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October 30, 2011

Myths and Facts of Intuitive Eating

Filed under: Food — Twistie @ 8:30 am

Intuitive eating is a concept that scares a lot of people. It makes many of them angry because of that fear. It seems like a runaway horse that’s going to trample the world. But when you get right down to it, it’s not such a scary thing. It’s just paying attention to your body and honoring it.

No, not everybody has to follow intuitive eating. That’s up to you as an individual. Still, before rejecting the idea out of hand, wouldn’t you like to know what it really is and isn’t? Here are some common myths about the concept and the truth behind the panic.

Myth 1: Intuitive eating is just sitting around stuffing Twinkies in your gobhole all day long. If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard this one… well, all of my credit cards would be paid off, that’s for sure! Say the words ‘intuitive eating’ and someone will immediately accuse you of wanting them to sit around on their backsides eating the world.

The Truth: intuitive eating is about listening to your body for cues of hunger and satiety. You do your best to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. Anyone who does this successfully isn’t going to eat all day and all night, because pretty much no body actually wants that much food. Intuitive eating is all about checking in with your body to figure out how much it really wants, and of what. My other guess is that Twinkies will not be the sole thing your body actually wants. That’s kind of a rare thing in the longrun.

Myth 2: You can’t do intuitive eating on a budget, because if your body wants surf and turf, you can’t afford it. This falls into the trap of thinking that every impulse has to be followed precisely and immediately. I would love to be able to afford to go out and get expensive foods every time the impulse comes to me, but the reality is that I couldn’t possibly afford it. And yet, I still practice intuitive eating on a sometimes painfully small budget.

The Truth: When your body is asking for lobster, it’s time to ask what there is in lobster that it wants, and then do your best to provide it. We all get cravings for very specific things that we may not be able to get right then. This might be due to budget restraints, access, or any number of causes. But when you start dreaming wildly of any particular meat, chances are your body is asking for protein. If you’re craving red meat, it might want iron, which your brain knows is present in red meats. Depending on which you think is more likely, you can reach for some peanut butter or some leafy greens, or leftover fried chicken… whatever you have available that will fulfill that need.

Myth 3: If I try intuitive eating, I’ll gain a bazillion pounds and get diabetes. A of of people are sure their bodies are the enemy and that only careful restriction keeps them from being one of those legendary people who become so large they are bedridden by it. Also, they are sure that every person over a particular body weight has diabetes, but thin people don’t get it… or at least aren’t to blame when they do, like fat people.

The Truth: If you try intuitive eating, you may, indeed gain weight… or you may lose it, or you may see no significant change in your body size. Also? Only a minority of fat people ever develop diabetes. Roughly three-quarters of us never do.

Weight is actually the second most heritable trait of the human body. The only one that is more directly traceable to your genetic history is height. If most of the people in your family tree are thin, chances are you will be, too. If most of them are fat, chances are that’s what your body will be like. If you’ve got a wide mix, well, anything might go.  We all talk about how we got our shoulders, our eyes, our noses, and our predilection for mystery novels from one relative or another. Well guess what: you got your waistline from them, too. And while it’s definitely possible to both lose and gain a certain amount of weight, the vast majority of people can only manage it within a pretty narrow margin, and then only over the short term. Over ninety percent of those who lose a significant amount of weight gain it all back within five years… along with some extra. By contrast, people who practice intuitive eating tend to maintain a fairly stable weight over the longterm. What that weight will be… well, that’s between you and your genes.

Myth 4: Intuitive eating doesn’t work. I know because I tried it once and I couldn’t stop eating chocolate.

The Truth: Intuitive eating isn’t like a light switch. It’s a process. That means that it takes time to get the hang of it, and the longer you’ve been out of tune with your body, the longer it will take to relearn how to listen. You may find that you do binge on chocolate or pasta or whatever you’ve been restricting in your diet… for a while. That’s the key. For a while. Eventually your body will figure out that it can have that food when it really wants to and will stop clamoring so hard for it. The thing is, it’s going to take time for it to figure out you’ll give it what it really wants. How long will it take? I can’t tell you that. But the day will come when you actually turn down your dietary Achilles’ heel because you don’t want it right then. It will happen, because your body will trust that it can get that treat when it really wants to.

Myth 5: I can’t practice intuitive eating because I have allergies/diabetes/gluten sensitivity.

The Truth: Any of these conditions does make practicing intuitive eating a little trickier, but not impossible. One of the things that makes non-fatal allergies and diabetes so frustrating to many people who have them is the dietary restrictions. But if you allow your body to take the lead in telling you what and when to eat, you’ll be able to gauge when it’s worth it to you to follow a craving for something you know isn’t very good for you, and when it isn’t. Mr. Twistie, as I have mentioned here before, has diabetes. He knows that cake isn’t good for him. But when we were both trying desperately to keep any sort of sugar away from him, cake was a terrible temptation, even though he hadn’t much cared for it before his diagnosis. Now that I’ve stopped being the Food Police, he knows he can make his own decision, and usually passes on the cake. Once in a blue moon he decides it’s worth a little less leeway with his food for the next day or two and has a small slice.

Obviously, if eating peanuts or shellfish will land you in the hospital and quite possibly kill you, you should avoid them. But if you get a sudden craving for something that won’t kill you, you can just take a moment and decide whether it’s worth it to you right then.

Myth 6: You just want me to be disgustingly fat!

The Truth: Seriously? I don’t give a rodent’s posterior what you weigh. Again, you may gain weight through intuitive eating, you may lose weight, or you may stay pretty much the same size. I don’t know which, and frankly I don’t care. I’m not concerned with the measure of your waistline or the size tag in your clothes. All I’m interested in is letting people know it’s okay to opt out of the diet industry and love their bodies unconditionally.

