It may be hard to believe, but your body naturally knows what and how much to eat! The problem is that decades of companies and other “experts” telling us what is “good” and “bad,” often while contradicting each other, have confused us and caused us to listen to external rules rather than our own bodies. Practicing an approach called Intuitive Eating can help you reconnect with this ability to follow your body’s cues and know what works best for your body.
What is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive Eating is a philosophy that focuses on respecting and listening to your own internal cues and letting go of external food rules. The idea is to learn how to trust yourself around food and respect and appreciate your body as it is rather than trying to change it. Under this philosophy, no food is inherently “good” or “bad,” and, while this might be counter to much of what you have learned, adapting this mentality can allow for a transition to a healthier lifestyle.
Creating as much freedom around food as possible is important for cultivating a healthy relationship with food. Many people with GI conditions find this challenging, as it is common for eating to cause GI symptoms. The goal of using Intuitive Eating is to help you tap into what is truly causing symptoms rather than following a food list to decide what to eat. We’re here to help you understand how to adapt Intuitive Eating to work for you.
As you read on, please keep in mind that your GI discomfort is real, that it is NOT your fault, and that there are many options for managing your condition - you have the agency to choose the strategies that work best for you!
There are 10 principles of Intuitive Eating; let’s take a look at each of them and how they can be utilized to help you manage your GI condition.
Principle 1: Reject the Diet Mentality
*Note: some elimination diets, such as gluten free for people with Celiac disease, are medical nutrition therapy and are essential for someone’s health. The idea of this principle is to reject the mentality of restriction, to reject the idea of avoiding “unhealthy” foods, especially for the purpose of weight loss.
- GI health is ALL about listening to your body! There is no one size fits all approach. Tuning into your body’s responses to your food choices will help you understand which foods cause you GI distress rather than following someone else’s experience or what someone online says should be avoided.
- Be careful of where your information is coming from - the media has taken medically necessary diets and co-opted them - foods that contain gluten are not inherently “evil” for everyone...but they don’t work for certain people.
- Treat elimination diets with caution.
-If you have disordered eating or are in recovery from an eating disorder, an elimination diet is probably not for you. Talk to your doctor and dietitian about other tools you can use!
-If you do not have a history of disordered eating and the elimination diet is something you want to try to help alleviate your GI discomfort, make sure you work with a dietitian who has experience working with clients with GI conditions and has a strong understanding of Intuitive Eating.
-Remember, it is an elimination and reintroduction diet, so you will be able to reintroduce many of these foods into your diet. The phases of an elimination diet are:
1. The Elimination Phase– often 2-6 weeks, usually 4
2. Reintroduction Phase– reintroducing foods and paying attention to your body’s response
3. Personalization Phase– checking in and adjusting as necessary
Principle 2: Honor Your Hunger
- Make sure you’re eating enough and eating regularly throughout the day. The pattern of restricting and overeating can exacerbate GI conditions - letting yourself get too hungry will throw off your body’s cues and can lead to overeating and GI distress.
- Your gut won’t work nearly as well if it is not properly stimulated, nourished and utilized.
Principle 3: Make Peace with Food
- What has influenced your food choices in the past & what is currently influencing them? Do you have the desire to eat in a way that you have been told is the “right” way to eat from books, friends, family, or the media? Do you have moral associations with different foods? Are you attached to your body looking a certain way? These thoughts and emotions affect all of us - but the important thing is not to make our food decisions based on them.
- Reducing hypervigilance helps! If you’re constantly thinking about and obsessing over your food choices, your quality of life decreases.
- For folks without a food allergy or Celiac Disease: Once you are able to identify foods that cause you discomfort, you do not have to be a “perfect” eater when it comes to those foods. It can be empowering to know that you have the agency to eat foods that might cause distress if you choose to. In this process, you can work to understand how different foods affect your body and still occasionally choose to eat them, knowing the symptoms will eventually dissipate.
- Part of this peace making process might be grieving the loss of foods you loved but no longer eat because they cause you extreme discomfort or compromise your health (eg people with Celiac grieving the loss of bread). Give yourself the time and the space to grieve, and know that you are not alone. In time, see if you can find substitutes that come as close as possible to the food you loved.
Principle 4: Challenge the Food Police
- Be careful of labeling foods as “good” or “bad” because some foods work well for some people and poorly for others, no matter how “nutritious” or “unhealthy” they might be considered! Eating is individual! You are the expert of your body, no one else is. No one else has a right to judge or label your food choices, and vice versa! When you are judgmental of other people’s choices or they are judgmental of yours, this is food shaming. Food shaming will not encourage positive changes and will only make people feel poorly.
