What exactly is intuitive eating? Cravings vs. intuition

This is the time of year when it’s common to think about ways to improve our health. And if you are one of the majority that has a long and unsavory history with your relationship to food and/or your body, you just might be thinking more about intuitive eating this year. Or perhaps you assume you’re already eating intuitively by eating what you want when you want to.

For many of us with a history of rigid food beliefs, chronic dieting, or disordered eating behaviors, that step of tuning into and actually honoring our hunger, cravings, and food desires is a BIG start — and leads to less feast and famine mentality, peace around food and less guilt in indulging once in a while. It also can mean finally stepping away from the chronic calorie and macro tracking which tend to fuel the rigid behaviors, and dare I say it, throwing out your scale or having your partner/roommate hide it far away where you just might forget about it for a while – I mean several months, or longer.

One thing I noticed as I became less of a disordered eater and more of an athlete focused on feeling good in my body and recovering from workouts, is that I naturally began honoring my hunger more and focusing less on what my body looked like or what I thought I should be eating. It’s like I opened the fridge, took a look around, and then closed it, thinking nope none of this, a peanut butter sandwich sounds good right nowas well as a couple big handfuls (completely unmeasured and probably ate more than that) of tortilla chips.

And truthfully, I ate two pieces of pie every day for nearly a week around Thanksgiving this year on top of my “normal eating” meals and semi-reduced athletic activity, and I didn’t think about my weight or the scale or calorie tracking once. I also haven’t thought about pie at all in the weeks since then. But is that intuitive eating?

As a nutritionist, I always want the best for every person I work with, and quite honestly, everyone else too. And I always fall back on individualized support. Because for many people that have a long history of not tuning in to their body and hunger signals, the eat what I want when I want it, and maybe that means two slices of pie a day approach is okay with me. It’s a start. But it’s probably more appropriate to call it the honoring your cravings and letting go of guilt and diet-culture beliefs about food approach, rather than truly eating intuitively. I’ll put my pie-eating habits at Thanksgiving into this category.

What is Intuitive Eating?

I think the best way to share what intuitive eating is is to go back to just basic intuition. We often talk about intuition when we say we have a gut feeling, or “we just know something” and logically, it may not always make a ton of sense. We make these gut-feeling decisions when we choose a job that pushes us out of our comfort zone, or we make a big move, or choose a medical procedure (or opt not to), when it’s not the most logical thing to do.

But how do we “just know” that a food is right for us or is what we need? One of the best ways to begin to learn this is to pay attention to how you feel afterwards. Intuitive eating can best be described as paying attention to and honoring what your body is telling you it wants and needs, rather than what your mind wants or craves.

Signs that Your Body Didn’t Approve the Meal

When you’re done eating and in the three to five hours after, how do feel? How is your energy? Did you get really tired, or alternatively, super stimulated? Did you start to get some of those not-so-optimal digestive symptoms, like bloating, gas, pain, gurgling, reflux, heartburn, nausea, feeling just plain heavy and lethargic, etc.? Were you running to the bathroom or didn’t have a bowel movement today (also known as constipation)? How was your mood? Were you wired, anxious, scattered, fearful or angry, frustrated, short-tempered and snappy? All of those are influenced by what we’re eating and how we’re eating and whether we’re digesting and assimilating foods and nutrients optimally.

If what sounds good is a giant bowl of popcorn for a snack or dessert every day, and then we’re mentally scattered, gassy, constipated, and anxious afterward or the next day, then maybe our craving for popcorn is being influenced by our imbalance, rather than our intuition.

Another example is a desire for particularly salty or spicy foods with lots of onion and garlic. If those are more of what the mind is craving versus what the body is truly desiring, then we might be particularly short-tempered, easily frustrated, have acne or skin rashes, heartburn or nausea, and have loose stools or diarrhea.

One more example goes back to my pie, and in previous life phases, daily ice cream routine. Frequently eating heavy, cold foods often tends to make us feel heavy, lethargic, have sluggish or incomplete bowel movements, feel depressed or have a low mood, promote inflammation, and develop a lot of extra mucus in our sinuses and elsewhere. Many years ago now, I ate ice cream basically daily, and during a certain period, multiple times a day. During the multiple times per day phase, it probably began as my closest interpretation of my intuition–because I was way too light and undernourished, and my brain just simply needed kcals. But after some time, my weight had definitely stabilized and swung back in the direction of my heaviest, and I began to be extremely anxious all the time, craved more sugar (of course), and finally had a major candida outbreak. Candida is a yeast that feeds on sugar! My cravings were coming from the not-so-beneficial organisms in my GI tract – not my intuition.

