Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Reclaiming Healthy: On Intuitive Eating and Ditching Diets For Good

I've been on a new kind of journey with food over the past few years: I've become an intuitive eater.

Tons of credit belongs to Michelle at The Fat Nutritionist for so perfectly and concisely summing up intuitive eating:

Eat food. Stuff you like. As much as you want.

Since adopting an intuitive eating strategy, many things have shifted for me:

  • I've rediscovered my love of eating delicious foods and cooking beautiful meals for my family. 
  • I've learned what foods make my body feel good, and what foods make me feel terrible. (More on this later.)
  • I've realized that no one person has the "right" answer when it comes to food; there is no one "diet" which is perfect for all persons.
  • I've tried new foods.
  • I've tried old foods in new ways.
  • I've let go of past associations with certain types of foods (both "good" and "bad"), and I've formed new beliefs about those same foods.
  • I trust myself (both my intuition and my body's innate wisdom) more now. 

I've come a long way on the road to accepting and loving myself just as I am, and making peace with food has been one of the big steps on that journey. But (particularly at this time of year) I still find myself bristling when someone starts talking about "healthy food," "eating healthy," or a "healthy diet." In examining my knee-jerk reaction, I have come to understand that the diet industry has very effectively used the word "healthy" against us: to mean any number of restrictive and/or gimmicky diet fads, including (but most definitely not limited to): low fat, sugar-free, low carb, high fiber, low calorie, fat-free, high protein, cholesterol free, etc.

I can certainly understand individuals having a passion for sharing what works for them; after all, we all want everyone to be happy and feel good, right? But when the changes in our diets are for the primary purpose of losing body weight, I have trouble getting behind that. If no two bodies are alike, why should there be such a narrow range in the "normal" (healthy) weight range?


What is healthy, anyway?

The definition of the word healthy is:
possessing or enjoying good health or a sound and vigorous mentality;
pertaining to or characteristic of good health, or a sound and vigorous mind;
conducive to good health;
prosperous or sound.

If I eat foods that fuel my body and my spirit—if I eat foods that make me feel good—isn't that the very essence of health?

Today, I'm reclaiming healthy from the diet industry. Healthy can once again mean "enjoying good health" and "prosperous or sound." Seeking health no longer has anything to do with working against our bodies, but it has everything to do with working with them, listening to them, and celebrating their awesomeness.

And bonus: research has shown that if you're enjoying your food while you're eating, your body actually absorbs more nutrients from your food. I can't think of a better reason to eat things that make my body feel good!

Intuitive eating helped me learn which foods make my body feel good (and which ones make me feel not so good). I'm going to share some of my insights with you, not because I think you will learn the same things about your body—though some of it could be similar—but because I was surprised to find that I could learn such things about myself.


Here's what healthy eating looks like for me:

  • I need a significant dose of protein at every meal (usually animal protein). If I don't eat enough protein, I get hungry, tired, and cranky. When I'm feeling grumpy, I eat some protein. Then I feel better; it's like magic!
  • If I eat fruit, I need to eat it with a fat and protein. For example: an apple or banana is paired with a nut butter; a pear with cheese; berries with cream; dried cranberries and apricots with nuts. If I eat fruit by itself, I feel bad.
  • If I need to eat a snack, it needs to contain protein (are you sensing a theme here?). Cereal isn't a meal for me; it's a snack, and I combine it with lots of nuts and coconut. Trail mix is a great snack. Also, a well-made granola bar.
  • Beans are amazing. I haven't found a kind of bean that I don't like, or one that makes my body feel bad. I eat them with everything from eggs to green salads. Yum.
  • I love vegetables! (This one really surprised me.) I eat them with almost every meal, and they are so so good for my body.
  • Green leafy vegetables are some of my most favorites. (I've got to admit, I was a little surprised at this one, too!) Darker greens taste better to me, but I can definitely go for a good butter lettuce, too. Iceberg is not my favorite.
  • I (most often) prefer cooked vegetables to raw. My body just processes them better, I think. Green salads and raw juicing are the two main exceptions to this rule.
  • I like lots of protein with my leafy salads. Leftover chicken, boiled eggs, cottage cheese, beans, and sunflower and squash seeds all make regular appearances together in my salad bowl.
  • Fermented dairy is the best dairy. If I have cereal, I usually put yogurt (or almond milk) on it. We use cow's milk for cooking and baking, but only rarely to drink. Cheese is delicious; kefir is, too.
  • I love good chocolate. The dark stuff is the best, and a small piece or two will usually satisfy my craving for it.


