When it comes to gut health, it’s important that we are occasionally checking in on our symptoms. If we are experiencing symptoms like bloating, constipation, or food sensitivities, understanding what may be driving a potential gut imbalance is really important. Examples could be a history of disordered eating, suboptimal eating patterns, high stress levels, and recent or past heavy use of antibiotics, to name a few. Oftentimes, people who struggle with IBS or digestive issues will have a higher rate of disordered eating. As symptoms persist, people will cut out foods or entire food groups in order to manage them. This can lead to disordered eating patterns, feeling like you can’t eat anything, and generally not feeling motivated to eat much at all out of fear of stomach upset.
This shouldn’t be the case, and we need to get to the bottom of it!
Before we dive into intuitive eating, it’s important to unpack the gut-brain connection and how chronic stress from life or about food can impact our digestion.
In today’s world, sources of stress are everywhere: work, relationships, social media, the political climate, social issues, and more. When our bodies experience even a chronic, low-level of this stress, our bodies get stuck in what’s called the ‘fight or flight’ response. You may have heard of this response before, and it is linked to our sympathetic nervous system, which at a basic level, is our body’s defense mechanism against perceived threats. People often reference this as the response that helped our ancestors respond to danger like wild animals, etc. which we no longer face today. However, our gut is connected literally to our brains by the vagus nerve, which sends signals in both directions between the two, making them in constant communication.
In this way, our thoughts influence our gut, and our gut microbiome influences our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
Because of this, stress is linked to many GI conditions and symptoms. Stress can also influence how well we tolerate foods as our gut is in more of a high alert state. In more severe disordered eating cases, for example, our mind is in a highly-stressed state around food as we try to control exactly the types and amounts of food we are eating whether it is in an attempt to control our symptoms or our bodies.
Mindfulness around food helps to reduce the stress around nutrition, as it forces us to to slow down, tune into our inner wisdom, and quiet the noise from the stressful outside world.
This helps activate our parasympathetic nervous system response, which is referred to as “rest and digest”, which is the opposite of the “fight or flight” response. Mindfulness involves learning to pay attention to your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues, learning which foods feel good in your body and leave you feeling energized and satisfied, and being present when we are eating without distractions or stressors.
This is where intuitive eating comes in! Created by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995, intuitive eating is a “self-care eating framework, which integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought” and is a “weight-inclusive, evidence-based model with a validated assessment scale and over 100 studies to date”. There are 10 core principles of intuitive eating. A few of them that I want to touch on are #2 Honor Your Hunger, #6 Feel Your Fullness, and #10: Honor Your Health – Gentle Nutrition.
The main tool used in honoring your hunger and feeling your fullness within this approach is referred to as the “Hunger and Fullness Scale”. It essentially outlines different feelings and categorizes them using numbers 1 through 10. 1 relates to being so hungry that you feel ill, are dizzy and have difficulty concentrating. 10 relates to being so full you feel sick, beyond uncomfortable, and have absolutely no desire to look at food for a while. It can be a really helpful tool to evaluate your hunger level before and during meals as well as your fullness levels during and following your meals.
While this is a great quick tool, how else can we tune into our hunger cues?
Hunger can manifest both physically and emotionally. You can ask yourself before eating “How hungry am I?” or “How do I know I am hungry?”. Physically, your stomach may be rumbling/growling, you may feel light-headed, have trouble focusing, and have head/stomach aches. Your environment can also trigger hunger by the sight and smell of food. Hunger can also be an emotional response to sadness, loneliness, anger, boredom, or other emotions. Next time you are thinking of food, try evaluating your hunger from a physical and emotional perspective.
What about fullness?
First, it’s important to practice mindfulness when we are about to sit down for a meal. In fact, it can even start when we are preparing our food.
Even taking a few deep breaths prior to eating can help to activate our ‘rest and digest’ pathways. It’s also important to remove distractions while we are eating like phones and social meda, the TV, and harsh sounds or lights. Try to eat mindfully by being fully in the moment. Engage your five senses: focus on each bite and its taste, texture, and smell. Also make sure to chew each bite thoroughly and slowly. The goal is to get each bite to an applesauce-like texture before swallowing. Eating more slowly can also allow your body the time it needs to realize when you are starting to feel full. During meals, also make sure to take a pause, rest your utensil down and reflect on how hungry or full you feel.
After eating, reflect on how that meal made you feel. Did your food energize you? Or did it make you tired/bloated/in pain? This brings us to the concept of gentle nutrition, which is also talked about within the approach of intuitive eating and also goes along with a common misconception that intuitive eating is just eating whatever foods you want without care or consequence.
Don’t get me wrong – Intuitive eating does not mean eating Doritos for three meals a day!
Gentle nutrition means making food choices that honor your health and taste buds while making you feel good. It doesn’t mean eating perfectly, but about eating consistently over time in a way that supports our health and makes our bodies feel good. This plays into gut health by recognizing which foods make us feel good, nourished, satisfied, and without pain or discomfort on a regular basis. This involves making informed decisions about foods and reflecting on meals – which takes time! It is a learning opportunity, and we won’t get it right every time which is OK! Nutrient deficiencies don’t develop overnight, so if you want to eat some Doritos and they make your body feel good every once in a while, then honor that! However, if you are craving them and know they do not make you feel good and make your symptoms flare up, consider a different choice.
I hope this helped you understand a bit more about how intuitive eating can play a role in helping manage and improve digestion and overall gut health. For more info on intuitive eating, I’ve linked a resource below as well as check out the book “Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach” by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. As always, feel free to reach out to me for more individualized support with your gut health and intuitive eating. I’m always here to offer support!
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