What is Intuitive Eating? A Q&A with My Nutritionist + Coach
I’ll be honest: my food philosophy has been going through a pretty deep transformation these days. I’ve been talking a lot about intuitive eating lately, and wanted to share a bit more about my journey with you here… maybe you can relate?
The crux of my evolution comes down to the fact that I believe things aren’t so black and white, and there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to health and wellness. I’ve seen firsthand the role that stress plays in my own life, and the more I’m learning about it and discovering new research, along with my own empirical evidence, I’m now convinced of this:
MORE important than the actual food we eat is HOW we think and feel about food. This includes our mindset, our stress levels, our emotions, and our energy towards how we approach food–and ultimately–how we approach life at large.
Our unhealthy relationships that make food fearful, make food the villain, categorize foods as inherently good or bad, is what we really need to be talking about. My new approach boils down to this: I’m an advocate for finding what feels good and right for YOUR body. Only YOU can know what that is (not anyone else who doesn’t live inside your body).
But what does this actually look like in practice?
When I first heard about intuitive eating, it felt liberating yet scary, like suddenly my carefully planned world was crumbling, and I was in the wilderness without boundaries. Without food rules… what would I possibly eat? Wouldn’t my PCOS, Leaky Gut, and IBS symptoms come back? Wouldn’t I gain weight? Wouldn’t I be a ‘bad’ health and wellness blogger if I’m not eating perfectly?
And yet I knew that these food rules I had been living and dying by, the same rules that were causing me so much internal stress, shame and guilt about every bite I took and whether it was “real” enough or “clean” enough or healthy enough… I knew these rules weren’t working for me.
But I knew I needed help navigating this new terrain. So I started listening to podcasts and reading books and blogs about intuitive eating and somewhere along the way I came across Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist certified in intuitive eating, and a mama to 5 beautiful babies! I knew she could understand the postpartum body image issues I was struggling with, too.
After a discovery call with Crystal, I knew she was exactly who I needed to help me on this journey. Crystal is so incredibly passionate about helping women find freedom from food and body image struggles so they can enjoy an abundant and peaceful life. Her kindness and warmth radiates and I always feel so seen, heard and understood by her after our coaching calls.
I can’t keep Crystal to myself any longer, so here she is, sharing her food wisdom with us today and helping us understand how nutrition and intuitive eating can co-exist!
If you’re also searching for peace with food and your body, and freedom from negative thoughts, body obsession, diet culture, and past mistakes–this interview is for you!
What is Intuitive Eating?
Q: I have to admit, in healing my body holistically, I relied a lot on food… specifically an anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense diet to heal myself. But it wound up leading to some serious orthorexic tendencies, which I know a lot of my audience can relate to (an obsession with eating “clean”). How can intuitive eating be helpful for people looking to create a healthier relationship with food after recovering from “The Wellness Diet”?
A: Intuitive eating is often watered down to mean “eating whatever you want, whenever you want”, and with this idea comes the misconception that eating intuitively means you don’t care about your health. But this could not be farther from the truth. Intuitive eating embraces the understanding that health embodies so much more than just the foods we eat. Our health is also impacted by our mental state, our relationships and social interactions, how we manage stress, sleep, and so many other wide variety of factors. The trouble with “Wellness” type diets is that there is so much hyper-focus on food alone (ie: what to eat, what not to eat, how to prepare it, etc.), that it winds up being completely counterproductive to overall health.
If the rules you have about food are rigid and unsustainable, this is likely causing you undue stress, which is more detrimental to your health than any food you could possibly eat. If the way you are eating is negatively affecting the other important areas of your life, such as your mental state or social interactions, then it’s most likely doing more harm than good.
The first step to creating a healthier relationship with food is to step back and see the bigger picture of what’s happening in your life. Change begins with awareness of these potential areas that may not be serving you well. Intuitive eating is a journey of discovery as you learn to trust yourself as the expert of your body, rather than leaning on outside rules to make your eating decisions.
This means that you can gain freedom, peace, and confidence, not only in your relationship with food and your body, but in your whole life. For anyone who has been on a diet or who is recovering from wellness diet culture, learning to become an intuitive eater can be deeply freeing and empowering to live in your own truth, rather than to make choices based on external rules.
Q: On the other hand, how do you reconcile nutrition with intuitive eating? I know so many of my readers struggle with the idea of a blueberry obviously being a healthier/better food choice than a blueberry donut. One feels “good” and the other feels “bad”, or at least indulgent. How can we ensure we’re eating a healthy, nutritious diet without developing guilt, fear, and/or shame around food?
A: Our overall health rarely depends on the minutiae of food and nutrition, but rather, the big picture things that all play a significant role in our health and wellness. Again, intuitive eating does not mean ignoring health; rather, it’s recognizing that nutrition and health are NOT a one-size-fits-all approach.
Intuitive eating means positioning yourself as the best expert of your body to help guide your food choices. It’s learning to tune into your body’s innate wisdom of what feels best for you–not eating based on external rules. While there are obvious nutritional differences among food, eating intuitively means ditching the judgment and moralistic labels around food so that you can actually enjoy eating without feelings of guilt or shame.
It’s easy to feel paralyzed by the nutrition and health information that we’re all inundated with today, and labeling food (i.e.: healthy vs. unhealthy, good vs. bad, etc.), seems like a practical way to navigate and simplify food choices. Ultimately, food is not meant to be a moralistic choice–it’s about understanding what sustains you, what feels good in your body, what brings you satisfaction and joy?
