Intuitive eating, is it really intuitive?Posted on | Last updated 19-09-2019
A few weeks ago we sent out a short email about intuitive eating. While our emails have always proven popular this one seemed to blow up, resulting in our inbox being flooded by tonnes of comments and questions from people, so we decided to expand the conversation into a blog to get to the meat and bones of this topic and also bring our thoughts to the attention of a bunch more people.
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One of the biggest trends in UK nutrition right now is the anti "Diet Culture" idea of intuitive eating. Whether Diet Culture exists, is good or bad, and can or cannot be erased is another topic for another day and so I’ll just pin that for now.
The theory of intuitive eating goes something like this:
Managing your diet by restricting your food intake - either using portions, calories, or food choice – is caused by body dissatisfaction. This is a bad thing and so it always leads to a poor relationship with eating. In order to have a healthy relationship with food and yourself you should not restrict portions, calories, or food choice.
Instead, you should practice body acceptance and body appreciation regardless of your size, and stop doing diet culture based things. You should exercise (or not) when you want to, and eat foods in an intuitive manner, trusting your body to know what it wants.
Basically, eat whatever you want to, in amounts that make you happy, living to love your body rather than change it. This may or may not cause weight loss, but it will improve your health.
Now of course this explanation is extremely simple and there is a lot more that can be said here, but that’s enough of a gist to give you an idea, and I don’t believe that I’ve just set up a straw man argument that’s easy to knock down.
With the definition above taken as being truthful I can comment on it, and I’ll start with the numerous positives because there are definitely points in there with which I agree.
Doing stuff because you hate your body is never going to work out, and many overweight folks need to repair their relationship with their body, themselves and food if they are ever going to be able to achieve improved health.
It’s extremely sad to see people who detest what they see in the mirror. They struggle to buy clothes, they socially isolate themselves, and they typically enter a spiral of self-loathing as a result. No amount of body fat means you deserve a life like that and so the body positivity movement and associated theories like intuitive eating can be useful tools in getting people back in charge of how they feel about themselves.
I mean, some will say “there’s nothing wrong with being ashamed about being overweight, you should be ashamed because then you’ll fix it” but that’s just not true in many cases.
How much care are you likely to take of something that you hate?
How much will you be willing to abstain from things you enjoy because it will benefit something you don’t even like?
Then, contrary to what many think, health can be improved without - or just with modest - weight loss. A person with obesity will be healthier if they lose 10% of their bodyweight, even if they stay obese (this isn’t news - we’ve known this since the 90’s (1)) and the importance of this can’t really be overstated. If people believe they need to lose like 50% of their bodyweight and achieve a ‘healthy weight’ in order to make a difference, that’s a pretty big ask, but 10% bodyweight? Most people could do that in a month or two.
And finally, perhaps the most clear benefit of intuitive eating: the improvements that can be seen in those with eating disorders from this kind of intervention are incredible, though that’s a slightly different topic.
Now that’s said, there are some other points with which I disagree - and the main gripe I have with the idea of intuitive eating is this: the name. It’s a misnomer, a completely incorrect term to describe what it is that we’re talking about.
This is not me just being all pedantic, either.
The definition of intuition is "the ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning", with instinct being defined as "an innate, typically fixed pattern of behaviour in animals in response to certain stimuli" or "a natural or intuitive way of acting or thinking".
Intuition is a natural, in-built system, and the promotion of the adoption of intuitive eating implies that a reliance on such a system is possible.
In other words, the idea of intuitive eating being a good idea makes a couple assumptions:
- We have an innate drive to eat the optimal amount of food
- We are in tune with this drive
And both of these are, put frankly, not true for almost everyone.
Your body did not evolve to maintain its weight effectively; rather, you’re a ghost riding around in a meat bag that's driven towards consumption. We evolved over millions of years in environments in which the next meal was only a possibility – as such, we have evolved various mechanisms that preserve us against famine including a large, hedonic appetite that seeks out more food than we need, and an almost limitless capacity for fat storage. This would keep ancestors alive when food wasn’t around and drive them to pack food in when it was available because that was only ever going to be a rarity.
We did not, however, have the chance to evolve the opposite – a drive to *not* gain fat.
Obesity isn’t something our ancestors really encountered. It’s an evolutionary glitch, something that arose because a body evolved to deal with one environment has suddenly found itself living somewhere completely different; kinda like how moths fly towards artificial light. As such our internal regulation guides us towards gaining weight rather than maintaining it.