So it can be a little difficult to graduate to true intuitive eating once we’ve mastered honoring our hunger and shoving off the influences of dieting culture, and are no longer just following cravings and feel like ice cream every day, popcorn and peanut butter on repeat, or grazing all day instead of three solid meals.

Why is all of this even more important? Much of what I write about here is in the realm of digestive health – and/or eating appropriately to fuel our athletic lifestyles. And when I work with individuals, I often encourage them to honor their intuition. But sometimes we need a little more help in deciphering, are we eating enough despite what we think is intuitive eating?, Is that food that I’m craving helping or harming my return to balanced digestion?, Is my daily pie or ice cream habit giving me the calories I need, but encouraging future imbalanced health down the road, and/or already showing signs of imbalance? And admittedly, the more symptoms of imbalanced health that we have (such as some of the above), the more challenging it becomes to self-determine cravings that fuel the imbalance versus eating intuitively that returns us to true, optimal health.

A good way to start to tune in is to keep a little journal of how you felt in the hours after meals for a few days, and see if you have more of the sub-optimal symptoms and moods than you were aware of before. And if you suspect you’re more in the realm of honoring cravings right now and want support in starting to eat more intuitively, feel free to reach out and chat with me in a nutrition consult.

Holiday Cinnamon Rolls {gluten + dairy-free + vegan}

At the beginning of advent, William and I had an after-dinner discussion on holiday traditions and the ones that are most important to each of us. One of mine is baking and making gifts of the season to share. My grandma’s Apple Cake, my great grandmother’s Cinnamon Roll Cookies, the stereotypical fruitcake and mince tarts packed with dried fruit and spices that seemingly only me and my dad like. And cinnamon rolls, a new tradition in the past few years. For me, baking during the holidays is more about the joy it brings to others than really wanting or needing to eat all the foods myself. I grew up in an active, ranching family whose busy season happens to be in the winter (“spring” calving usually starts around Christmas, and regardless, animals always need fed first), so some sweet treats after being outside for hours in the cold and dark are always welcome.

After being mostly removed from that lifestyle for more than a decade, I still love to bake and send treats in the mail when I’m not visiting my parents. That’ll be the case this year. And of course, I still bake for myself and William as well. What I’ve found over the years is that most of us have a disjointed relationship to the treats that often come with the holiday season. They bring nostalgic feelings of happy memories, fill the house with comforting scents, and generally taste amazing. And then comes the guilt. We really shouldn’t. It’ll mess with our ‘diet’ or our ‘active lifestyle’ or our ‘new improved body’ we’ve worked so hard for. Or, the high sugar and inflammatory ingredients will hamper our healing process. I’ve been there on all accounts: the guilt, the feeling of needing to control my body, and in recent years, the awareness of hampering my healing.

But the other thing that severely hampers healing is stress. And stressing about every morsel that enters our mouth severely interferes with healing – of any type. We’re going to delve more into intuitive eating and what that really means (intuition versus cravings) here in the coming weeks, but first, let’s pause for the holiday season. Make, bake, and enjoy your favorite treats if you’d like, be mindful about what you really want and enjoy them with all your senses. Continue to chew your food. And generally let go of the guilt.

And if your body is in some stage of healing and you still would enjoy Cinnamon Rolls, these ones are just a bit more nourishing than most, yet still leave room for being slightly decadent, celebratory and delicious.

Happy solstice, yule, Christmas, and holiday season. I hope you enjoy in whatever way you can, and above all, remember to take care of you.

Holiday Cinnamon Rolls {gluten-free + vegan}, makes 4
A few notes on method and ingredients:
– The trick to really good GF bread and pastry is a binder and the best one(s) are a combination of ground chia or flax and psyllium seed husks. Both can usually be found in natural food stores or ordered from herbal companies online.
I’ve only made these with my gluten-free flour mix so any store bought mixes will have different textures/results. Measure flour by weight if you’re substituting. For the frosting, the hemp seeds are optional but provide a little flavor contrast. Just add in the same amount of additional cashews if you’d rather. I’ve tried all types of sugar in these, both in the filling and in the frosting. While I’ve given options, the first one listed is my favorite and first recommendation.
– These can be prepped ahead of time. Prepare them in the evening, and then place the rolls in their pan in the fridge during the rise time overnight. In the morning, let them warm up on the counter while pre-heating the oven. The baking time will likely need to be longer.

