Can Intuitive Eating Ever "Go Wrong"?

When intuitive eating was first introduced to the scene back in the 90s by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch (with their appropriately titled watershed piece, Intuitive Eating), it was met with some immediate backlash.  Intuitive eating? You mean just eating whatever you want without any self-restraint or moderation? Blasphemy!

And, despite an increased scientific awareness in the past few decades as to the relative futility of dieting and the importance of practices like mindfulness and self-care, these sentiments are undying.  If anything, they’ve only gotten stronger.

READ: 51 Healthy Habits to Start Building Today

Photo credit: Flickr user Ashley Rose

Photo credit: Flickr user Ashley Rose

As such, this article hopes to address the #1 question I’m asked, whether it be by first-time clients or family/friends.  Can intuitive eating ever “go wrong”? In other words, okay Ari, I’ll grant you that diet stress is a big problem and it’s important not to demonize foods and effectively place them on a pedestal.  But surely, there are people out there who, if given the A-OK to eat whatever they want whenever they want in whatever quantities they want, they’ll load up on a daily breakfast of 10 donuts and never eat another vegetable in their life.  

Can intuitive eating actually be the Holy Grail I so often make it out to be? Let’s dive into this.

What is intuitive eating?

As usual, it’s important to first clear up an operational definition we might otherwise get hung up on.  Intuitive eating, on its head, means eating without any food rules. It literally means you can eat whatever you want, whenever you want it, in whatever quantities you deem desirable.  If you’re new to the concept, that might sound too good to be true. But I’d direct you towards the most missed, yet important, keyword in that definition: can.

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That is to say, intuitive eating is less about what you eat and more about the simple fact that you are given full autonomy in your eating decisions.  This is so crucial to understand, since something as biologically deep-seated as the drive to seek out food cannot afford to become adulterated by insane, arbitrary food rules and judgments.  Doing so removes the power from you and places it into the hands of some diet guru or diet plan.

And so, when you’re “doing good” on some diet for a while, but then come across the box of assorted donuts in the office break room, the part of you that goes, “Oo la la, don’t mind if I do” in that oddly inappropriate Pepé Le Pew voice is not actually the innocent voice it’s chocked up to be in diet culture.  In reality, this voice is indicative of a dysfunctional parent-child relationship you have within yourself.

READ: The #1 Reason You’re Stuck in the Binge Cycle

It’s as if you are simultaneously playing the wrist-slapping, helicopter parent and the rebellious, disobedient child.  On one hand, you desperately want to “do good” and eat according to the diet plan you’re adhering to. But on the other hand, you’ve got these biological cues (both hormonal and neural) screaming at you to just eat some damn food.  

This disturbed and desynchronized internal relationship leads to worse food choices than you might otherwise make (not “worse” in the good vs. bad food dichotomy sense, but “worse” in terms of mental health and your long-term relationship with food).  

An Example

The perfect example of this (which I’ve illustrated here as well) is the dieter who yearns for a chocolate muffin.  The average dieter, in such a situation, might first go to some frozen fruits or nuts to try to satiate this desire.  But, as fruits and/or nuts don’t hold a candle to a good chocolate muffin, and the stomach continues to scream for what it initially asked for, this dieter then resorts to some pieces of dark chocolate.  

But, as this is still not what the dieter was originally seeking out, he or she then pulls a couple chocolate zucchini muffins out of the freezer and heats them up.  But, of course, these don’t quite do the trick (as anyone who has dieted for long periods knows all too well), and so the inevitable end result is a real chocolate muffin.  And by the time this happens, and the flavor and palate originally sought out are finally there, the entire chocolate muffin is almost bound to be eaten.

READ: 8 Tips to Stop Binge Eating

Now, let’s look at what an intuitive eater does in this exact same scenario.  This individual, who is also craving a chocolate muffin, skips the fruits, nuts, dark chocolate, and imitation muffins, and goes right to the real thing.  Having his or her actual food desire quenched so soon in relation to the cue to seek it out leads to a more appropriate consumption of the food.  In most cases, this might mean half the muffin is eaten. The irony is that in this latter scenario, where we would otherwise expect an intuitive eater to “pig out” and eat everything in sight, the eating behaviors are much more normal and in line with the biological cues elicited beforehand.

How an  intuitive eater  responds to a craving for a chocolate muffin, versus the standard  dieter . This is not to insult or even poke fun at those on diets, but to point out what happens when we try to “damage control” cravings and demonize certain foods. We, ironically, end up craving those foods more and often mass-consuming them once we give in to the urge.

How an intuitive eater responds to a craving for a chocolate muffin, versus the standard dieter. This is not to insult or even poke fun at those on diets, but to point out what happens when we try to “damage control” cravings and demonize certain foods. We, ironically, end up craving those foods more and often mass-consuming them once we give in to the urge.

This goes to show the power of intuitive eating.  It does not purport to “help you lose weight” or “teach you to eat properly,” but instead it allows you to realign with your body’s natural hunger and satiety signals, so that such instances of normal eating can become commonplace.  Already we’re seeing that intuitive eating is not quite the big, bad monster we’d made it out to be.

READ: Are There Any Foods You SHOULDN’T Eat?

But wait…

What about those with problem eating behaviors? What about anyone who feels like their diet is “out of control”? How can telling such a person to “eat whatever you want” be at all helpful?

This is where I like to inject my strong assertion that most people don’t eat intuitively.  Most people eat based off a false type of intuition that is not grounded in an intimate connection with their hunger cues or self-care.  Rather, most of us mindlessly sway from one sensation to the next, without much conscious awareness of the underlying factors at play.

Photo credit: Flickr user Victoria Shephard

Photo credit: Flickr user Victoria Shephard

This is why, for the clients I meet with, we almost always start with the “hows” of eating before we ever get to the “whats.”  In other words, we spend the majority of our time working on tracking hunger and satiety, slowly eating, stopping at 80% fullness, meal-pausing, food and feelings journaling, general mindfulness practice, exposures, etc.  It’s because most of us could afford to spend way more time on how we interact with our food than which foods we’re actually eating.

So, for the individual who feels he or she cannot keep their eating “under control,” the real issue is not one of external control lacking but rather internal awareness lacking.  Much like dealing with a disorder like depression or OCD, the answer is not to accumulate more ostensibly happiness-inducing material goods or to just wash your hands more frequently.  The answer is in fact rarely the thing that your symptoms are calling out for, and in the case of “out-of-control eating,” that thing is usually just another diet.  The answer, however, is almost always becoming more in touch with what your body is yearning for, and then coming to a place of body peace and Food Freedom.

So, can it ever “go wrong”?

Intuitive eating can “go wrong” in much the same way that being a good person can “go wrong.”  In other words, even when it seems like it’s making things worse, it’s rarely the intuitive eating itself that’s doing that.  It’s usually a false sort of intuitive eating that contains secret underlying weight loss goals or a sort of intuitive eating that subtly reinforces food rules (for example, I’ve had clients use intuitive eating as an excuse to restrict certain foods that actually just ended up being fear foods).  But true intuitive eating cannot go wrong in and of itself.  

Want to see what intuitive eating looks like in practice?

Check out my video in which I show you what foods I eat as an intuitive eater, to give you an idea of the concept in practice!

Want a step-by-step, day-by-day guide to ending your disordered eating in 100 days?

To learn more about my book 100 Days of Food Freedom: A Day-by-Day Journey to Self-Discovery, Freedom from Dieting, and Recovery from Your Eating Disorder, click here!