The short answer is yes and no. With Intuitive Eating, you can absolutely eat whatever you want, whenever you want, but I’ve learned that as my relationship with my body and food evolves, “whatever” and “whenever” and even “want” become more complex.
Because of my history with disordered eating and deprivation, I began my Intuitive Eating journey by stopping food and calorie tracking and trying to eat what I wanted when I wanted it. I had to rebuild trust with my body, and part of building that trust meant letting go of old unhealthy restrictive habits. Basically, before I could move forward with any kind of normal eating, my body had to believe that I would feed it consistently and that this wasn’t part of a binge/deprivation cycle.
I read the book “Intuitive Eating” in a little under a week, had some conversations with my therapist, and decided to start the process while I was on a business trip in Miami. I thought, rightly, that it would be easier to break old patterns while I wasn’t at home.
It was terrifying. Despite working with a therapist trained in treating eating disorders, I felt like I was completely out of control.
I ate at breakfast buffet every morning and had steak for dinner every single night. I went to a Cuban bakery every afternoon and bought a pastry and ate a varied, but heavy, lunch. I also had some serious binges during this period. I ate chocolate cake until I made myself sick. I ate two whole breadbaskets alone in a fancy restaurant, then my full meal, and then dessert and went back to my hotel and vomited – not bulimic vomiting, but from simple overindulgence. For the first time in my life, I ate a whole pint of ice cream out of the carton – I bought it because I wanted ice cream, my hotel room didn’t have a freezer, and I just couldn’t throw all that food away.
I was terrified that I would keep eating and eating and eating and that I would gain weight or fall off a cliff into a kind of crazy dieting spiral. I cried a lot. I told my therapist that I was going back to dieting, that I didn’t have enough self-control for this process, and that I had already failed. She kept telling me that this was normal, that I was doing great, that it would get better.
She was right. Eventually, I habituated – eating like a kid in a candy store lost its appeal. Habituation started when I got tired of feeling bloated, and listless, and overly full. I stopped enjoying the taste of some of my favorite foods, and I even had the (unfounded) worry that I would lose enjoyment of them forever. I wanted to eat in a way that made me feel good, comfortably full, and energized, and I realized that I had no idea how to make that happen. I had to learn.
The amount of time it takes to learn get through this phase is different for everyone. My first habituation took around six weeks, but over the next 18 months, I experienced panic, rebellion, binging, and one more attempt at dieting. Several years later, when I moved to a new city, I went through much of the process again, albeit in a much shorter timeframe and in a less extreme manner.
The point I want to make here is that there is an element of eating whatever you want, whenever you want it in Intuitive Eating. For me, that sentiment in its purist form was a phase I needed to experience in order to move on to a more nuanced understanding of both Intuitive Eating and my own needs. Letting go of the diet mentality means that no food is off limits (barring actual medical need) and that portion sizes depend on your own needs rather than suggested serving sizes or cleaning your plate. Coming from a place of dieting and extreme restrictions, I had to really let go of food restrictions before I could move forward.
But Intuitive Eating is not completely unregulated. It isn’t just your id pushing you toward “wants.” Ultimately, it’s about creating a caring relationship with your body that includes myriad factors, some of which are your wants. I think many people, like me, need to start with their wants first, because those are the things we’ve denied the longest.
After habituation began a time of hyper-mindfulness – which I return to from time to time when I feel like I’ve stopped paying attention. I started with basic questions. What does hunger really feel like? When does hunger start? In the beginning, I had to be very hungry to notice – growling stomach, headache, maybe even light-headedness – but eventually I was able to recognize hunger cues earlier – distraction, thinking about food. For me, my first sign of hunger is the moment when I am no longer focused on the task at hand and instead want to make plans for my next meal. With this came a certain peace, since it means the first sign of hunger comes far enough in advance that I can plan and make decisions rather than grabbing something to stop a headache or squash that feeling of deprivation.
Once I became comfortable looking at my hunger, other questions followed: What does fullness feel like? Why does my body want different foods than it did yesterday? How do I feel when I skip breakfast? Eat a big breakfast? Eat a donut for breakfast?
For me, Intuitive Eating means answering the questions Am I hungry? What do I want? Why? Am I full? It doesn’t mean only eating when I’m hungry and stopping when I’m full though, nor does it always mean eating what I “want.” For example, when I go to a play in the evening, the timing seldom works with my regular eating times. So before the play, I often eat a protein bar or a small meal, even though I’m not hungry, so that I won’t be distracted during the play. I sometimes eat a larger meal after the play, but sometimes it goes so late that instead, I just go to sleep a little hungry and wake up and have a larger breakfast. This only works because of the work I’ve done to rebuild my relationship with my body and the confidence I feel that I will be able to eat in a timely manner.
On the other hand, if I am savoring a delicious meal, I might decide that I want a few bites past fullness to keep enjoying the taste, and I make a conscious decision to acknowledge my fullness and keep eating anyway. I’ve learned that if I just keep eating, my fullness will diminish the enjoyment of the food and I might keep eating and eating, looking for that earlier enjoyment. But if I say, “I’m full, and this is delicious, I think I’ll have three more bites,” I get to savor three more delicious bites and then I’m satisfied. In both cases, I have to rely on past experience and current mindfulness rather than just “hunger” or “fullness.”
Other factors that affect my decision about what and when to eat include the way certain foods make me feel (I love leafy greens, but they sometimes upset my stomach, and I need to be mindful how often I have salad), how long until I’ll be able to eat again (carbs are great for a quick pick-me-up, but protein will last longer if I know I have a long stretch), activities I have planned (I hate climbing stairs on a very full stomach, so walking around NYC all day means that I’ll most likely want a series a smaller snacks), and simply what foods I like or dislike. For example, I hate bananas. No amount of nutritional benefit will make me eat a banana. And that’s okay. There is nothing I can get from a banana that isn’t available from other favorite foods like lentils, potatoes, and avocados.
Paying attention to all of these things – planning, exploring my own connection to food, leaning in to my emotional state – takes time and effort.
Intuitive Eating can be more difficult than dieting, especially in the beginning and during the “hyper-mindfulness” periods. There aren’t any rules to guide my decisions, but I am happier and more at peace. It’s not as simple as eating whatever you want when you want it. I have to determine what I want and why, and those questions can be very complicated. But over time, as I’ve built trust and confidence, I don’t have to think about these things all the time. Often today, I can just go with knowing what I want and when I want it because I’ve built a kind of framework to help make those decisions.
Most importantly for my peace of mind, I can make those decisions from a place of confidence and trust rather than guilt or rebellion. This morning, I wanted a little pick-me-up before a doctor’s check-up, so I had a cup of hot cocoa at the clinic. It was exactly what I wanted – warm, sweet, and a little energizing. There was a time in my life when I would have skipped this little treat because hot cocoa is not a healthy choice, and there was a time when I would have chosen to eat it precisely because it was the rebellious choice. Today, I had the hot cocoa simply because I wanted it, and it satisfied me.