Intuitive Eating: What Exactly IS Intuition?

I talk a lot about Intuitive Eating, but what exactly is intuition?  It’s not as hard to grasp - especially when it comes to eating - as some might assume.  In fact, I heard someone refer to it as “psychobabble” recently. I get it could be hard to wrap your head around, especially in a nutrition culture built on logic and rules, but I’ll bet you use it more often than you think.

Intuition is defined as “the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning”.  In fact, intuition is actually science based - neuroscience has identified how the brain receives feedback from our cells and tissues as well as feedback from our outside world.  It, somewhat subconsciously, draws conclusions for us that could be described as “instinct”.  That isn’t psychobabble at all - but actual science for how our physical body’s many systems communicate and work together.  

So what does this have to do with food?  

Intuitive Eating is not about avoiding reason and logic, but not relying solely on it.  Instead, we take our thoughts, reason, science and logic and we combine those with intuitive signals (often called interoceptive awareness) of satisfaction, hunger, fullness and yes, even cravings.  In fact, that combination is exactly what I help you foster when making peace with food.  We tend to live in our own heads, completely cut off from the neck down, when it comes to making decisions about food.  In fact, I find most people want to disconnect from their body.   This could be due to poor body image, disappointment with it, lack of acceptance for it’s genetics (predetermined size and shape) or just plain lack of time and too much else to think about or do.  

Why would that be a problem?  

Well, it’s really hard to want to take care of something that you dislike or don’t think much about.  It’s going to be important to listen to your body in some degree if you hope to cultivate health and well being.  Listening to your body and letting it help guide your choices will be essential.  That doesn’t mean you don’t think and reason, it just means you integrate the two together. 

In fact, intuitive eating in anything but impulsive.  The goal is to learn how to be more proactive, intentional and mindful about the choices you make.  However, that's done with a lot of flexibility and variety while being practical and realistic.  It's about connection, trust and respect which create more positive experiences with food that build confidence in your ability to care for yourself.

Let's look at some examples.

I’m sure you have experienced times when you really wanted to eat something but you tried to reason yourself out of it.  Maybe it was cake.  Instead of eating the cake, you decided to have fruit - you know, to satisfy the craving for something sweet.  It may work and it may not.  If it doesn’t work, you may have moved on to more fruit or maybe some nuts or some rice cakes…until you finally just gave in and had the cake.  If you had started with the cake, you would not have eaten all the other food or wasted a lot of time hoping to avoid the cake. We really don’t need to make this about the healthfulness of the cake, but how avoiding cravings can often make them a bigger deal than they need to be.  You’re going to have cravings, it’s the guilt and judgment - instead of using curiosity - that makes them a problem.  We are so much better at balancing and self-moderating food choices than we give ourselves credit for, especially when we embrace these principles of intuition. 

Take another example:  Let’s say you are a rule follower and calorie counter.  You look at your food journal and realize you have 500 calories left in the day.  You aren’t super hungry, but since you have the calories you might as well use them.  You end up overly full and uncomfortable…but it’s OK because on paper it looked like a good idea even though your experience and body’s feedback is saying otherwise.  The rules here did keep you safe though, it’s easy to avoid guilt if you don’t feel like you did anything wrong - THE biggest reason we hang on to food rules (think about that).  Maybe the most important point to make here is that food rules aren't really the main problem, it's the fear that keeps us hanging onto the food rules.  It's impossible to tap into intuition when we are motivated by fear.  

This could be less about calories and more about food rules.  Perhaps you find yourself needing a substantial carbohydrate filled breakfast but you're "supposed" to be eating low carb.  As the day wears on you find yourself lacking energy, exercise tolerance is poor and you are having difficulty focusing.  Your body is screaming at you but your mind isn't willing to listen and integrate that information.  The same could be true for low protein or low fat or when attempting a cleanse or a detox...the possible scenarios are endless.  

Or how about this:  Let’s say you get hungry a few hours after dinner but you have the rule of not eating after a certain time.  It’s legit hunger, hard to focus or even get to sleep.  Instead of having something to eat, you toss and turn all night.

Here’s a good one: What if you aren’t hungry but you are headed into meetings and know you won’t have a chance to eat again for a while and are likely to get overly hungry if you wait.  It would be smart to have something to eat prior to the meeting, which is where your logic and reason may trump intuitive signals since your body will not account for future plans.  

The point is, rules are probably only helpful if they are effective.  These examples show how they could get in the way of using common sense - or instinct - to solve your problems.  A basic tenant of Intuitive Eating is making choices that honor and respect your body.  If you have felt out of control with food, I get why you would be wanting, and needing, more structure.  The progression to Intuitive Eating is actually very strategic and I encourage you to work with a Registered Dietitian that can provide a safe, flexible structure for you to learn and practice Intuitive Eating.  That's exactly what I'm here to do - help you create a plan to build more confidence for using your own intuition.  

Emily Fonnesbeck RD, CD