Advice on what and how much we should be eating is plentiful. Doctors, diets, magazines, friends and family all put in their two cents. In our culture, we are fed a lot of messages about food and eating. Does all this advice really help us to eat in an optimal and mindful way? Or is it getting in the way of our own innate wisdom?
We all are born knowing what and how much we need to eat. With all the external messages we get about food and eating through our life, the innate wisdom often is buried. However, we can tune back in and listen to our bodies, so we can become intuitive eaters once again. Becoming an intuitive eater involves letting go of preconceived notions of how we should eat in favor of reconnecting with our selves and our personal body signals to guide our eating. Feeling and listening to hunger and fullness cues, being aware of emotional versus physical cravings, being mindful and present while eating, and respecting our bodies are among some of the most important ways to practice intuitive eating. Intuitive eating is a process and a journey. It provides opportunities for learning and discourages shame, guilt and judgment when it comes to eating.
Whether you are thinking of becoming pregnant, are currently pregnant, or are post-pregnancy with children to care for, it is always a good time to start on the journey of intuitive eating. Developing intuitive eating skills will benefit any individual, from the casual dieter to someone struggling with a serious eating disorder. As you learn about and practice intuitive eating, your relationship with food and your body will be transformed. The new healthy and balanced relationship with food will benefit you and your family more than you can imagine.
If you have the luxury to plan and prepare for pregnancy, the time before pregnancy can be used for self-reflection, contemplation, and change. You may decide that starting the journey to become an intuitive eater is a priority before pregnancy. The body, mind, and spirit all play a role in learning to become an intuitive eater and looking at each part can help you along your way.
Evaluating your body’s vitality is a great place to start. Is your body giving you signs that it is healthy and thriving? You can ask yourself the following questions to help you in evaluating your body’s state:
Do you have healthy skin, hair and nails?
Is your immune system strong?
Do you feel you are at your natural weight, the set point where your body feels most comfortable and healthy? (It is important to note, this may be a different weight than you want to be emotionally).
Do you have a healthy appetite?
Do you have good muscle tone?
Do you wake up feeling rested?
Is your temperature regulation working well?
Are there any physical symptoms you are presenting that you may want to explore further? Headaches? Dizziness? Irregular menstrual cycles? Etc.
If you feel your body is thriving, this is a good sign you are ready for pregnancy physically. If you feel like there are some areas where your vitality is lacking, you may need to evaluate your overall nutrition status. If you are presenting symptoms in your physical body, this may be a sign that you are not eating to support your overall health. You may not be getting enough carbohydrate, protein, or fat, the macronutrients our bodies need to be strong and healthy.
A constant supply of carbohydrates is needed to support the cells in your body. Carbohydrates give your cells energy in the form of glucose. Hunger is the first sign that you need to refuel with some form of carbohydrate. If you start to get overly hungry, your body will send out louder signals that you need energy. You may get a headache, or feel dizzy, weak, light headed, or cranky. Listening to your hunger signals before it gets to the point of uncomfortable physical symptoms is ideal.
The macronutrient, protein, contributes to health skin, hair, and nails, and it is also important in the production of hormones, immune cells, muscle tone, and more. Eating too little protein can cause a deficiency in protein, but also if you are not eating enough overall calories and carbohydrates for your body, a protein deficiency may also occur. Your body prefers to get its energy from carbohydrates, since this is the easier and more natural way to get the needed glucose supply for your cells, but it will turn to protein and fat for its energy if the carbohydrate supply is lacking. So instead of using the protein for its ability to build things like muscle, hormones, skin and hair cells the body prioritizes and will start to use protein for energy.
Fat is a macronutrient that is often feared and seen as “bad.” Fat, however, is an essential part of our diet. A deficiency in fat can contribute to poor body temperature regulation, down regulation of hormone production (which can effect fertility), neurons communicating poorly in the brain, and malabsorption of the fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E, and K. Evaluate if your body may be showing signs of fat deficiency, especially if fat is something you tend to avoid when making food choices. Notice your cravings for foods with fat and the satisfaction and fullness level that you feel when fat is eaten.
