Intuitive Eating and “Healthy” Eating: Friends or Enemies?

True confession:  When I first started out as an intuitive eating coach, I believed that I could help clients balance “healthy” eating with intuitive eating.  As it turns out, I was totally wrong, but not because it can’t be done!

I’ll explain.  But first, some background:

I’ve always been a little food obsessed.  I come from a food-centric family (but not by any means a foodie family).  I’m also a recovering perfectionist.  So it’s not surprising that I once went through a phase of being obsessed with having the perfect diet.

At the height of my obsession, my food requirements included the following:

The correct balance of protein, fat, carbohydrates, and fiber.  The right types of protein, fats, carbs, and fiber.  No hormones, antibiotics, or pesticides.  No wheat, soy, corn, conventional dairy.  No artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, or anything MSG-like.  No refined carbs or HFCS.  Probiotics, prebiotics, fermented foods (but not too much!).  You know, the basics. 😛

But even after passing that checklist, every food was subject to endless scrutiny and suspicion.  Were the organic pesticides on my kale just as bad as the conventional pesticides?  Was I eating too many unsprouted nuts?  How bad was it to eat “natural” pork instead of pastured?  And should I really substitute coconut milk for dairy when it contains all those gums and stabilizers?!

My obsession took over my life.  Every meal and every snack had to be planned ahead.  Nothing could be spontaneous.  And if you’re here, you won’t be surprised to know that I wasn’t just obsessing about all the “healthy” foods I would be eating.  Compulsive desires for jalapeno potato chips and chocolate chip cookies were competing for my attention.

Anyone who has turned to intuitive eating has experienced the insanity of trying to force yourself to eat certain foods and reject others.  The belief that we can maintain this control endlessly is the founding myth behind diets.  I love/hate to hear people say that they were once successful at controlling their diet.  Reality check: If it isn’t working now, it never worked at all.

It’s not just weight loss diets that don’t work.  Diets of all types don’t work.  Period.

Being no stranger to extreme lifestyle changes, I could have called it all off and gone back to my childhood diet of colored sugar water, aerosol “cheese,” and all things salty, oily, and crunchy.  Unfortunately, though, I had started improving my diet in the name of health, and I was pretty sure that my dietary changes were a major factor in my improved health.

So I had to figure out what to do, and when I discovered intuitive eating, it seemed like the obvious answer.

If you’ve been hanging around intuitive eating circles for awhile, you’ve probably heard someone claim that when you listen to your intuition, you will find that your body actually wants you to eat healthy foods.  I have such a hard time with this statement.  I believe it is both true and harmful.

Truth: If you are able to connect with and trust your intuition, it will lead you to choose primarily health* promoting foods.

Harm: If you believe that some foods are healthy while others are not, and it is your obligation to choose mostly healthy foods, you will find it near impossible to access your intuition and trust your body.

Yes.  So this is where a lot of us get stuck.

My reasoning was this: If eating “healthy” foods made me feel better, and I wanted to be “healthy,” then I should avoid “unhealthy” foods as much as possible.  On the surface, that seems to totally make sense.

I got my first clue that there was a problem with my reasoning when I did that whole paleo thing.  The dietary requirements that were supposed to be ideal for everyone were not working out for me, at all.  I expected to feel healthier than ever, but instead I felt worse!  I’m glad that experience was so intense, because otherwise I would have been able to fool myself into thinking that it was working or that maybe I just needed to try harder.

After that experience I was forced to really start thinking about what foods and ways of eating were healthy for me.  Still, I battled.  If I let myself have cookies, it would only be the right kind of cookies, and I had loaded expectations.  I wanted to be able to say that I was “good” at intuitive eating because I only wanted one or two cookies.

I am so sorry to tell you that intuitive eating is ripe with these sorts of opportunities for self-sabotage.  But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.  It just means that it is challenging to get in the correct mindset.  It’s really hard to trust your body.  It’s really hard to believe that you won’t hurt yourself if you let go of trying to control your eating.  It’s really, really hard.

So naturally, we want to do it halfway.  We want to dip our toes in.  And that’s ok to start.  But if you find yourself sick of waiting on the sidelines, getting sunburnt, and thinking about getting out of the pool and moving back into the shade…then it’s time to make a choice. If you want to be an intuitive eater, you need to fully commit to diving in and getting wet from head to toe.

You will have to eat too many cookies to know what too many cookies feels like for you. And you will have to stay in a curious and non-judgmental mindset to truly learn from the experience.

You will have to relearn your body’s signals.  It will take time and patience.  In the beginning you will feel like someone learning a new language, and you will misspeak. You’ll have to find peace with this in order to keep learning.

And when it comes to “healthy” eating, you probably have a whole bunch of ideas about what’s good for you and what’s not.  Some of them are true, some of them aren’t, and most of them are conditional.

I wish I could offer you a magical eraser that would quickly clear out all of these ideas so you could more easily focus on listening to your body, but the reality is that it will take time and effort for you to let go of all these ideas.  For now, think of them as testable theories.

This is why the work I do with my clients is centered on increasing self-awareness.  It is easy to get confused about what foods and ways of eating make you feel good in your body when you are confusing your beliefs with what is actually happening inside your body and mind.

When you begin eating intuitively, it might seem like there is a major conflict between what you want to eat and what makes you feel good, but as you become more self-aware you’ll realize how every desire is an attempt to meet a need.  Once you know what those needs are and how best to meet them, there won’t be a conflict.

So can you balance “healthy” eating with intuitive eating?  I say no.  As long as you are listening to ideas about what is healthy instead of the felt experience of your body and intuition, you are not eating intuitively. If you are worried about what will happen if you completely let go of “healthy” eating, get qualified support before beginning.

*Health is a loaded word.  It is personal, and multidimensional.  It exists on multiple continuums, such as physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social.  Some factors are out of our control.  No one should be obligated to pursue health or conform to someone else’s ideas about what is healthy for them.


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