Our bodies have the innate ability to regulate our eating. As babies, we are experts in knowing when we are hungry and when we are full. Through struggling with an eating disorder, you may have lost touch with these signals; however, you have not lost these skills altogether, it will just take a bit of practice to get them back.
Enter mechanical eating. Mechanical eating helps to establish a regular pattern of eating that works to build awareness of hunger and fullness signals and helps to start to separate food from thoughts and feelings. This may be in the form of a structured eating plan, developed collaboratively with you and your Registered Dietitian. As Evelyn Tribole, one of the co-authors of Intuitive Eating has said, a meal plan is similar to a cast for a broken bone. The cast provides structure and support during the healing phase, but it is not meant to be on forever. During the beginning stages of recovery, hunger and fullness signals may not be accurate or reliable and the eating disorder voice is likely much stronger than your healthy or intuitive voice. Mechanical eating is an important tool that aids in weight restoration, providing the body with the nourishment that it needs and helps to establish regular eating patterns.
We have heard from clients that it is frustrating to continually be in the mechanical stage of eating, without being able to move onto intuitive eating. When working through this frustration, it is important to remember that nourishing your body is a form of self-care. Your body likely needs consistent nourishment in order to heal and repair and get to a place of optimal functioning, to support you throughout your journey. Although you may not ready to fully move into intuitive eating, there are some aspects of intuitive eating that can be practiced while in the mechanical phase. As gentle hunger cues begin to emerge in recovery, you can work on beginning to notice these cues, and honor them when they arise. You can also start to challenge the dichotomous thinking around foods, and work to reach a place of food neutrality, where foods are neither good or bad. Incorporating foods that cause you anxiety but enjoy into your meal plan, is another great way to begin your journey to making peace with food.
How do I know if I am ready for Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating is flexible way of eating that is guided by internal cues, such as hunger and fullness. Intuitive eating also involves unconditional permission to eat, and permission to eat a wide variety of foods, without guilt or shame. It can be difficult to determine when you are ready to move past mechanical eating into intuitive eating. Jumping in to intuitive eating too quickly runs the risk that intuitive eating could become another set of rules for the eating disorder to take hold of.
Before practicing intuitive eating, it is important that weight restoration has occurred if necessary, and that a regular pattern of eating has been established. It is also important that there is an understanding that your eating disorder is about more than food itself or weight. Developing a toolbox of coping skills that you can turn to in challenging times is very helpful and as you develop your toolbox and collect a variety of skills to use, the need to use the eating disorder lessens. Since intuitive eating relies heavily on the use of internal cues, it is important that hunger and satiety cues have been normalized, and that you are able to hear a range of cues that your body may give, and respond in an appropriate and timely fashion. Lastly, moving towards intuitive eating involves taking risks. This could be in the form of moving away from calorie counting, or regularly incorporating challenge foods without compensation.
Recovery from an eating disorder is challenging. It is okay and normal to stay in the mechanical eating phase for awhile, and work on nourishing your body through self care and regular eating. There is no time frame for when you should be ready for intuitive eating. You can start to incorporate some of the concepts into your structured eating plan and when you are ready and have built trust with your body, you can move onto honing your skills in intuitive eating.
Center for Discovery. (n.d.). The Application of Intuitive Eating Principles in Eating Disorder Recovery. Retrieved from https://centerfordiscovery.com/blog/intuitive-eating-principles-eating-disorder-recovery/
Evans, M. (2011, April 26). Intuitive Eating and Eating Disorder Recovery. Retrieved from https://marcird.com/intuitive-eating-and-eating-disorder-recovery/
Gaviria, C. (2019, April 29). Where Mechanical Eating Meets Intuitive Eating. Retrieved from https://www.allianceforeatingdisorders.com/mechanical-intutive-eating/
Hartley, R. (2018, August 14). Intuitive Eating in Eating Disorder Recovery. Retrieved from https://www.rachaelhartleynutrition.com/blog/intuitive-eating-in-eating-disorder-recovery
Tribole, E. (2010). Intuitive Eating in the Treatment of Eating Disorders: The Journey of Attunement. Perspectives, A Professional Journal of the Renfrew Centre Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.evelyntribole.com/wp-content/uploads/Tribole.IntuitiveEating.Eating-Disorders.2010.pdf