The Beggars’ Banquet: My Beef with Intuitive Eating

In recent years, talk of “diets” has become verboten in favor of talk about approaching your health via the trajectory of “intuitive eating,” which, at first glance, sounds pretty good, actually. Listen to your wise body, and it will guide you in your eating choices.

The problem I have with this idea is that many of us do not have very wise bodies. I grew up in a family that feasted on white flour, white sugar, preservatives, and low-density lipids to the max. Vegetables were a punishment, fruit that didn’t come in a can a rarity, cheap meats the primary staple of each meal filled in on all sides with simple carbohydrates, tons of starch, and artificial flavoring. Over a young lifetime of eating this way, my tongue has been trained to find this food delicious; my body has been trained to crave these ingredients. But I know a little about addiction and, after examining my addictive behaviors and lifestyle in one arena, I was surprised to see the same patterns in my eating life as well. I was surprised to recognize myself as a junky food addict.

Whether we like it or not, there is a science to eating. I’m not talking about weight loss – calories in, calories out, whatever. Lose weight if you want, but I’m talking about being healthy and not suffering malnutrition. And the truth is, if you eat the way I described above, even if that’s what your body is “craving,” even if you honestly feel that intuitively your body wants you to eat Cheetos and pasta and cake with no produce or rich protein sources in there for variety, your body will suffer malnutrition. That’s not a judgment, that’s not a moral declaration, that’s in no way a condemnation of the joy anyone gets from eating something delicious. That’s just a statement of scientific fact. Your body needs vitamins, nutrients, complex carbohydrates, high density lipids (good fats), and plenty of protein to function: your vital organs need them, your immune system needs them, your brain needs them.

Now, I feel like maybe I’m giving intuitive eating a bad rap, and that’s not quite my intention. A number of physicians and skilled nutritionists advocate for intuitive eating, but I think the problem comes in translation, when a number of people literally decide they are going to eat “intuitively” without educating themselves about what that actually entails. Eating intuitively without training your body to rely on and crave high-nutrient, high-quality foods is like telling a heroin addict to use their best judgment about infant care. That person is chemically incapable of making rational, informed, wise decisions; a person whose body has been trained to crave food lacking in nutritional value is similarly chemically impaired of the ability to trust their own intuitive judgment.

I believe intuitive eating does have a place, but it cannot stand independent of a full nutritional education, nor of the retraining your body requires to learn to crave the things that are actually good for it. It’s true that your body is probably, underneath all that Doritos-loving fervor, actually craving things like whole grains, leafy greens, and lean protein. But trying to hear the whisper of, “Please give me this excellent food” over the shouting of an addicted system screaming, “GIVE ME COOL RANCH OR GIVE ME DEATH!” is – I can tell you from experience – quite the challenge.

Like your intuition about social situations, relationships, and that job you’re not sure you should take, your eating intuition needs strengthening, needs training, needs care. You don’t start off with strong intuition, after all. Life experience, education, and good habits inform a grown intuition as you get older and wiser. So do yourself a favor: set intuitive eating as a goal you will reach, and in the mean time, put on your training wheels, visit a nutritionist, do some research, and make informed choices about what you put into your body. It is beautiful, it is your vessel, and it is worth the pampering that consistent, informed nutrition can give it.

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Meghan Young Krogh

Meghan had a number of quality writing mentors over the course of her education, which just goes to show that you can't blame the teacher for the way the student turns out. Team Oxford Comma represent.

11 thoughts on “The Beggars’ Banquet: My Beef with Intuitive Eating”

  1. Has anyone here really researched intuitive eating at all? It isn’t a movement that is at all about just eating what you crave. It’s about learning more about what foods make you feel healthy and better without punishing yourself for occasionally craving those fatty/salty/etc. foods. A big part of mindful eating is to really focus on what you are eating AND how it makes you feel later, not to just eat pasta and Cheetos all the time because they sound good; that really ignores a fundamental concept of the movement. Intuitive eating also encourages an active lifestyle and learning to crave the foods that will help you to be healthier and happier. Many intuitive eaters recommend “re-training” yourself and your cravings by tasting new foods and, as I mentioned, also focusing on what foods you can eat and enjoy that will also help you continue to feel well and healthy. It also focuses on helping eliminate emotional eating by helping you recognize when you’re truly hungry and when you’re craving another type of comfort, and activities that can be done instead. There are many intuitive eating resources available that help confront these issues, not encourage them.

