Intuitive eating can be a powerful tool to help you heal your relationship with food and your body.
In fact, I attribute my recovery from a treacherous eating disorder that overshadowed many years of my life to intuitive eating. It was this approach to food that helped me make peace with food and learn to listen to my body, after years of abusing and manipulating it. Intuitive eating taught me to become the best expert of my body, to honor my intrinsic cues to guide my food decisions rather than rely on external food rules, diets, etc. as the dictator of what I should and shouldn’t eat.
As intuitive eating has gained traction and grown in popularity (thanks to mainstream media), it’s been elevated as the gold standard for creating a more peaceful relationship with food and body, especially for individuals who have struggled with chronic dieting, lifelong disordered eating, and eating disorders.
If you’re reading this, my guess is that you have some familiarity with intuitive eating. You may have read about this in some form or another, and depending on your social circles, have heard other people swear by it. You may have been introduced to it by someone you follow on social media or have even dabbled in it yourself.
However, as with most things, there is always nuance – gray areas that can’t always be described or outlined in a clear fashion. And intuitive eating is no exception.
The challenge of something gaining mainstream popularity is that it can be promoted in a way that doesn’t highlight those gray areas. There’s also been a lot of misinformation circulating about intuitive eating – what it is, what it isn’t.
And if you’re a mother who’s trying to heal your relationship with food to end generational cycles of food guilt and body shame, intuitive eating can feel like something else you have to “get right” to help prevent your children from struggling with the same issues that you do.
As a mother and a dietitian who practices intuitive eating, I can tell you right now that intuitive eating is NOT for everyone. Nor is it the only way to find healing in your relationship with food. As a professional who works with mothers everyday who are trying their hardest to heal their relationships with food and their body, I can also tell you that intuitive eating is often not a good fit for these women – at least not 100% of the time.
And this is my intent for writing this blog post.
If you are a mother who wants to heal your relationship with food so that you can have the capacity to model healthier behaviors to your children and to be able to enjoy freedom with food as a family, it may seem like learning and practicing intuitive eating is your only ticket to reaching these admirable goals.
Perhaps you’ve tried to practice intuitive eating. You’ve tried listening to your body and giving yourself permission to eat what sounds good at the moment. Maybe you’ve tried respecting your fullness cues and worked to separate your emotions from food, but no matter what you try, it may not seem to be working for you.
This can add to the frustration and guilt you may feel as a mother trying to heal your relationship with food.
You might feel hopeless, like no matter what you try, it will never be good enough to get you unstuck in a negative and vicious cycle of food guilt and body shame. And when you have children you are part of the picture, this can add to the fear you may be feeling around your struggles.
Will the things you’ve struggled with inevitably pass on to your children? Are you doomed to suffer with a poor relationship with food and your body because you’re unable to navigate intuitive eating for yourself?
Let me encourage you, sweet mama.
If you’ve found yourself in this position, please know you’re absolutely not alone and that there is hope for you to continue healing your relationship with food and your body.
Practicing intuitive eating is not the only ticket for finding food freedom, and what a lot of people miss is that there are often in between steps that can get you toward intuitive eating.
Practicing intuitive eating doesn’t always have to be all or nothing either. You might find that certain principles of intuitive eating work well for you while others seem impossible to attain.
For some mothers, intuitive eating may not ever be feasible, for various reasons we’ll cover and get into below. And if you’ve found yourself in these situations, I want you to know it’s completely possible to enjoy freedom with food as a family and to adapt more positive behaviors around food and how you care for your body. It doesn’t have to always involve intuitive eating to get there.
First, let’s dive into a quick summary of what intuitive eating is, what are the principles that support the approach of intuitive eating, and what might this look like in everyday life.
What is Intuitive Eating Principles?
Intuitive eating is an approach to food that was originally coined by two nutrition therapists and eating disorder specialists in the mid-1990’s, Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole. In fact, they wrote the book on Intuitive Eating and have since published several new editions of their work.
