The Other Side of Intuitive Eating

One of the most common questions people ask me about intuitive eating is this:

“What about the people who shouldn’t eat another brownie?”

Most of my posts are geared towards women who struggle to give themselves permission to enjoy their favorite foods (i.e. brownies). When they do eat brownies, they feel guilty because they weren’t able to obey their self-imposed food rules about brownies and consequently feel crummy about themselves for the rest of the day. Or, they binge eat brownies (they’ve already blown it, right?) and then really feel crummy about themselves.

The problem in these types of situations is pretty clear: food rules lead to guilt, which leads to shame and binge eating. To get rid of the binge eating and shame, we therefore need to eliminate the food rules.

Eating one brownie is always better than binge eating the whole pan.

Ultimately, the root of most food struggles isn’t the food itself, but rather the disconnect between the person’s body and their brain. Their stomach is sending them hunger and satiety signals all day, but their brain has tuned them out. Instead of eating according to internal cues like hunger and fullness, dieters eat according to external rules, or, when they break the rules, eat with complete abandon (binge).

The question described above comes to mind when considering individuals who don’t have food rules but still overeat. These folks, arguably, would not benefit from eating more.

The type of eaters who would benefit from eating a brownie are those whose avoidance of brownies leads them to overeat. Their problem is the result of being out of tune with their body’s signals for hunger or other cravings, which leads them to become out of control. Eaters who struggle with chronic overeating are ultimately struggling with the same issue but it manifests differently: they are out of tune with the signals from their body that are telling them they are full.

However, for most people in this situation, it’s not a matter of overtly ignoring body signals. They, like the under-eaters, are simply not in the practice of listening to what their bodies are telling them. Both over-eaters and under-eaters are often distracted when eating (multitasking) or are used to following external parameters in determining what, when, or how much to eat:

  • “All of this is on my plate, so I will eat until it’s finished.”
  • “Throwing away the rest of my portion is throwing away money.”
  • “I earned this indulgence because I did ________________.”
  • “I’m already fat. Food gives me pleasure, so what difference does it make?”
  • “I’ll do better tomorrow, so I’ll use this last chance as a reason to finish this whole bag of chips.”

When folks ask me the question from the beginning of this post, I suspect that what they’re really asking is this:

“Intuitive eating makes sense for thin people. But fat people clearly need to be a little more controlled!”

And this is where all of the misconception comes from. Both individuals who overeat and individuals who under eat are suffering from the same problem: they aren’t listening to their body’s signals. Thin folks and thicker folks can both benefit from cultivating a stronger sense of attunement with their bodies. Intuitive eating isn’t a privilege reserved for the thin. In fact, it’s a calling for everybody.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about vegetables and the times when eating more vegetables is not healthy. The main idea is that for people who are eating enough vegetables but not enough of other types of foods, eating more vegetables is not a healthy choice. Likewise, for individuals who are already eating more brownies than is healthful, eating another brownie is not a healthy choice.

It all comes down to balance.

Many practitioners in the intuitive eating space feel that there’s no such thing as an objective sense of “balance.” They feel that every person should decide that for themselves.

The truth of the matter is I don’t completely agree with this, and I think that’s okay.

Frankly, I feel that science and history are pretty clear that certain patterns are health-promoting and others are not. My goal is to help others realize that health-promoting patterns are what their bodies are probably telling them — you and your body are on the same team.

There’s a healthy middle ground, and it’s where I’m striving to stay both personally and professionally.

The floor is yours: what do you think about intuitive eating?