When you’ve hit diet rock bottom, intuitive eating is an oasis. Finally, you can stop fighting with your body, stop counting points, stop measuring every morsel of food that passes through your lips. You can have freedom in your relationship with food, and let go of your obsession.

But for many people, the journey to intuitive eating is not all smooth sailing. It’s easy to wonder—was this all a mirage? Or worse, “Aren’t we all born intuitive eaters? What am I doing wrong?”

You are not alone. Here are some of the common struggles that people run into, and some ideas to help you keep moving forward.

“Help! I’m gaining weight.”

When I first read Intuitive Eating (Amazon affiliate link) six years ago, I thought the first principle, “Reject Diet Mentality” meant rejecting the temporary nature of diets, like being on a diet, getting to your “goal weight”, then stopping dieting, and gaining the weight back. I thought “putting weight on the back burner” meant if you stopped thinking about weight and just “ate healthy” or “did intuitive eating”, then you would naturally get to a “healthy weight”.

What I know now is that diet mentality goes much deeper than that. It’s the belief that certain body types are better, healthier and/or worthier than others. That our weight or shape is meant to be controlled and can be controlled. It’s the belief that eating certain foods, or in a certain way, make us better, healthier and/or worthier. If you think about it, you don’t have to look far to find an example of diet culture. Our society lives and breathes it.

Though it seems like a simple three-word phrase, rejecting diet mentality is hard work. It’s counter-culture. It’s literally going against everything you know, and everything that everyone else is still telling you. It makes sense, then, that in a society that values smaller bodies and that conflates weight with health, that if you gain weight while eating intuitively, it’s seen as a big, bad, scary thing.

Fellow dietitian and Dietitians Unplugged co-host Aaron Flores recently wrote in an article on Intuitive Eating for the National Eating Disorders Association: “I tell my clients 1 of 3 things will happen when they become intuitive eaters, their weight will go up, it will stay the same or it will go down, but I don’t know which. That right there is a challenging thing to accept!”

Steps You Can Take to Help You Move Forward

Perhaps you started your intuitive eating journey not knowing that weight gain, including to the point of being heavier than you’ve ever been, was even a possibility. We are conditioned to believe that healthy bodies are smaller bodies, so when we are doing something “healthy”, we hang on to this hope that it’ll make us smaller. As a first step, it may be helpful to set the expectation, and remind yourself regularly, that we don’t really have control over our weight as you move forward. Throw away your scale if you have to.

Notice: what thoughts and emotions come up for you when you realize that weight gain can be an outcome of intuitive eating?

I invite you to get curious and sit with the thoughts and emotions that come with/about the weight gain, even though it will probably be uncomfortable. If you have a journalling habit, here are some prompts that you may find helpful:

  • What brought me to intuitive eating in the first place?
  • What do I hope to get out of intuitive eating?
  • What do I fear about this weight gain?
  • What do I fear that this weight gain says about me? My health? My worth?
  • Are these fears based on absolute truths? How do I know this?
  • If no one else cared or commented about my weight, how would I feel about my body?
  • How am I talking about my body/this weight gain? Is it in a way that respects my body (Principle #8)? If not, what can I say or do instead that is more respectful?

“When will I start eating ‘healthy’ again?”

Often when people first start intuitive eating and give themselves “unconditional permission to eat”, they go into what my colleague and mentor, Food Psych host Christy Harrison calls the “honeymoon phase”. It’s usually at the beginning of the intuitive eating journey, when you’re really exploring this idea of “unconditional permission”. Can I really eat whatever I want? Whenever I want? How much I want?

I don’t love using the term “honeymoon phase” because it feels like too much sunshine and rainbows for me. Instead, I tend to liken this phase to a rollercoaster—it’s fun and possibly thrilling to be eating foods that you might not have eaten in a long time (or ever), but it can also be freakin’ scary to be eating foods that you’ve always thought were “bad” for you.

Another reason why I don’t use the term “honeymoon phase” is because it implies that this is short-term. In reality, this exploration can last for weeks, months, or even years. Especially if you’ve been dieting for a long time, it can be hard not to feel guilty for eating “bad” for longer than what feels “right”, or lost without some sort of rules or guidelines to follow. At the same time, telling yourself to eat more or less of certain foods might feel like you’re slipping back to dieting again. It’s normal to feel like the pendulum is taking its time swinging far out in both directions before it finally settles in the middle.