Getting adequate amounts of macronutrients can be simple. Eating meals and snacks that have carbohydrates, protein and fat daily should provide you with the amounts you need. It is typically not necessary to calculate or count grams, and calculating can get in the way of your intuition. Listening to your hunger and cravings will give you the information you need to eat enough of these macronutrients. Letting your internal signals guide you is an important step toward eating intuitively and to forming a trusting relationship between you and your body.Â Once you have reflected on the vitality of your physical body, you can move onto evaluating your mindset toward your body, food, and eating. You may want to ask yourself what thoughts are getting in the way of your ability to eat intuitively. Do you have “food rules” that get in the way of your ability to connect with your own body? If Oprah says you shouldn’t eat after eight at night, is that something you should adhere to? Is that a rule you now have adopted for yourself? In intuitive eating, you listen to your body. If you are hungry late at night, maybe because you didn’t eat enough during the day, then eat.
Creating a list can help you become more aware of “food rules” that may be getting in the way of your intuitive abilities. Samantha, who has struggled in her relationship with food, wrote a list of the “food rules” that would constantly replay themselves in her mind. She also wrote “intuitive thoughts” to counter her “food rules.” She nurtures these intuitive thoughts by reminding herself of them every time a “food rule” pops into her mind. This has really helped her from a deeper connection to her body and has also helped her to get rid of the invasive rules she once lived by. Her list looked like this:
Food Rule #1: Mostly eat salads and healthy foods like vegetables. Intuitive Thought: Though salads and vegetables are healthy and are some of my favorite foods, I know that I need a wide range of foods to meet all my body’s needs. I will listen to what my body craves and needs.
Food Rule #2: No snacking throughout the day. Intuitive Thought: Sometimes I can meet all of my needs with three balanced meals, and sometimes I need to eat snacks in between meals. I will honor my hunger and listen for cues on when to eat and how much to eat. I will eat snacks when I am physically hungry for them.
Food Rule #3: When I am stressed or having a hard time emotionally, all rules go out the window. I am free to eat anything and everything. Intuitive Thought: Using food to soothe me emotionally only works momentarily. Usually I end up feeling worse and more stressed. I would rather be present while I am eating and really enjoy my food. I will choose another way to cope with my stress right now.
Writing a list can really create awareness about the “food rules” you want to transform so you can become a better intuitive eater. To discover what rules you hold onto, take notice of any black-and-white tendencies you may exhibit with food. Ask yourself if you put morality or judgment into types of foods or ways of eating. Do these judgments get in the way of your ability to eat intuitively? Getting thoughts out of the way that do not support eating intuitively can really open you up to flow with your personal intuition regarding food and eating.Â Lastly, you may want to explore your relationship with food and eating. How is your spiritual connection to food? Is your relationship with food sacred or troubling? A poor spiritual relationship with food can be healed by taking time to be thankful and appreciative of our food and by staying connected and present while eating.
To cultivate thankfulness and appreciation for food, you may think about all the work and individuals involved in getting your food on your plate. Think about the effort and energy put into your food by the farmers, the truck drivers, the grocery store employees, and the cook. You can also spend time thinking about all the nutrition the food will provide for your body. Thoughts like, “The fat in this avocado will help to build strong cell membranes,” or “The carbohydrates in this cookie will give my body the energy it needs,” can really help you overcome negative and destructive thought patterns about food. Combating any negative energy and thoughts you give to food and eating, will only serve you in creating a healthier relationship with food.
Also helpful in cultivating this healthy relationship is feeling connected and present while you eat. You can focus on your senses and what messages your body is giving you about your appetite and your hunger and fullness levels, throughout the meal. When focusing on your senses, smell your food. Look at its appearance and feel its texture and temperature. Really take the time to taste your food and all of its nuances. When listening to your body’s appetite, check in throughout the meal. Ask yourself: What is my hunger or fullness level now? Putting your fork down and taking a couple of breaths can help you in your evaluation. Appreciating your food and be present while eating it can really transform your relationship to something more spiritual and fulfilling.
