Intuitive Eating by Marlee Coldwell

Intuitive Eating: Creating A Healthy Food Relationship

My name is Marlee Coldwell, registered dietitian with Ignite Nutrition in Calgary, Alberta. I recently had the privilege to share my passion and knowledge of intuitive eating during a presentation in partnership with Amaranth Foods. As a non-diet dietitian, I am always enthusiastic to discuss this topic and what intuitive eating means for our overall health. That’s why today I will be sharing some of these perspectives - in case you missed the presentation and would like to learn more!

Let’s start by defining ‘intuitive eating’. This may be the first time you’ve stumbled across this terminology or perhaps you’ve been working on intuitive eating for quite some time. So let’s break it down.

Intuitive eating IS a connection between mind and body in which we listen to both internal and external cues that dictate our food choices. It is a weight-neutral approach to health, meaning the focus is on health (physical, emotional, mental & social health) and not the number on the scale. It is a process of discovering potential obstacles that prevent us from listening to our bodies. Intuitive eating is learning to respect our bodies and practice self compassion and non-judgement around food. In short, intuitive eating is a way to become free from the shackles of food rules and restrictions.

Intuitive eating IS NOT a diet. You can not pass or fail intuitive eating and you can not be a “perfect” intuitive eater. In fact, that defeats the purpose of intuitive eating because it is meant to help you break free from perfectionist diet mentality. Intuitive eating is not math - no calories, no points, no macros. And it certainly is not a weight loss plan!

At the end of the day, intuitive eating is about learning to respect who you are. You are the expert in your own body. Only you can be the one to truly understand your thoughts, cravings, hunger cues, and satisfaction from food!

Can You Be An Intuitive Eater?

You may be wondering whether intuitive eating is even possible for you. The answer: yes, everyone has the ability to be an intuitive eater. In fact, we’re programed to eat this way from birth! Think of babies and toddlers - they are so in tune with their bodies. If they are hungry, they cry to be fed. As they eat, they choose what they need from what is offered to them. Am I the only one who finds this fascinating? We can instinctively tune into these cues as adults as well!

This is where I commonly get the raised eyebrows and skeptical looks - “but Marlee, if I listened to my body, I’d eat ice cream all day every day!” This begs the question - what the heck happens as we age to make us lose sight of our primal hunger and fullness cues? Well, we start to ignore our internal cues and instead listen to external cues from diet culture. We rely on diet culture to tell us what, when, and how much to eat, which ends poorly in the long-run and makes it difficult for us to trust our bodies!

Diet Culture & How to Ditch It

In an effort to keep this post succinct, I will not dwell on diet culture too much. I can easily rant about this topic for a long time! To sum it up, we live in a world that is full of diet and weight loss messages. The diet industry profits HUGELY, generating revenue in the tens of billions of dollars each year (or more!). It is exactly that - a business; one in which they want you to be a return customer. This is why dieting can feel like a never-ending cycle. The collective “they” makes diet plans too restrictive, too rigid, too unsustainable, too obsessive… you get the picture. They want you back time and time again!

The reality is this: dieting is actually a predictor of weight gain. As you continue to cycle through restrictive eating regimens, your body starts to take note and it fights back out of fear of starvation! Studies show that approximately 95% of those who lose weight while dieting put the weight back on and many even gain more. Not to mention, rigid dieting takes a huge toll on psychological well-being!

So how do we break free from this? Chances are you aren’t going to lock yourself away and hide from diet culture. It’s everywhere! Instead, I encourage you to do some self-reflecting on how you consume diet and weight loss information and purposefully start to ditch the diet mentality! Here are some tangible first steps:

  1. Do a social media cleanse - Are you following accounts that make you feel “less-than” or “other” when it comes to your body and your health? Do people you follow sell diet or fitness products that make big promises? Unfollow these accounts and posts.

  2. Keep a “diet culture” journal - I see and hear diet ads constantly; on the bus, TV commercials, radio ads, facebook. And realistically, we can’t get rid of it all. Instead, try keeping a journal or note on your phone where you can document these things. The first step in ditching diet culture is becoming aware of the messages.

  3. Self-reflect on your beliefs - if you find yourself wondering about a specific diet or nutrition product, become a curious observer. Why do you think it sounds so appealing? Do you think the promises being made are true? Is someone profiting from this? Does it sound like a sustainable way to live - ie. can you see yourself doing it forever? Most importantly, you should approach these questions from a place of non-judgement. If you are ‘buying in’ to diet culture, don’t beat yourself up! You can’t possibly unlearn diet mentality overnight.

Tuning In To Your Body

Let’s get back to these mystical “body cues”. You may not feel like you have a good sense of them yet. But I promise you, they are in there somewhere! I like giving this example: Hunger and fullness is physiological and primal, just like going to the washroom or breathing. You likely wouldn’t think twice about going to the washroom if the urge struck you and you certainly wouldn’t put much thought into breathing!

You can start to tune in to your hunger and fullness cues in the same way by doing the following things:

  1. Use the hunger scale - Ranking your hunger and fullness between 1-10 (1 being beyond hungry, 10 being beyond full) is a helpful exercise. It generally feels best to eat when you are regular hungry (3-4) and stop eating when you are comfortably full (7-8). Keep in mind, it is still considered ‘normal eating’ to sometimes eat beyond comfort or allow yourself to get extremely hungry. This is all part of the intuitive eating experience and learning what feels comfortable or uncomfortable for you!

  2. Eliminate distractions - It is difficult to recognize hunger and fullness when we are distracted. We live in a world of multi-tasking and often eat while doing other things. To truly listen to your body, try eating without distractions like television, your phone, or work projects. Even if you can do this just once each day - that’s a win!

  3. Try a mindful eating activity - Starting with just one food is a great way to develop self-trust around food. Try picking one food you enjoy (mine is dill pickle chips) and really tune-in to the experience of eating that food. Before eating, what do you notice? Consider smell, taste, and touch. What do you like or dislike about eating it? Does the experience change as you continue to eat more? Afterward, how do you feel? Is it a positive feeling? Negative? Why do you think you perceive the experience the way that you do? Remember, practice non-judgement and give yourself the space to explore!

Intuitive Eating is More Than Just Hunger & Fullness

As we wrap up, I want to take a moment to discuss satisfaction. Being aware of hunger and fullness is great, but there is a third element to consider - enjoyment. It would be lovely to say intuitive eating starts and ends with hunger and fullness, but there is so much more to it than that!

In reality, you could become ‘comfortably full’ from eating something you actually don’t really like that much. However, experience tells us that eating things we don’t get enjoyment from will likely lead us to the cupboard or fridge later - searching for that shred of joy we missed out on earlier. And no, this is not always the case, but I’m sure you can think of a time when this has happened to you!

For this reason, it is important to include foods you enjoy regularly. At the end of the day, you are NOT what you eat. Food is not simply fuel. Food is cultural, social, pleasurable, and experimental.

How to Get Started

Perhaps you are already on your intuitive eating journey, or perhaps you are just dipping your toes in for the first time. Either way, there are lots of supportive resources to help you figure it all out.

The Intuitive Eating book, by dietitians Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole is the comprehensive guide to all things intuitive eating. I highly recommend it to anyone looking to improve their relationship with food and their bodies!

Working with a dietitian trained in intuitive eating practices is also highly recommended! It is always great to have an ally in your corner, especially when working through the hard stuff! At Ignite Nutrition, we help our clients improve their relationship with food by taking an Intuitive Eating and Health At Every Size (HAES) approach. If you’re ready to break out of diet mentality and heal your relationship with food, Ignite Nutrition can help! Check out our food relationship counselling today!