Intuitive Eating in the Context of Chronic Illness

A common misconception that non-diet = non-health. Unfortunately this can leave individuals with a chronic disease diagnosis feeling a bit left out, confused, and directionless. The truth is that finding your nutritional freedom is aligned and supported by all the research that correlates the power of food and nutrition with positive health outcomes. But beyond research studies, it’s important to understand how this evidence connects with you as an individual and your overall health.

In the age of the internet, the overwhelm of information, recommendations, and lofty claims can lead you to believe that you can cheat life through a specific balance of micro and macronutrients. We call this “magical eating,” which can be defined as the belief that food is a cure-all when it comes to health issues and chronic diseases. Now believe me, as a dietitian I continue to be in awe of how food can impact our health and wellbeing. However, a food-only approach not only prevents you from engaging in other healthful behaviors outside of food (i.e. spiritual, social, emotional), but it also leads to a false idea that you can be in total control of your health merely through what you choose to put in your mouth. That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself and the choices you make multiple times a day, every day.

The truth is, all bodies are different. Even bodies that experience the same diagnosis interact with food and their environment in completely different ways. That is why finding your nutritional freedom is so important, especially when it comes to chronic diseases. The omission of the individual in the process can lead to harmful outcomes, potentially perpetuating the problem.

For example, let’s say that Sarah was just diagnosed with celiac disease. She’s told that she may never eat gluten again without it having a seriously negative impact on her health. This then sets Sarah up to approach her health from a place of fear and restriction. Plus all those feelings of frustration, comparison, or resentment that her body is “broken.” The diagnosis may also feel like a life sentence that comes with the belief that she’ll never be able to eat the foods that she enjoys ever again. She finds herself obsessing over pizza, bread, and pastries until finally, the willpower runs out and the “screw it” mentality takes over.

However, let’s compare the same diagnosis with an approach that comes from a place of empowerment and body respect. Erica just received that same diagnosis, which naturally stirs up a mix of emotions, triggering feelings of overwhelm and confusion about the challenges ahead. But Erica’s on the journey to flourishing. She’s committed to connecting with her body and knowing its value regardless of the state it is in. This provides space for compassion and kindness in order to experience acceptance of changes in her body and factors that are out of her control. This mindset work ultimately serves as a launchpad to make intentional choices for her body that come from a place of self-respect rather than self-loathing. This looks like being choosy with food in order to take care of herself. It looks like wanting to feel her best in order to be present with those she loves and, ultimately, living the life she wants.

What's interesting is that Sarah and Erica’s choices may look fairly similar-- both people will be particular with the foods they put in their mouth. But their lived experience of making those choices could not be more different.

Sarah feels completely disconnected and bitter towards her body, while Erica continues to move through life with the assurance that regardless of the changes ahead, she can continue to practice and engage in what is in their control.

We never said that achieving nutritional freedom was easy. Yes, it is a beautiful thing to stop dieting and to connect to the foods that serve you, but Flourish is also about doing the hard stuff-- being willing to experience negative emotions, to let go of the uncontrollable, and to show up for yourself every day. Freedom calls for slowing down. Freedom means valuing your body so that you can tune in to what it needs and give it just that.

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