I utilize my own shared recovery experience to provide compassionate recovery care and empower clients to a life of health and wellness.
This is something that I actually kind of fell victim to during my time working in a big box gym, and I’m very open that I have not always been an intuitive eating dietitian. My experience in the gym world, which I like to call, “fitness culture,” really changed my view, and there are three big things that I identified during my time in these big box gyms that were diet culture/fitness culture mindsets disguising themselves as healthy.
The first one being the grind. The “I have to take multiple classes. I have to be at the gym for hours and hours and hours.” I worked a lot with women, so I saw these women congratulating each other for taking two back-to-back super high-intensity classes or seeing each other in the gym in the morning and then coming back later in the afternoon, and it’s something that’s so normalized. Like, oh, do a double or, oh, stay for this. And it wasn’t until I took that step back where I was like, wow, it’s just too much. There is such a thing as too much in the fitness world. The second piece that I saw was the obsession around macros and meal planning. And having to hit your macros or not really having any thoughts about dropping your calorie intake, wanting a severely low-calorie intake, and these unrealistic goals for the intake that these individuals needed based on the amount of movement that they were doing. So this very typical over-exercising, under-fueling, and just the praise around that thought process. And then the last one, really being the one that probably stuck with me the most, was that my body was my business card. The leaner that I got, the more attention I got from clients, the more people that wanted to work with me. So I saw that as, “oh, if I change my body in this certain way, it’s actually a boost for my business.” And when you’re living, breathing, spending most of your time in a gym, it’s so easy for those first two that I mentioned to not really be a red flag because it’s so normalized, but that last one was for me a light bulb aha moment of this is too much or this is truly something that is a negative disguised as a positive.
Honestly, this has really changed as I’ve improved my own relationship with movement. Before when I was kind of stuck in that diet culture, fitness culture world, I was truly blinded by it. I really focused on aesthetic-based goals. A lot of my clients had aesthetic-based goals. Even though I still loved having strength-related goals for my clients, a lot of it was aesthetics or weight loss. Then when I had my own moment and ventured into the intuitive eating/intuitive movement world, that’s when I realized there’s so much more to the way we move our body, the reason we move our body, and now I really focus in on the “why” behind movement. And that might be a strength-related goal, wanting to lift a certain amount of weight, wanting to be able to carry all your groceries up three flights of stairs, but it could be a quality of life goal, like ease of movement throughout the day, a sustainability goal of “I want to be able to move my body for years and years and years” and it made me take that step back to really view all these other aspects than just the one being the size of your body or the number on the scale. So that has really been a cool experience for me to kind of explore alongside my clients and see that there are so many other ways that movement can empower them and so many reasons why they can choose to do it.
I would say, and this is probably the number one reason why I love intuitive movement, and that is because it’s different for everyone. It’s less about a clear definition and more about this feeling that you have, the feeling that you have before, during, and after exercise and intuitive movement is really when you listen to your body and then move in a way that supports the way that you are feeling. So for example, on a day where you’re feeling really tired or maybe you’re super sore instead of just going and doing that high-intensity workout because it’s what you plan to do or it’s what the program says to do, you take it down a notch, you do something a little bit more gentle or maybe you don’t move at all that day. Maybe it’s a rest day. And I think when we can get to that spot, we no longer have these rules or beliefs around the amount of calories you need to burn or the length of time that you need to exercise or even the specific types of movement that count as exercise, that’s when you can really understand the intuitive aspect to movement. And it’s really more the intuitive choice that you have to do all these different types of movement.
If we think from a physiological perspective, if you do one type of movement, your body is going to adapt. Your muscles are going to adapt to that form of movement, and you’re going to become very efficient and effective at doing that one movement, which is amazing. The body is an amazing machine, it can adapt to the stress that you put on it, and we know that movement is a stressor. However, when we introduce multiple types of movement, now we’re really able to train the body in all these different ways. And we are also able to train different systems of the body. So for example, you have your cardiovascular system. You would train that by doing something like cardio, running, biking, and walking, and then you have your muscular-skeletal system, so your weight lifting. You also have that stretching flexibility component to things. So I like to look at movement in three different buckets. The cardio, the strength training, and then the flexibility.
And when we’re giving to each of those buckets, we’re still allowing the body to change and adapt, but now we’re training all these different systems So our body is able to do so many other things, and I think that is such a cool and interesting component to movement and how the body responds. If we’re only doing that one form of exercise, we’re going to get really good at that one form, but there are all these other abilities that our body has and we can sometimes forget that those also need to be trained.
I love this question and I’m going to give you the classic dietitian/personal trainer response of, it depends. And I would say it truly depends on a person’s likes and dislikes. Someone might be able to experience that beautiful mind-body connection during yoga whereas someone else can have that same experience while they’re running. And then someone else might have that when they’re weightlifting. Someone might have that mind-body connection when they’re meditating or when they’re walking along the beach and experiencing a beautiful sunset, it’s going to be so dependent on the person.
Sure there are different types of movements that maybe support it or even cue to it. Like, I’m thinking of yoga, you’re linking your breath to your movement. You’re kind of tapping into that mind-body connection more so than another form of movement, but that doesn’t mean that one’s going to be better than the other. It really comes down to personal preference.
Again, so personalized. I truly love to meet my clients where they’re at and start small with whatever goal around movement that they have. So my recommendations for someone who maybe doesn’t move right now is going to look very different than someone who is on the other end of that spectrum and is maybe moving too much-on that verge of over-exercising. And I think when it comes to switching up movement, there’s really no right or wrong answer.
