Understanding Intuitive Eating & Your Body’s Needs

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In the wellness world, we discuss many types of diets. Paleo, keto, intermittent fasting, FODMAPs, GAPS, WAPF, and more. There are many different ways of eating when it comes to nourishing your body. While diets and protocols can have benefits, sometimes you can stick to one that no longer meets your needs.

How do you know when a diet is no longer right for you? And how do you eat if you don’t follow a food plan?

In this post, we’ll explore when diets might no longer be right for you and how intuitive eating could support your health.

You Don’t Have to Follow a Diet Forever

Many diets that we talk about at Wellness Mama have things in common. They promote gut health, reduce inflammation, and address root causes of autoimmunity. These are all good things! But your body doesn’t stay the same forever, and your nutritional needs can change over time.

It’s possible to follow a diet for so long that it becomes a habit. In this way, you may not realize when your body is ready for a different way of eating. If you’re not working with a nutritionist, how do you know when your diet no longer works?

Our genes are not one-size-fits-all. Your diet shouldn’t be either. Your cells are constantly replicating and changing over time. Your nutrient needs can change, too!

If you enter a new season of life (get pregnant, start breastfeeding, enter menopause), your body might need to eat differently. If you find yourself with more stress or you experience new health challenges, your food plan should change to support you.

It’s possible to get stuck in a loyalty trap with a diet. Let’s say you battle Hashimoto’s as I did. You find a way of eating that brings you back to health. After time, you’re a lot better off.

Your body can now probably eat more foods or even relax your dietary standards—but you may feel too loyal to the way of eating that got you to where you are to stop. Maybe you feel safe with this food plan and you’re scared to try new foods. It’s understandable, but it also may negatively affect your health.

Your food plan should serve your current physical needs. If those needs change, your diet should, too.

Could Your Diet Become an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders are more common than people think. They don’t always look the same either. Approximately nine percent of the U.S. population are or will be affected by eating disorders. While anorexia and bulimia are commonly discussed, any type of unhealthy relationship with food can transition into disordered eating.

Orthorexia is an eating disorder that involves an excessive focus on eating healthy or “clean.” While that sounds like it couldn’t be a bad thing, long-term diet loyalty to a restricted eating pattern can become orthorexia.

Even if a diet was therapeutic for a time, following it for longer than needed could deprive your body of nutrients. It could also result in a skewed view of food and nutrition and their relationship to your body. I interviewed Devyn Sisson, where we discussed her personal journey with orthorexia.

It’s great to focus on healthy eating, but when you become afraid to eat anything unhealthy, that can signal a crossover into an eating disorder. Eating disorders don’t only happen in people who end up being underweight, either. You can be normal weight or even overweight and battle an eating disorder.

Part of creating a healthy relationship with food is realizing that the stigma surrounding eating disorders is misplaced. Anyone can struggle with one. Seeking professional help to create a balanced relationship with food is no different than seeking medical care for other reasons.

Professional help for eating disorders is important, too. Over time they can lead to malnutrition and create other health problems.

Finding a Balanced View on Diets

One of the ways you can recognize an unhealthy eating pattern is one that claims that many or most foods are inherently bad. There are a few foods that I would definitely vilify, like vegetable oil, for example. But for the most part? Balance is very important in how we view food and nutrition.

Foods that are not good for you may be totally fine for others, like if you struggle with oxalates, for example. You can even eat foods that don’t necessarily provide perfect nutritional support but are still not “bad.” Like ice cream! You can’t live on ice cream alone, but it’s certainly not a healthy view to consider all treats as bad for you.

Some diets work hard to vilify whole categories of foods. It’s ok to follow more defined eating patterns as needed, especially when trying to heal your body. But we have to be careful because it’s easy to fall into a pattern of black and white thinking when in reality it’s about whether a food serves your needs now.

It’s also important to be mindful of why you’re following a diet or food plan. Is it for healing a specific condition? Is it for weight loss? Is it because it’s popular and you have seen others doing it?

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: don’t follow a diet or eating pattern because someone else is. You know your body. Even if you’re not working with a nutritionist, make sure you seek balanced viewpoints about food.

It’s easy to see everyone on social media promoting one type of diet or another. But rarely is that a reason to overhaul your diet. Do plenty of research from multiple sources. Reevaluate your diet each season or as your health changes. Don’t just get stuck in a long-term dietary habit by default.

What Is Intuitive Eating?