Wet Ingredients:
6.5 oz. / 185 ml / 13 Tbs. non-dairy milk
1 1/8 tsp. dry active yeast
1 Tbs. ground chia seeds 
1 Tbs. psyllium seed husk
2 Tbsp. coconut oil, melted
½ Tbsp. apple cider vinegar (or lemon juice)

Dry ingredients:
170 g / 6 oz. / 1 ½ cups gluten-free all-purpose blend
¾ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. sea salt
¼ tsp. cardamom, optional

Holiday Spice Filling:
6 Tbs. brown sugar or coconut sugar
¼ tsp. each cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice OR 1 tsp. cinnamon
pinch of sea salt
1 Tbsp. coconut oil, melted

Frosting:
¼ cup cashews, soaked
2 Tbs. hemp seeds
2 Tbs. non-dairy milk
1 Tbs. brown rice syrup, honey, or maple syrup
1 tsp. coconut oil
¼ tsp. vanilla extract
a pinch of salt

  1. Warm up the non-dairy milk until lukewarm or at 100 degrees F / 38 degrees C. Whisk in the yeast and allow to froth up for 10 minutes. Add the chia seeds, psyllium, oil and vinegar. Whisk together and set aside so it can thicken a little.
  2. In a large bowl, stir together the dry ingredients. Dump the wet ingredients into the middle of the flour mix and stir with a wooden spoon. Your dough will begin to look scrappy. When this happens, set aside the wooden spoon and start kneading the dough in the bowl with your hands. Knead it lightly until it gets manageable and somewhat smooth.
  3. Roll out the dough on your counter or large cutting board that’s lightly floured. The dough should be easy to roll and not too sticky. Roll it into a large rectangle, a little more than  ¼ inch /3 mm. Combine the spice and sugar filling in a small bowl and spread it out evenly on top of the dough.
  4. Tightly roll the dough up from the short side so you have 4 1 ½-2-inch rolls. Line a small 6-inch or similar cake pan with parchment paper, and then place the rolls inside, cut-side up. Cover lightly with a tea towel, and allow to rise for 1 hour in a warm, non-drafty space in your kitchen. These should rise enough to be touching each other in the pan now. They will not double in size.
  5. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Bake for 15-25 minutes or until the edges have firmed up. (Check after 15 minutes but my oven usually needs the full 25). Place the pan on a wire rack to briefly cool down.
  6. While the rolls are cooling slightly, blend together the frosting in a high-speed blender, and then pour and smooth over the cinnamon rolls. Add a light dusting of cinnamon on top if you’d like.
  7. These taste best when eaten warm and straight out of the oven but can be stored (covered) for about three days.

Are you eating enough for your activity level?

Today’s topic is one that’s been on my mind a whole lot lately. A nutrition question that is frequently asked is:  Should I be eating intuitively when I’m hungry or tracking what I eat and going off the numbers?

Before I tell you my answer, I’d like you to think about this question for a moment. No really, take a moment and think about what you’d say if someone asked you. (Humor me please, this is the educator in me.)

From my instagram a couple weeks ago: as mileage and/or time on feet goes up, eating becomes almost another part-time job. the last few days I felt like I wasn’t quite eating enough, and not surprisingly, today’s long run felt a little extra challenging.
low energy availability is extremely common in athletes, and long term, it can cause widespread physiological and psychological imbalances.
so the short story is if you’re moving a lot, you need to be eating a lot.

Now, my answer:  YES, eat intuitively!! Tracking numbers often leads to becoming reliant on the numbers rather than recognizing your own body’s needs. Your body is incredibly wise and those tracking websites and apps are all using estimates. They’re estimating your energy needs and using nutrition data done in a lab on a random sample item of the food tested. And that’s not to mention that your estimates of portion size, etc. are usually not entirely accurate either.
So random sample food that may not reflect the actual nutrition of the food you ate, formula estimating your energy needs, and, unless you’re a super type-A person that weighs every morsel ingested to the nearest gram (also please don’t do this), inaccurate food measurement. Yes, they can give you an idea if you might be in the ballpark with your nutrition needs, but as above, it can vary so much. And yes, some individuals can go into a lab and get their metabolic rate measured to determine a more accurate picture of energy needs, but most of us don’t have access to or need that data.