Whether or not you choose to try out intuitive eating is entirely up to you. What modifications you find work for you are between you and your body. I’m just pointing out that in this model, your body is your friend instead of your enemy.

You’ve got one life. You’ve got one body. Why spend one fighting the other?


  1. Wonderful post! I think the myths come largely from the misconception that intuitive eating = lazyiness
    Like everything else it takes a lot of work, energy and aksing yourself a lot of difficult questions, you never want to ask yourself.

    Comment by coffeeaddict — October 30, 2011 @ 9:00 am

  2. Without realizing it, I started doing intuitive eating years ago when I quit my career as a competitive figure skater. Yes, initially, I gained about 10 lbs, but quickly went back down when I realized I didn’t have to EAT ALL THE THINGS. And I’ve been a lot happier since. For me, I was coming from a place of seriously disordered eating, so any kind of restricted diet still gives me major anxiety. So intuitive eating was just the thing.

    Comment by SarahDances — October 30, 2011 @ 1:07 pm

  3. I think I’ve been eating mostly intuitively for years. The only snag I had was a medication that “turned off” my fullnes meter. I ate twice as much every day because I never felt full, and I gained 20 pounds in 2 months (on a 5’3″ frame, that makes a difference.) We quit the medication, and it’s taken a year to lose 15 of those pounds without adhering to a special diet, but I never felt hungry.

    I guess my only nod to dieting is that I don’t buy sugary, deep-fried, or frozen treats at the grocery store. I don’t crave them except on rare occasions or when they’re staring me in the face. If the craving is severe, I can go out for KFC or the ice cream shop. It costs more, and it’s less convenient, so it’s a good motivation to stay home and have corn chips or crackers instead.

    Thanks for dispelling so many myths and introducing me to a name for my style of eating!

    Comment by Devon — October 30, 2011 @ 5:23 pm

  4. The very month that I started eating intuitively, I *stopped* gaining weight. I’d been putting on about a pound a month for years, no matter what I did in the way of eating or exercise. I could drop a few pounds but they’d come right back. I started eating what I wanted, when I wanted, no guilt, no recrimination, and only until I was full, and haven’t gained a pound since. Your mileage may vary, of course, but it totally worked for me to get food-related stress out of my daily life. I did have to spend about six months looking thoughtfully at plates of food, trying to figure out if I was full or not. I literally had to *learn* to listen to my body. I was forty years old, and this basic piece of self-knowledge had eluded me because I was so stressed out and disordered about food and dieting. And, really, I cannot remember the last time I had a Twinkie.

    Comment by Jezebella — October 31, 2011 @ 12:49 am

  5. My biggest breakthrough came when reading Linda Bacon’s book, Health at Every Size. She said that many people with a lifetime of food restriction don’t even know what hunger feels like until they are BEYOND mere hunger and all the way to completely ravenous. When she pointed out that sometimes we smell the fries when we drive by the burger joint and sometimes we don’t, even though they’re frying french fries all day long, and that the very fact that my body is forcing me to notice this “background” smell, is a signal that my body wants some food very soon.

    I started taking a container of roasted nuts with me to work, so that even when the day is hectic and there’s no time for a meal break, I can still listen to and respect and CARE FOR my body’s needs. What a comfort that is!

    Comment by ZaftigWendy — October 31, 2011 @ 3:15 am

  6. @Jezebella,

    I used to crave Twinkies (and Hohos and li’l Debbies) until a few months after starting intuitive eating. That’s when I discovered that they actually taste kind of NASTY! I don’t want any at ALL!

    Comment by ZaftigWendy — October 31, 2011 @ 3:17 am

  7. Apparently I’ve been practicing intuitive eating my entire adult life. I’ve always eaten what I want, when I want it, whether that means eating one meal a day or three, eating a bowl of Cream of Wheat for dinner every night, eating salad every meal for weeks at a time or pizza every meal for weeks at a time, or whatever. Whatever I’m craving is what I eat. If I’m not hungry, I don’t eat, and if I am hungry, I stop eating when I’m full. I was forced to eat things I didn’t like when I was a child, so as soon as I was old enough to decide what and when to eat, I did. And, as far as the myths go, I’ve always been thin.

    Comment by Cat — October 31, 2011 @ 1:18 pm

  8. One of the things a therapist once told me is that you have to learn to separate what your tongue wants from what your body wants. Your tongue might want cookies, but if you listen to your body you may find it wants something hot, crunchy and salty. So find that.

    Also, you may find that when you start eating intuitively, you might want cake for every meal for awhile, esp. if you’ve denied yourself cake in the past. But when you eat it constantly, your body will get tired of it and ask for something else. I have seen this happen in my life. I go through periods where I’m busy and eat a lot of fast food and not-so-healthy choices. And believe me, I love my french fries. But when I get a chance to stop and listen to my body during this time, it usually says, “How about a vegetable that isn’t deep fried?”

    It’s a scary concept for a lot of us because we’re socialized to avoid “bad” foods and then we often have cravings for them which make us think we can’t ever stop eating them. If we listen to our bodies, tho, we’ll find that our bodies really want good food to use as fuel.

    Comment by Orora — November 2, 2011 @ 2:37 pm

  9. I have a lot of trouble practicing this, but I’m not giving up. A few days ago someone told me I seem very comfortable in my skin – the first time I’ve ever heard that in my life. It might not be true all the time, but it’s more true than it used to be. My body is my body, and while I’d sometimes like to be a little more mindful of what I put into it, it’s been enriching to accept it the way it is and focus on developing my brain instead.

    Comment by Amy — November 3, 2011 @ 12:47 am

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