Intuitive eating is just eating whatever you want when you´re hungry and stopping when full right? That´s what many people think it is – but it is so much more. Most patients with eating disorders have lost touch with their hunger and fullness cues anyways- so, how can you actually use the intuitive eating approach to support your recovery? (I am referring in this blog post mainly to restrictive eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia)
The principals of intuitive eating in eating disorder recovery
Remember I just said intuitive eating is more than just honouring your cravings, hunger and fullness? In the intuitive eating book the name 8-10 intuitive eating principals. They include hunger, fullness, satisfaction, but also emotions, health at every size and gentle movement. Let´s have a quick look into each principal and how you can use this/or not in eating disorder recovery.
1 Reject the diet mentality:
This step is about accepting, that diets are commercial and won´t bring you the happiness you are looking for on the long term. It also includes uncovering your “diet behaviours”, such as “limiting carbohydrates or fats” or “second guessing if you deserve to eat already”,… Another part of this principle is getting “rid of the dieter´s tools” such as the scale, calorie counting apps,… And last but not least: treating your thoughts with compassion. Replacing diet culture thoughts such as “Do I deserve to eat” with “am I hungry/ do I want it?”
In eating disorder recovery this step can be about becoming aware of your disordered thoughts and behaviours. It´s important that you understand that it is a journey – not a race. And it is most likely not going to be linear. Become aware of the fact, that restricting is the core issue and can be deadly. In anorexia Type 2 and bulimia we need to know, that restricting triggers primal hunger, which can lead to a binge.
2 Honor your hunger
This principle is about making feeding your body with an adequate amount of energy/nutrients/… throughout the day a priority. Learning to recognise your hunger as it comes up and to eat before you are overly hungry. “Learning to honour this first biological signal sets the stage for rebuilding trust with yourself and food.”
Many patients with eating disorders don´t experience any hunger signals – this however doesn´t mean, that that they don´t need to eat. In order to regain your hunger signals, you actually have to eat consistently enough, so the mind can function and think properly. Three meals and two to three meals is best to start with – eating regularly will help you to get in touch with your hunger signals – as well as it teaches you again to eat less chaotic and more structured.
3 make peace with food
It´s time to give yourself unconditional permission to eat. Time to stop seeing food as good or bad. Time to dig into why you feel like you always have to clean the plate or what actually makes you feel food deprived. In this step it often happens that people overindulge in the previously restricted food as if they are grasping for air after diving under water for a few minutes.
In eating disorder recovery this means challenging your fear foods – add new ones when you feel okay. Taking baby steps is better than just diving into it completely, as this will make you feel less overwhelmed! Introduce the fear foods into your diet when you don´t feel vulnerable (overly hungry, intense emotions, stress, bad mood, …)
4 challenge the food police
This principal relates to feelings – especially guilt around food: “I feel so guilty for eating an extra piece of chocolate”, “I was so bad today for eating so much”, … Simply said “we are not born with these thoughts. We hear the ideas behind them as we grow up”. So, this step is very much about identifying your internalised believes around food and weight. Identifying where they come from and rephrasing them in a more compassionate way. “Today one piece of chocolate didn´t satisfy me, so I had an extra piece”, “it´s okay to have more than just one piece of chocolate because I have unconditional permission to eat”
We can implement this principal of intuitive eating in eating disorder recovery by taking the morality, judgement and rigidity out of eating. Food has no morality and there are no such things as good or bad food.
5 discover the satisfaction factor
“when you eat what you really want, in an environment that is inviting, the pleasure you derive will be a powerful force in helping you feel satisfied and content”
Allow yourself to have good tasting food. You are supposed to eat foods that make your taste buds happy! Eating satisfying meals can also prevent overindulging, chaotic snacking and bingeing.
6 feel your fullness
I don´t want to say too much about this as this is what many people struggle with in implementing intuitive eating in eating disorder recovery. People tend to try to honour their fullness too early in recovery. Many people feel constantly full and bloated in recovery because a slowed digestion, bloating and infrequent bowel movement. You can focus on this principal later in recovery, there is no need to rush this process.
7 cope with your emotions with kindness
Often in eating disorders people cope with emotions and life by turning to food/restricting food/ eating rituals/… Feeling your feelings makes many people feel like everything is getting worse at first. But in order to deal with these feelings we have to actually feel them. Ask yourself what you REALLY need. What is missing in your life, what do you need more of, what are you actually restricting, which needs are you trying to fill?…
8 respect your body
Dig into your believes around weight and body shapes. What do you connect with being in a larger body. What are you really afraid of? And are these believes really true? A good way to find this out is, if you´d want a friend to think that about themselves.
maybe you want to check out my blog post about weight gain
9 gentle movement
This principal is about letting go of the idea that working out is a “to-do” that it is about burning calories. Movement should feel good and be more intuitive. If you are not quite there yet – the best thing you can do to heal from compulsive exercising is taking a break from it for a while.
10 gentle nutrition:
it´s not just eat whatever you want – it´s more a “what do I crave and how can I implement this in my meals and snacks to feel my best”. The better you get in touch with your hunger, fullness, and satisfaction cues – you will crave “healthy” and “unhealthy” foods evenly. Believe it or not, your body can tell you which nutrients it needs.
In eating disorder recovery it´s essential that you recognise, that your body needs all kind of nutrients to function properly. And especially that your body can handle all kind of foods. Focus more on “what can you add” to this plate instead of “replace”.