Intuitive Eating

Boundaries with food vs intuitive eating: What’s the balance?

March 3, 2016

Self-Paced Course: Non-Diet Academy


You'll also love

learn more

A Certified Eating Disorders Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) with a master's degree in dietetics & nutrition. My passion is helping you find peace with food - and within yourself.

Meet Katy

If I told you to go forth and eat whatever you want, whenever you want, and how much you want, how would you feel?  Common responses include:

  • Terrified
  • Out of control
  • I'd start eating and never stop
  • Crazy with food
  • I would gain weight and get fat

It is sad how many people fear that their body "wants" to eat so much food that they would be stuffed, fat and miserable.  And this is what people often hear when I suggest intuitive eating – it gets translated into meaning a limitless free-for-all with food.  

Thus they assume that their body cannot be trusted and control of food must be maintained.  The problem is that rigidly controlling your eating rarely works.  In fact, it is a predictor of losing control with food and overeating.  This is the reason >95% of that diets fail.  

So is it possible to eat intuitively and have boundaries with food?  Yes, absolutely.  In fact, boundaries are part of intuitive eating. 

Intuitive eating means listening to your body's cues for hunger and fullness which are built-in boundaries that we were born with.  Hunger tells you when your body is running out of fuel and needs more (a boundary that protects against hypoglycemia, starvation and death).  Fullness tells you when you've had enough (a boundary against overeating).  

Diets impose boundaries that are unflinchingly rigid and completely unrealistic.  For a person who has dieted, any attempt at setting gentle boundaries with food can feel like a diet and send the mind into deprivation mode.  In a state of deprivation we are much more likely to overeat.  So it can be challenging when re-learning intuitive eating (re-learning because you were born an intuitive eater) to honor these gentle boundaries without slipping back into diet mentality.  This is especially true for anyone who has dietary restrictions related to their health (diabetes, hypertension, etc.).  

"Boundaries" seems like a dirty word to a lot of people.  However, boundaries are essential in every part of life.  You have to have a boundary around how much you sleep so you are awake to go to work or school.  You have to have a boundary around work or school so you have time to relax and play.  Boundaries give our life a sense of balance and security.  Children who don't have boundaries don't feel safe.  Boundaries are a form of self care and an act of kindness not only toward yourself but others.  When we don't have boundaries we often feel resentful.  

According to Dr. Henry Cloud, "Many people focus so much on being loving and unselfish that they forget their own limits and limitations. That’s why the ability to set clear boundaries is essential to a healthy, balanced lifestyle. A boundary is a personal property line that marks those things for which we are responsible. Boundaries define who we are and who we are not."

Intuitive eating means listening to your body and having boundaries with food.  These are not mutually exclusive things.  The boundaries may come from hunger/fullness cues, health conditions, circumstances, time, food availability, and many other factors that influence eating.  You get to choose what and how much you put in your body.  It will be the most effortless and enjoyable when you are attuned to your body's needs and desires.  

Leave a Reply

  1. Jill rosbrugh says:

    Katey, this is so well said. We have all been surrounded by diet terms so much of our lives, but I have experienced the difference in using these intuitive eating terms and work at making it a habit to use these terms with myself and my family (kids). I would love to read something from you on ways to help teach our kids intuitive eating. I work to avoid using the terms good/bad, healthy/unhealthy, etc., but it is everywhere. I have options of a variety of foods available but still I feel that it is a challenge. For example, an afternoon snack may be a peanut butter and honey sandwich. But 10 minutes later he is still hungry (legitimately), maybe he wants a handful of goldfish crackers–fine, but then when he asks a little later for another thing of crackers I will direct him to a fruit or a yogurt. My boys know this is usually the drill. The pantry is full of snacks that are great for any time of day and I specifically do not put labels and rules about which foods they can eat after school (the exception is that candy and dessert food are limited–because elementary kids would almost always pick that first), but I try to direct them to eat variety, especially the hungrier they seem. Curious about ways that a parent can phrase these conversations with an age group that is still very concrete in their thinking.