Intuitive Eating: A Brief Introduction

Here’s what I know about fatventurers: we’re a bold bunch — committed to blazing a new path, crossing a new barrier. Your adventurous spirit can push boundaries, and your active curiosity helps you to seek the possibilities in new experiences. But connecting with our fat bodies is not always a positive experience. Just because we’re pushing new frontiers now doesn’t mean we haven’t trod some well-worn paths in the past, particularly when it comes to our body image and relationship with food; paths trod by countless before us.

As a therapist, I work with people to heal their past, restore their resilience and step into their future. Over the years, that has focused on working with people on the edges; the marginalised, and the misfits. My passion has been working with womxn, and working with trauma, and this is the landscape in which I find myself, often, when doing this work; when working with folx to heal their disordered relationships with food and their bodies, I am working with the trauma of disorder with self.

I hear familiar stories: time spent avoiding the gym, or the swimming pool, or the hiking trail, for fear of being stereotyped or shunned as a fatty. Wanting to participate in an active life but having to overcome stigma, anxiety and shame to do so. The search for positive role models. And then there’s food: the diet industry permeates our culture, and so many have heartbreakingly similar stories of early, often enforced, dieting; the tired repetition of restriction, limitation, binge and purge. Some of us may still be engaged in these practices; through familiarity, through fear, or through not knowing any different. But there are different approaches we can take.

An active lifestyle can’t be sustained by diet mentality. Getting out there and getting active requires fuel. In an ideal world, it needs fun too; who amongst us can sustain challenges and goal-reaching without some fun and celebration?! Where fatventuring is so different from fitspo is in its intention: the desire for joyful experience, determined challenge, reaching new peaks, nurturing the heart and the soul; out with punitive drive and in with compassionate connection with our whole selves.

It’s one of the reasons that Intuitive Eating and fatventuring complement each other. Both are about reconnecting with your body’s cues, not ignoring them. Both are about nourishment, for the body and the soul, rather than punishment. Both are focused on healing, not harming. And both take that courageous, curious spirit and use it to craft a bold new paradigm.

Intuitive Eating was developed by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch and was a radical response to the tired old trope of diet culture. Science based and research driven, IE recognises that diets simply didn’t work and, worse, often double-down on the harm done in the name of our current narrow margins of health and beauty. IE seeks to reconnect people with their bodies’ natural hunger and satiety cues, and to restore their trust that their body knows what it’s doing. IE is based on ten core principles, designed to heal your relationship with your body and with food. It encourages you to embrace your capabilities and listen to what your body needs.

For some, this idea is unfathomable; how could we possibly make sure we don’t eat too many of the ‘bad foods’ if we don’t have a diet book or slim celebrity telling us how much or how often? So much of this is about learning to trust ourselves internally, which means that we need to dismantle our own internalised fatphobia; when we hear the same external messages over and over again, that we are lazy or incapable, unhealthy or unmotivated, we eventually begin to internalise those messages and hear them in our internal rhetoric.

It’s what Virgie Tovar calls “intrapersonal fatphobia” – the messages we hear within ourselves, towards ourselves. In order for us to engage in this work, we start with a commitment to dismantling these fatphobic structures. As we break down these old beliefs about weight and health, we can begin to explore our views on food.

IE challenges our notion that food is either good or bad. Food is neutral. We give it moral value, the same way we give moral value to the word “fat,” which is just a descriptor. Good, bad, “clean,” “junk”: these terms are part of a binary, old fashioned way of conceiving food. Food is there to fuel us, entertain us, comfort us; at its best, it both sustains and delights. Diet culture teaches us to fear food, and to limit its uses, but food is a powerful resource, and one we can use to our advantage.

What would it be like to trust your body again? To trust that you are well made and that, if you gave your body half a chance, it would tell you exactly what you needed. That, if you tapped deep into what it is your body wants, you could learn that cravings are cues for a need, not dangerous urges that need to be tamed. If you re-learned to trust your inner wisdom and inner compassion, and to work with yourself rather than against yourself, think how powerful you could be! (Then imagine why the weight loss industry, worth billions and growing annually, might benefit from disempowering you and disconnecting you from your inherent ability to self-regulate).

Because that’s what it’s really all about. Many of us are born with the inherent ability to self-regulate our natural functions: to pee and excrete, to sweat, to sleep, to hydrate. We don’t usually demonise these functions in the way we do hunger. And of course that works to the advantage of the diet industry: if you think you can’t do it, you’ll look to externalise your ability to do it, and end up paying others, through diet books and programmes and shakes and supplements… dollars, dollars, dollars.

I know the idea of a different way of doing things will appeal to so many of you, and it’s wonderful that we have access to so many resources right now.

Where to begin?

I have two starting points to suggest, to work on both your internal and external sense of fatness.

The first is to identify that inner voice that shames and judges fat. That voice has likely had free rein to run their mouth a lot. You can begin to take control. Notice the way this voice talks, what it says, how it says it; is it louder at certain times, or when you’re involved in certain activities, or with certain people? Build your awareness and, slowly and safely, get to know that voice. With compassion, remember that this voice is trying to protect you, in a not-very-helpful-now kind of way.

And then… start talking back. “I know that you’ve had a lot of the air space, but we’re trying a different, kinder approach.” “Thanks for your input but I’m trying a different way now.” Use a friendly, firm but fair tone, and be patient with yourself; we’re not trying to echo a punitive voice, but rather replace it with a compassionate one. It takes time to unlearn these old, very entrenched ways of thinking and talking to yourself, and replace them with more positive ways of relating to yourself.

Building up your inner coach/cheerleader/wise soul is a great way to change your personal narrative. Start and end the day with a positive affirmation – I am enough, I am good enough; some of us can be inclined to see affirmations as self-indulgent, but remember that everything we tell ourselves affirms our beliefs, including all the trash talk, so we might as well consciously ramp up the favourable messages. Amplify the positive, and the negative will start to diminish.

The second step, with a more external focus, is to begin to construct a little social media bubbles for yourself. In the same way that you might seek out accounts featuring other large bodied active people, perhaps begin to follow some accounts that follow the principles of IE.

Similarly, give yourself permission to unfollow or hide anyone who promotes a rigid, restrictive view of food and health, or makes you feel bad about yourself, your eating habits, or your body. Building a network of accounts that support a healthy, realistic relationship with food and our bodies is a wonderful support in cultivating your own healthier relationship to self. There are great social media accounts offering wonderful positive content, and a quick Google search will find you a wealth of resources about the principles of Intuitive Eating.

When I work with people, we see this non-linear process takes its own path and time scale. And, of course, there are plenty of stops along the way – a pause to heal, a pause to grieve. This process is not without pain and loss; when we conceive of how much we have been robbed, we often need an opportunity to mourn. But where there is loss there can also be change, and I know fatventurers have the spirit to embrace those possibilities.

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