This framework in approaching food and nutrition is aimed at helping individuals struggling with a chaotic and broken relationship with food to find healing. This is especially helpful for the person who has been jumping from diet to diet and is desperate to get off the dieting bandwagon for good.
Intuitive eating is made up of 10 core principles, which can be summarized below (as taken from the book, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach):
10 Intuitive Eating Principles
Reject the Diet Mentality
Honor Your Hunger
Make Peace With Food
Challenge the Food Police
Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Feel Your Fullness
Cope With Your Emotions With Kindness
Respect Your Body
Movement – Feel the Difference
Honor Your Health – Gentle Nutrition
Together, these principles help people learn to become the best experts of their own bodies and re-attune with their innate bodily sensations to guide their food choices.
The intuitive eating approach is also helpful in taking away the pressure to eat for external reasons and puts the emphasis on reconnecting with your body to guide your eating choices from internal cues.
For many individuals who are learning to eat intuitively, especially after years of chronic dieting and disordered eating, it can feel like a process. And it is!
As you can imagine, learning how to listen to your body again takes practice and persistence, and applying the different intuitive eating principles often feels like trial and error.
Intuitive eating is often grossly oversimplified as just “eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full”; but in reality, there’s so much more nuance involved with this approach to eating.
The main emphasis with intuitive eating is moving away from prescriptive food rules associated with diets to an embodied eating experience that leans on bodily sensations to guide hunger and fullness.
And for the many people who set out to practice this, learning how to do this requires some experimentation. It can feel like taking two steps forward and three steps back as you learn to listen to your body again. In many situations, having the guidance of an experienced intuitive eating counselor can support you in learning how to listen to and honor your body again.
But with the emphasis on embodied eating and listening to your bodily sensations as the guide of what you need for feeding yourself, what about the scenarios where being attuned to your body may feel inaccessible – or even traumatic?
This is the area I want to explore here.
In the many years I’ve worked with mothers who are trying to heal their relationships with food and make peace with their bodies, living in their own bodies can feel threatening.
Depending on the circumstances, learning to listen to your body can feel debilitating and obscure. And what if you can’t listen to your body as the best guide of what you need? How do you ensure you keep yourself fed and nourished? You may even feel disconnected from your body for various reasons.
In all of these scenarios, it’s important to know that you can absolutely STILL make progress in healing your relationship with food and your body. This is why it’s important to explore the nuances of intuitive eating and to really understand if this approach may be what works best for you – whatever season you may be in along your motherhood journey.
Why Intuitive Eating Might Not Be Right For You As a Mom
So with a general overview of what practicing intuitive eating might look like, what are the scenarios where intuitive eating may not be appropriate for you?
These scenarios are more common than you think.
Before we dive into some of these potential reasons, I want to stress that ultimately, you are the best judge of what is right for you.
Whether you’re working on healing your relationship with food or trying to find a more sustainable way with food and your body while you raise your children, it’s important to note that there is not a one size fits all approach.
What works for other people might not necessarily work for you and vice versa. And in all situations, there needs to be flexibility in order to be responsive to your own individual needs and concerns.
We’re not stagnant people whose needs never change. Quite the opposite, actually.
Our needs are constantly changing, and the same holds true for food and how we feel about our bodies. What’s most important is being able to adapt your approach to food in a manner that meets your changing needs and that best supports you in whatever season of life you might be in.
As a mother myself in eating disorder recovery and as a practitioner of intuitive eating, I can tell you that there have definitely been seasons and times in my life (and especially in my motherhood journey) where eating intuitively wasn’t possible for me.
There are many situations in which it’s not possible to rely on your body’s hunger and fullness cues to guide you in eating in a life-sustaining way.
Similarly, there are times and situations where it’s harder to even register your body’s signals, or where there might feel like there is a massive disconnect between what your brain and your body need.
Being able to eat intuitively is not a sole marker of recovery or having a “healed” relationship with food and your body.