Here's what feels unhealthy to me:


  • Being truly full feels awful. There's a difference between satiety and having a stomach full of food, and I much prefer the former.
  • Wheat and gluten make me itchy. (See also: the results of my gluten-free experiment.) I'm not bothered by other grains, but I don't eat a lot of grains. Brown rice and oats are my favorites.
  • White sugar gives me headaches. Corn syrup is even worse. Honey doesn't bother me, but I still don't use it often. Coconut sugar is fine, too.
  • Artificial sweeteners give me migraines. Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), saccharin (Sweet'N Low), sucralose (Splenda) and acesulfame potassium (Sunett, Sweet One) have all given me horrible migraines. I've known this for many years; they're just bad news for me.
  • Caffeinated beverages make me pee a lot. Caffeine doesn't wake me up, but rather makes me sleepy. Sleepiness and a full bladder are a bad combo. I avoid caffeine. (One exception: espresso can sometimes help alleviate a migraine; use sparingly.)
  • Bell peppers give me heartburn. It doesn't matter how they're prepared, I just can't eat them without feeling bad. It's a little sad, because I like how they taste. (You may find you have a food or two like this, too!)
  • Soy only in small doses. It could be tofu, edamame, or soy sauce: I can only have a little bit, and not very often.
  • Many of the additives in processed foods make me feel bad. Soy, artificial sweeteners, and high-fructose corn syrup are in a lot of things. Other culprits for me include: monosodium glutamate (MSG) and sodium benzoate.

As you can see, through exploring intuitive eating I've discovered that my body does best when sustained largely on whole, unprocessed foods.

For me, the Six Ingredient Challenge that Lauren and I are co-hosting isn't about a "diet" or nutrition plan, but rather it's about doing something nice for myself. It's about being more intentional about choosing the foods that I already know make my body feel good.

I know from listening to my body.

What has your body been telling you lately?


  1. To me, "eating healthier" means making more things from scratch in my home and not ingesting ingredients I can't easily identify.

    I've also noticed that Sasha needs protein first thing in the morning. This has cut WAY down on meltdowns!

    I *know* (from experience) I would feel better and more energetic if I cut out (or down) on sugar intake... but I don't feel like my family is ready, it is my weakness, and I am anti-artificial sweetener.

    Now if my husband would just recognize the correlation between getting back on daily soda and the return of his migraines...

    1. I think the sugar thing will change in time, Jorje, or if you don't want it to, maybe it won't. ;) You are making so many positive changes in your family's diet—I am inspired by you!

  2. I love The Fat Nutritionist. She and Shapely Prose changed my life.

    I too feel better if I eat more protein and less sugar/refined carbs... But for some reason I'm horrible at it. I really struggle finding protein sources that I enjoy regularly and/or remember to eat! It's a bit ridiculous now that I think about it.

    Thank you for this reminder - you've inspired me to start paying more attention to what my body is trying to tell me!

    1. You're welcome! I know I can *always* use more reminders to care for and listen to myself.

      Do you like nuts? How do you do with cheese? Those are two of my main quick protein go-tos. I've recently relocated a small jar of dried cranberries and cashews to my bedside table so that I can start the day off (or finish it) with a quick snack that I know will perk me up.

      Good luck!

  3. You're not joking around with the intuitive aspect! I love how seriously you've taken the call to really listen to what your body is saying to you about the foods you eat. It's very mindful (and, I surmise, rather unusual, since we're used to being told or shown what to eat).

    I'm listening to my body more now, too, and have been surprised with what I've found out. For me, one of the big changes (and this has come about by reading blogs like The Fat Nutritionist and Shapely Prose as well as Ellyn Satter) has been to try to home in on my hunger and satiety cues instead of eating because it's time (or not eating because it's not time), and that's still a work in progress for me as I undo a lifetime of ignoring those signals. I also have been prompted to consider some things about my body (such as that dairy might be aggravating my acne) that I don't want to hear. {Fingers in ears, lalalala} ;) Baby steps, right?

    1. It definitely felt really strange to me at first to be listening to my body's cues instead of doing what I thought I *should* when it comes to food. It's been a slow journey for me, for sure, but as I've learned so many (really specific!) things from listening to my body, it's felt more natural and easy to do so.

      I totally know what you mean about mealtimes, too...that one is so difficult partly because of the social aspect of eating together with others. I've found that some days I need to eat more frequently than others, and the days when I just go with that (without second-guessing myself) I feel the best.

      I can also relate to *not* wanting to know some of the things my body is telling me about food, and you're totally right about taking baby steps! Wheat was a really difficult thing for me to give up, but after so long without it (and a few very unpleasant accidental exposures in the meantime), I know that it's bad for my body. Sugar is the next one that I still have some trouble with—there are a lot of behavior patterns and beliefs I still have to unlearn!

  4. We eat this way too. Intuitive eating has led me to trust & celebrate my body, I can enjoy food again after years of eating disorders. I feel most people eat 'healthily' becuase of fear...now I feel I eat and nourish myself to sustain a full, happy life! I wish everyone could know about intuitive eating. It's so freeing!

    1. I'm so glad we've connected, Laurie! It's fun to encounter other intuitive eaters along this journey. =)

      I have realized (slowly and quite reluctantly, over time) that I had some very disordered patterns and beliefs about food prior to beginning to trust my body's innate wisdom on the subject. Those habits take lots of time to break, and for me intuitive eating is definitely a practice: something I work at a little bit every day.

  5. i'm juuuust starting to try this. i'm noticing that i'm not feeling good after what i'm eating, so i'm trying to make small changes to see what makes me feel better. i know it's going to mean some big changes, but it's going to take me baby steps! thanks for a great post!

  6. Enjoy your weblog and will sign up to your feed so I will not miss anything. Fantastic content.


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