When we approach food through this lens of honoring and respecting our bodies, we will be more likely to make healthful decisions that support our overall wellness. Demonizing food is a surefire way to create unnecessary guilt, stress, and anxiety around eating, which again, is more harmful for your overall health than the foods you’re eating. When you’re not at war with food and your body, you’re much more likely to be in a position of better health. This comes with food enjoyment and satisfaction.
Q: How do you suggest people handle cravings for less nutritious food, like sugar or fast food? Does intuitive eating suggest you should honor those cravings and eat whatever your body is telling you it wants, or is there another way?
A: Cravings can happen for multiple reasons and are often influenced by a variety of factors. Most commonly, I see people craving the very foods that they may not allow themselves to eat due to whatever food rules they may be following at the time. Often times, our brains will become preoccupied with a particular food, simply because it may be off-limits. As humans, we naturally want what we can’t have.
On the other hand, cravings can be related to not eating enough in general, not having enough variety, or sometimes, purely for an emotional reason. More important than the reason behind the craving is the way you approach it. When a craving for a particular food hits, try exploring those cravings from a place of curiosity rather than judgment or criticism.
One important principle of intuitive eating is to give yourself unconditional permission to eat. When a craving strikes, if you tell yourself that you can’t or shouldn’t have that certain food, this can trigger intense feelings of deprivation, which can then lead to uncontrollable cravings or even binging. Making peace with food means that you’re giving yourself permission to eat without stipulations or manipulation.
Another important principle of intuitive eating is respecting your fullness, and this can be an important one to keep in mind as you are eating foods that you’re craving. Intuitive eating means listening for your body’s signals that tell you that you are no longer hungry and being able to stop when you are comfortably full.
When eating, practice tuning into how your body is feeling in response to the food. Take a pause in the middle of a meal or halfway through your food to check-in with yourself. How is the food tasting? Are you still enjoying it? What is your current fullness level?
This approach can help you align with what your body is wanting/needing. Cravings can be a great opportunity to learn more about your body and to explore what foods help you feel satisfied and well.
Q: How do you suggest people with food sensitivities incorporate intuitive eating into their diets? For example, my husband feels sluggish and crampy when he eats too much gluten, but he’s not Celiac. So for him, is it intuitive to cut out gluten because it makes him feel bad? Or is even that level of restriction too much for intuitive eating?
A: This is a great question. Remember that intuitive eating doesn’t involve any rules, nor is it a pass or fail situation. It’s about learning how to become the best expert of your own body. I always encourage approaching eating experiences with nonjudgemental curiosity to help you get to know yourself better and to help you navigate future food experiences.
In the case of food sensitivities, the same principles of intuitive eating can be applied and used to help you understand what foods and/or quantities may feel best for your body. If you felt sluggish or tired after a particular meal, be curious as to why this may be rather than being quick to blame a particular food or food group. Do you observe recurring patterns after eating similar foods? Does it have more to do with the quantity of the food you are eating?
If you’re making the decision to cut out certain foods, always examine the intent behind your decision to understand if this aligns with promoting an overall healthier relationship with food. If it is necessary to cut out a certain type of food due to food sensitivities, I always encourage having suitable substitutes available so that you can safely enjoy foods you like and minimize any feelings of deprivation.
Q: If intuitive eating doesn’t rely on pre-set meal plans or food rules or “diets”, how can we ensure we’re eating healthfully and giving our body what it needs without falling back on rules, like “eat two servings of produce with every meal” or “avoid dairy as much as possible to reduce inflammation and keep hormones balanced” or “every meal should contain a balance of carbs, protein, fiber, and fat”?
A: I love this question because it speaks to the freedom from food rules that is found with intuitive eating. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to eat a “perfect” diet in order to be healthy.
Intuitive eating involves a gentle approach to nutrition, which means that you can make food choices that honor your health and that are enjoyable to you, while helping you feel well. It’s more about how and what you eat consistently over time that matters to your overall health.
Because intuitive eating focuses on the individual, there are a lot of nuances involved. Meaning, what might feel best in my body will look different for you and vice versa. Eating intuitively takes practice to understand how to listen to and trust your body’s needs and preferences. Every time you eat is an opportunity to get to know your body better.
For example, you might discover that you feel more satisfied at meals when you include a combination of protein and carbs, or adding in whole grains helps keep you regular, or that you enjoy or crave fresh produce at mealtimes. Using this information can help you build meals and snacks that work best for you.
Again, it’s not about rigidity; rather it’s gently tuning into your body’s signals and sensations without any judgment and approaching food choices through the lens of compassion and curiosity. Sometimes, certain circumstances can create a disconnect that may make it difficult to tune into your body, such as chronic dieting or eating disorders. In these cases, it may be helpful to work with a professional to guide you toward intuitive eating.
A: I think the main thing to remember in these situations is that health conditions are always influenced by a variety of factors. If any dietary changes are creating undue stress, this could actually make these conditions worse due to the negative implications of chronic stress in the body.
While some health conditions may call for healing therapies that involve extreme dietary modifications, taking a gentler approach with food, when possible, will typically be more effective. In any situation where food intake must be modified, I always recommend focusing on what can be substituted rather than eliminated. Food elimination can absolutely become a trigger for a chaotic and complicated relationship with food and body, which will ultimately create more harm than good.
If at any point, the way you are eating is creating stress, anxiety, or taking up way too much of your precious mental space, this may be a good indicator that you need more support. Stressing over your diet or your food choices will not help you better manage whatever health condition you may be facing.
Photo Credit: Heidi Geldhauser
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