- If anyone on your social media feed triggers you to feel bad about yourself and your choices, remove them, unfollow them, and don’t look back!
- Be kind to yourself, and work to let go of guilt around your food decisions. Listening to the “food police” telling you what you should and shouldn’t eat can cause anxiety which then stimulates or exacerbates GI symptoms. Create an environment that reduces stress as much as possible.
- According to Evelyn Tribole, one of the co-creaters of Intuitive Eating, “guilt = unnecessary suffering.” It does not benefit you or anyone else! Let yourself be imperfect, and let other people make their own food choices without any judgement from you! They are the experts of their body, and different choices work for different people.
- Be careful of your self talk! If you experience symptoms, use it as a learning opportunity rather than blaming yourself. Remember to be compassionate with yourself and that you will feel better again. Self-criticism will only exacerbate things.
Principle 5: Challenge the Food Police
- It is important to eat foods that you enjoy. Do what you can to create abundance around foods you can eat, like finding restaurants that have allergy-friendly foods, using a service such as Epicured, finding recipes that allow you to eat versions of all your favorite foods, and taking advantage of the many substitutes that exist!
- The book Intuitive Eating says: “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.”
Principle 6: Feel Your Fullness
- It is important to understand what comfortable fullness feels like, as feeling stuffed can make symptoms worse. Comfortable fullness is a sign of nourishing your body. Tip: stop eating when you feel about 80% full.
- If you eat to the point of discomfort, once again, there is nothing wrong with you! Everyone does this sometimes. Check in with how you’re feeling and work to create an environment that will help you eat in a way that leads to comfortable rather than uncomfortable fullness as frequently as possible (hint: don’t let yourself get too hungry or deprive yourself of foods you enjoy which may prompt over-eating).
Principle 7: Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness
- Emotional discomfort is a huge contributor to GI discomfort - if you aren’t emotionally healthy, there’s a good chance your gut is suffering as well. Fear, anger, stress, and anxiety can change your eating habits, contribute to reflux, exacerbate discomfort, and alter the speed of digestion and absorption.
- Food can be very comforting, and many people eat in order to alleviate strong emotions. It is important to develop other strategies to cope with these emotions so that food can be something you enjoy and that nourishes you without relying on it to fix your emotional challenges.
- Many people think that changing their diets should fix everything, but there is so much we can do outside of our food choices! Tackling gut symptoms sometimes requires the use of multiple strategies, including yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, therapy, gut-mediated hypnotherapy, improved sleep habits, and, in some cases, medication.
Principle 8: Respect Your Body
- Accept your body as it is. Although you of course want to feel better, and there is much you can do to achieve this, your body does not need to look different or feel different in order to be worthy.
- Treat your body as your friend that you love, respect, and pay attention to, not your enemy.
- You may or may not realize what rules you have internalized about food, so take the time to question why you’re making the choices you’re making around foods you are eating. Make sure you make decisions to honor and listen to your body rather than because you distrust your body or want to try to change it. As Evelyn Tribole says, “Your choices should come from a desire to feel good inside your body, rather than a desire to attempt to control your body.”
Think of your food choices as coming from a place of self care rather than not being allowed to have certain foods. “I am choosing foods that make my body feel good and that show the respect I have for my body.”
Principle 9: Movement- Feel the Difference
- Find pleasurable movement that helps alleviate your symptoms. Exercise that is too strenuous may exacerbate symptoms.
- A walk in nature is good for the body and soul. Love dancing? Then, play some music and get your body moving. Want to try yoga? Try out a sequence specifically for gut comfort.
Principle 10: Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition
- Be curious about your body’s response to different foods! Keeping a journal noting what foods you ate and how you felt before and after eating them can be really helpful with this. This is not about tracking what you are eating or measuring quantities, but rather a technique to use to pay closer attention to your internal cues that will help you choose foods that feel good for your body and mind.
- Think more in terms of what foods you can add in, rather than which foods you have to or should restrict.
- Add in foods that may specifically help your gut, like low FODMAP fruits and vegetables, canned lentils and chickpeas, oats, and rice or potato salad. Check out the blog post here and a graphic here for more information!
Brenna O’Malley guest post on Alissa Rumsey’s site: IE with food allergies
Rachel Hartley on IBS