This is one of the most common questions I am faced with in my nutrition counselling practice. It is usually asked by a client in an exasperated, overwhelmed tone of voice, accompanied by hands being thrown up in the air!
So I'm going to attempt to answer it here.
In my experience there are two levels at which you can know something to be true.
The first is to know something at the level of the intellect. This is where logic, science, traditional knowledge, past experience and “common sense” coalesce to inform and direct us.
The second is the deeper level of intuition, instinct, or “just feeling” something to be true. This more feeling-based truth happens “below the neck”, in the vast landscape of the body that lies beyond the brain. It may be described as feeling in your heart, sensing in your gut, or knowing in your bones that something is true for you.
Another way to think of it is that we have two different navigation or GPS systems that can help us to arrive at a personal truth: intellect and intuition.
Intellect, intuition... and nutrition
But it can only take us so far.
If we only use the intellect and neglect navigating using the deeper GPS systems of felt sense and intuition, it’s like swimming half way across a lake and then abruptly stopping our stroke. We run the risk of becoming inundated and overwhelmed by mountains of conflicting data without the capacity to filter it through the finer sieve of intuition.
If we continue to use only logic even when our bodies and instincts are telling us to take a different direction, we may sink to the bottom of the lake and drown.
Let me give you an example. A friend tells me about his raw vegan diet. This friend has been eating nothing but uncooked vegetables, fruits and nuts for three weeks. He tells me he is feeling fantastic, his aches and pains are gone and he has more energy than ever before.
He urges me to try it, presenting an abundance of scientific-sounding evidence to back up his enthusiasm.
I try it for a week and feel dreadful. I am cold, have very little energy and my stomach hurts. At this point I could tell my body that I know better (after all, the evidence my friend presented was so convincing!) and continue soldiering on with the diet, waiting for the benefits that surely lie just around the corner.
Or I could listen to the directives of my body and return to eating in a way that feels better for me.
We could easily replace raw veganism with the ketogenic diet, juice cleansing, intermittent fasting or any other dietary fad of the day. The details of the dietary philosophy are not important.
What’s important is that we are aware of which GPS system we are using – intellect, intuition, or a combination of both.
When it comes to food and eating, are you making decisions based on what your mind tells you, what your body tells you, or both?
Two oars of a boat
In order to refine, alchemise and separate the gold (the truly useful and relevant nutritional knowledge) from the dross (the unhelpful and potentially harmful “information”), we must go beyond a head-centred approach to nutrition.
We must learn and feel with the body, heart and gut, and combine this “body-centered knowing” – or bodyfulness - with what our brains are telling us.
This is not to say logic and science are not important. Knowledge is highly valuable. Thinking critically is a crucial life skill. But we must use our intellect in conjunction with our intuition.
One of my teachers Dr. Rick Kausman likens it to rowing a boat: in one hand we grasp the oar of externally-sourced nutrition knowledge, and in the other the oar of internally-referenced intuition. We must use both knowledge and intuition to move forward; if we use only one at the expense of the other we will just go around in circles. Or the muscles of one arm will atrophy while those of the other will grow disproportionally bigger, and we may get stuck subjecting ourselves to a dietary philosophy that doesn’t help at best, and hurts us at worst.
Nowadays with the abundance of nutritional philosophies out there and conflicting information at our fingertips, the knowledge oar in this boat metaphor is often way overused, and the oar of intuition is underused or entirely forgotten.
People are more likely to ask Dr Google or turn to experts or gurus for nutritional advice, than they are to quietly and gently tune into their own bodies and seek the answer from inside themselves.
Our culture's emphasis on external appearance and weight - and their supposed links to what and how we eat - further adds to the white noise.
Connecting back to your body
"How will I know what and how much to eat without consulting a meal plan, or food rules, or calorie counting?"
