I listened to a podcast the other day that really helped me clear up my feelings about intuitive eating.
It came from a very reputable, level headed personal trainer called Ben Coomber and his colleague Tom Bainbridge. In September last year, they released two episodes discussing their opinion on Intuitive Eating, and listening to them I finally felt I had connected with someone who shared the same opinions as me.
For many, intuitive eating can be an incredible tool in healing the body from years of dieting and restriction. I came to it after a very restrictive past, so for me following the principles of intuitive eating worked well. In fact, I would say that really, truly following the principles of intuitive eating would work well for everyone.
But that’s where the problem lies.
I feel there is one principle that is hugely overlooked: Gentle Nutrition.
I follow many intuitive eating professionals that focus on releasing guilt from food, not labelling foods as good and bad, not giving food moral value and all those good things. That’s great, I totally believe in having a healthy relationship with food and eating foods you enjoy. I don’t think we should be cutting out food groups, going on restrictive diets or anything of that sort.
Along with all these positive messages, comes the demonisation of “diet culture”, ie: the pursuit of weight loss in any form, calorie/macro counting, the pressure to eat in a certain way, exercise in a certain way, or look a certain way. They speak of loving your body at any size and not caring at all about weight, because it’s not an indication of health. Some speak of the pursuit of health over weight loss, others speak of there being no need to pursue health at all, because it’s not your moral obligation in this world to actually be healthy in the first place.
The deeper into intuitive eating and the Health At Every Size (HAES) movement you go, the more complicated and political it seems to become, from my own experience and research.
The deeper into diet culture you go, the more you’ll find twisted, money grabbing companies hoping you’ll get entwined into the diet cycle so that they can profit off of your misery and “lack of willpower” (which is not actually a lack of willpower on your part, it’s just what happens when you go on a highly restrictive diet!!).
Okay, so where am I going with all this?
My point is, there are two ends of the spectrum here and I believe in many cases the pendulum has swung too far the other way in an effort to correct the misery that has been caused by the genuinely bad companies in the diet industry. This is discussed in Ben’s podcast which I highly recommend you listen to if you’re feeling as conflicted as I was.
Yes, intuitive eating has many positives, but I am worried that in many cases, it’s not being approached in the right way. I am in several intuitive eating support groups on facebook, and I am constantly seeing posts from people reaching the end of their tether, saying “I have been eating intuitively for x amount of months/years, and my weight is just going up and up! It’s making me feel miserable etc” – and the response? Wholly supportive and encouraging of this seemly out of control weight gain. This support is coming from others who have discovered intuitive eating, and have decided to abandon dieting, but are not health professionals by any means whatsoever.
Therefore, this advice is being given out by people who have no idea, other than what the internet tells them and personal experience, about how the body works, about nutrition, about exercise or about health.
There is a lot of misconception between weight and health, a lot of stories of doctors just telling a patient to lose weight as a first response, when actually they could be doing other health promoting activities that would be of more use. Weight is definitely not the be all and end all of health, and it’s not an indication of how healthy a person is. BMI is also not an accurate way to measure someone’s health – take technically “obese” olympic athletes as an example!
However, it’s also generally agreed, and there are countless studies to back up, that being significantly overweight can put a strain on one’s health. Being underweight is the same. As Tom Bainbridge pointed out in the podcast – if someone with an eating disorder or disordered eating was significantly underweight, they would be put on a calorie controlled diet, because they can’t trust their hunger signals, and need to learn what nutrition their body needs to get them back to health. So, if you believe that is an appropriate way to help those who are underweight and don’t have a healthy relationship with food, then by default you have to agree that for someone whose disordered eating or eating disorder has made them overweight, a calorie controlled diet could also be a way forward for them, as they also can’t trust their hunger signals, and need to learn what nutrition their body needs to get them back to health too.
So where do I stand on all of this?
I watched a documentary the other day in which an interviewee told the audience that his weight had risen to a level where he found it difficult to go to the toilet.
That, to me, is not health.
There is a middle ground to be found here.
I believe health is actually quite simple. I also believe there are many confusing, mixed messages in the world that make it very NOT simple for too many people.
I believe you don’t need to severely restrict your calories to be healthy. I believe you don’t need to stop eating chocolate, or cake, or any food you enjoy.
I believe you don’t have to count calories to reach your health goals, but I believe for some people, calorie counting, when not done to the point of obsession, is a great tool to gain knowledge about what we’re consuming; it’s not inherently evil.
I believe in focusing on health promoting behaviours rather than solely weight loss, such as building strength and fitness, getting adequate sleep and managing stress, but also eating appropriate amounts of foods that nourish you both physically and emotionally, not just emotionally.
So, if you come along to one of my classes, or you become a personal training client, I will support you in reaching your goals, whatever they are. I won’t turn you away if you want to lose weight, but I will discuss with you your intention behind it, and help you make small, sustainable changes to your overall lifestyle that will help you live happily and healthily for many years to come, and not just put you on a “quick fix” diet and exercise program to give you a fast, unsustainable weight loss transformation.
I apologise that this has been a long post, but I’ve had this on my mind for many months now, and I feel I’ve reached a place of clarity on where I stand as a fitness professional. Thanks for reading, if you’ve got this far I’d LOVE to know your opinions on all this too!