Intuitive eating. What actually is it? Eating intuitively. By definition, this suggests that you only eat when your intuition tells you so. Hmmm. The physiological intuition to eat… Surely you mean hunger? Sounds to most people like a pretty bog standard way of eating. Eat when you’re hungry. Don’t eat when you’re not. Eat what you crave (and by that we should crave wholefoods, nutrient-dense foods, foods that allow us to function optimally as the health goddess that we are, most of the time). Why does ‘eating when hungry’ need some new-found, hashtag friendly term that simply provides a new form of ‘diet’ for people to follow, shout about, and praise for their refreshed mental state/fat loss/muscle gain/self-love realisation? I imagine my best friend in all of this, rolling her eyes thinking ‘I eat healthy most of the time and eat when I’m hungry, and eat what I fancy if it’s delicious, because that’s life’. My best friend who is indeed healthy, beautiful and fit. And doesn’t have an ounce of over- or under-controlled dieting in her slim and yet strong body. Yet also doesn’t undertake #intuitiveeating or in fact, share any of her daily meals and/or thoughts of her self-worth and health. So what actually is it?
“Intuitive eating is a nutrition philosophy based on the premise that becoming more attuned to the body’s natural hunger signals is a more effective way to attain a healthy weight, rather than keeping track of the amounts of energy and fats in foods.” Thanks Wikipedia. Always a reliable source as we know…
Those of you who follow me on social media, know that after finishing my competition prep in summer of last year (abruptly ending earlier than anticipated), and after a brief spell of ‘reverse dieting’ (a topic that I discussed in an earlier blog post), that I moved to ‘intuitive eating’. I posted numerous captions and images of the foods that I ate, the way that I felt and the realisations that I underwent during this time. I followed this intuitive eating structure, or lack thereof by definition, up until starting competition prep for my 2017 competitive season. Intuitive eating does serve a purpose, but a purpose that is not necessarily in line with the precise goals of a competitive bodybuilding season. I have been asked by a lot of you how I managed to move from such a strictly controlled, macronutrient calculated, OCD-friendly competitive diet (and I’m pretty flexible with mine), to what is really the complete opposite within a matter of weeks, without any rebounding, binging and in fact, with more success than any regimented ‘reverse diet’ or flexible dieting plan that I had previously implemented. The answer for me, was simple. It made sense. I could stick to it. There was no guilt attached to food because I had no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods. There was no guilt attached to a higher than average energy intake, because there was no guideline daily energy amount. There was no force feeding when I had a lack of appetite (LOL – this one time…). It was, in fact, the simplest transition in my nutrition that I had ever made.
I threw away my kitchen scales (cue gasps of horror around the fitness community). I knew by heart what my reverse diet macros had been. I know by heart, the macros in most of the common foods that I choose to eat or include in my client nutrition programmes. I can look at a food and know roughly, the portion size that I would need and the macros contained within that food. As a Nutritionist, this is something that is so tuned in to my brain, that even when I want to, I cannot switch it off. You might think that it sounds obsessive, disordered eating tendency-like. But trust me, when you have studied food for 5 years and physiology of the body for 12, it isn’t a conscious choice to make. I trawled the supermarkets for exciting new foods, old foods, foods that I missed (ironically my favourite choice was packet rice and Brussel sprouts). I still prepped some meals, still batch cooked my chicken and brought my Tupperware to work. But on the days that I was super busy or tired, I allowed myself time off from this. I bought a store bought sandwich or had oats for lunch. On the days that I worked in coffee shops before training, I may have treated myself to a cappuccino and a small cake (ok, maybe not the calorie dense Costa type frequently, but the veggie café near me does an excellent giant flapjack, and if it’s vegan, the calories are less… right??). I simply switched out my pre workout meal, or in fact had both, but the key point, this was dependent on my hunger in that moment. I kept snacks in my bag. Sometimes macro friendly snacks like Soreen chocolate bites, sometimes calorie dense cake slices or pop tarts. And guess what, if I was hungry then I’d have them, and if not, they’d stay in my bag for weeks, until the Soreen resembled baby food mash and the pop tarts had to be poured in to my mouth as they resembled some sort of magical sugar dust.