By tuning into the body and its signs and signals, replacing rule-based thoughts with intuitive ones, and healing your relationship with food prior to pregnancy you will have a great foundation for eating intuitively. Orienting yourself to intuitive eating before pregnancy will really help you with eating in an optimal way during pregnancy.
Pregnancy provides a great opportunity to practice intuitive eating skills. Individuals who are intuitive eaters often find there intuitive abilities are heightened during this time. Your own body and the baby growing within offer strong and clear messages about hunger, fullness, and food needs. Tuning in and listening to these messages are the keys to intuitive eating while pregnant.
Body changes that occur during pregnancy are constant and numerous and can throw your eating for a loop. It is important to connect with and surrender to these changes as you are going through them, and remember to respect the miracle and nature of pregnancy. Morning sickness, heartburn, increased appetite, decreased amount of room in your stomach, and strong food cravings can all effect how and what you eat during pregnancy. With morning sickness and heartburn find foods that work, foods that will least aggravate the symptoms. Every body is different, so you must experiment and listen to find what foods work best for your body. With an increase in appetite and a decrease in amount of volume your stomach may comfortably hold, you may find eating smaller amounts, more frequently helps you get the amount of food you need without causing over-fullness. But again, it is important to experiment and listen to your body in the moment because what works sometimes may not work at other times. Eating is dynamic. The more flexible you are with food and eating, the more likely you will eat in a way to support your body.
Food cravings are notorious during pregnancy. Whatever you crave, even if it is the clichéd pickles and ice cream, go forward without judgment and guilt. It is important to not get stressed about what we are or aren’t eating. Stress is not healthy for the body and can contribute to stress hormone levels, like cortisol, to rise. When one hormone is emphasized others may get down regulated, like the appetite hormones grehlin and leptin. Grehlin and letptin help us to know when we are hungry and full. So if the body puts more emphasis on producing the stress hormones, the appetite hormones will probably have less of a priority for the body. The stress we create surrounding food may actually get in the way of our ability to sense and listen to hunger and fullness on a hormonal level, as well as an emotional level.
There are different “eating personalities” that may emerge during pregnancy that you should be alert to. Some women go into pregnancy with the attitude of eating for the baby. Others try to eat perfectly, obsessing about what they should and should not eat. And lastly, there are those who throw caution to the wind and decide pregnancy is a time to finally let loose and eat whatever and however much they want. All of these eating personalities have potential pitfalls and are not in line with intuitive eating.Â It is great that pregnancy can inspire healthy and mindful eating habits, but eating for the baby’s sake tends to be fleeting. The healthy eating habits that have been adopted for the baby can leave as quickly as they came. Negative body image, ingrained diet rules, and emotions may trigger former, unhealthy eating patterns to reemerge. Also when the pregnancy is over, the old eating habits will most likely return. This is why it is so important to work from an intuitive frame of mind. With intuitive eating the intention is to listen and respond to internal wisdom, to engage in self-care not just baby-care.
Eating nutritious and healthy food during pregnancy is a wonderful gift you can give to your baby and yourself. However, the good intention to eat healthfully can be taken to extremes. Becoming overly preoccupied with what is going into your body, trying to eat in a “perfect” way, and obsessing about strict rules and guidelines created around food is not ideal. It can cause unnecessary stress and anxiety to be so rigid with food, and also may ironically contribute to poor nutrition, especially if the woman is limiting the amount of food she is willing to intake. Women who prior to pregnancy controlled the amount that they ate through calorie counting and portion control are often tempted to do so during pregnancy. This can be a dangerous road. Restricting calories during pregnancy is never a good idea and can lead to malnutrition or starvation.
Jessica had been a strict vegan for years for both moral and health reasons before she became pregnant. During her second trimester, she found herself craving meat. Her craving for meat really disturbed her, and she would try to put the craving out her mind by reminding herself of all the reasons she had decided to stop eating meat in the first place. By the beginning of her third trimester, she was feeling tired and weak all the time, and her iron levels were really low. Finally, she confided in one of her friends, also a vegan. Her friend said to her, “Health comes first.” Jessica realized in that moment what she needed to do. She began eating meat and listening when the cravings would arise. Her energy and iron levels were restored.
