Why Intuitive Eating Doesn’t Work for Everyone

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Martinina)

Intuitive eating, which in a nutshell means eating whatever you want when you want until you are full, is a clear alternative to the food journaling and calorie tracking I do to keep myself feeling on track and healthy. I’ve read Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch’s authoritative book on the subject, Intuitive Eating, and I’ve even committed to practicing intuitive eating for up to two years at a time. I’ve heard stories (and even edited one in a national magazine) about how healing the practice is for many people.

But in my own experience, it’s always resulted in a weight gain I’m not comfortable with and a less healthy relationship with food.

As I have mentioned, I started dieting at 10 years old and have been on countless diets, losing a significant amount of weight many times over. As a result of this, my intuition doesn’t work that well. It works much better than it once did, of course, but I continue to have trouble identifying hunger and fullness—especially hunger.

Often, during a busy weekend day, my husband will stop for lunch and ask me what I want. Invariably, I say, “I don’t need lunch, I’m not hungry, I’m fine.” We press on, growing increasingly snippy with each other, my mood getting worse and worse, until I eventually eat something, after which I realize that though I felt no stomach rumbling or empty-stomach feelings, I was hungry after all.

This is actually one reason I count calories—if I don’t eat enough over enough days, not only do I start to experience low energy, I rebound by eating too much for even more days in a row. Because my intuition with regards to eating doesn’t work all that well, I need to rely on information instead of intuition. Data just works better for me.

I think intuitive eating is a beautiful ideal, and maybe someday I will get there. I do, after all, already practice many of intuitive eating’s core tenets. There’s no individual food or food group I’ve banned from my life without exception. I never sense that I’m hungry and refuse myself food. I am using mindfulness techniques to guard myself as best I can against emotional eating and overeating.

Those who advocate for intuitive eating would probably tell me that two years isn’t long enough, that I would gain weight up to a point and then it would stop; I’d eventually find my set point as my “intuitive eating” wore on. Maybe it would be more than I weigh now, maybe less. I think there’s some chance that’s true, but I’m too afraid of getting metabolic syndrome or diabetes (real risks associated with being overweight) while I wait to find out where I land after my intuition hones itself somehow.

It would be a perfectly valid choice to pursue that path, but I am choosing something else.

I think of my own middle ground approach as informed eating—using what I’ve learned from my own experience and data collection to make the wisest decisions I can about how to feed myself.

Loving Food While Losing Weight

Is it possible to talk about the fraught space of food, body, and weight in a healthy, thoughtful way? We think so, and we’re presenting a monthlong column exploring one food-lover and food writer’s journey towards finding her own personal balance. Joy Manning is joining us this month with her own stories, practical tips, recipes, and perspective on the real-life struggle between loving food and loving your body.