What’s more telling of your healing journey is your ability to adjust your approaches to eating based on what you need in any given season and to take an approach to food that is more responsive to what you need to sustain you.
Here are some situations below that might make it more challenging to eat intuitive as a mother:
Attunement in your body is unsafe and/or distressing due to trauma, grief, loss, etc, especially after pregnancy/postpartum:
Being able to eat intuitively largely relies on being attuned to what your body needs, including recognizing and honoring your body’s hunger and fullness cues.
In order to recognize this, you need to be present to your own body, actually living in it to feel what’s going on inside it.
This may seem strange, but many of us live disconnected from our bodies – and for some mothers, this is a survival and coping mechanism.
If you’ve experienced trauma, or being connected to your own body feels distressing in any way, dissociating from your body may be a form of self-preservation.
As an example, if you’ve experienced trauma around the birth of your babies, this distress can be internalized as failure or fear in your own body.
It may be difficult to feel safe being attuned to your body’s needs, especially if you feel as though your body has failed you in some form or another.
In my experience, many mothers are dissociated from their bodies subconsciously, as a means of coping with underlying trauma that may have been experienced in their bodies.
If it feels unsafe to live in your body, this is not your fault by any means. Understanding this can help increase awareness as to why it might feel uncomfortable, even distressing, to pay attention to what your body is feeling and needing, including hunger and fullness cues.
In this situation, forcing yourself to be attuned to your body’s needs in effort to practice intuitive eating may be essentially forcing you to live in constant distress.
Until underlying trauma is addressed and resolved, or until there is more healing through any trauma you’ve experienced in your body, whether during pregnancy, postpartum or at any point of your life, intuitive eating may not feel like a safe practice for you.
This is not to say that this would always be the case. However, this can help create awareness around what you might be experiencing if you’ve tried to practice intuitive eating and felt unable to do so, especially with a history of trauma.
2. High stress doesn’t allow for reliable hunger and fullness cues:
Let’s face it.
Motherhood, with all of its joys, can be incredibly stressful on multiple levels.
The majority of mothers I know and work with are under constant stress, and there is often an invisible load with motherhood that is weighing heavily on the shoulders of mothers.
Many mothers are navigating parenting with little support, but a majority of responsibilities with child-rearing lies in their court. This can be exhausting on multiple levels.
Not to mention mothers who are also navigating caring for aging parents, chronically ill children, career changes, financial stress, food insecurity, or their own physical/mental health challenges.
Acknowledging the stress that often comes with motherhood doesn’t negate the joy and gratitude that mothers also have and feel from raising their children. It simply acknowledges the complex layers that come with motherhood.
The thing to understand is that stress is often felt in our physical bodies in many different ways. For some mothers, high levels of stress can shut down their abilities to connect with or engage in their own bodies.
High stress levels release cortisol (the stress hormone) in the body, which can trigger various physical sensations in the body, such as nausea, tension, decreased appetite and early satiety – all which can make it difficult to read your body’s hunger and fullness signals appropriately.
Recent research that has revealed the connection between our brains and our guts, also demonstrates how high stress and anxiety can contribute to digestive complications, which in turn, can make it challenging to understand what your body is actually needing.
Eating intuitively under these circumstances can make it nearly impossible to get in what your body actually needs, especially if you’re struggling with early satiety due to stress, feeling nauseous, or constantly feeling like your stomach is tied in knots.
This is not to say that you can’t eat intuitively if you experience stress. No matter how good your coping strategies are, we will inevitably experience stress from time to time, especially in motherhood.
However, if you’re under chronic stress or experiencing stress to the degree that you’re unable to eat what your body needs, it may be important to pause from intuitive eating to find alternative ways to feed yourself.
3. Chronic dieting and active eating disorder creates disconnect from body true needs:
If you’re a mother who’s struggling with an active eating disorder or if you’ve been a chronic dieter, this may also make it challenging for you to eat intuitively.
Eating disorders are conditions that often dissociate a person from their own bodies, making it hard to know how to eat, what to eat, or how much to eat in any given setting.
