I’ve previously discussed what intuitive eating is and how dancers can implement these principles into their active lifestyles. In this article, we’re debunking the most common myths associated with this non-diet approach to nourishing the body, mind, and soul.
Myth #1: Intuitive Eating is instinctual.
In a culture that not only normalizes dieting but also glorifies extreme measures to attain specific body ideals, eating without any sort of second-guessing or food guilt can feel like a major uphill battle! Although we’re all born with the instinctual skill to know when our bodies need energy replenishment, this skill diminishes quickly. Messages about what’s “healthy” and what’s “not healthy” infiltrate our lives as early as preschool! These messages often involve beliefs about food and the body that are centered around weight loss and weight management. This weight-normative approach to health exacerbates weight stigma and the systemic oppression of larger bodies.
So, when you’re finally starting to rebuild the skill of fueling your body in a way that honors its physical and emotional needs, realize that there’s a lot of messaging that first needs to be unlearned. In my work with dancers, the first stage of my framework dives into how to ditch diet culture. Heck, I even host an entire Winter Intensive on the topic.
Myth #2: Intuitive Eating doesn’t work if you “over”-eat or binge eat.
If you’re struggling with consistently eating to a point of physical discomfort, then chances are intuitive eating can benefit you. Most often (but not always), eating past physical comfort is a result of deprivation. Biological deprivation, such as saving calories for a future meal, is one example. Psychological deprivation involves food rules and anticipated conditions like “I may as well eat all of this now because starting tomorrow, my lips are sealed!”
Instead of increasing “willpower,” striving for “moderation,” or avoiding trigger foods at all costs, intuitive eaters learn how to demolish the point of deprivation. Not only does this involve a deep understanding of one’s hunger and satiety cues, but it also involves dismantling “good” versus “bad” food beliefs and the use of gentle nutrition to plan for times when access to food is limited. Bottom line: intuitive eaters heal their relationships with food using a neutral and judgment-free lens that alleviates guilt, shame, and anxiety around eating.
Myth #3: Intuitive Eating doesn’t account for those with chronic health conditions that require diet adjustments.
According to the CDC, a chronic health condition is defined as a “condition that lasts 1 year or more and requires ongoing medical attention or limits on activities of daily living or both.” Examples include:
- Heart disease
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS-D or IBS-C)
- Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)
- Autoimmune disorders, including food allergies, intolerances, Celiac disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.
- Hypermobility disorders like Ehler’s Danlos Syndrome.
Chances are if you’ve been diagnosed with a chronic illness, then at some point along your road of medical management, you’ve been handed a sheet of paper with diet and lifestyle advice. This advice often involves food restrictions with the ultimate goal to prioritize weight loss for disease management. So when it comes to the version of intuitive eating often depicted on social media (the one with endless desserts and foods deemed “off-limits”) it’s understandable to suggest that this lifestyle cannot coexist in the management of chronic illness.
But we know that weight cycling, a common result of dieting, results in a multitude of negative health outcomes and weight stigma, the bias often experienced under the weight-normative approach to managing chronic illness, increases stress levels.
For those with chronic illness, intuitive eating enhances interoceptive sensitivity to your biological cues (hunger and fullness) and helps to remove obstacles (like food and body beliefs) that block your ability to make choices in support of your disease management. But remember: following hunger and fullness cues makes up only a fraction of what intuitive eating actually involves. Gentle nutrition (the tenth principle of intuitive eating) can greatly benefit disease management for someone with a chronic illness that requires an adjusted meal plan. Here are a few examples:
- The avoidance of gluten alleviates physical symptoms associated with Celiac Disease.
- Awareness of sodium in cases of hypertension or in individuals considered salt-sensitive.
- Understanding of the impact of carbohydrates on blood sugar in the management of diabetes, especially when exogenous insulin is administered (Interestingly, intuitive eating has shown promising results in the management of Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease)
Similarly, those who struggle with food allergies, sensitivities, or even autoimmune conditions may have a clear understanding of what foods trigger physical symptoms and what foods alleviate physical symptoms. Bottom line: decisions are based upon the need to support one’s whole being, regardless of body size.
Myth #4: Intuitive Eating only works if you’re already thin.
