Can you be a vegetarian and eat intuitively at the same time? I keep seeing this discussion come up online. Typically, there are two sides to the argument: One side says that eating a vegetarian diet is a moral choice, and not the kind of diet that would interfere with eating intuitively. The other side says that a diet is a diet is a diet and if you’re restricting in any way, you’re not eating intuitively. I see some truth in both sides.
Here’s the thing:
- When you have a deep level of self-awareness, you can tell if you’re getting the nutrition you need.
- To develop self-awareness, you have to let go of your beliefs about how certain foods (or meals or ways of eating) “should” make you feel.
So naturally, following a vegetarian diet can complicate the process of learning how to eat intuitively, but in my experience it’s not a deal breaker as long as you are open to receiving feedback from your body that may not match up with your beliefs.
Vegetarian or not, inflexible beliefs about nutrition are dangerous and harmful. For every “truth” in nutrition, you can find a counter argument. If you’re anything like me, you may find the uncertainty of this to be worrisome, but this is where the development self-trust comes in.
If you’re attempting to intersect intuitive eating with a way of eating that does not allow for all foods, here are some questions I’d recommend asking yourself:
- What foods do I see as ok to eat, and why?
- What foods do I feel I should avoid, and why?
- Do I feel deprived of anything?
- Does having rules around food make me feel more or less secure?
- What would happen if I didn’t have any rules about what to eat?
Repeatedly asking yourself these questions with curiosity and open heartedness will give you useful information. If not having guidelines scares you, that’s a clear indication that you’re clinging to a false sense of security.
Still, even when you are willing, it’s not like you can just flip a switch and turn on deep awareness of what works for your body (or mind, or heart). It’s a learning process.
Part of intuitive eating is discovering the source of your cravings and aversions to certain foods, which can have one or more component:
- Emotional associations (“My mom fed me this food when I was sad”)
- Physical reactions (“My mouth feels phlegmy after I eat this food”)
- Taste (“I’m sensitive to the bitterness of this food”)
- Judgement (“I think it is healthy for me to eat this food”)
It gets complicated– sometimes we mistake source one another, or don’t recognize a blend of sources. For example, after a decade of being a vegetarian, I was certain that I didn’t like eating eggs, chicken, or shrimp. I had plenty of reasons (gross, smells bad, unethical, etc. etc.) and I could easily confirm my reasons by pulling up research online, smelling chicken soup at a buffet, or trying a bite of scrambled eggs. I had no motivation to challenge or investigate my aversions, and so I didn’t, until my nutrition courses led me to rethink things.
Through experimenting and exploring with an open mind I’ve found that I do like chicken and eggs when they are prepared in certain ways, and it is the texture (not the flavor) of shrimp that I can’t stand. I could find you an article about why pastured eggs are ethically sound, or why eating shrimp is bad for health and human rights, but that really has nothing to do with the truth of my intuition or direct experience with these foods.
This is not to say that if you actually love the taste of meat, but have decided that eating it would feel unethical, that you should eat it anyway. In fact, the way you feel about the food you are eating affects the way your body reacts to it and digests it. If you feel guilty, you won’t feel truly satisfied, and satisfaction is the goal in intuitive eating.
What am I saying is that it is important to keep an open mind and continually explore the questions above. Be open to new information from both outside and inside your body. Follow your heart, but make room for self-compassion, self-awareness, and non-judgmental kindness. Whatever arises is part of your intuitive eating practice.
TL;DR: Be open to what your body has to say to you.