An active eating disorder, which can include behaviors like extreme food restriction, binging and purging, overexercising and more, are all behaviors that blunt the body’s innate responses to hunger and fullness.
Similarly, dieting can make it nearly impossible to eat intuitively, as you’re essentially following a set of external rules to guide your food choices rather than listen to your body’s internal cues.
Prolonged years of engaging in dieting can make it hard to even know what your body’s internal cues are or what they’re telling you. It can be scary to learn to live in your body after so many years of dieting or struggling with an eating disorder. Now, this is not to say that intuitive eating can become a goal to work toward.
But typically, in the initial stages of healing, especially from an eating disorder, it is imperative to get more help and guidance to relearn how to eat in a manner that is more appropriate for your body. In some cases, weight restoration is necessary to regain your body’s appropriate hunger and fullness cues.
Under these circumstances, intuitive eating would not be appropriate, especially if you are experiencing an extreme disconnect with your body.
As a mother myself who is in eating disorder recovery, I want you to be encouraged if you’ve found yourself in this position.
There is always hope, and it is possible to heal your relationship with food to become an intuitive eater and to find freedom with food and your body.
In order to get to this place, you often need to have a period of prescriptive and more mechanical eating, as you relearn to feed yourself in a life-giving way. If you are a mother in eating disorder recovery, consider joining us inside our free virtual support group, Lift the Shame. You can find more information and register for free here.
4. Seasons of drastic body changes that make attunement to physical body needs difficult:
As a mother and a human being, your body will go through drastic changes, especially through the process of growing, birthing and feeding another human being.
Sometimes, body changes can make it difficult to be attuned to your body and challenging to navigate what you need. As an example, during pregnancy, many mothers experience some degree of morning sickness, especially during the first trimester, which is coupled with nausea and food aversions.
For women who are going through this, it can feel nearly impossible to gauge what their bodies are needing, especially when everything feels revolting.
Everything in your body may be telling you, “Nope, don’t want to eat, don’t want to think about food, don’t even want to look at food or I’m going to be sick.”
These types of physical changes can make it more complicated to know how or what to feed your body, especially as your body’s needs are changing rapidly or when your body feels unfamiliar.
This can also happen during the postpartum period, as well as during times of physical illnesses. Other examples could be undergoing surgery or being on certain medications that may make it harder to read what your body is needing.
5. Acute or chronic mental health challenges:
Maternal mental health conditions are not uncommon in motherhood.
Mental disorders can include but are not limited to: anxiety disorders, depression and other mood disorders, personality disorders, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychotic disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, dissociative disorders, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Mental illnesses do not occur in a vacuum, and it’s important to understand that what someone is experiencing mentally will also have an impact in other areas of their lives, including how they’re functioning physically, emotionally wellness, and more.
Many mental illnesses can make it challenging to connect with physical bodily sensations, making intuitive eating (or many of the principles connected with intuitive eating) feel inaccessible.
For example, a mother who may be dealing with an inattentive subtype of ADHD may find it challenging to feed herself regularly throughout the day if only relying on bodily sensations and hunger cues.
Without intentional pre-planning and more structure around feeding herself, she may find that she unintentionally forgets to eat, making it harder to eat in accordance with her body’s needs (or simply getting enough to eat).
There are so many similar situations across the spectrum of mental health conditions, where differences in executive brain function makes it more of a challenge to tune in to bodily sensations that can guide intuitive eating.
Often, more structure and routine is necessary to put guardrails in place for eating sufficiently and adequately, especially when dealing with mental health conditions.
Strategies to Support Your Food and Body Healing Journey
So if you’ve identified that eating intuitively is not necessarily feasible for you, what else can you integrate into your life or strategies can you practice to continue to facilitate your healing journey?
What’s important to know is that going through any of these above things doesn’t somehow disqualify you from being able to eat intuitively or to heal your relationship with food and your body.
