains refined sugar like cookies, cakes or any other dessert. Or, to insist on maintaining a gluten-free diet simply because you read that living a gluten-free lifestyle is “better” for your health. I literally cringe when I hear people speaking in such black and white terms.
People that try to maintain lifestyles as described aren’t usually able to maintain them for the long-term because they are restrictive. Since I know first-hand the dangers of being restrictive with my food, I never recommend restricting any foods in our diets unless we have a food sensitivity or food allergy that could cause us harm.
Just because Intuitive Eating gives us the freedom to eat any food that makes us feel good (no bloating, lethargy, stomach upset, etc.) when we are physically hungry (or sometimes just because we want a particular food), this doesn’t mean that we are expected to ignore the benefits of basic nutrition. So, for example, when people ask me what I’d recommend eating, in addition to advising them to eat foods that make their bodies feel good, I also suggest that they strive to eat lots of fresh, whole foods (including whole grains), lots of fruits and vegetables (organic whenever possible), quality animal protein (grass fed whenever possible), healthy fats, and carbohydrates in a way that feels good for their bodies.
Now, that doesn’t mean that we can’t have a delicious dessert on occasion or when we just want it for the fun of it! It simply means that we don’t get hung up on it worry and ourselves sick for days.
So, yes, nutrition is absolutely a part of the Intuitive Eating equation, but the key is that it’s ‘gentle’ and not ‘forced’ or intended for us to feel guilty or morally inept just because we’re not eating ‘perfectly’ all the time. It’s about balance and learning to listen to what our bodies need without judgement.
I will add that this is the last principle in the Intuitive Eating book for a reason. When any of us begin our Intuitive Eating journey, gentle nutrition isn’t always forefront in our minds. One of the reasons for this is because we need to make up for all the time (And, in my case it was years!) of food deprivation. So, in the beginning, many will eat the foods that they’d been restricting for a long time simply because they can now. While this isn’t always the case, our bodies and minds eventually do settle in and start to believe that we mean business this time and aren’t going to pull the plug on this whole ‘unconditional permission to eat’ concept. Once that trust is regained, most generally do begin to desire more nutritious foods as opposed to more highly processed or sugar-laden foods. This is part of the process and needs to happen. My own personal experience has shown me that this stage is only temporary. The important thing to remember is that we need to allow this to happen organically without trying to control the outcome by restricting again.
Support is often encouraged when starting a new adventure, and that includes starting an Intuitive Eating journey. It can be unsettling and even intimidating to be boundary-less with food especially after years of rigid dieting. I nearly gave up many times when first starting out in my Intuitive Eating journey because I was so uncomfortable. I didn’t want to give up so I found a professional who could help me, and I’m so glad that I did! Getting that support was vital to my success and helped me to enjoy the process so much more and also significantly reduced my worrying. If given the opportunity, practicing Intuitive Eating can change your life. I know it changed mine and I’m so thankful that I stuck with it because my life is so much better now than it ever was when I was dieting.