Flexible structure: the answer to implementing unconditional permission to eat
Does unconditional permission to eat scare you? When trying to implement the Intuitive Eating approach to food one common fear is that unconditional permission will lead to “loss of control” over food. This is a very common concern; after all, the diet culture we live in fosters a disconnection with our bodies, making us feel dependent on external voices to dictate what, when and how much to eat.
If you are transitioning away from a rigid meal plan, you may feel lost and insecure without any food rules, and you may be tempted to go back to dieting, but don't fret! The thought that all foods fit and there is no “good” or “bad” food may be scary at first, and I don’t blame you. This is probably the part of Intuitive Eating that feels the most challenging, but it is an important initial step in the process of healing our relationship with food.
So, here is a helpful strategy to help you implement an element to Intuitive Eating that often gets overlooked: create a flexible structure with eating.
It is so liberating to know that we are not deprived of any food and that we do not need to micromanage our bodies by tracking, measuring or counting everything we eat. Having a flexible structure of meals and snacks will guide you and, to come up with a gentle structure, you will need to pay close attention to your hunger-fullness pattern. Make a point not to ignore your hunger cues - feeling hungry is completely normal and expected. The problem comes when we keep ignoring these signals and, as a consequence, we get uncomfortably hungry, which typically leads to overeating.
So, start by identifying how meals and snacks will look like throughout your day. When do you usually feel hungry for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Take into consideration your schedule in a typical day and think of a time range when you can have these meals. Most people feel hungry 3 to 5 hours after a meal, so if you anticipate you will spend longer than that until your next meal, you can incorporate a snack between them. These meals and snacks should make you feel full and not thinking about food for the next few hours.
Then, make sure you feel satisfied with your food choices and add what you enjoy from a variety of food groups. Aiming for some starchy food, some protein-rich food, along with some vegetables or fruits in your meals is a good starting point, but don’t think of it as a rule. This is a great guideline but resist the temptation of turning it into a diet. This is often very tough to do on your own. If you feel stuck with finding the balance between structure and intuitive eating, you are not alone and you’re not doing it wrong. You may benefit from individual work with a dietitian. If you are not local to Salt Lake City, I can help connect you with an RD local to you, or you can also consider working with me long-distance. It’s okay if this is hard and it’s okay to reach out for help!
Remember that what matters is your overall eating pattern and being flexible helps you achieve balance. Also, even when it’s scary, work on trusting your body! The same way that it signals hunger it communicates with you when you’ve had enough. There are inherent mistakes you’ll make along the way with honoring those cues, but that’s to be expected and completely normal. Even when you’ve worked at this a long time, you’ll still find yourself being imperfect with honoring your body’s cues. That’s okay!
After you predict a pattern for your meals and snacks, you can let your creativity run free! Explore endless variations and combinations of food to make eating a light, enjoyable and satisfying experience.
If this topic interests you and you need more help, I offer one-on-one nutrition counseling in-person or online. To request an appointment, click here. If you are local to Salt Lake City, you can also join me for a live workshop on January 16th at 6 pm to learn The Positive Nutrition Approach to Meal Planning. Seats are limited and will be filled on a first-come-first-serve basis.