The word ‘intuitive’ has been knocking around for a while but what does it actually mean, and when it comes to food, what does eating ‘intuitively’ look like?
The wellness industry loves a fad. If we’re not downing water from bottles loaded with crystals, we’re pursuing alkaline diets or scrubbing the enamel off our teeth with activated charcoal toothpastes. And one trend which doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in 2022 is intuitive eating.
Intuitive or mindful eating is all about eating what you want, when you want – and working out why you want it. Before grazing on a packet of crisps, you’re supposed to ask yourself if you’re actually hungry and if you are, giving yourself permission to eat whatever your body is telling you to have. That, apparently, helps to stop emotional eating as well as freeing you from the shackles of food fear.
So far, so good. Intuitive eating is basically what we’d all be doing if we weren’t brought up with diet culture and a society that puts a huge emotional emphasis on food and the abundance or lack thereof. It should come naturally to us, and yet, the very fact that books have been written about it suggests that perhaps intuitive eating isn’t quite as simple as it sounds.
What does intuitive eating actually entail?
Nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert explains that intuitive eating is a “non-diet approach” that can help those of us who have dieted for years. It’s about “ditching food rules, respecting your body and actually enjoying food again”. In her book The Science of Nutrition, she uses the example of chocolate. Many of us experience chocolate cravings but instead of giving into them, we try to opt for a ‘healthier’ alternative. That doesn’t get rid of the cravings – it only makes them stronger. So, later on, we give in and eat some chocolate… only this time, we eat a lot more than we initially wanted to and that triggers the whole binge-shame-restriction cycle. Had we just eaten the damn chocolate when we fancied it, we’d have enjoyed it and just moved on.
Like most women in their early 30s, I’ve been brought up with ‘naughty’ foods, diets and this idea of trying to ignore physical and pleasure signals when it comes to eating. As such, I find the idea of totally trusting in your body for your food intake pretty alarming. If I threw all caution to the wind, I might swap my mainly wholefoods vegan diet for just eating an entire sourdough loaf and marg for breakfast, or make my way through three family-sized bags of Tyrrells. When you’ve been subliminally been told that you can’t trust your own appetite or food desires for decades, you don’t really know what your body wants.
To find out whether this whole ‘eat it and be damned’ approach could relieve some of the stress around food, I decided to try intuitive eating for a week to see whether it’s actually doable or whether it’s, to all intents and purposes, diet culture under another guise.
What does a day of intuitive eating look like?
My diet, on the whole, is pretty good. I’m a long-time vegan who tries to put plants first at every meal, and crucially, I love the food I eat. But I’m mindless when it comes to snacking. I always snack when I’m preparing lunch and dinner and always when I come back home after work or a post-work walk. That’s not bad per se, but I snack out of habit rather than hunger.
Breakfast tends to be eaten as late as possible or not at all, having done intermittent fasting on and off for a few years. On the first day of this challenge, however, I went for my morning run and then made breakfast as soon as I started to feel hungry – around 10am. In fact, every morning I felt like having breakfast an hour earlier than usual.
By lunchtime, I was hungry again but this time, I didn’t need to graze as I prepared my bowl. And in a bid to combat the 6pm snack attack, I brought my dinner ahead slightly, which meant not leaving prep until I was ravenous. Again, this isn’t a diet so nothing about my food changed but it was about actively choosing to eat what I was eating. I still enjoyed chocolate. In fact, I’d probably say I enjoyed the snacks I ate more because I was consciously choosing to eat them.
I also made an effort to slow down and actually taste what I was eating. When was the last time you ate at home without the TV on, or made a conscious effort to chew every bite? If anything intuitive eating seems to be about actually enjoying food.
By the fourth day, I really found my groove. I may have been eating the same amount as usual, but it was more condensed time-wise. That’s not only good for blood sugar stability (having a dessert is better for energy than eating a mid-afternoon snack), but it’s also better for your teeth. In fact, when I went to the dentist towards the end of the week, the hygienist told me that she’s constantly telling folk to eat what they like, but to try to eat their meals and sweets/chocolate/fruit within a two hour period.
You’re not supposed to eat past your fullness with intuitive eating and as a vegan, that can be difficult. You’ve got to eat bigger portions to feel fuller for longer but because of the fibre, you can feel full very quickly… and hungry within an hour or two. I’m still working out if it’s better to stop when full and resume later, or to eat the portion in one go.
By the end of the week, I felt satisfied. That’s the only word that really sums up having eaten what you wanted, when you wanted and enjoying every morsel. It’s obvious that you can’t teach yourself to completely overhaul the way you view food in just five days, but a week is enough to get you thinking about why you eat the way you do, and how happy it makes you.
Is intuitive eating worth the faff?
My biggest fear was that mindful eating would mean having to think even more about food than I already do, and becoming preoccupied about the choices I made. But actually, I did find the whole process freeing. So many of our food habits are made out of habit or boredom when actually, we should be eating to satisfy hunger, boost energy and increase pleasure.
It’s also not about throwing all healthy eating principles to the wind. You still need to have your fruit, veg, proteins and pulses but it’s about acknowledging that there’s a time for quinoa and a time for Quavers. I’ll definitely try to be more intuitive in my eating going forwards.
For more nutrition tips, hacks and recipes, check out the Strong Women Training Club.
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.