If you’re ready to find a new way to define your relationship with food, consider intuitive eating. You’ve probably heard this term before. I talked about it on the podcast, but here’s a basic definition:

  • Instead of following a set of diet foods, your own intuition, appetite, and experience with food guide you.
  • You learn as you go.
  • You don’t have to follow any single diet’s “rules” but instead are ruled by your own body’s signals and cues.

The benefits of intuitive eating are many. You can still practice intuitive eating within the framework of a larger food plan. If you have celiac disease, you’ll still have to be gluten-free. If you know you’re sensitive to dairy, I’m not saying eat dairy as a free-for-all.

Intuitive eating is all about you. You listen to how foods make your body feel and adjust your food intake to match. Ultimately, the food you eat should serve your physical, mental, and emotional needs.

This could mean changing the foods you are eating or even relaxing your current food plan. It could also mean no longer eating foods that make you feel bad. It might mean working on a better view of your body and having a food goal other than just weight loss.

It’s great to want to better your health, and food can be a big part of that. But food can also contribute to health problems, especially when it comes to your mental health. Research from 2020 in Cureus found that diets may do more harm than good—even when there’s a medical benefit to losing weight. Your diet should relieve a burden, not become a huge burden to manage. Intuitive eating is a mental-health friendly approach to food, supported by 2021 research from Eating and Weight Disorders.

How Do You Know If Your Diet Is Mentally Healthy?

Researchers have always been fascinated by how your diet can impact your mental health. It’s well-established that certain dietary patterns can interact with the gut and influence brain and mental health in a negative way. However, research has also found that low-calorie diets or restrictive eating can increase cortisol levels.

If the food you are eating has become a stressor, it’s time to reevaluate. Ask yourself the following questions.

  • Am I avoiding food intake because I am stressed about what I have to (or can’t) eat?
  • Am I eating less because it takes too much time or energy to prepare foods?
  • Am I eating too much because I am dissatisfied with the foods I am allowing myself to eat?
  • Do I feel hungry all the time?
  • Do I frequently feel bloated, have acid reflux, nausea, or other digestive discomforts?

If your answers are “yes” to any of the questions above, your food plan may not be serving you. You can seek professional help either by consulting with a nutritionist or doctor.

Summary

You know there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to health that works. We’re genetically unique, and our diets and wellness plans need to reflect that. Diets can seem good and even benefit us, but that doesn’t mean we follow them forever. I’ve changed my food plan many times over the years to meet my needs.

I’m stronger now than ever, so my food intake is a lot more relaxed than it was when my Hashimoto’s was active. I eat differently now than I did when I was pregnant. Seasons don’t only change with the weather. They vary based on our stages of life.

Nutrition isn’t supposed to be a restrictive thing. It’s literally how we fuel our bodies. When you give your body the foods, vitamins, and minerals that it needs, your health will be affected in a positive way.

For some seasons, that could look like a stricter diet. For others, it could be a relaxed way of eating intuitively. Whatever your diet looks like, it’s always good to check in with how you’re feeling and how your food is affecting you.

This article was medically reviewed by Cynthia Thurlow, NP, the CEO and founder of the Everyday Wellness Project, nurse practitioner, international speaker, and globally recognized expert in intermittent fasting and nutritional health. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.

Have you ever followed an intuitive eating pattern? Have you ever felt like maybe your diet isn’t right but you don’t know how to change it? Share your experiences of listening to your body below.

Sources:

  1. Scarff J. R. (2017).Orthorexia Nervosa: An Obsession With Healthy Eating. Federal practitioner : for the health care professionals of the VA, DoD, and PHS, 34(6), 36–39.
  2. Memon, A. N., Gowda, A. S., Rallabhandi, B., Bidika, E., Fayyaz, H., Salib, M., & Cancarevic, I. (2020). Have Our Attempts to Curb Obesity Done More Harm Than Good?. Cureus, 12(9), e10275.
  3. Hazzard, V. M., Telke, S. E., Simone, M., Anderson, L. M., Larson, N. I., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2021). Intuitive eating longitudinally predicts better psychological health and lower use of disordered eating behaviors: findings from EAT 2010-2018. Eating and weight disorders : EWD, 26(1), 287–294.
  4. Bremner, J. D., Moazzami, K., Wittbrodt, M. T., Nye, J. A., Lima, B. B., Gillespie, C. F., Rapaport, M. H., Pearce, B. D., Shah, A. J., & Vaccarino, V. (2020). Diet, Stress and Mental Health. Nutrients, 12(8), 2428.
  5. Tomiyama, A. J., Mann, T., Vinas, D., Hunger, J. M., Dejager, J., & Taylor, S. E. (2010). Low calorie dieting increases cortisol. Psychosomatic medicine, 72(4), 357–364.



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