Intuitive Eating: my experience

Food in 3 plates

In the latest Soul Care post about nutrition, I mention in passing that my food philosophy nowadays (after a lifetime of disordered eating of various shapes and forms) is Intuitive Eating. Intuitive Eating is not a diet, but rediscovering the way our bodies were created to work. For me as a Catholic woman, God has made us need food, but also able to enjoy it, giving us hunger cues and other signals that indicate to us that it’s time to eat, or that we’ve had enough and we are satisfied with what we had.

This approach to nutrition originated with the work of Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in the mid-90s, but it has some commonalities with previous discourses in psychology and the way the 3rd wave feminist movement looked at fat and women issues in the 70s. To this day, it appears to still be strongly linked to the fat acceptance (also referred to as liberation) movement, but I believe it shouldn’t be the stuff of radicalism and instead be the mainstream. The diet industry keeps us engaged in a rat race that replaces God’s vision for humanity with a lot of negative feelings life self-loathing, desire for controlling and punishing the body for just existing and taking space and moralising our food choices even when we’re in no real danger to our health, and so far the best option I have found to counteract this mentality is Intuitive Eating. 

There are 10 main principles of Intuitive Eating, which you can find here. We have grown accustomed to having set times for meals and controlling our bodies no matter what they tell us, and it seems to be almost a badge of honour if you are hungry and don’t eat. We should eat for sustenance, yes, but we also kind of have a duty to enjoy it because what we eat is God’s gift to us. Jesus could have said people had enough to drink at the wedding in Cana, but instead he agreed to use His divine powers to give them more wine and the best wine while at that. And on top of that, a lot of the mental space and energy we spend worrying about calories or whether a food meets the standard of X diet, etc can be spent loving God and loving our neighbour better. 

Many people mistake Intuitive Eating as being a green light to eat a donought after another to keep the sugar rush going, and so dismiss it as a bad lifestyle, but the reality is you tend to only crave such things if you have been depriving yourself of them. Most proponents of Intuitive Eating have, on the surface, the same diet as your average Healthy/Clean Eating proponent because we tend to give our body what our body needs, without the value judgement that goes with it. We adapt our food choices to what our body needs in any given moment, without compensating for a meal that happened earlier, or that will happen later. The fact the choices end up being what is generally accepted as “healthy” is because that’s how we were created, but the difference is that we don’t demonise eating other things and don’t waste the same amount of energy avoiding foods (or feeling guilty) the way those lifestyles do. We know that we “don’t have to eat perfectly to be healthy. (We) will not suddenly get a nutrient deficiency or become unhealthy, from one snack, one meal, or one day of eating. It’s what you eat consistently over time that matters. Progress, not perfection, is what counts.” 

I am pretty obsessed with Japanese culture, and one thing I love is how pleasure is seen as key to healthy living. It used to be the case in Italian culture too, historically, but it was not my experience growing up in a family shadowed by anorexia and excessive concern with food. Diets rely on our wrong assumption that a certain way of eating and doing so in certain quantities will result in weight loss, something that has been proven to be wrong over and over. Intuitive Eating should not be seen as an approach tailored to losing weight because it’d miss the point of what it is about, but it’s true that many people have benefitted from letting go of the extra stress created by being on a diet and have found themselves achieving what seemed impossible before without even trying. To me, this only goes to show just how damaging diet culture is.

On a spiritual level, Intuitive Eating has given me a way to exercise the muscles of the virtue of temperance and, to an extent, generosity. In the way that we have to listen to our bodies in order to eat enough, we also have to listen to them when it says it is enough. That can be a challenge when you have a sweet tooth, a problem with emotional eating, or both (that’s me). Part of Intuitive Eating, though, is to give up the puritan mentality that you have to be perfect all the time and accept that it’s OK if things don’t go to plan, or old patterns reappear and you need to pick yourself up again. It’s a journey rather than the destination, and it can take a while, although it seems that therapy helps you pick up Intuitive Eating more quickly.

And, most importantly, it’s a way in which we love others as we love ourselves: there is often a lot of self-loathing connected to a diet mentality, and often fear of becoming like an “other” that we reject. That’s not a good way to approach our neighbour, but once we ditch the moralistic messages around good and bad food choices, good and bad bodies, and move from the perspective that all bodies are good bodies because they are made to be in relationships then we can love our neighbours without reservations. One big thing for me lately has been to learn self-compassion out of the Lord convicting me big time for how little I love my neighbours if I love them “as myself” and how loving them more than myself is not what He asked of me. I am His creation too, and I’ve disparaged it 24/7 for the past 25 years. If the measure of how well I love others is the measure for how well I love God, then the words I say at Mass and when praying or singing to worship song become slightly hypocritical. Like, “Lord you are enough for me” but, in reality, I’d love you more if you took those extra 5cm off my hips so I can fit a size 12. 

It may not be the only way to approach food but, as a woman, it has been the one that has made me grow spiritually because it helped me to at least try and let go of the messages about myself that did not come from the Lord. It helped me to frame nutrition in a neutral way that is geared towards holistic health and taking care of my body as a temple without the burden and stress that comes from diets. I have a certificate in athletic nutrition, although I hardly put it to use and I may have forgotten most of what I studied by now, and as a former athlete, I have always known deep down the reality of nutrition as being about sustenance. Doing that course was a sort of coming home and rediscovering who I was deep down.

Since I don’t have intensive needs due to (lack of) training, I can be more relaxed with timings for eating or what I eat when than I would be if I had to train intensively, which helped me with the journey of unlearning the black and white thinking around food. I’m not perfect, and I still have loads that make me self-conscious especially when it comes to social situations and my perception of people’s judgment of my choices because I project what my family does onto everybody else expecting that’s kind of the norm when my family is likely the minority in being so obsessive and judgemental of everyone around them, and most people just don’t care about you enough to notice. 

At the end of the day, I have good days and bad days in the sense that sometimes it’s so easy to be in touch with my body while other days my general anxiety is just so great that I fall into old and familiar patterns even if I then feel like beating myself up for doing it because I should know better (beating myself up has been my modus operandi since forever) and have to be really strict in extending compassion to myself. The journey for me, so far, has looked like learning, praying, therapy, and eating more greasy American pizzas than an Italian would care to admit. I have no doubt that the convergence of my stumbling upon Intuitive Eating just before Lent and the lockdown happened was providential. Perhaps my journey will look different in the future, as the Lord leads me into a deepening understanding of what it means to live in a body that He has created so that we can bring Him glory. For now, I am wholly committed to this way of living and as zealous to spread it as any recent convert.

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