How do I support my health with Intuitive Eating?

Bowl of vegetables, eggs, avocado
How do I support my health with Intuitive Eating?

"How do I support my health without going on another diet? Heart disease runs in my family. My cholesterol and blood sugar levels have been creeping up the past year. But I'm afraid if I focus on eating healthy for my heart, that I'll end up feeling crazy about food again!"

If I had a dollar for every time I heard this question from clients, students, social media posts, and general supermarket chats, I would be typing this from a sunny warm spot about now instead of looking out the window at blowing snow.

If you're like many of my clients and students, you may have an intro-understanding of Intuitive Eating and it's principles. Maybe you've even fully ditched wellness-lifestyle plans for good and are slowly learning to make peace with food and your body?

And then one of two things usually happens...

A: You fully embrace the anti-diet mentality. You allow yourself full permission with all foods. You start gleefully honoring your hunger, pleasure, and satisfaction with gusto. Then, suddenly, your clothes start fitting tighter or someone makes a comment about how your body is changing.

This triggers your, "oh shit, what have I done. I've completely let myself go" mentality. Fear wells up in you as you remember your family history of heart disease and diabetes. Like a deer in the headlights, you're ready to dive headfirst back into the first wellness-lifestyle plan that grabs you from the magazine rack at the supermarket check-stand.

Or, B: A slightly more advanced Intuitive Eating situation. You've sworn off the diet roller coaster for good. You're consistently making peace with food, allowing full permission with all foods. You find it satisfying to take pleasure in honoring your subtle hunger and fullness cues. You're generally caring for your body with compassion and respect.

Then, you go in for your annual check-up. You're feeling strong in your anti-diet, weight-inclusive motivations and you boldly deny being weighed, because you know that weight has no barring on your health. You even politely educate the medical assistant and doc on the new perspective you have on health.

The doctor continues with the exam, draws blood, and reports your results back in a few days - with concern. Your cholesterol and blood sugar have increased since you were in last year. And with your family history of heart disease, the doc suggests that it's time to make some dietary changes (i.e. another diet.).

You think, "What the f*ck! I've been working so hard work to make peace with food and my body, and now my health appears to be in jeopardy!"

You're concerned as much as you are frustrated. You really don't want to lose all the mental and emotional strength that you've gained by committing to your Intuitive Eating practice. And you definitely don't want to go back to the food and body shame'n blame prison that you were in all those years while trying to be "good and healthy," which mentally you really weren't.

Which one of these scenarios sounds the most familiar to you part A or part B?

Neon sign reading "eat what makes you happy"
"Get back on track" mentality leads to fuckit eating

Either of these situations is a true test of where the rub meets the road with Intuitive Eating. They are both prime examples of times where it would be so much easier to go back to a wellness-lifestyle plan to "get back on track." Especially since both scenarios can trigger fuckit eating before starting the new plan.

If you're truly committed to continuing your Intuitive Eating practice but want to be mindful of your health at the same time, here's how to do it. The important first step is to notice when fuckit eating kicks in and reflect on why. Could it be because you're asking yourself, "how can I get back on track?"

Give yourself compassionate reassurance about your concern for your health while also acknowledging that wanting to get back on track is the diet mentality whispering in your ear. A whisper that is fueled by an entire culture that values health above all else and equates thinness with health.

The second scenario above recently came up for one of my clients. The dilemma was this, how do you honor eating for heart health without sliding down the slippery slope of dieting? Or as the client beautifully asked, "how can I think of heart-healthy eating in a way that's not diet-y?"

Here's my response

Motivation is tricky once you come to the realization that your body is changing as a result of Intuitive Eating or you get sobering lab results. Diet culture warns you that both situations must be corrected immediately. This triggers feelings of fear and doubt for all the hard work you've been putting into recovering from years of body shame'n blame.

I appreciate it when my clients offer their desire and awareness for " wanting to get back on track." Especially when asking, "is heart-healthy eating" just another form of diet mentality?

This is a complex conversation beyond what can be contained in a blog post. The short answer is yes. And the more nuanced question to reflect on is how do the Intuitive Eating principles of Body Respect, Satisfaction, and Gentle Nutrition tie into the motivation, if at all?

During my conversations with clients, we'll often talk about how these principles are intertwined. In a nutshell, it's satisfying to care for and respect your body by honoring its metabolic health (i.e. cholesterol, blood sugar levels) with Gentle Nutrition and movement when possible, without rigidity.

Of course, this thinking can get hijacked by the diet mentality. The difference comes from focusing on being in your body (embodied) rather than over-analyzing the situation with your head.

person walking on a trail
How your body feels is a stronger motivator for behavior change

For example, if you've been including more movement on most days by walking in your neighborhood, notice how your body feels during and after the walk. If walking feels well to you, you're more likely to keep doing it, which will support your heart health.

In this example, the focus isn't on heart health itself, or the motivation to reduce the lab value numbers associated with it (cholesterol, blood sugar). The focus is on your embodiment - what and how you feel in your body. Do you see the difference?

The motivation shifts to come from within your body (internal) rather than from an intellectual space, which is heavily influenced by external diet culture beliefs. You know what you "need/should" do intellectually to support your health, but it can be hard to get starting doing those behaviors and sticking with them if you rely solely on your intellect for motivation.

Your intellect creates the rigid thinking you've experienced from diets in the past. At the same time, it can talk you out of doing those behaviors altogether (i.e. fuckit eating when your diet rebel mindset has been triggered). This how feelings of craziness get created around food and body.

When you can get in touch with physical sensations in your body as a guide, the motivation shifts to, "I want to feel better in my body." This internal motivation will take you much farther in your Intuitive Eating practice and overall health.

I hope this is helpful. If the idea of supporting your health as a form of satisfaction and body respect feels like a stretch, that's ok. Have patience and compassionate curiosity with yourself. It's a highly nuanced concept within Intuitive Eating.

If you have more questions about how to apply Intuitive Eating to other health concerns, join the Savor Food & Body private Facebook Group. Starting January 15th, we'll be offering bi-monthly Coffee Talk Q & A sessions live in the group at 10 AM. Join the group HERE.