Three Common Stuck Points in Intuitive Eating

I often share a warning with my new clients before starting our work together - even though eating intuitively eventually becomes second nature, in the beginning, it's hard. Like, really hard. It's the opposite of what they're used to with dieting, which starts off easy, but becomes more difficult to stick to with time. You can thank your genetics, honed and refined over millions of years to protect you against starvation. The longer you go eating less than you need, the more dieting slows your metabolism and ramps up hunger hormones. "Just feed me fries, damnit!!" say your chromosomes. 

I share this warning with my clients (and you) because I want you all to know that just because it's hard, doesn't mean you're failing or that you're "bad" at intuitive eating. It means you're a human that's grown up in a really messed up diet culture. You're trying to do something that runs counter to everything you've learned. 

In my years of practice guiding clients towards becoming intuitive eaters, I've noticed three stuck points in the process where clients often come to me feeling like they're failing. They're not. But it's still pretty scary for them. If you've gone through the intuitive eating process, maybe you'll relate? And for those who are just starting intuitive eating, here's three uncomfortable parts to expect. 

"I'm feel like I'm obsessing about food all the time" 

Pretty early in the intuitive eating process, I often hear from clients, especially those who identify as a mindless eater, that they feel like they're always thinking about food and eating. I mean, wasn't the whole point of intuitive eating not obsessing about food? 

When you're eating according to a diet (or diet mentality or disordered eating, same deal), in a sense, food decisions are easy. You just follow the rules, whatever they may be. Yes to kale salad. No to chicken sandwich. Yes to whatever has has the least grams of carbohydrate. No to whatever has the most. 

But with intuitive eating, you're making decisions based on a combination of internal cues (hunger level, what you're craving, what makes you feel good) and logic (when am I going to eat again, do I have something later today where I'd rather not feel icky and bloated for). If you're out of practice with tuning into those cues, there needs to be some time spent putting hyper-attention towards those cues, which may feel like obsession. 

Also, I've noticed for those who relate to being mindless eaters, slowing down and eating more mindfully sometimes creates more space for negative thoughts about food to creep in. When you're quickly shoveling down lunch in front of the computer at work, there's not a lot of room for worrying about calories or feeling guilty about how many croutons were on your salad. I think this is one of the reasons it's so important to work on intuitive eating with a registered dietitian who can teach you how to challenge the negative thoughts that pop up. 

"I feel worse about my body"

With both intuitive eating and disordered eating recovery, food behaviors change before body image. Which means there's this uncomfortable time where you're giving yourself more permission with food, eating more consistently and balanced, and engaging in less unwanted eating behaviors as a result, yet still dealing with a lot of negative body image thoughts, and probably feeling worse because you don't have your usual coping mechanism for dealing with those negative thoughts - dieting and restriction. 

Think about it. Before when you felt crappy about your body, you had the "perfect" solution. Just eat half your lunch! Or drop the carbs at dinner! Of course, if you've taken the route of intuitive eating, you know dieting isn't the solution, but that doesn't mean restriction wasn't effective at temporarily relieving anxiety and negative thoughts about your body. Now that you don't have your coping mechanism, you're stuck with those negative thoughts. 

You can't work on intuitive eating without addressing body image. This is one of the reasons it is SO important not to go into intuitive eating as another diet with expectations of weight loss. Make sure you're working with a dietitian or therapist who you feel comfortable talking about body image with. 

"Food doesn't interest me anymore." 

Years ago there was a really interesting (yet kinda sorta inhumane) experiment done to examine the physiological and psychological effects of starvation on healthy males. The psychological effects were extreme (one guy legit chopped off his fingers - he is me in this situation), but one of the more subtle effects they noticed was that the men were suddenly obsessed with food, recipes and cooking. These men, as typical men of the 1940s, had never been interested in cooking before, were stashing recipes, reading cookbooks and talking about cooking all the time. 

I see this in my clients in the form of spending hours pinning recipes, drooling over food pictures on instagram and spending their evenings in the kitchen cooking all their meals from scratch. If you ask them their hobby, they'll say food. But it's more than a hobby, it's an obsession. 

For me, when I was being restrictive with food, if I was "splurging" on something, I knew it was the last I would have for awhile, so it had to be perfect. Even within my "clean eating" restrictions, I wanted everything to be a gourmet eating experience. I would spend hours writing out recipes from Gourmet magazine that I'd never cook and stay up till the wee hours reading food blogs and cookbooks and gazing at pictures of food on pinterest. And y'all, that was just from me dabbling in a little clean eating! 

As you mend your relationship with food, it becomes a lot less interesting. Food takes a backseat to other, more interesting, and more fulfilling things in life. Of course, that's a good thing, but it can still feel kinda sad!

I know for me, there was a bit of mourning, and sometimes there still is. It actually hit me a few days ago when I was picking up something for lunch on the way home from work. In the past, I was restrictive about where I would go and what I "should" order, so the times I was giving myself full permission were really exciting and felt like such a huge treat. This time, nothing I thought of sounded thrilling like it used to. So I picked up something that was convenient and sounded satisfying, and didn't even care when they got my order wrong (which would have been totally distressing in the past because how dare you mess with my one splurge of a meal!!). I made do with the fact that sometimes the joy of eating is knowing that you can get joy from things outside of food. 

Have you ever been through any of these stages on your intuitive eating journey? Would love to hear your thoughts!