AND also my answer: It depends. Many active individuals are actually not eating enough for their on-the-move lifestyles – and the body, because it is wise, makes decisions about where it is going to prioritize its precious calories. So if you’re going to go for a trail run in the forest for the day followed by an evening bike ride or weight session, and then follow with something similar tomorrow and the next day, and throw in a weekend long couple workouts, AND you’re routinely not eating enough to meet your caloric needs, the body is going to choose where to spend those nutrients because when this precious energy is used for one function, it is not available for another one. Essentially, you are putting your system into survival mode.

And it plays out along these lines as your body says,  “Well, if you’re going to make me go do these workouts, I’ll put my energy here, though maybe with a little less pep, energy, and high-end ability, but I’ve got to rob Peter to pay Paul, so I’ll compromise over here with bone metabolism, or over here with female reproductive hormones or thyroid health, or immune function, or over here with the GI system and the ability to break down nutrients in food (because digestive enzymes are made of proteins which may be lacking in the diet), or muscle and tissue repair or”…. and the list goes on.

Why am I bringing all this up? Because it’s actually common for active individuals to be eating to hunger levels and still not be eating enough.

While intuitive eating means we should honor our hunger, many athletes have a suppressed appetite after long or intense workouts, and we still need to replace nutrients quickly after exercise, and learn to recognize that symptoms of hunger go beyond simply an empty stomach.

While intuitive eating means we should respect our fullness, if you get to the point of overeating by having excessively large meals, it is often because of low energy intake throughout the day or because you did some seriously strenuous exercise. With more even or adequate energy intake before and during a long workout, you can avoid that ravenous feeling of needing to eat quickly and impulsively, which means you’re paying more attention to fullness.

A SELF-ASSESSMENT TO HELP YOU NAVIGATE YOUR ENERGY NEEDS

So what to do if tracking all your meals isn’t very accurate (and not to mention time-consuming and takes the joy out of eating and deciding what to eat), and eating intuitively might be a little faulty, especially at the beginning?

My suggestion is to start with a self-assessment. Ask yourself these questions:
– Am I sick more than I should be?
– Do I struggle with fatigue more than I think I should?
– Am I improving in my performance?
– Have I had a lot of injuries?
– How’s my overall health?
Basic bloodwork results holds a plethora of data on how the body is ‘performing’ internally.
– How is my menstrual cycle and/or sex drive? Women have a little advantage here in that any menstrual symptoms or irregularities* are symptoms telling you to heed warning because there’s a larger health story.
– Do I have a lot of gut upset / discomfort?
– Am I more irritable, depressed, anxious, or have decreased concentration?
– Am I sleeping well?
– and if you have teammates or friends/family that you work out with regularly: Do I eat less than my teammates but have a higher body fat? This is subjective of course because every body is different, but yep, higher body fat and eating less is also a tell-tale sign, since lower metabolic rate occurs with lower energy availability, meaning you might be eating less but weighing more or having more cushion than previously.
– and one more because it can become prevalent with long term low energy availability: Am I thinking about food ALL THE TIME? We know from eating disorder and starvation studies that chronically deprived individuals become obsessed with food, far beyond just being interested in food.

So where to go from here?
Above all, food and exercise should make you feel good. The goal is to be aware and in tune with yourself and your body’s ability to show you signs that something may not feel right or as great as it should.

And you may benefit from professional guidance. If you’re confused or concerned about your needs, or would like a professional opinion, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

*Women on hormonal birth control will not have the same ability to use their menstrual cycle to gauge abnormalities, since it is designed to eliminate ovulation and the normal hormonal fluctuation that occurs. If symptoms or irregularities occur without birth control, that is vital sign that your body has an imbalance somewhere.
This information does not intend to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease. 

References:
2018 UPDATE: Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S)
Bronwen, L., Rowe, G., and Girdlestone, C. (2020). Low Energy Availability – an imbalance that impacts more than performance. CompeatCon Nutrition Conference.
Fahrenholtz, IL., Sjodin, A., Benardot, D., Tornberg, AB., Skouby, S.,…and Melin, AK. (2018). Within-day energy deficiency and reproductive function in female endurance athletes.
Torstveit, MK., Fahrenholtz, IL., stenqvist, TB., Svlta, O., Melin, A. (2018). Within-day energy deficiency and metabolic perturbation in male endurance athletes.
Tribole, E. and Resch, E. (2003). Intuitive Eating: A revolutionary program that works. (2nd ed.). St. Martin’s Griffin.