But how did I ensure that I was making progress in the gym, improving my lean mass (muscle) is of course my constant goal? As I wrote in my earlier post, it really helps to ensure that you’re in a slight calorie surplus in order to gain muscle. Firstly, I aimed to get a standard protein dose (if I were tracking, I would aim for 20-25g per meal), at roughly 4-5 of my daily meals. No, I didn’t check labels or My Fitness Pal, I estimated based on my knowledge, the portion size of protein that I would need. In addition, the meals around my training sessions were always the biggest, most dense and most filling meals of the day. This helped to ensure I trained as hard and effectively as possible, and recovered well. I also tracked all of my training. Every compound lift was a focus for improvement – PBs for reps or weight in almost every session was essential. If this dropped off, I reflected on my diet and tried to identify if it was a nutritional problem, or there was something else going on (stress, sleeping pattern, mental focus). Then at each meal, I consciously thought ‘what do I fancy’. If that was something carb-dense and comforting, I’d serve out what I considered to be a portion sufficient for my hunger at that time. Sometimes it would be easy, like half a packet of microwave rice. Sometimes, it would be a big bowl of oats. I used the same bowl most days, and had done throughout prep, so I knew what 30g, 60g, 100g looked like. If I found myself craving, then I’d add some fat to that meal. A few squares of Dairy Milk, or a dollop of peanut butter. I ensured that I got a decent source of carbs and/or fat at every meal. I also aimed to get a varied source of vegetables at a minimum of 2 meals per day. Keep in mind that my knowledge of the macronutrient content of foods will have highly influenced by ability to intuitively eat.
A lot of the success of intuitive eating, comes down to another hashtag friendly process, ‘mindful eating’. Mindful eating fundamentally describes the process of paying attention to the thoughts, feelings and sensations that occur as you eat. Sounds a bit airy fairy right? But mindfulness in general has been linked to neuroplasticity, reduced rates of depression and anxiety, and enhancing overall wellbeing. Even as a scientist, mindfulness is something that I practise most days by attempting to simply ‘be present’. But mindful eating, that is something that I try to practice every day without fail. Mindful eating encompasses the process of eating to nourish your body, to appreciate the function of the food that you consume and the pleasurable effects it has on you. It requires you to notice not only the sensations of foods, but also to notice how food can be used to care for your body. Proponents of mindful eating suggest it allows you to distinguish between real hunger pangs, and emotional eating pangs (I mean, who doesn’t want to face-plant a Krispy Kreme or 6 washed down with a large glass of red when they’ve royally cocked up at work and are coming home to an empty house and a fridge full of chicken sausages…?). Mindful eating means paying attention to every meal, every mouthful and every taste. It requires absolutely no distraction when eating. That means no eating at your desk whilst you answer emails with one hand and hold your fork with the other, no watching Emmerdale whilst you scoff your potato and protein cheese, and definitely no phones at the dinner table (ok, the initial food snap is clearly exempt here).
I always found that being on a strictly controlled diet, inadvertently enhanced my ability to eat mindfully. Not only are you super hungry and therefore so appreciative of the food that you’re eating, but due to the limited variation in intake, the taste of food becomes really important and you learn to savour every mouthful (come on now, we’ve all been that person who closes their eyes when they take that first bite of pizza after weeks of waiting for it to come). So for me, mindfully eating came quite easily. Like mindfulness, this is a skill that can be learned. Taking 5-10 minutes out of your day to focus on that moment only, not the past or the future, but that precise moment, the feelings and space around you, the appreciation that you have for your current situation (despite the crap that may be surrounding it) – that can do a lot for your headspace. Practising this daily is key. And the same goes for mindful eating. All it takes is some awareness of choosing to sit down with your food, eating it slowly (a teaspoon always helps), appreciating the feelings that it brings. Don’t get me wrong, I am the worst for inhaling meals sometimes when I’m ravenous, when I’ve been teaching for 3 hours and my stomach is louder than my voice, and I can eat so fast that I don’t taste what I eat. But I like to minimise these occurrences where possible… Something I work with my clients to discover is this process of ‘mind muscle macro’. It sounds a little odd, but really focusing the mind on channelling the days food intake to lifting, to muscles, to strength, not only improves training but also really improves the mindset surrounding nutrition, and eating to fuel your body. Slowly, those who struggle with associating food with guilt, begin to look forward to the fullness a delicious meal brings, or the carbohydrate hit that a snack contains, as they know what this will mean for their next training session.