It’s just that, historically, significant weight gain wasn’t possible. Our ancestors weren’t not obese because they ate instinctively, it’s because they were really active and didn’t have enough food. It certainly wasn’t a lack of weight gain because of a lack of wanting to eat more…
There's a reason that as soon as a country reaches a point where food is permanently available ,the population gains a lot of weight, rather than just not starving anymore. I've written on this a bunch of times before and we teach an amazing module on it on The BTN Academy, but for now consider this:
- Try to reduce your bodyweight and you'll feel hungrier, you'll move less, and your body will become a little more efficient (read this blog to get a bit more of an insight into this area). Basically, under eat and your body is all like "HELL NO" and tries to get you to eat more
- Start gaining weight? Your body basically does nothing unless you're one of the very few people who seem to naturally maintain a lower bodyweight by having a low appetite and fidgeting more.
And this final thought brings us back to my point:
Those who promote intuitive eating tend to fall into two categories*:
- People who have always been lean. These people have a smallish appetite, fidget a lot, and are naturally predisposed to enjoy training (yes, your enjoyment of exercise has a MASSIVE genetic component (2)). The "eats whatever and never gains weight" people in your office
- People who used to track their food meticulously and have since stopped
These people are, however, special cases.
*There is a third demographic: people who are overweight and who do not intend to lose it, but instead promote intuitive eating and fat acceptance as synonymous. Again, another post for another day
In the case of the first group, the always lean people, they meet the assumptions of intuitive eating very well. Their intuitions are dialled in so that they eat the amount of food their bodies need, and don't really crave or feel hunger for more. This makes them naturally lean, and probably prevents them from relating to people who, no matter what, struggle to eat intuitively without gaining weight.
And in the case of the second? They have gamed the system - their intuitions sucked and they weren't in tune with them, which is why they tracked food in the first place. Once you've tracked your food for a few years you are able to maintain, gain, and lose weight easily without tracking - why?
Because you know what's in your food just by looking at it, and you know roughly what you need. It's tracking without tracking - repetition of a learned behaviour… which is extremely different to intuition.
And again, this isn't pedantry.
My problem here is that those who's bodies talk to them very well, or those who have learned how to ignore their body in a calculated and productive manner are telling people who have intuitively gained a lot of weight to eat intuitively. That, to me, is asinine; it’s a bad idea which can have pretty obvious consequences. Sure, it always sounds nice when intuitive eating people write about their anti Diet Culture views, but a lot of things sound nice – that doesn’t make them practically beneficial.
I'm pretty sure that if you pay some of the more reputable advocates of this method for their coaching programs, buy their books, attend seminars, or at least give them a ton of blog clicks, then they'll feed you a load of nuance that you’ll need to effectively practice what they suggest, and that's awesome - I would imagine they have a laundry list of clients that will tell you they changed their lives. Again, I can fully accept that there are intuitive eating coaches that are doing amazing things in an ethical manner and truly helping people.
But what if you’re only on the periphery – you’re a casual follower of some intuitive eating promoters? You probably see a few Instagram posts here and there, and maybe listen to a couple short videos or read the odd blog about how dieting and food restriction are always, entirely, and extremely bad. Maybe you listen to a podcast that repeats the message that you should trust your body and eat however, whenever, and whatever you feel like you should. And what happens then?
Then unless you’re one of the rare people for whom the assumptions we mentioned earlier apply, it's likely that you'll try to eat intuitively, continue not improving your health, and eventually bail on the whole process while having also internalised the idea that trying to do anything other than intuitive eating is going to give you an eating disorder. You may also feel pretty damn guilty for not practicing body satisfaction, which makes you a bad person because you should do that and yet you find you can't. You’ve internalised diet culture and so are now part of the problem.
(Yeah, anti fat-shaming activists do have a habit of shaming people for being unable to stop feeling like they'd like to lose weight...).
And so yes, while the principles surrounding intuitive eating (ending cycles of continuous restriction, looking at food relationships and emotional eating rather than just kcals, etc) can certainly help a lot of people when applied properly and indeed will always be a part of a successful coaching process, intuitive eating is a lie. It’s a lie because it has nothing to do with intuition.
“Intuitive eating” in a manner that promotes physical health requires:
- Practice at paying attention to hunger signals
- Education around food choice
- Attention paid to portion control
- Careful management of one's food environment
- Mindfulness around snacks and temptation
- A true understanding of moderation
- An ability to constructively deal with times when emotional eating becomes likely
- The ability to stop once you start eating certain foods, more often than not
And much, much more, most of which almost nobody can do based on naturally occurring instinct because, in fact, all of those things are the OPPOSITE of what your body wants to do.
You have to spend time and learn what you're doing, and that doesn't sound all that intuitive to me...
Thanks for reading. If you’d like to learn more about evidence based nutritional principles, where intuitive eating stops and starts, we have a free nutrition course anyone can sign up to, coach or every day person looking to improve their health, just click here...
- J, Goldstein, D. (1992). Beneficial health effects of modest weight loss. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, 16(6), pp.397-415.
- Moore-Harrison, T. and Lightfoot, J. (2010). Driven to Be Inactive?—The Genetics of Physical Activity. Progress in Molecular Biology and Translational Science, pp.271-290.