12 Reasons Intuitive Eating is Harder than it Sounds
by the Ruby Health Team
“Can everyone eat intuitively?”
“Will intuitive eating help me lose weight?”
“How do I get better at intuitive eating?
“How long does it take to adjust to intuitive eating?”
These are just a few of the questions that come up with the journey of intuitive eating. It’s exactly that: a journey. For some, it takes a few months to unravel their diet history and tune in to the body. For others, there are many layers to peel back on the journey to becoming a more intuitive eater. What gets in the way? Read on to learn challenges and important considerations. The good news: everyone can take steps to become a more intuitive eater!
Pursuing intuitive eating can be a rewarding, yet frustrating experience. Hunger and fullness cues are like a gentle whisper in a world where stressors are often yelling loudly at us:
- Work deadlines
- Family issues
- Packed schedules
- Diet culture
These all call for our energy and attention and are “louder” than hunger cues.
Intuitive eating is a wonderful practice and very liberating, but it also comes from a place of privilege. Simply put, the easier your life, the easier it is to be an intuitive eater. In a perfect world, we would all have stress-free lives and find ease in the mind-body connection. Unfortunately, in the real world, we’re juggling a lot. Looking at these factors that interfere with hunger/fullness can give you compassion when intuitive eating isn’t going well, and you can use the best approach.
Think of intuitive eating as a partnership between our body signals (e.g., hunger and fullness cues) and our mind (e.g., common sense and self-awareness). Our body is the pilot, and our mind is the co-pilot. If we can’t rely on the body to be in charge of guiding the journey, we switch to using our brains to make logical, practical decisions with food.
Intuitive eating is a wonderful practice and very liberating, but it also comes from a place of privilege. Simply put, the easier your life, the easier it is to be an intuitive eater.
12 Things that Interfere with Intutive Eating:
Intuitive eating is a partnership between our body signals and our mind.
Thoughts, events, and preoccupations can sometimes cloud our ability to read the signals.
Contant dieting breaks down the mind-body connection.
12 things that make intuitive eating harder than it sounds:
It appears like such a simple thing to do. Eat what you want, when you want. However, getting focused in on your body cues can be a little difficult. These are some of the reasons you might find this difficult.
*spoiler alert* most people resonate with at least some of these. It doesn’t mean you can’t become an intuitive eater but I hope it will help make sense of why intuitive eating is more nuanced than it sounds. It takes a lot of time and practice for most people.
Intuitive eating can sound like “anything goes,” which may leave you feeling like you just jumped out of an airplane and you’re unsure if there’s a parachute on your back. We’ve been taught for so long that if we don’t control our bodies and manage our weight, we will constantly gain an indescribable amount. Sounds like all-or-nothing thinking, right?
Dieting leads to a breakdown in the mind-body connection. Have you ever been at the DMV waiting for your turn, and someone walks in smelling of very strong perfume? At first, it’s so intense you’re tempted to leave, but after time what happens? The smell fades and you may even forget that it’s intense. Why does this happen? Our nervous system adapts in real-time. If you don’t respond to the message that says, “this smell is annoying; give yourself some space from it,” then the signal is reduced. This is called nose blindness, and it’s temporary.
Similarly, you may no longer have hunger cues after years of dieting. Or you have them, but only when you’re starving. This is super common! Don’t worry; they will come back. It’s essentially hunger blindness: the hunger is still there, but you’ve lost the link to the hunger cue and the breakdown of the mind-body connection. The tip is to tune in and listen more often to see if you can hear a gentle whisper of a hunger cue. Most importantly, listen and feed yourself to honor your hunger!
Knowing this, you can see why it’s not an option to rely solely on hunger for folks with diet-brain or eating disorder thoughts that override your hunger cues.
Tip: Tune in and listen more often to see if you can hear a gentle whisper of a hunger cue. Most importantly, listen and feed yourself to honor your hunger!
When you feel hungry, eat something. If your body image thoughts are louder than your hunger cues, you don’t get to rely on your hunger cues.
When unable to be present, we are more like a floating head without a body. Most of us need to live in our brains for work – even with a physical job, you need to focus on what you’re doing. This means we’re more in tune with our outside world than our inner world. So what can help you check in with your body?
Here’s an example: you wake up, hit the snooze button, finally get your day started with some coffee, and off you go. You’re so focused on other things that you don’t notice hunger during your day. However, as evening approaches, you have dinner and just keep eating. Sound familiar? When we’re focused and stressed, we don’t hear hunger cues unless we really tune in.