    1. Tessa, I think what I was trying to address is not the Movement, capital M, but the common discussion that surrounds intuitive eating without accessing the resources you list, without retraining your body as you referenced. Unfortunately, though I know exactly what you’re talking about, intuitive eating in everyday conversation has become shorthand for “eat whatever I want cause I feel like it,” and what I’m trying to encourage here is for people to arm themselves with nutritional knowledge before embarking on a course that they are not prepared for.

    2. I have to confess, you’re right. Most of what I know about the movement of Intuitive Eating comes from cursory glances at articles and discussion of it on TV and in a documentary I watched recently.

      It sounds a great deal more complicated and reasoned that I had originally given it credit for being. Thanks for the additional info, Tessa!

    3. Thank you.

      My take on it, reading a lot of blogs (The Fat Nutritionist is a really good one) and “Health at Every Size” by Linda Bacon, is that it’s about being somewhat mindful of nutrition but loosening the reins from where a dieter might have them. Yes, do the sort of commonly accepted good-for-you things like eating more veggies and cutting down on fatty meats and processed sugar and all that, but don’t beat yourself up if you crave something “bad.” If you really, really want a sundae after dinner, it’s not the end of the world. It’s about attending to your body’s needs but listening to what it wants as well.

      The problem isn’t with intuitive eating itself, it’s that people don’t really understand it and think it’s just about eating whatever you feel like.

  2. I’m probably what you’d call an intuitive eater, but I think you’re right in education being important here. I don’t crave junk food, because to be honest I don’t really like it.
    But that probably comes from it not being a common thing in my house while growing up, since I grew up in the French countryside with a mother who is all about organic, healthy foods, and a father who imports/exports fresh produce, so I definitely come from privileged perspective here.

  3. It’s an evolutionary imperative to seek fat, salt, and sugar. Our bodies crave it not just because most of us were raised on the McDonald’s teat, but because that’s what we would have yearned for in the wild.

    This is why I don’t think intuitive eating works unless, as you said, it’s accompanied by a good dose of knowledge and common sense. Even then, isn’t that just “eating wisely” anyway?

    Our bodies are smart; if I’m lost in the wild and need to scrape by, then I’ll trust my body because it will not lead me astray. But sitting at a desk most the day, with shelves upon shelves of cheap food available, I’d better trust my brain over my body! :)

  4. I never heard much about intuitive eating, but I remember people talking about eating when you feel hungry, which sounds reasonable except for those of us who are emotional eaters. It sounds like I have the same problems with that as you do with intuitive eating. My body demands/craves apples and salads and oranges, but not nearly as often as it craves cookies and cheese.

    1. I wonder if there are some good sources out there that help to clarify the difference, and what tools we might use to help learn to hear the different voices. I’ll tell you what: my body has never told me to eat leafy greens, but I’m a smart lady and I know I should for all their glorious nutritional value. Sigh. Too bad Phish Food doesn’t give us the same benefits.

  5. This fully articulates my problem with intuitive eating, as well. I would like to be at a place where I stop eating when I’m full and not only when my plate is cleared. But other than that, I think I intuit way too much that my body needs Phish Food for this to be a method that would work for me. I DO like intuitive eating’s focus on removing “good” and “bad” qualifiers from food though.

    1. I agree. I think education about nutritional value – as opposed to some vague implication of a food’s inherent moral qualities – helps to clear up the way we’ve all somehow collectively learned to judge food as good and bad. I also value a general understanding that it’s a long-term pattern of eating, not a one-off indulgence, that indicates our body’s overall health in relation to food, which I think intuitive eating, at its best, also seeks to accomplish.

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