When Intuitive Eating Becomes a Rule, Not a Tool

No more eating rulesI have to thank a commenter in an Intuitive Eating discussion group I belong to for the catchy title of this post. It was in response to another poster who had said he felt he was eating too much and generally eating “everything.” It got me thinking about the ways that this could easily happen when we are in the early stages of learning to give up dieting and eat intuitively.

For those of us who have dieted, Intuitive Eating can feel like a lifesaver once we get over the fear of trusting our own bodies. When we start to tune into our internal cues of hunger and satiety and eat accordingly, we can feel an immense sense of relief and freedom from restrictive eating.

But what happens when we start to become just as restrictive with IE as we were when we dieted? When “eat when you’re hungry” (a guideline) becomes “eat ONLY when you are hungry” (a rule)? When “stop when you’re no longer hungry” becomes so rigid that you are left craving more? That’s when Intuitive Eating has become a rule, not a tool, and you’re in danger of embarking on yet another diet.

We eat for many reasons: primarily stomach hunger, but also sometimes for mouth hunger, for celebratory reasons, because you won’t be able to eat later, for comfort, and sometimes just because it is there. Having a strict control rule such as “I can only eat when my stomach feels a certain level of hunger” can feel restrictive, and restriction is frequently associated with binge-eating behaviors (See the evidence here). Having permission to eat for all the other reasons, while mostly aiming for stomach hunger, creates a safe space for eating where you are in charge (as opposed to in control).

Same for fullness/satiety. Most of the time, we are listening for the “not hungry” cue to tell us when to stop eating. But occasional overeating is normal – say, on special occasions, like a holiday meal, or when a particular meals tastes especially wonderful (hello pizza!). Feeling like we have permission to overeat if we want to gives us – not “the rule” – the decision making power over what and how much we eat.

Once we’re back in Rule Land, it’s easy to feel confined to healthy, moderate eating – and it becomes easy to want to rebel against it too. That’s when we might start feeling like we’ve gone off the rails, eating without listening to internal cues, and trying to satisfy the psychological deficits restriction creates.

When I learned to eat intuitively, I found that I still had a hard time regulating myself with pizza (did I mention this is my favorite food!?). As I honed in on my internal eating cues, I found I was able to recognize satiety after one slice most of the time. However, there were times when I wanted more just because it tasted especially wonderful (because not all pizzas are created equal, and sometimes it just is better), but I felt guilty that I was eating past my satiety. That resulted in feeling like I was restricted – and then I ate even more. Eventually I realized that I could eat just as much as I wanted, which sometimes meant a little, and other times meant more – and the freedom allowed me to stop overeating to discomfort on this food. My significant other (a natural intuitive eater) makes it his business to occasionally overeat on pizza just because he likes it so much. Remember that if we listen to our body’s cues most of the time, an occasional indulgent eating episode won’t disrupt our weight regulation.

Following our hunger and satiety cues are best thought of as guidelines that will help us make good eating decisions in the moment. Becoming obsessive with these guidelines can make us feel cheated. Sometimes you’re not all that hungry for that birthday cupcake (especially right after the delicious birthday meal) but you want it anyway because it’s a celebration – and, hey, how often do you have cupcakes anyway? (for me: not nearly often enough!)

So remember, let Intuitive Eating be your tool to the best eating for you – not a rule that puts you on another diet.