Tip: try slowing down. Take a complete lunch break. Spend at least 20min eating without any distractions
3. Growing up around diets or food rules
The subconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between a diet and food scarcity.
Let’s use an extreme example of someone in an impoverished country suffering from food insecurity. How does scarcity impact our minds and behavior progressively over time? It starts with obsessive thoughts about food and irritability or getting “hangry.” As the situation progresses, it may result in hiding or sneaking food, daydreaming about food, feeling an urgency to make sure you don’t get “caught” if there’s someone who might not want you to have that food, and feeling dissociated or “checked out.” From there, physical outcomes may ensue: insomnia (you don’t need to sleep, you need to find food), hair loss, loss of menstruation, and numb/hollow feelings. Other behaviors, such as binging, compulsive exercise, or night eating might emerge. The same pattern happens with a history of dieting.
Growing up around someone who is dieting sends the implicit message that “when you’re an adult, you don’t get to have certain foods.” You probably noticed a rubber band effect with food rules in the house as a child. A typical example is a teen who has a no soda rule at home might drink ALL the soda at a friend’s house. Tip: practice the mantra “all foods fit.” The ABCs of “all foods fit” to remember: apples, bacon, cucumber, Doritos… everything!
The survival part of the brain doesn’t know the difference between dieting and food insecurity.
Food is essential for survival, so anything that threatens our access to food triggers the subconscious fear that we may starve, and it can leave a mark. For example, a client who was told (mistakenly) she’s dairy-free from a young age later binges on cheese and ice cream. Food insecurity is the root of the binge and makes it challenging to honor fullness. This can often feel compulsive or even a sense of panic driving the eating.Growing up around someone who is dieting sends the implicit message that “when you’re an adult, you don’t get to have certain foods.” You probably noticed a rubber band effect with food rules in the house as a child. A typical example is a teen who has a no soda rule at home might drink ALL the soda at a friend’s house.
Tip: practice the mantra “all foods fit.” The ABCs of “all foods fit” to remember: apples, bacon, cucumber, Doritos… everything!
4. Stress or excitement can make intuitive eating harder than it sounds
Stress significantly impacts the gut, making you nauseous, giving you butterflies, leaving you feeling numb or bloated, or resulting in a feeling of “emotional fullness.” All these make it hard to know what’s going on with hunger or fullness.
Other physical and emotional stressors include sleep deprivation, illness, or life stressors. Another common experience is hunger in the morning, leading to nausea which is mistaken for “I’m not hungry” but then sets you up for being overly hungry later in the day, especially after dinner. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard someone say, “I’m not hungry during the day, but in the evening, I am famished.” The stress and excitement from the day are much louder than hunger cues, so it shuts off that signal until you relax enough to hear it again.
Tip: think of your body as the pilot responsible for intuitive eating and giving you guidance for hunger and fullness. When stress makes it too hard to know what to do, your mind is the co-pilot that takes over, making sensible decisions to care for your body. For example, you still need lunch even when you don’t feel hunger cues.
5. Digestive Distress
Stress can cause digestive problems like bloating, but digestive issues can also cause stress! So which is it, the chicken or the egg?
Our digestive system functions its best when we’re calm, aka “rest and digest”.
This is tricky because our digestive system is regulated by the same nerve responsible for stress. We have two stress responses: one is “fight or flight” and the other is “faint or freeze”. If we are in “fight or flight,” we’re prepared for survival, and the digestive system isn’t functioning well, which leads to an upset stomach, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. On the other hand, when we’re in “faint or freeze,” the digestive system often slows down and is frozen.
It’s normal to feel stress during the day, but we need time to bounce back. Your parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for coming into a relaxed state after periods of stress. It also helps run life-sustaining processes, like digestion, during times when you feel safe and relaxed. Basically, our digestive system functions the way it should when we’re in a calm state.
Tip: practice “rest and digest.” Try a breathing exercise such as square breathing before each meal for one week. What do you notice? What can you learn about your relationship with food through this experiment?
Certain things, like marijuana, are appetite stimulants.
6. Caffeine, alcohol, and weed
Caffeine is an appetite suppressant. Marijuana is an appetite stimulant. Alcohol can leave you entirely disconnected from your body, often leading to forgetting to eat and lots of cravings.
Tip: if you like a morning coffee, consider a week where you have food first and drink coffee afterward. What do you notice? What are your takeaways from this experience?
7. Certain Medications
Some mood stabilizers can be an appetite suppressant. The blood sugar medication, Metformin, can cause digestive distress, making it hard to listen to hunger/fullness.
