“Consume as much fruit as you would like.”
"Don’t eat bananas!”
“It’s okay to have a donut.”
“Incorporate quinoa and brown rice into your diet.”
“Carbs are off limits!”
We’re constantly bombarded with information about what to consume in order to achieve our dream of six-pack abs and setting a new PR in the squat rack. Intuitive eating is often overlooked and discredited as a means to achieve a healthy, well-rounded diet.
If we, as fitness professionals, are overwhelmed with misinformation and contradictory advice, can you image how our clients must feel? When you add the fact that social media has introduced a plethora of new resources, many from unqualified fitness influencers and exercise enthusiasts, the word “diet” may cause your clients to cringe more than having to do a set of burpees.
How can we overcome the confusion that has caused so much chaos in the fitness industry? It is our role, and responsibility, to educate our clients and provide the resources they need to make educated decisions. With proper coaching and guidance, they can adapt new habits that will lead to life changing, long term behaviors.
What is Intuitive Eating?
As humans, we yearn for structure. It’s so much easier to follow a program when there’s a list a dos and don’t, right? The food and fitness industries certainly believe this. They fight for our attention (and money), claiming their products and services will do all of the work while providing fast results. Most of us are familiar with Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, the Atkins diet, clean eating and IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros). The contradictory advice among most of these programs can leave a client feeling confused, discouraged and like a failure. Amidst the noise, our internal compasses have become broken. We’re unable to make decisions based on our hunger level and what our bodies truly need.
Intuitive eating is a lifestyle-based approach to eating that focuses on behavior change and high quality foods that support the health of our brains and bodies. Unlike the typical diet, intuitive eating is attainable and sustainable. Through mindfulness and behavior change, we are able to rewire our brains and build new neural pathways (more on this in a bit) that will enhance our decision making skills and repair our internal compasses.
The concept of intuitive eating has existed for quite some time. As we learn more about it and begin to practice it, we can provide our clients with the following resources so they too can embrace this “non-diet” lifestyle of healthy eating and mindfulness. Since the majority of our clients are looking for a lifestyle change rather than a quick-fix, the intuitive eating approach is a complimentary addition to their exercise program.
The Intuitive Eating Advantage
Most diets can be categorized into 4 types. These include diets that cut calories, diets that cut fat, diets that cut carbohydrates and diets that cut out certain types of foods. This leads to restriction. Saying “no” 100% of the time to foods you crave and enjoy will likely cause a rebound effect, sending your clients to the freezer for a tub of ice cream or to the pantry for chips and salsa. What do all of these diets have in common? They all reduce calories. Whether that reduction comes in the form of less fat or lower carb consumption, weight loss will occur when the energy expended exceeds energy consumed.
How would your client react if you told them they never had to diet again? Would they laugh, asking “how much does that weight loss pill (or program) cost?” Admittedly, their interest would be piqued and they would want to know more. Along with losing the “diet” mindset, your clients will gain a new perspective while enjoying the following benefits of intuitive eating.
- No more yo-yo dieting. Not only is yo-yo dieting mentally exhausting but, over time, this can lead to an increased risk of heart disease along with long-term negative impacts on metabolism.
- No counting. Whether your clients prefer to count calories, grams or points, it’s never convenient to determine your macronutrient ratio while at ball game or at dinner on a first date. Counting and weighing your food can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and loss of control when those numbers are exceeded or out of range.
- No restricting. While most diets eliminate particular foods or food groups, intuitive eating gives you permission to eat that slice of cake at your niece’s birthday party or have a celebratory glass of wine after receiving a promotion at work.
Why Intuitive Eating Works
Practicing mindfulness goes beyond “downward dogging” in yoga class and relaxing to Netflix and pizza every Friday night. It’s crucial that our clients find ways to manage the impact of rush hour traffic and deadlines at work while balancing family life and fitness goals. Over time, brain stressors cause:
- Greater stress
- Social isolation
- Poor quality of life
Researchers are uncovering the strong connection between the health of the brain and health of the body. Stress on the brain results in a lack of neurotransmitters that allow us to make rational decisions and use good judgement. Communication between the brain and body is impacted by the shortage of neurotransmitters, our chemical messengers. 
Not only does stress dull your internal compass, but what you eat affects how you feel. It’s a double-whammy, right? Your client indulges in burgers and beer every weekend which then suppresses their ability to make better decisions and create new behaviors that will elicit long term behavior change. However, by implementing new habits and practicing them daily, it possible for your clients to improve neurotransmitter communication. As a result, they may create new neural pathways, strengthening their inner compass and judgement.
Applying the Principles of Intuitive Eating
The following take aways are action items that you can share with your clients as you support them in their lifelong journey of intuitive eating. Remember to start small. It can be overwhelming to incorporate too many changes all at one time.
- Plan meals and snacks. We’ve all heard the phrase, “failing to plan is planning to fail.” With the intuitive eating approach, it’s important that you anticipate when you will be hungry. Keep snacks on hand and spend a day each week creating your grocery list and planning meals in advance. Intuitive eating can be applied whether you eat most of your meals at home or on the road.
- Embrace moderation. If your intuition tells you “eat all the carbs,” that isn’t necessarily a green light to indulge in cinnamon rolls and pastries from the corner bakery. One of the most important components of intuitive eating is moderation. The ISSA recommends the following for calorie control
- Men: 2 palm portions of protein with each meal, 2 fists of vegetables with each meal, 2 cupped handfuls of care dense foods with each meal, 2 entire thumbs of fat dense foods with most meals
- Women: 1 palm portion of protein dense foods with each meal, 1 fist of vegetables with each meal, 1 cupped handful of carb dense foods with each meal, 1 entire thumb of fat dense foods with most meal
- Focus on quality over quantity. Nutrient dense foods are those high in micronutrients. We need them to sustain our bodily systems and function optimally. Processed foods such as crackers, chips, fruit snacks, and dinner rolls have little nutrition value and are often referred to as “empty calories.” Consume these foods sparingly and opt for more nutritious choices such as quinoa, brown rice, nuts, fruits, veggies, eggs, chicken, cottage cheese and beans.
- Follow the 80-20 suggestion. When it comes to intuitive eating, it’s not often we reference numbers. However, the 80-20 suggestion recommends that you consumer nutrient rich foods 80% of the time. The remaining 20% is to be spent at your discretion. Yes, it’s okay to eat gummy bears and nachos—just not all of the time. Use these numbers as a guideline, not a rule.
Adding the ISSA Specialist in Fitness Nutrition Certification to your toolbox will provide you with the resources you need to educate and empower you clients. The International Sports Sciences Association College of Exercise Science provides the psychology and methods that have been implemented with thousands of successful clients. Learn more by visiting https://college.issaonline.edu/request-information
 Strength Training for Fat Loss (p. 14), Nick Tumminello, 2014, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, Copyright 2014 by Nick Tumminello
 Fitness: The Complete Guide (p. 499), Frederick C. Hatfield, PhD, Carpinteria, CA: International Sports Sciences Association, Copyright 2017 by ISSA
 Brain Body Diet (p. 13), Sara Gottfried, MD, 2019, New York: HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2019 by Sara Gottfried, MD.