Updated: Jun 25
Brenna Topham, RDN, LD
Intuitive eating has become somewhat of a hot button topic in the media recently. From colorful bowls of salad to hamburgers, your instagram feed is likely overtaken by #intuitiveeating, even on posts that clearly market diets. It can really be confusing to figure out exactly what you should do to start eating intuitively. So, many people seek the help of a non-diet dietitian.
I’m often asked “But what IS Intuitive eating?” I’m asked about it everyday, and everyday it catches me off guard. Usually met with a long pause and baited breath in session. It’s a weird question, because IE looks different for everyone. Some people might even decide meal structure is best for them for the rest of their lives. Does that mean they’re not intuitive eaters, even though they’re eating in a way that feels best for their body and needs? But dietitians are often stereotyped as giving out direct meal plans and tell you “ best of luck following it.” Or even, direct meal plans are the expectation when working with a dietitian. So when my clients first learn of the non-diet approach, it can be really confusing to walk away from a session without a list of do’s and don’ts.
By the next session, clients often have a million great questions about how their eating might look if they are allowed to eat anything, go to any restaurant, have any drink.
So, what IS Intuitive Eating?
I can give them a lot of education about how it was developed in the 90’s by two dietitians, has 10 principles, is the alternative to dieting, etc. But that’s not what people really want to know.
What they want to know is what will Intuitive Eating look like for them when they have “arrived.” This is what’s often really being asked. What will I look like? What will my friends think of me? What will I talk about instead of diets? What will I buy at the grocery store? How will I explain this to my spouse? Will I eat too much? Will I eat too little? Will I ever stop eating?
Will I lose weight, will I gain weight, can I lose weight?
Can I trust myself?
After much thought and consideration, here’s the best answer I can come up with:
I don’t know. I don’t know what intuitive eating will look like for you. I don’t know what your weight will be, if it’ll be easier, if your friends will miss the ‘dieting you’. I do know there will be a deep trust and respect between you and your body.
People like diets because they are so straightforward. It’s like the trail map through the forest. Imagine Yosemite, Redwood, and the Grand Canyon all had the same trail map. You’d fall off a cliff or get lost in the thicket. Diets are not one size fits all, just like trail maps are not one park matches all.
Stay on his path and you won’t get eaten by a bear. Stay on this path; snakes never leave the bushes. Stay on this path; you won’t get lost.
Somehow the scary always gets you, anyways.
So when people ask me what the path of intuitive eating will look like, I don’t have an answer.
Because Intuitive Eating is the forest itself.
It’s yours to explore and learn along the way. There’s no rules, no trails here. You can take your time admiring every branch, every crevice in the rocks. I don’t know what your forest will look like- I’ve never been there before. But I’m really excited to discover it with you, by your side, every step of the way.
Sometimes, if you've been traveling the trails for a long time, it’s easy to just walk alongside the trail and call it exploring the wilderness. “I really just prefer zoodles to noodles, it’s a preference, not a diet rule!” “Zoodles are all fine and dandy, but let’s explore some more”: that’s my role in intuitive eating.
The neurological processes in the brain work this way. Our brain wants to do everything the most efficient way possible. What’s the most efficient way through a forest- the trail or bushwhacking?
Neurons are like teeny electrical wires, and neurotransmitters are like the electrical outlet. You’re probably really accustomed to plugging your phone into the outlet at the side of your bed. But, the plug behind the TV? You’ll spend 10 minutes fumbling around in the dark. The brain sort of does the same thing. (that metaphors a stretch, but go with it). The more your brain does something, the more neurotransmitters it sends to the neuron junction, and the easier it is to do it. Simplest most efficient way possible?
Just like a trail in the forest, the neurons that are used the most make the clearest path.
Even if you’re free to walk the entire forest, you’re likely to choose the same path simply out of ease. It can be really hard to search through the bramble for an answer to “what sounds good for dinner tonight, especially if you just want to get back to a trail of familiarity. A dietitian can help point out the patterns so that you can go exploring and find a path that is best for YOU. It’s less like a trail map and more like a Survivorman-esque experience. We’re in it together.