Elimination style diets can be a pathway towards intuitive eating

Author: Audrey Fleck - MS, RDN, LDN Publish Date: February 20, 2020

Intuitive eating is simply listening to your body and honoring what your body tells you to eat (or to not eat) based on how you feel in the present moment.

It’s not a diet, but a practice.

A practice is something that you do on a daily basis.

By practicing intuitive eating daily, it becomes easier to do and can even become second nature.

Intuitive eating has become the “anti-diet” food trend.

Many seek an intuitive eating practice after becoming exhausted with diet dogma, food rules, and feeling anxiety about what to eat.  The cycle of dieting and restricting food -> feeling guilty-> then “giving up” (often followed by binge eating) exists for many with “all in” versus “all out” mindsets around eating.

This is one of the biggest barriers for my clients who have struggled to lose weight and keep it off – simply the mindset.

Food choices should be free of guilt no matter the circumstance. Intuitive eating is grounded in the belief that you and only you know what your body needs. By increasing self-awareness through listening to your body, you can trust yourself,and more easily make food choices with confidence.

For some time now, my social media threads have been  inundated with dietitians/nutritionists (whom I follow) showing pictures of them indulging in pizza, donuts, cookies, and ice cream while trying to promote an “un-dieting” and a no restrictions mentality about eating.  They are trying to convey and show their followers that living healthfully does not mean never enjoying favorite foods that might be deemed “unhealthy,”  nor do they have “perfect” diets due simply because they are nutritionists. I certainly try to post my own real life eating that does include a treat here and there for this specific purpose.

You don’t know how many times I have had clients gasp when hearing that I eat cookies! Just because I am a nutritionist, doesn’t mean I am living in a box full of veggies. 

I do 100% agree with these dietitians/nutritionists, but I found myself looking at these pictures and saying things to myself like…

“Mmmm… I could so go for a donut, but I remember the last time I did, I entered into a food coma from the blood sugar roller coaster.”

I know that intuitive eating is more than just “all foods fit” and beyond believing that there are no “good” or “bad” foods.  The truth is… sometimes, some foods can make you feel like total crap.

How can you begin to make the connection between food and how it makes you feel? You can simply become more mindful of how you feel after each meal.  (There are tips and mindful practices to implement that I can explain to help, but that’s not the point of this blog so I will not go into detail on that right now.)

What about those who are trying to heal from their autoimmune disease or women trying to reduce inflammation to improve hormonal balance. What about my clients whose digestive systems are all over the place?

Everyone can benefit by learning about intuitive eating and applying the practice, but alone, it might not be effective enough if you are trying to take a “food as medicine” approach to healing.

I use therapeutic diets and/or elimination diets temporarily to help my clients heal, feel better, and get back to living their best lives with more ease.  Temporary elimination of certain foods (usually personalized towards an individual’s medical history) can have a more profound impact on helping you identify food triggers of your health problems.

Although an elimination diet and intuitive eating sound completely opposite of each other, they really aren’t.  If food sensitivities or digestive issues are present, the waters can be murky when trying to determine how a food makes you feel.  Removing specific foods from your diet and then reintroducing them can make it crystal clear as to what makes you feel your best. Removing foods from your diet can also promote healing and even though you may react to a food today, if you address underlying causes of your immune system responding to a food (usually related to leaky gut), you can resolve many food sensitivities too.

This is my take on intuitive eating and how elimination and/or therapeutic styled diets can actually enhance and catalyze an intuitive eating practice, despite their restrictiveness.

Elimination diets actually prime you for intuitive eating.

I am sure some intuitive eating experts may disagree with that statement. I should also preface this by mentioning that I am very sensitive to people recovering from eating disorders when recommending (if I do) an elimination style diet.  In some cases (even if there are health benefits), I won’t suggest cutting out foods as to avoid triggering a recurrence of an eating disorder.  

Intuitive eating is also ALL about using feedback your body has given you through past eating experiences to help you make informed choices about what your body truly needs while being fully aware.

The elimination type plans I recommend are only temporary.  With some foods being eliminated,it becomes easier to receive feedback from your body on how the presence and absence of certain foods make you feel.  Ultimately, in the end, the feedback the body provides upon the reintroduction of foods that were eliminated is used by YOU to determine if that food should be incorporated into your diet regularly or not.  

In order to decrease feelings of deprivation that “diets” end up making us feel, I do offer food suggestions and recipes for alternatives to favorite foods during the time of elimination. 

For example, many of my clients find that eliminating gluten out of their diet decreases inflammation in their body.  Upon reintroducing gluten-containing foods, joint pains and aches may return.

By applying intuitive eating, one who notices that gluten increases pain in the body may make a mindful choice to avoid that particular food because they do not want to feel pain returning.

On the other hand, choosing to eat gluten despite knowing that you might experience a return of pain and inflammatory symptoms, is still intuitive eating.  You learn to trust that the choices you make in that moment are for what you need then and there.

Intuitive and mindful eating is nonjudgmental. So if you did eat the glutinous cupcake that you knew would make you bloat, or your knees swell, you did it freely and do not see it as a bad choice.  There  may be better choices, but there are simply no bad foods.  There is no being “bad” in your diet.  You honored your desire for the cupcake and decided that it was more important to have that cupcake in the moment.

If eating small amounts of certain foods make you feel terrible, you may one day decide that how you feel isn’t worth the taste.  Sometimes it takes 10 times (or more) of eating a particular food, and noticing it doesn’t feel well after you eat that food until you decide that maybe you should altogether just not eat that food.

Remember that you’re human! What’s important is that you are kind to yourself, do not judge, but encourage yourself to do it differently next time, and move on.

I am a foodie (I love to eat) and I never like depriving myself of anything when presented to me.

Honestly, many times, I will eat the donut or the pizza knowingly that it might leave me feeling off of my A game immediately after or even 1-2 days after. It’s taken me sometime to actually make that connection.  I have also learned to allow some of these favorite (but inflammatory) foods in my diet, but in limited amounts.  It’s  become very evident for me that consumption of high sugar foods a few days in a row throws my energy, motivation, and mood off.  Coming to that realization is a mindful moment. I’ve found that little by little, each time I am in a situation where I want to have a free for all, I can bring a little mindfulness back to the situation and curb myself. That’s not restrictiveness, but honoring myself. That’s loving myself. Because I really don’t want to feel like poop.  I really want to feel consistently well, daily. So that I can keep doing my thang.

About the Author

Audrey Fleck - MS, RDN, LDN

I’m Audrey Fleck, a dedicated dietitian with over a decade of experience, and the founder of Functional Origins, my private practice located in Bucks County, PA. With a strong educational background, including a BS in Nutrition and Dietetics and an MS in Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine, I specialize in providing an integrative and functional approach to healing, primarily tailored for women.