Intuitive eating sounds so…well…intuitive…and natural. But for people who have been non-intuitively eating (dieters, mindless eaters, compulsive eaters, disordered eaters, people with eating disorders, etc.), intuitive eating is hard. Like really, really hard. While it may appear simple at face value, it's actually rather complicated. Here are a handful of the pitfalls I often see people running into:
- Interpreting intuitive eating as "Eating whatever and whenever I want." It becomes a free-for-all with food. This misses the part about eating what you want when you are hungry. Eating when you are hungry requires you to know what hunger feels like, and to distinguish physical from emotional hunger. You can now see what I meant earlier when I said it's complicated.
- Turning it into The Intuitive Eating Diet. Time and time again I hear people lamenting about how frustrated they are about not "seeing progress" with intuitive eating. They clearly fantasized that this would finally be the diet that "worked" (i.e. produced lasting weight loss). On the Intuitive Eating Diet, eating is only allowed if you are truly, legitimately hungry. And shame on you if you eat if you weren't hungry, or if you get overly full – you broke the diet rules. True intuitive eating is much more flexible than this and doesn't leave you feeling guilty.
- Ongoing body image hangups. These will get you every time. As long as you are convinced that there is something wrong with the size or shape of your body that can and should be fixed, you will be vulnerable to emotional eating. The more you hate your body, the more you distrust its hunger signals. This almost always has the opposite-of-desired effect; instead of eating less, you end up eating more.
- Deprivation – both physical and emotional. Physically depriving yourself of food means not letting yourself ingest the food you are hungry for. This is a form of restriction that leaves you feeling deprived and infinitely more likely to overeat the next time you do eat that food. If I never let myself have Cheetos, the day I finally give in I'm probably going nuts with them and overeating. Emotional deprivation is what happens when you allow yourself to eat the foods you truly want but still feel guilty about doing so. You are still labeling the food as "bad" or "unhealthy" and fearing that it is going to make you fat. As a result, your brain knows there's still a good chance that you aren't going to let yourself have that food the next time you want it, so it tells you to eat more now.
If you are working towards reclaiming intuitive eating and are struggling with these pitfalls, don't beat yourself up. It's tough. We've been essentially brainwashed our whole lives when it comes to food and body image. It's hard to sift through all of those old stories and create new ones. Consider your increased awareness of the pitfalls a blessing that allows you to keep moving forward.