Remember, there is not one right way to approach food, and what’s most important is that you’re learning to eat in a manner that is honoring to your physical, mental, and emotional health, and that allows you to care for yourself in whatever circumstances you may be experiencing.
Being able to eat intuitively is not a qualifying factor for healing your relationship with food.
There are actually several principles that support an intuitive eating approach that can be adapted to better meet your needs. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing type of deal.
Here are some ways you can adapt intuitive eating for you if you’re going through a season where it may be more challenging to connect with your body’s needs.
The wonderful thing about intuitive eating is that there are many principles that comprise this approach to making peace with food.
Many of these principles can still be utilized and adapted to serve you in whatever season you may be in, especially during times where it’s more difficult to be in tune with your body’s needs, including hunger and fullness cues.
Remember, intuitive eating is about learning to become the best expert of your OWN body. Because you’re a human being with changing needs, it’s important to adapt your approach to eating in a manner that best serves the needs you have in any given time period.
You can still practice rejecting the dieting mentality and learn to give yourself permission to eat the foods that your body wants and needs. You can learn to respect your body by being aware of what your body needs and making an effort to care for your body as best you can.
Other principles of intuitive eating may feel more challenging to implement, especially if you are under circumstances that make it challenging to register your bodily sensations, including honoring your hunger and respecting your fullness.
If you’ve found yourself in one of the above situations, one helpful approach to consider may be mechanical eating.
This method of eating can be life-saving, especially in times during your motherhood season where it’s challenging to connect with your body’s needs or during times where hunger and fullness cues feel non-existent.
Mechanical eating offers more of a structure around eating, so you can ensure you’re having regular opportunities to eat meals and snacks over the course of the day, giving your body a better chance to get what you need.
To eat more mechanically means you may often be eating in the absence of hunger and/or attempting to eat even when faced with early satiety or no appetite.
It can sound and seem unpleasant; however, there are ways to adapt this to find gentle and flexible ways to keep yourself fed and nourished, especially during times where you’re unable to gauge what your body is actually needing.
For many mothers I’ve worked with who were not in a place to eat intuitively, learning to mechanically eat is an important tool for self-care. And that’s exactly what it is – a tool to use as needed when you find it challenging to connect with what your body is needing.
Some mothers may find that they need to rely on mechanical eating for the majority of their days, while others may need to use mechanical eating periodically. Being able to recognize when you need to ebb and flow your eating approaches is a key component of becoming the best expert of your own body.
For example, you may be able to generally eat more intuitively; however, you may recognize that when you’re under high levels of stress, you have to switch to more mechanical eating. This could be due to the effects of stress on your body or the challenges you might have with eating sufficiently when you carry loads of stress.
The point being: there’s not one way to do this. What’s needed is a tool bag of resources at your disposal that you can pull out and utilize as necessary on your journey. Mechanical eating is one such tool that can be used constantly or intermittently to keep your body and brain fed.
Eating mechanically can look like:
Having preplanned times throughout your day where you take a break to eat
Setting alarms or reminders to help you remember to eat, especially when you can’t rely on hunger cues to help you understand when to eat
Eating based on guidance for portioning versus gauging how much to eat based on fullness cues
Eating set amounts of food instead of eating until you feel “full”, especially when experiencing early satiety.
Eating mechanically is not a failure by any means; nor does it mean you’re incapable of listening to your body. Sometimes recognizing when you need to switch to mechanical eating and taking the steps to do so is one of the bravest acts of self-care.
Many mothers may need to rely on mechanical eating as a method of staying fed consistently, especially when there are so many competing demands for time and attention. Raising and feeding children is hard, and the tasks and responsibilities mothers carry can make it infinitely more difficult to learn how to feed yourself.
Keep in mind that intuitive eating is not just about following another set of rules or trying to fit into a box that you were never made to fit in. It’s about adapting a flexible approach to eating that allows you to care for yourself and your body in the best possible way. There’s no one right way to do this, and eating mechanically can help you achieve this.