Steps You Can Take to Help You Move Forward

As with weight gain, I invite you to approach the thoughts and emotions that come up with curiosity. Some questions or journal prompts you might want to explore:

  • What does intuitive eating mean to me? What does it look like? Feel like?
  • Are my expectations realistic? Why or why not?
  • How are my current eating habits different from what I imagine intuitive eating to be?
  • What is getting in the way when I try to eat more intuitively?
  • What would have to change in order for me to eat more intuitively?

I also invite you to really dial up your mindful eating practice. In other words, allow yourself to be present in the eating experience, and allow yourself to approach it with a curious, non-judgmental mindset. Instead of beating yourself for eating in a certain way, ask yourself, “Why?” Why are these negative feelings coming up when I eat this way? What is keeping me from eating differently? What would happen if I ate differently?

Your desire to “eat healthier” means that you care about your health, and gentle nutrition is the last (and oft forgotten) principle of intuitive eating. You will get there!

“What if I’m always hungry?”

Hunger really means one thing—that our body needs food. However, dieting has taught us not to trust hunger: that we should stick to the plan instead of feeding our bodies, that you can’t be hungry if you “just ate”, that you should “feel a little hungry” if you want to lose weight, that it’s actually “thirst”. Combine this with a fear of weight gain (see above), and it’s no wonder that this very normal, biological process can send us into a tizzy.

Steps You Can Take to Help You Move Forward

Healthy bodies get hungry. If you have been dieting or restricting for a long time, it’s normal for your body to suppress its hunger signals. One of the theories is that when you’re restricting, your body thinks that food is scarce (because why would anyone willingly not feed themselves, right?) so it suppresses your hunger signals, making it easier to search for food. Once you start feeding it again, it realizes food is abundant, and turns on the hunger signals again. Your body might even make you feel hungrier than usual, in case famine/restriction is just around the corner.

Honour Your Hunger (Principle #2). Give yourself permission to eat when you feel hungry, and pay attention to how different meals, snacks, foods make you feel. You’ll probably find that some combinations make you feel fuller for longer, while others don’t last for very long. Some foods might even make you feel downright uncomfortable. It’s OK. Experiment. You and your body are wise.

“What if I’m never hungry?”

While we often associate hunger as a feeling in our stomach, some of us feel hunger in different ways. Some people notice that they start salivating more, get headaches or their hands get shaky. Some may notice it as thinking more about food, or a mood change. Long-term restriction, eating disorders, some medications and bariatric surgery can suppress our hunger signals.

Steps You Can Take to Help You Move Forward

If “eating when you’re hungry” means that you’re going to eat very little, or not at all, then I invite you to step back from intuitive eating for a bit, and do a bit of scheduled eating. I’ve heard Intuitive Eating co-author and dietitian Evelyn Tribole liken this to a cast for a broken arm—it’s there to provide support and structure as it heals, just like scheduled eating provides support and structure as your hunger signals heal. You may want to work with a dietitian (oh hai!) to help you figure out what this “cast” will look like.

As you practice your scheduled eating, use it as an opportunity to tune into your hunger/fullness signals as they emerge. Don’t be surprised if they come in a little differently than what you expect or are used to.

“How do I know if I’m doing it ‘right’?”

Diets are straightforward in that there are rules to follow, and it’s clear when you’re doing it “right” versus not. It’s not just diets—even the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website is eatright.org. Unfortunately, there’s no “right” way to do intuitive eating—there are no meal plans or food lists to follow, no one to police the rules. So how do you know when you’ve become an intuitive eater?

Steps You Can Take to Help You Move Forward

While there’s no “right” way to eat intuitively, I believe the answer lies in your intentions and how you feel. When you are choosing to eat (or not eat) something because you want to, not because you have to. When eating (or not eating) is no longer based on “what it will do” to your body shape or weight. When you make choices from a place of self care, not self control. When you approach life with curiosity, not judgment. When thoughts about food and your body take up less real estate in your brain. Those are some of the things you might feel as you build a better relationship with food and with your body.

Have you come across these struggles on your intuitive eating journey? What have you done, if anything, to try to overcome them? Are there any struggles you’ve come across that aren’t in this post? Please share your thoughts and insights in the comments below! If you are looking for additional support, I am always happy to help.

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