First, I want to acknowledge my thin privilege. I experience thin privilege because I live in a body deemed acceptable by a fat-phobic culture that stigmatizes those in larger bodies. Because my set-point weight allows me to live in a thin body, I do not experience the same systemic oppression that is faced by those in larger bodies. I can shop at stores without concern over what sizes are stocked, I can fit comfortably into airplane seats, I do not experience diet-related judgment when eating, and I even have more access to appropriate healthcare. I also acknowledge the privileges that led me to my current career in a field predominantly saturated with fellow thin-privileged white dietitians.
Second, I understand how it feels to struggle with overwhelming body dissatisfaction (a topic I talk more about here). And in my over ten years as a practicing dietitian for dancers living in all body shapes and sizes, I have experienced the positive outcomes associated with healing one’s relationship with both food and body. For dancers specifically, this includes flourishing and satisfying careers (both on stage and on-screen) free from overwhelming body dissatisfaction and extreme measures to control body weight. But given my thin privilege, I am aware that I might have limitations in my expertise and therefore encourage additional resources for those interested in utilizing intuitive eating alongside their journey to body acceptance. These include:
- Be Nourished
- Body Respect
- Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating
Myth #5: Intuitive Eating is the same as Mindful Eating
While there is a great deal of overlap, intuitive eating is not the same as mindful eating. Mindful eating involves an increased awareness of one’s experiences with food. This prioritizes at-the-moment attention while eating, focusing on both the food at hand and why you’re eating it. Mindful eating prioritizes the sensual awareness of an eating experience: the tastes, aromas, textures, and flavors. Similar to intuitive eating, this is done without judgment. The ultimate goal is to help individuals gain full presence around an eating experience, subsequently increasing awareness of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide decisions about when to stop eating.
While mindful eating techniques are used as a tool throughout the intuitive eating process (check out these actionable tips), intuitive eating involves a more dynamic approach that encompasses one’s emotional needs and nutritional needs. Another prominent difference between these two is that intuitive eating involves an ongoing journey to dismantle diet culture and the systemic oppression set forth by diet culture’s unattainable and unsustainable standards.
Myth #6: Intuitive Eating doesn’t care about nutrition.
Gentle nutrition is the tenth and final principle of intuitive eating. It enables us to integrate nutrition science without all-or-nothing thinking. A major difference between intuitive eating and dieting is that when eating intuitively, in the context of your food choices, nutrition science makes up only a fraction of your decision (alongside other considerations like emotional needs and personal preferences). In comparison, when you’re dieting (even in the current climate of “wellness” and “clean eating”), nutrition science is the ONLY factor dictating your food choices.
The closer one is to healing from diet culture, the easier it is to integrate gentle nutrition (and for dancers, performance nutrition) without risking obsessions or the creation of food rules. But for those who are recovering from an eating disorder or unwinding from years of dieting (including “clean eating”), it might be necessary to put nutrition information aside for the time being. This doesn’t mean that we don’t care to give our bodies nourishing foods. It just means that when accessible, we’re honoring our body’s mental and emotional needs rather than ONLY prioritizing our physical health. With gentle nutrition, intuitive eaters utilize compassionate curiosity, rather than judgment or ridicule, to assess what foods feel good physically, mentally, and emotionally. For example, you may choose a fibrous fruit for sustained energy throughout a morning rehearsal. To learn more about gentle nutrition, check out this article. And if you feel ready to integrate nutrition science into your performance (minus the obsessions), check out this self-study course, Nourish The Healthy Dancer®.
There is a large body of research that supports positive health outcomes with intuitive eating. And emerging research indicates that a HAES (Health At Every Size) approach (in comparison to a weight-centric intervention) is “associated with statistically and clinically relevant improvements in physiological measures (e.g. blood pressure, blood lipids), health behaviors (e.g. physical activity, eating disorder pathology) and psychosocial outcomes (e.g, mood, self-esteem, body image).”
Myth #7: You might be doing it all “wrong.”
So long you’re not confusing intuitive eating with a method for weight loss, there’s no “right” and “wrong” way to eat intuitively. No matter where you are along this journey, there’s no single “achievement” marker that we check off the to-do list. In fact, it’s largely a journey that ebbs and flows. Intuitive eating, and healing from dancer diet culture, is a journey of exploration. In The Healthy Dancer®, we rely on compassionate curiosity and build evidence along the way— constantly reevaluating what feels supportive and what doesn’t feel supportive.