Making Peace With Emotional Eating
Another strategy to keep in mind as you navigate feeding yourself through motherhood is to make peace with emotional eating.
I hear so many mothers beating themselves up because they turned to food for comfort or as an escape from reality, especially when circumstances feel way too overwhelming.
The guilt and shame that is often associated with emotional eating is enough to wreak havoc on your emotional, physical and mental health.
Not to mention, if you’re engaging in compensatory behaviors to try to make up for what you’ve eaten (like punishing yourself with exercise or restricting your food intake the next day), this cycle can become a catalyst for an eating disorder.
One thing that’s important to understand is that food IS inherently emotional, and there is nothing wrong about that. Especially in motherhood – you might find that you’re constantly swinging between feeling overstimulated or under-stimulated, and food may be the one tangible thing in your life that actually helps you feel more regulated.
Eating food, especially during high times of stress, can actually be life giving in that it can provide some form of regulation, emotional release and stability. For many mothers who may not necessarily have other safe outlets in their lives that can provide these things, food may be the one reliable source of comfort.
If you’ve found yourself in this situation, please know you’re not alone and you’re not doing anything wrong. In fact, turning to food for emotional reasons may be the one thing that is allowing you to maintain some sense of sanity and stability, especially during seasons where you may have little other things that are providing this for you.
This is also where there is some deviation from the intuitive eating approach, and this is ALSO okay.
If you are eating for emotional reasons, this doesn’t mean you’re incapable of caring for yourself or unable to eat intuitively.
If there’s one thing you take away from this article, please let it be this: intuitive eating is about becoming the best expert of your OWN body and adapting your eating experiences to fit your individual needs (physical, mental, emotional, psychological and more).
This might mean that you let yourself sit on the couch and eat ice cream out of the container while you watch your favorite movie because that’s what regulates you after an insane day of caring for children with little to no help.
This might look like giving yourself permission to eat your favorite dessert, even in the absence of hunger, because it tastes good, and eating something that brings you joy helps you release the mounting stress that’s been building throughout the day.
Whatever this looks like, it’s OKAY.
When it comes to eating emotionally, keep these following tips in mind:
Don’t demonize it: Reframing what emotional eating is can help you release the guilt from this behavior that can actually be life-giving to you in so many ways. Remember that food is emotional, we can’t separate emotions from food – that’s just not being human. Without attaching shame to emotional eating, you can give yourself permission to eat in ways that feel kinder and more supportive of yourself.
Be sure to have other supports for emotional outlets and stimulation: If you’re constantly finding yourself dysregulated because of the season you’re in in motherhood (again, this can be overstimulation and/or understimulation), support yourself by practicing awareness of how you feel in these situations, as well as learning about the tools that help you feel more regulated. So in addition to food and eating, this can look like taking a walk in nature, doing something with your hands, talking with a friend or listening to a podcast that stimulates your interest. You may find different things work in different ways. Learning how to care for yourself in this way can be such a powerful act of self-care!
Give yourself grace: Eating for emotional reasons may feel good in the moment but may leave you feeling awful afterward. If you’ve found yourself in this position, please give yourself as much grace as you can to help you move through this. Try to lean into the experience with curiosity rather than criticism of yourself. Shaming yourself will only make you feel worse and can tailspin you into behaviors that are far more detrimental to yourself. Hindsight is also 20/20, so if you’re capable, take some time to reflect on the most recent emotional eating episode. What was going on beforehand? What are some unmet needs you have that need attention? Where are you feeling overstimulated or understimulated? How can you be gentle with yourself to help you move through this experience? You can trust your body to help you get through any physical discomfort you may be experiencing, and you don’t need to engage in compensatory behaviors to try to “rid” your body of the food you’ve eaten. Again, this will only make the situation worse. Be as gentle with yourself as you can, mama.
Be encouraged in knowing that healing and building a positive relationship with food and your body is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Getting the support you need and doing the best with what you have can help you end the legacy of diet culture in your family.