Intuitive Eating – A healthy relationship with food
Table of Contents
A personal story by Maya Pillay
‘Instant, proven, results!’ ‘Try this quick trick to lose lower belly fat’. 2022 and one quick search for ‘weight loss’ and within 0.72 seconds I have 8.75 billion hits. The world I inhabit seems obsessed with weight, with health, with wellness.
Social media screams the praises of Keto and Intermittent Fasting, yet we are all also ‘body positive’. So amongst this cacophony of wholly contradictory opinions – how do any of us have a ‘healthy’ relationship with food? How is it connected to ‘Intuitive Eating’? How can we learn what works for us personally and where does glucose monitoring fit in?
A healthy relationship with food
I should preface the following with an admission : everything I’ve learned about building a safe and healthy relationship with food, I learned in recovery from anorexia nervosa. Essentially, amongst what felt like a constant bombardment of diet culture, I had to learn to eat again and thus my views on food and the morality we put upon it completely changed.
I didn’t actually read about the theory of ‘Intuitive Eating’ or know about Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole’s book until I was well into my own recovery. Having worked with a dietician, nurses (who closely monitored my glucose during the first months of my recovery), doctors and a whole host of experts teaching me to eat again and remove the theories of ‘good and bad’ foods that were so ingrained in me.
What “Intuitive Eating” means (to me)
When I speak about ‘Intuitive Eating’, I largely discuss it as my own personal experience as opposed to the partly monetized concept you may have seen in bookstores. My main thought is – we have over-complicated all of this. If we can tune into ourselves a bit more, I firmly believe we will have a ‘healthy’ relationship with food, body and our weight.
So what is ‘Intuitive Eating’? Put simply: we should eat when we are hungry and stop when we are full. Makes sense, right? Surely this is one of our basic human instincts? Well, when was the last time you went out for dinner, looked at the menu and just said ‘I fancy that, I’ll have that’?
If this is your general practice – you may well be an intuitive eater, but for a large amount of the population this becomes far more complicated.
Forget about “good” and “bad” foods
Upon looking at a menu, or browsing the supermarket, many of us are faced with an internal monologue: ‘mmm, chips, they’d be nice with….no, bad. Bad food. I shouldn’t have that. Oh, salad, virtuous, not enough protein to carve a lean muscled physique, should I be naughty and have dessert?’ Of course, this is an exaggeration, but the principle of ‘good and bad’ food is one that’s constantly present and largely inhibits our natural instinct to eat intuitively.
Food labelling is tricky
The morality of our food permeates its way into everyday life – Supermarkets use terms like ‘balanced’, ‘lighter’. Magazines write about ‘guilt free’ or ‘sinful’ recipes. In January we will all be told that now is the time to “detox our body following the festive season”. We go for dinner with a friend who suggests we be ‘naughty’ and get those desserts.
All of this language attached to the seemingly innocent act of feeding ourselves suggests (subtly) that some food is “bad”. And by eating them we are also ‘bad’. The idea of detox suggests we have poisoned our bodies, and must find a remedy in starvation or ‘virtuous’, ‘clean’ foods. That ‘sinful’ chocolate cake becomes a crime for which we must pay penance through sweat.
All of this bizarre polarization of food may be worth it IF it were making us healthier, but is it? Seemingly not. According to the WHO, worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. According to Eating Disorder Charity ‘Hope’ there has been a worldwide increase in eating disorders every year for the past ten years.
At each end of the spectrum, our obsession with food, diet and exercise seems to be failing us. Of course, many factors contribute to both of these results, however, I can personally see the difficulty presented by modern day society and the impact it had on me when I had to learn to eat again.
Rediscover what your body needs with glucose monitoring
The journey to learn to eat again is not limited to recovering from an Eating Disorder. For most people who are moving away from diet culture and towards a more intuitive relationship with food, it will be necessary. Interestingly (and rather aptly), when recovering from anorexia the first step is glucose monitoring.
When you enter a residential clinic your glucose levels are checked regularly throughout both the day and night. This is largely to help indicate when more sustenance may be needed as the patient has often lost the ability to recognise their own needs. This starts off as one of the most important indicators, helping patients realise if and when they need to eat. Hello Inside and glucose monitoring could be the first step of anyone’s journey, allowing you to measure when your body is in need of some sustenance even if you are used to ignoring these cues.
If food conjures fear and confusion for you, using science (in this case glucose monitoring) could be a helpful tool to help you trust your instincts around food. It’s not a tool just limited to learning to eat again in extreme situations of eating disorders but also one that could be very useful for those learning to have a healthier relationship with food outside of a residential treatment situation. It’s pretty amazing products like this are available to everyone!
Intuitive eating should be normal
Learning to eat again and recovering from disordered eating is not limited to extreme situations. Since working on my recovery, I’ve noticed how prevalent disordered behavior around eating is in general society. So much of what I’ve learned to attribute to my eating disorder and worked hard to move away from whilst working on resetting my mindset with intuitive eating has been completely normalized.
Compulsive exercise and a general fear of energy dense food is almost expected for a young woman in my social circle these days. The true absurdity of the situation was highlighted when a friend of mine, who is a professional athlete, mused that I spend as much time in the gym as he does but without the support of a physiotherapist, sports masseuse and numerous people making sure his diet is supporting his training regime.