Tip: if you’re taking a medicine that might be an appetite stimulant or suppressant, what can help you honor your body’s needs? Sometimes this is making food choices from a logical place rather than trusting body cues.
During travel, you’ll probably eat at different times and choose unusual foods, disrupting your sleep patterns. You’ll also be exposed to different environments and germs, which will cause gut bacteria changes, which can impact your immune system and mood.
Tip: when traveling, be conscious of your food choices and be patient with your hunger/fullness cues if they get thrown off.
9. Chronic Pain or Illness
Chronic pain and chronic illness take their toll on your capacity to be resilient to daily stressors, making it harder to connect with the body. For example, if you have a disease like diabetes, you’ll need to ensure you eat at times, even if you’re not hungry, to help manage your blood sugar. In addition, period pain, joint pain, chronic pain, etc., can all impact your ability to hear your hunger cues.
Even a temporary illness like COVID can throw off your journey towards intuitive eating. Lockdowns have caused many people to derail their efforts towards better health.
Tip: what can help you offer more grace and compassion to your body?
Always trying to be thin.
10. Bullying or body shaming when you’re young
As a young child and adolescent, you’re still forming your identity and defining what others see as your value, which leads to feeling worthy of respect, care, and connection. Your brain isn’t fully mapped until age 20-25. If body size and shape intertwine with your value, being loved, or being rejected, this leaves deeper roots of pain that need to be healed on your journey to becoming an intuitive eater.
Food becomes intertwined with body image, which in turn roots into a sense of “Am I acceptable?”, “Will I be loved?”
Tip: Work on redefining your worth outside of body image.
Reflection question: what are some key traits you admire in yourself that have nothing to do with your body? Maybe it’s kindness, creativity, or how you approach your life. Working with a therapist specializing in body image can also be a crucial part of the healing process. Reach out to others who are also working on body positivity.
11. Food as a coping tool
Food may be celebratory or punishment. It may help you connect with emotions and feel your more or numb out and not feel at all. Food can offer a sense of control in a life where so many things are outside our control. Any of these experiences are common, and it’s there because you’re trying to survive. Food might play more than one role in helping you cope with the world. For some, food is comforting and a friend that’s always reliable. For others, skipping meals is a way to numb the intensity of the day.
We’re often taught to address ‘using food to cope’ through control. But unfortunately, control can compound the issue, amplify the destructive pattern, and lead to a sense of hopelessness. So instead, the path is to use self-compassion to find a new way of caring for yourself instead of relying on food.
A typical example of this is what some folks call sugar addiction. Since our brains run on glucose, we quickly learn that cookies, sweets, and candy offer easy access to a mood boost. It can feel like sugar runs the show or even that it’s addictive. So what’s going on? Usually, the mechanism at play is self-soothing. Eating sugar signals the brain and body, “I’m safe, I have food, so I’m going to survive.” Feels great! Sugar isn’t the culprit. Instead, we’re trying to find a way to care for ourselves as we navigate a stressful world.
Tip: when you experience an urge to eat, and it’s not coming from stomach hunger, take 5min to journal. Are you trying to cope with emotions? If so, what are they? What need is trying to be met? Try using the HALT worksheet and read the article for further support.
Trauma impacts our ability to feel safe connecting with the body.
Physical and sexual trauma and emotional or spiritual abuse can make it harder to feel safe in the body and make it more challenging to listen to the hunger/fullness cues. Trauma can cause a disconnect that impacts many areas of the body cues. For instance: not feeling when you need to pee or not registering that you need rest. Emotional and spiritual abuse can lead to a harsh inner critic who, in turn, is very perfectionistic about food rules, which interferes with hunger/fullness cues.
Food trauma. This can be trauma during meal times, in the kitchen, or related to food in another way. At least a third of the clients I talk to have experienced food trauma, which certainly impacts your relationship with food later in life.
Tip: if you have a trauma history, be extra patient with yourself on your road toward intuitive eating. Sometimes it takes months or years before cues are more reliable.
When you experience trauma, you may ‘check out’ of your body as a survival technique. In the long run, this makes it more difficult to listen to hunger/fullness signals.
This list may leave you wondering if you can become an intuitive eater. My hope for you is that YES you can become more in touch with your body, honor your needs and connect with your body in a compassionate way. Many find navigating intuitive eating a deeply rewarding experience ultimately leading to more self-awareness and freedom with food.
Being an intuitive eater isn’t an all-or-nothing approach. It’s a journey. Remember to be patient with yourself as you navigate your own path towards intuitive eating.