In juxtaposition to the woman who tries to eat perfectly is the woman who sees pregnancy as a license to eat whatever and whenever. This eating personality usually results in the woman overeating, especially the foods were forbidden prior to pregnancy. Excessive cravings for sweets and high-fat foods are common and so is weight gain beyond typical amounts. Of course, it is normal for a woman to need an increased amount of food during pregnancy. However, consistently eating to a point of over fullness and gaining more weight than your body would naturally during pregnancy, not only feels uncomfortable but could also lead to complications, such as gestational diabetes or preeclampsia.
Feeding Our Children
As parents, we all want the best for our children and don’t want to pass on our food and body image struggles. Ideally, we teach our children by example, eating intuitively and modeling a positive relationship with food and our body. Feeding our children in a nurturing and neutral environment can help them to develop a healthy and balanced relationship with food. Try to remove any stress or anxiety around food and make eating a pleasurable experience. Allow feeding time to be a time for connection and presence with your child. When you are feeding your children, you are performing one of your most important jobs.
Feeding your infant on demand will empower your baby to tap into and stay connected to their inborn hunger and fullness signals and will keep them in alignment with their intuitive abilities. Their instincts are very strong when it comes to feeding. And as mothers, we can even learn from and be in awe of our baby’s ability to know when they are hungry and when they are full. You may notice that right before a big growth spurt your baby tends to eat more, or that it is impossible to continue feeding your baby once they have decided they are full. These are some examples of the ways your baby exhibits intuitive eating. If you have fears that your baby is eating too much or too little, remind yourself of the innate knowledge your baby possesses and trust them.
Your toddler can also be trusted with food. Knowing who is in charge of the different aspects of feeding will help you feed your child appropriately. According to Ellyn Satter MS, RD, LCSW, BCD, an expert in child nutrition, there is a very clear division of responsibility between parent and child for feeding. She says during feeding, “the parent is responsible for what, when and where, and the child is responsible for how much and whether.” She also believes that parents have very specific jobs when it comes to feeding children. Their jobs are to “choose and prepare the food, provide regular meals and snacks, make eating times pleasant, show children what they have to learn about food and mealtime behavior, not let children graze on food or beverages between meal and snack times, and let children grow up to get bodies that are right for them.” There is no need to try and control your child’s intake, as this often backfires. Anytime you try to control your child to eat or not eat, you are setting up food to be a way for the child to rebel, and you discourage intuitive eating.
Anna read the wonderful and informative book Intuitive Eating, written by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole MS, RD and Elyse Resch MS, RD, FADA, at a point in her life when she was fed up with dieting. She had failed at so many diets, losing weight at first only to gain all the weight back plus more with each diet attempt. After reading Intuitive Eating and working with a dietitian who used intuitive eating concepts in her practice, Anna found peace in her relationship with food breaking the diet cycle once and for all.
She applied her own knowledge of intuitive eating to parenting once she had children and was in awe by the relationship her children developed with food. Her daughter, Belle, grew up communicating her hunger and fullness with ease and would often leave half of her desserts uneaten when she had reached a point of fullness and satisfaction. She enjoyed spinach and cupcakes equally. Other mothers would often remark how unbelievable it was when they witnessed her food choices. Anna was so thankful her children did not have to grow up with the same anxiety and emotional attachments she had to food when she was a child.
Start the Journey
Getting back in touch with our innate wisdom and following a path of intuitive eating is an amazing gift to give to yourself and family. Remember that intuitive eating is a journey. There are no failures, only learning experience. Start where you are, always keeping a beginner’s mind. You will learn so much about yourself as you practice intuitive eating, and you will open up the space for your family to trust their own bodies. If you find yourself struggling to embark on the intuitive eating journey, seek professional help. There are dietitians and therapist that specialize in intuitive eating. To find one in your area, go to intuitiveeating.org and click on “Certified Counselors.” Food struggles can affect your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing and can also affect the ones you love. Intuitive eating can help you work through your food struggles and heal your relationship with food.
Binote: Alice Trivas RD, CD is a registered dietitian and nutrition therapist. She helps clients all over the country in healing food struggles. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website intuitivedietitian.com for more information about her services.