intuitive eating in eating disorder recovery: how to do it healthfully

Once I learned about the concept of intuitive eating, especially in the thick of disordered eating, I was simply appalled. I was in pure disbelief that there are people who are so in-tuned with themselves, they don’t overthink the food they eat. To me, that sounded like a fantasy world where we all frolic through fields of wildflowers and chase rainbows.


Admittedly, intuitive eating is recent phenomenon that, on the surface, looks like a passing trend. But I could also say that about the rise of veganism, as many people see it, but I would beg to differ.

The problem with wanting to pursue a completely intuitive lifestyle is for those in eating disorder recovery. This is what we’ll be focusing on today, as well as what intuitive eating looks like and how anyone can incorporate its mentality, regardless of their mental health.

So what is intuitive eating?

In a world obsessed with new diets popping up every day, intuitive eating could almost be described as an “anti-diet.” Essentially, those who follow the lifestyle listen to their natural hunger cues. They don’t count as calories or macro-nutrients. They don’t consider foods good or bad. They don’t stick to a strict time schedule of eating at the exact same time every day. They don’t obsess over the size of their plate or going in for seconds.

Maybe it’s just me, but living this lifestyle sounds like being some sort of zen master. The fact people can feel zero guilt for listening to their cravings and knowing when they’re hungry and satiated is mind-boggling to me. And yes, I do see that as blowing every other diet out of the water.

Although the terminology is recent, intuitive eating is really a basic concept. It’s not like other species are thinking about the amount they’re eating or what energy they’re burning. They innately know what they need to survive, and they don’t hold themselves back from that. Humans started out like that, too, contrary to the Paleo trends of “eating like a caveman.” Food is a source of energy and shouldn’t have a strict hold over your life.

Where some might have issues…

In an ideal world, we would all be intuitive eating. We’d naturally be at our optimal sizes and shapes, we’d accept each other and ourselves as is, and we’d just strive to be our healthiest selves. But that would be way too easy on us. We’re already so ingrained with counting and measuring; it’s not easy to let that go and just be.

Ask anybody, and you’re going to struggle to find someone who hasn’t at one point gone on a diet or struggled with a form of disordered eating. Especially if you’re in the thick of eating disorder recovery, don’t try to convince yourself that you can successfully eat intuitively. Trust me, I’ve tried. It didn’t work.

When we binge or restrict, we completely throw off our natural hunger cues. Even if you’re simply trying to follow some fad diet with a specific meal plan, we teach ourselves how to ignore the signals. We distract and discipline ourselves with controlling rules. Your mind and body become out of sync. Worst case scenario, you lose any sense of hunger or satiation all together as your body loses trust in your actions.

Again, trust me, I’ve been there. In the disordered mindset, you seek control, and yet that’s the complete opposite of reality. You think you’re invincible because you can go hours on end on limited subsistence. You can imagine your “goal body” within grasp, a size that is likely not realistic. And because you haven’t reached your point of “satisfaction,” you force yourself into unhealthy conditions. You punish yourself.

Disordered thoughts around food and body image can differ among those afflicted, but it’s a vicious cycle that even intuitive eating cannot fit well into. When I say I see intuitive eating as a monk-like practice, I mean that it indeed takes trust and patience because it’s very against the grain of modern diet culture. For so many, saying that food is truly just food, a part of being a living organism, it’s not easy to let that reality sink in. You must gauge your emotions and how your body feels before and after eating. You must avoid distractions to actually notice the signs of hunger or fullness. You actually slow down and become mindful of the activity that is eating and nourishing your body.

How to be more intuitive.

Obviously, the switch from conventional norms to intuitive eating isn’t an overnight change, and you cannot truly eat intuitively until you have some sense of normalcy if you come from a disordered background. A true balance achieved with intuitive eating looks like a natural, healthy relationship with food, where you don’t overeat or restrict. Your weight doesn’t yo-yo regularly. Your mind isn’t chained to the empirical data or potential effects of every bite you eat.

The process of eating disorder recovery isn’t linear. It’s not easy, regardless if you have “intuitive eating” in your mind or not. You’ll have times where you’re completely comfortable with yourself and your body, only to fall flat on your face again in doubt and anxiety. A single trigger could hijack the whole operation.

If you’re interested in pursuing a more intuitive relationship with food amidst the recovery process, take small steps toward the goal you envision for yourself in regards to eating. Based on what you value, how does that person treat food? Their body? The process of eating? Do they weigh themselves every morning? Do they only pick the lowest calorie options on the menu? Do they make excuses any time a social situation involves food?

Then make small decisions when these scenarios might arise, decisions that align with your true self. Give yourself grace when you still opt for the “disordered” choice, but celebrate every little victory of eating a full meal, eating with other people, not engaging in a disordered behavior, or whatever else you’re striving to be free of.

Admittedly, very few people are completely free from the disordered thoughts that cross their minds. You’ll likely always remember the number of calories and nutrients in certain foods, or instinctively know when you gain a pound, or have the urge to skip or purge a meal. However, intuitive eating in eating disorder recovery, especially at the later stages, goes back to that core relationship you have with yourself, not the food. You know what decision is best for you. Even when it’s hard to make, focus on what’s important to you, what’s positive and uplifting in that present moment.

You deserve kindness and love and health. 

I’m saying all of this out of admiration for those who successfully let themselves live and eat. Intuitive eating has definitely become an ultimate goal when it comes to my relationship with food. I’ve definitely made progress, but I accept that it may never be perfect. The principles of the lifestyle, however, are very encouraging for anybody struggling: food is nourishment, and constantly monitoring your intake is not sustainable in the long-term.

Final thoughts.

I wish dieting didn’t exist. I wish so many people didn’t look in the mirror with disgust at their bodies. I wish we didn’t lust after certain “goals” based on how others live. I wish we didn’t stick on a label on every single food and attach “goodness” to them.

Now more than ever, we need to relearn the habits we’ve picked up from magazines and click bait articles and commercials promoting the newest weight loss system. We’ve learned that the way we may naturally want to eat is wrong and must be regimented to fit specific standards.

Instead, let’s learn that there is nothing wrong with our body’s cravings. There’s nothing wrong with how we look or the place our unique bodies individually thrive. If there’s anything wrong, it’s the belief that we aren’t good enough and need to change how we look and eat.

Do you partake in intuitive eating? What advice would you give for someone interested in beginning?

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

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