Should Intuitive Eating be Part of Eating Disorder Recovery?

Whenever I meet with a client for the first time, I ask them how they want to feel around food.

Some clients are pretty insightful and share that they want to feel freedom around food, less guilt, or to be able to listen to their hunger and fullness cues (what a lot of clients summarize as intuitive eating).

For others, this is a really difficult question to answer because it's hard imagining a whole new relationship with food. That's okay if you're not sure how you want to feel around food right now! Your motivations and intentions throughout recovery may change.

At the early stages of recovery, intuitive eating is nearly impossible. As a dietitian who really believes in intuitive eating, I also know it's not appropriate to use with clients deeply entrenched in their eating disorder.

If you're going through recovery, you may not have regular (or any) hunger cues. Even if you do, it may be hard to trust or listen to them. Fullness cues may be distorted and enmeshed with body image concerns - any sensation of fullness may be linked to body image.

Should Intuitive Eating be Part of Eating Disorder Recovery?

Hunger Cues + Meal Plans

One aspect of intuitive eating is getting in tune with your body's cues - hunger and fullness being two of them - but it's hard to do that when they are missing.

This is where a meal plan comes in. Many clients are really unsure about the idea of a meal plan because they want to be less rigid around food, but think of this as a temporary crutch in order to restore your body's health and rebuild trust with your body.

If you broke your leg, you would get a cast or crutches to let it rest. You would need to rely on others or crutches to let your body rest - same in eating disorder recovery. You need to let your body restore and trust a guide (a dietitian and meal plan) to nourish your body, so eventually, you will be able to feed yourself based on your body's cues.

A meal plan is support to remind you to eat frequently throughout the day in order to get adequate energy (more than they may think you need!), variety, and a balance of foods and nutrients. A meal plan can help ensure you get enough carbohydrates, fats, and protein from a variety of foods - not only for the nutritional content but also to add back in foods that you may have restricted in the past.

Part of recovery is health restoration - regardless of any changes in your weight - and using a supportive meal plan helps restore metabolism, hormonal health (like menstrual changes), energy, digestion, or other aspects of your health that may have been affected by disordered eating. Often, you don't need to try special supplements or diets to heal digestive complaints or hormonal issues because it's usually related to disordered eating.

It may take up to 6 months to a year (or longer) for consistent hunger and fullness cues to return. At first, they may come back sporadically, and you may feel starving all the time or not very hungry.

There is also a lot of therapeutic work to be done in order to actually trust and listen to these cues. You can feel hungry, but that doesn't automatically mean you will honor this cue and take the time to eat. Therapeutic and body image work with a psychotherapist and eating disorder dietitian can help immensely in this way.

When you feel committed and solid in your recovery, then it may be a good time to start exploring intuitive eating with a dietitian who is familiar with it. This can be gradual by first getting in tune and recognizing your body's cues while still using a meal plan, then working towards listening to what you really want to eat.

Making Peace with Food in Recovery

I love the 10 concepts of intuitive eating, and the other concepts like making peace with food and ditching the diet mindset can definitely be used in recovery though!

Making peace with food is a common theme throughout recovery. If you've struggled with any degree of disordered eating, you may have a long list of feared foods that trigger anxiety. Making peace with food takes time, so give yourself patience through this process.

Allow yourself to start by making a list of foods that you want to make peace with and rating them based on your anxiety level with each. Start with foods that seem challenging but doable - you don't have to start with your most feared food.

This process is gradual too - it may start by simply talking about the food, seeing it in the kitchen, or touching it. When you're more comfortable with the food, it may mean planning and eating the food with the goal to just finish it. It may take several times of eating the same food to get comfortable with it and to notice any shifts in your anxiety around the food. Work with your therapist and dietitian during this process - it's okay to take your time.

Intuitive eating - and recovery - is not black and white.

Recovery will look different for every single person.

Just as there is no perfect way to eat, there is also no perfect way to 'eat intuitively.' 

If you want to learn more about intuitive eating, here are some of my other posts on it:

I'd love to hear from you: What are your thoughts on intuitive eating in recovery?