The Problems with Intuitive Eating

The dieting strategy known as “Intuitive Eating” is becoming increasingly popular, and it’s pretty easy to see why. Intuitive Eating promises successful weight-loss and management with no restrictions, calorie counting, or unsatisfied cravings. Participants are asked to begin monitoring their hunger more carefully, rating their hunger and satiety on a scale of 1 – 10. The goal is to keep your hunger close to a “5”, eating the moment you find yourself around a “3-4” and only eating until you are a “6-7”. The bottom and top ends of the scale represent the extremes of starving and stuffed. Intuitive Eating believes avoiding these extremes will result in less desperation for high calorie foods and therefore fewer occurrences of over-eating.

As a Fitness Professional and Nutrition Specialist, I am a fan of inclusive diets over exclusive or “restrictive” diets. I believe it is important for everyone to have a balance of all different types of foods, but more importantly I believe education about those different types of food is what facilitates successful balance in one’s diet. I could very well be missing the educational component that Intuitive Eating provides its followers, but I don’t see any such educational material when I browse articles and videos on how to live the Intuitive Eating lifestyle. I only see lists of big benefits, an almost magically simple hunger scale to follow, instructions to eat whatever your body is telling you it wants and then a Buy button for a book about how to do that.

Quite frankly, “Intuitive eating” is precisely why so many people are in need of finding a different diet in the first place. They have already been eating what they want, when they want to and it hasn’t gotten them anywhere. Coming off 150,000 years of survival as a species, our bodies are designed by evolution to find, consume, and store food all day, every day. A hundred years ago we had to work hard all day long to put just enough food on the table to sustain us. Now we sit all day and can get a week’s worth of calories delivered to our door without making so much as a phone call. Our intuition is not what saves us from obesity, it’s what got us here in the first place.

To be fair, I completely understand what Intuitive Eating is trying to accomplish. It is precisely what we has health and fitness professionals try to do, and that is to change a client’s intuition. Sugary Starbucks drinks and greasy cheesy goodness stir up all kinds of happy feelings for a reason. Our taste buds know that “sweet” means sugar, and that means fast energy for our bodies which was crucial to our survival prior to industrial agriculture and the fast-food revolution. The umami taste of oil and grease tells our body we’ve found dense energy, which means with the same volume of food we can get twice the amount of calories; again, excellent for survival. (Umami also signals protein is being consumed which we need to sustain strength and regeneration)

However, we are no longer trying to survive by finding food, we are trying to survive the food we keep finding. I have sat down with hundreds of different people to talk about what a healthy diet is and how weight loss works. I have had people tell me they don’t actually know what foods are good or bad, and I have had people tell me they know everything about nutrition. I can count on one hand how many of those people did in fact know what they needed to be eating and how weight management works. Our society and culture tries so hard to educate citizens on what healthy eating is, but it’s that same society and culture that believes 5 days worth of sugar should come standard in a coffee, that a biscuit made out of pancake syrup and indestructible cheese qualifies as “food”, and that we’re doing people a favor when we bring donuts, cake and cookies anywhere more than 2 people will occupy the same space for more than 5 minutes.

These are things Intuitive Eating doesn’t take into account.

  • What do I do when all my coworkers are eating the cake for this week’s birthday celebration?
  • My parents raised me on Cocoa Puffs and waffles for breakfast every day, so that should be my intuitive habit right?
  • I don’t always eat this much but this food is just so good I don’t want to stop, but my intuition will tell my body not to turn it into fat won’t it?
  • I’m hungry now but I just at an hour ago…hunger is bad though and I’m supposed to eat the moment I’m hungry right?
  • I want to eat now but I don’t get off work until 5 and I didn’t bring any snacks, what do I do?

Allowing people to choose what, when and how much to eat is, again, how America’s obesity rate more than doubled over the last 40 years. Being more “mindful” when you eat and avoiding over-indulging is a step in the right direction, but it does nothing to teach people what qualifies as real food, how the same volume of food can have either half or twice the amount of calories depending on what it consists of, how certain foods and alcohol can disrupt metabolism, and which foods have more fiber or Omega fatty acids that we need for our bodies to function properly.

In order to learn how to eat intuitively, you have to educate your intuition. You may have to throw everything your parents taught you about what a “meal” is out the window and learn for yourself what real food is supposed to be. You may have to teach your body which cravings are OK to indulge, and which ones will need to go away forever. It is 100% true that the more you diet, the better you get at it. It is equally true that the more you know, the better your decisions will be. Invest in a dieting strategy that teaches you how to identify low glycemic vs. high glycemic, starchy vs fibrous, lean vs. fatty, contaminated oils vs pure oils, and how to balance all of those with occasional treats while still maintaining both a healthy weight and a properly functioning body. Educate your intuition.

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