There are two extremes that intuitive eating probes questions from. Questions that I have heard frequently in the last 6 months, from clients, friends and social media lovelies who have followed this trend for a while in others, have originated from a number of girls who fall somewhere within this scale.
The first – the classic emotional eater. Prone to binges, success on super strict regimented intakes but as soon as the reigns are loosened, struggle to cope with the choices that this brings: ‘But don’t you lose control, having free reign over all this food?’. The answer to this, is a quite simple no. The reason that people tend to lose control over foods, is because they feel that at some point, they will need to restrict again. They have these subconscious (or indeed conscious) thoughts that the foods that they have choice of at this present moment, may soon be taken away to support another period of restriction, be that in the short- or long-term future. Mindfulness, being in the present moment and enjoying what you have right now, avoiding all thoughts of the future, really helps to minimise this. Intuitive eating allows you access to food when you feel you want or need it, so those foods are not going anywhere. You do not have to consume them at this very second or they’ll disappear again. So there is no need to overeat them, just in case.
The second – the food controllers. Struggle to let go after a period of obsessively strict intakes, previous success at changing body composition, struggle to accept that having an extra handful of oats or squares of chocolate will not end their lives as they know it: ‘How do you learn to let go of your control over food?’ This one is a little harder to answer. Truth is, you learn to live. You learn to realise that you are missing a lot of your life, spending your minutes thinking about the peanut butter that you ate instead of spending that same moment noticing how much you love your present company sitting with you, the work that you’re doing at that moment or the comfort in your surroundings. Again, it comes down to being present in the moment. What outcome does spending 5 minutes of your life (and hopefully no more) thinking about what you ate have for you? Does it progress and move you forward? No. Does it make you happy? No. Does it make you instantly gain 2kg of fat? No. Obsessing over food literally does nothing for you. It only makes you a little less fun to be around. It minimises the quality of your life. It reduces your fun factor. No one actually cares what you eat. Not your friends, family or social media (unless it looks delicious, is presented on a love-heart shaped white piece of china against a wooden backdrop with excellent lighting). You do not need to log every mouthful that passes your lips, be that in an app, on paper or via social media pictures. Telling people does not change the influence that food has on you. Intuitive eating forces you to take away this pressure, forces you away from this constant controlling and logging of every aspect of your life, forces you to pay attention to the things that really matter at that time.
I strongly believe that there is a time and a place for intuitive eating. I believe that yes, some people are lucky enough to be able to eat intuitively, without making it a ‘thing’, and that’s pretty damn cool. I believe that some people can have great success with this method of nutritional intake, and some people need the accountability of tracking in some way. I know that progress can be made without the aid of macro tracking. I know that for some, progress is optimised when macros are recorded daily and altered according to progress. Ultimately, I believe that everyone should feel empowered to take control of their nutrition, and follow what works for them. For those of you who want to try this method and believe it might help free you a little to live more, have a look at the tips below. Contact me on [email protected] for additional help or with any questions you have too. And let’s be rational here. When you’re old and grey, what’s more likely to help you feel satisfied with your life – the ability to stick to 284g carbohydrate religiously, or the picnic you had with your partner that time on the beach, with your champagne and scones?
Tips to successful intuitive eating:
- Know your food groups (fats, carbs, protein, fibre)
- Hit your protein goals (daily intake and distribution)
- Mindfully eat
- Don’t obsess
- Be present in the moment