I feel similarly when I hear people obsessing over what they’ve eaten, what they should have eaten or why they are good or bad – I have a specialist therapist to deal with all of these emotions around food but somehow this has just become completely normalized. So, after all of this – yes, in theory intuitive eating – ‘eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full’ – is simple. In practice, not so much.
So, how can we even attempt to have a healthy relationship with food and begin to intuitively eat?
Step One: ‘Avoid the good food bad food trap’
The first step is to be aware of the difficulties we are trying to overcome. Once you start to notice the polarised categories we put food into and the linguistic traps society sets to moralize our food, you are likely to become aware of how prominent it is. At first, this may seem exhausting.
I went through a phase of being absolutely infuriated every time I saw a brand profiting from increasing our insecurities (there was even a period where I would hide ‘weight loss tablets’ behind other products whenever I entered a famous ‘wellness’ store, but we will save that story for another day).
I’ve been informed it’s normal to be angry when you realize how much more complicated society has made intuitive eating. It’s worth highlighting once again that I did this with specialist personal support. This was part of my move away from starvation and towards repairing my relationship with food. But that’s not to say this is reserved for those who are recovering from extreme starvation. I still, personally, believe it’s the simplest concept of all, and therefore something we can all nurture in ourselves.
Once we are aware of the expectations and morality society places on food, we can begin to disentangle ourselves from this web. In noticing this pattern, we can notice the effect it is having on us and ‘check’ ourselves and our food choices. We can ban the ‘diet police’.
Step Two : Learning to cope with your emotions
Many of us use food to cope with emotion, we treat it as a bandage on hard days or as a celebration on good ones. This is another facet of our modern-day relationship with food that has become wholly normalized. If someone is emaciated, we understand that this should be treated as a mental health condition (if there are no physical factors resulting in starvation).
I often have to explain to people that when I was suffering with anorexia, I did not starve myself because I thought it looked good, rather that I was sad and did not express this as I needed to. We do not seem to understand that a lot of the time if people are ‘overeating’, there is often an emotional reason behind this.
In dealing with our emotional baggage, we can in turn begin to examine our relationship with food. This might mean seeking help from a professional, or it might mean speaking more to those you trust and not bottling things up as much!
Step Three: Respect your body!
Respecting our bodies is another key principle of tuning into our intuition around food. We are all different shapes and sizes. I’m not sharing anything particularly radical when I say the ‘body ideal’ is ever changing and so are we!
Understanding that your worth is not based on the size of your clothes and respecting your body whatever size, is a big step towards helping you make logical food choices as opposed to emotional.
In removing so much guilt and shame around food, we can start to tune into what our body actually wants and needs – our bodies are pretty smart, if only we would listen to them!
Step Four: Food and Fitness
Food and fitness have become interlinked like never before. So many of us are sat at our desks all day we had to find another solution to keep us moving. There’s a strong link between intuitive eating and intuitive movement. As a fitness instructor I was constantly getting a raised eyebrow from my employers when I would tell clients to simply ‘find a type of workout they enjoy – if that’s not this class or not with me, that’s fine!’ Now, I understand this might not have been best for business. But I believe in the long term it is the best for them.
Stop focusing on burning off last night’s ‘sins’ and start working out what kind of exercise you actually enjoy. Fitness should not be a punishment but a fun part of your day! For me, it’s meditative, it’s the one part of the day where I switch off from everything and tune into only what I’m doing. However, this is because I work out in a way that I love.
If you hate spinning as passionately as I do, you don’t have to do it! Try something that you will like, such as an intense reformer pilates class, dancing, or a running HIIT workout with weights. Don’t punish yourself.
Be mindful: enjoy what you are doing and what you are eating
Tune into what you actually enjoy. Listen to what your body’s telling you it needs, and honour them in your exercise and food choices. Tuning into what we actually enjoy helps us tune into our body’s signals. Therefore honour them in both movement and food choices.
In Japanese culture, striving for pleasure is considered a factor of health. This is one of the teachings embedded in my intuitive eating journey. By enjoying the process of eating, by finding food pleasurable and by honouring this pleasure as opposed to just stuffing something down as we run around, we are more likely to be able to tune into what our body needs.
In making eating mindful as opposed to mindless (yet not obsessive), we can enjoy it and enjoy nourishing our bodies. In doing this, we are also likely to begin honouring our health!
You are more than the distance between your thighs
My final piece of advice on all of this is a phrase we hear a lot, ‘be kind to yourself’. Understand that by eating a slice of cake you are not suddenly morally reprehensible.
You haven’t already failed and you needn’t completely give up and just eat the whole cake. In letting go of diet culture and really working hard to listen to your body and its needs, we can begin to move away from all of this. And are likely to begin to move towards really honouring our health – understanding and tuning in to our body and it’s clues.
I’ve already said it, but our bodies are in general pretty damn smart. They know what we need. And if we start listening to this and allowing ourselves to be fed, we can hopefully move away from society’s moral polarisation of food and bodies.
In summary, we’ve over complicated it all. Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full. Move in a way we enjoy and honour our feelings. Simple, right? Understand that it might be a rather long process.
For me, personally it’s an ongoing journey. But I’m definitely happier having dismissed diet culture than I was engulfed in it! You are more than the number on a scale or the distance between your thighs.
Resources to learn more about diet culture and intuitive eating
- Why we eat for the wrong reasons: Intuitive Eating with entrepreneur Dr. Mareike Awe – Hello Inside Podcast
- Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating – Christy Harrison
- Eat Up – Ruby Tandoh
- Just Eat It – Laura Thomas PhD