Many people I speak with feel as though they can't trust their bodies. They fear that if they throw away their diet books and eating plans and calorie counters and macro trackers - if they only "listen to their bodies" - they will just end up bingeing on foods they don't think are healthy or acceptable. They think their body and weight will spiral out of control. They believe that their cravings and bodily sensations are not to be trusted*.
But in my lived experience and in my work with many clients in diet recovery, taking away the food rules and restrictive diets has the exact opposite effect. It's the deprivation that sets you up for the binge in the first place. And the alternatives to dieting that I will present here remove that deprivation. They encourage you to rely on your internal wisdom and felt sense. This is how we get off the madness of the diet rollercoaster and learn to eat normally again.
There are a number of fantastic approaches that at their foundation, encourage you to use your body as the first port of call when making decisions about food, eating, and your body - a collective approach I like to call Embodied Nutrition. Here are some great ways to learn to trust your body again, and help you reach a place of normal eating:
- Mindful Eating: When you are using all your senses in choosing to eat food that is both satisfying to you and nourishing to your body, you are eating mindfully. It is a process of bringing full attention and awareness to food choice and the experience of eating. Mindful eating also encompasses becoming aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your eating decisions. Mindful eating (used in a non-restrictive, non-diet way), is a wonderful tool to develop, but it doesn't go as far as intuitive eating which also addresses the importance of body respect, emotional eating and joyful movement. Unfortunately, mindful eating has been co-opted by diet culture in social media and elsewhere, and is being touted by some as another way to lose weight - which I believe is counterproductive and not a great way to help you return to a place of normal eating. To learn more about Mindful Eating, visit https://thecenterformindfuleating.org or check out this blog post.
- Intuitive Eating: This is an evidence-based approach that supports people to make food choices without experiencing guilt or anxiety. It honours hunger, respects fullness, and encourages to bring back and enjoy the pleasure of eating. It was developed by dietitians Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole and is commonly an approach used to help people heal from the physical and psychological side effects of chronic dieting. Unfortunately, Intuitive Eating has ALSO been co-opted by diet culture. But when used properly, the approach pivots on the process of tuning in to your body signals. To learn more about Intuitive Eating, visit www.intuitiveeating.org or check out this blog post.
- The Non-Diet Approach: This takes the first two approaches, combines them, and then goes even further. It encompasses mindfulness of eating, body cues, and food choice. It also puts into practice the principles of intuitive eating, which include self care and consideration of emotional eating influences. And then it goes a step further and inspires chronic dieters to acknowledge and overcome more nebulous external drivers that may be unhelpful, including the impacts of diet culture and weight stigma. It recognises body diversity and the fact that people of many different shapes and sizes are healthy. Research into the non-diet approach has generally shown positive changes in physiological and psychological markers. As far as weight is concerned, BMI tends to remain relatively stable or decreases during and after treatment, whereas yoyo dieting tends to follow a pattern of weight cycling, and generally leads to increases in body weight over time. The foundation of the non-diet approach is the Health At Every Size HAES ® movement. The Non-Diet Approach fosters kindness, self-acceptance and balance, and recognises the individual as the expert of their own body.
“The non-diet approach honours body diversity and holds the client as the expert in their lived experience. It’s the exact opposite of dieting.” - Susan Williams, APD
If you feel like you need additional guidance in piecing all these bits together and figuring out the non-diet tools you need to implement most, then working alongside a weight-neutral, non-diet nutritional professional who does not subscribe to any one way of eating is a good option.
If you have a history of current reality of disordered eating, then working with a professional is crucial as the signals from your body may have become less clear and more difficult to interpret.
When it comes to eating, using your intuition at least as much as you use your intellect is a powerful tool in helping you to reach a place of balance, pleasure and wellbeing in the way you eat, and relate to food. Intuitive eating, the Non-Diet Approach, and working with a non-diet, weight neutral professional are all alternatives to dieting that can help you create the wellbeing, peace of mind and sanity you seek.
"There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy." - Friedrich Nietzsche