I truly want there to be balance and sustainability, but also joy and fun, something that you look forward to. So that balance is going to look so different from person to person. It’s going to take a lot of trial and error to get there, but I think once you figure it out and find what works for you in this season wherever you’re at right now, that’s a beautiful place. If we know that there are benefits to switching up our movement, and we know there are no rules about what we have to do or the amount of time that we have to spend, then that takes the pressure away if we want to try something new. Or if we want to sub the cardio that we’re doing with something else, it becomes such a seamless transaction instead of this big thing of, “Oh my gosh, I’m starting over or I’m doing this new thing.” It’s just a more seamless approach.
With those high-intensity workouts that’s where this fitness grind comes in. My thoughts went to the “more, more, more.” And, “If you can do one class, why not do two?” Again, I’m going to say that famous RD/personal trainer response of it truly depends. I have seen clients be able to go back to that form of movement that they may have once used as a form of punishment. But I think it comes down to the “why” behind the movement, and is there joy?
Can you get back on a bike and not have those thoughts of punishment, restriction, or everything else that maybe you did in your disordered days? If you can hop on that bike and be like, “This is so much fun. I feel great. I love the song.” The music that they’re playing, the energy in this room. If your mind goes to all those positive experiences and you can stay there, by all means, get on that bike. Have fun. Enjoy the time. But if you get on that bike and it’s saying, “Remember what we used to do. Remember why we used to do this,” and you’re constantly in that negative head space, I would say not right now. It’s not something that we choose to do right now. It’s not an “Oh my gosh, we can never do this. You can never get on a bike. You can never take a spin class again.” It’s just a signal that right now in your journey, it’s not the movement for you, and that’s okay.
It’s very empowering when you can step into that same class and have a completely different feeling and say, “Okay. Yeah. One time, I did feel like this. But now, this is how I view this workout.” I always tell clients too that if they stop in the middle and just walk out, and if they have all those feelings of “Should I have done that? Did it count? Should I take another class?” That’s the sign right there that maybe it’s not the right time yet.
I loved this question. It is scary, and I appreciate you bringing that up because I think the transparency around how intimidating it can be is so important. I always like to recommend to my clients to let go of any expectations about what they think intuitive eating is going to look like because it’s unlike anything that they have ever done in the past. It’s not like another diet they’ve done. It’s not a macro plan.
And a lot of times I see them comparing their progress or their predicted outcome to something that maybe has happened in the past. We have to remember that these are two different things. We’re comparing apples to oranges here, so there’s this level of trust that we have to give, and that’s where this fear component comes in. I also love to remind my clients that our hunger and fullness cues can come back, because if we’re in the disordered eating/eating disorder space, we know that we’re out of touch with those hunger and fullness cues. And just because we are not recognizing them now doesn’t mean that it’s going to be like this forever. We’re slowly working on that connection of recognizing those little taps on the shoulder as I like to call them, where right now we can really only recognize those big slaps in the face or when your body’s shaking you because you’re at those far extremes. So knowing that it’s going to take time, knowing that it’s going to look different, and kind of accepting that your journey is going to be a little bit unknown.
So intuitive eating does not mean eating whatever you want, at any given time. The two founders of intuitive eating, they are two dietitians, Evelyn, and Elyse, they define intuitive eating as a self-care eating framework. And I love that self-care is in there because I am a big component of supporting that nourishment is a form of self-care with my clients. And this specific form of self-care integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought all into your decision. So this means that you get to honor your biological needs, those hunger cues, but also your taste preferences while you’re trying to achieve satisfaction. So there are these checkpoints, in a way of checking in with yourself on the hunger side, checking in with yourself on the fullness side. So it’s not this eat anything and everything you want whatever you want because now we’re taking out the acknowledgment of that biological component–the fullness cues, the hunger cues, things like that.
But this is a very common misconception. They see intuitive eating, they see the “no rules” and this sense of panic almost comes over people because they’re so used to following something or they maybe want that structure to feel like they’re in control. And when we think of bingeing in particular, we want there to be maybe a food that is off limits. When I say all foods are equal, all foods fit, you’re instantly thinking, “oh my gosh, now I can include those foods that are only binge foods. How am I going to incorporate those on an everyday basis and not have it turn into a binge?” But when we take away our rules around food, when we give ourselves unconditional permission to eat, and we really follow that intuitive eating framework, we understand that no food is good and no food is bad. And you’re not better for eating one or worse for eating another. And when they have that even playing field, we see how they can be incorporated without leading to binge.
I love that you said black and white because I always explain intuitive eating as living in the gray space. You’re living in that in-between. The space where there’s a lot of unknown. It’s a lot of fear. There are a little bit of scary components there, but it’s also in between that all-or-nothing mentality. So instead of thinking of a switch on being one hundred/everything, off being nothing/zero, I like to think of it more as a dial. Sure. We might be closer to one end or the other, but it’s a dial that goes all the way in between and we are in control of that dial. It doesn’t mean that we’re letting go of all of our health-promoting behaviors or the things that we really like, it’s just giving us more space and more flexibility and it’s not so rigid.
I would say get support and trust the process. This journey is very challenging, and it truly never ends. So don’t be afraid to ask for help along the way because that support is going to drastically impact how you feel about the journey. I think speaking from my own experience, it truly never ends. So having that support and that assurance during maybe some of the more tricky times was really, really helpful to understand the why behind a lot of things.
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Merrit Elizabeth is an Eating Disorder Recovery Coach certified by The Carolyn Costin Institute. She holds a master’s degree in Health Promotion Management and has years of experience working with women with eating disorders.