By Graduate Intern Jennilee Stocker,
Reviewed by Emily Piazza, MS, RDN, CD
Pregnancy and intuitive eating, what do those two things have in common? Many people will tell you pregnancy is a time to listen to your cravings and eat what you want. Intuitive eating tells you this too, along with some other principles that can make pregnancy an even more pleasurable experience. Intuitive eating during pregnancy helps in finding satisfaction with your food and your body. It really focuses the process on you! During this time, it can be easy to get wrapped in “what is best for the baby” and forget about your own self-care. This approach to eating includes guidance on self-care practices such as practicing self-compassion and viewing nourishment as self-care. If Intuitive Eating is new to you, there is no better time to start trying it out during pregnancy.
Listening and responding to your body is not as easy as it sounds, especially if you grew up in a diet culture (which many of us did). Diet culture is the societal expectation that thinness, aesthetic appeal, and an ideal image of health outweigh overall health and wellbeing. Diet culture shows up during pregnancy through strict adherence to weight gain guidelines, clean eating, having a “cute bump”, and planning for postpartum weight loss. Diet culture is also present at your doctor or midwives office if they weigh you at every visit. Intuitive eating smashes the diet culture mentality and aids in the trusting yourself department, which many of us could use help in. While pregnancy is not the only time you can start intuitive eating, it is a good time to practice gentleness and kindness to yourself.
Intuitive Eating during pregnancy helps you connect to yourself by:
Developing interoceptive awareness so you are in tune with the changes going on in your body and baby in real-time
Promoting a nonjudgmental approach to eating. You can simply observe how food makes you feel
Eliminating the morality around food (labeling foods as “good” or “bad”) to take the pressure off worrying about Every. Single. Bite.
Allowing you to listen to your body and be confident in your instincts on regaining trust with your body
There was a study done on intuitive eating that found that this practice gave participants of the research greater freedom to make self-determined choices¹. Mindfulness with intuitive eating allows you to be confident in responding to your body’s signals, such as hunger. This can in turn empower the birthing experience by making you feel confident in knowing and trusting your body. When you are in the birthing process, having that attunement and trust with your body will help you make choices with more certainty. Making self-determined choices will also help you in being self-assured as a parent. Connecting to inner wisdom around foods gives you the confidence to connect to inner wisdom in other areas of your life as well. The book, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach By Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S, FAND does a deep dive into the details of Intuitive Eating². There is also a workbook that reviews concepts and gives prompts to help better understand the 10 principles of Intuitive Eating³.
So what happens when you start intuitive eating during pregnancy?
Well, you will be a little frustrated at first. Our society is riddled with diet culture and the first principle is to reject diet culture in all of its forms. Some of the forms diet culture in pregnancy takes on are doctors telling you there are rigid weight gain guidelines, suggesting a “healthy” weight to be, promoting “clean” eating, suggesting any type of restrictive eating, frequently weighing yourself, and calorie or macro counting. It is frustrating not being able to meet standards that are very hard to achieve. It is also annoying to see advertisements and social media telling you need to lose weight especially when you are growing a baby. And don’t get me started on family and friends' comments on how you should be eating, what you should be eating, and what is best for the baby. How about what is best for you? What makes you feel good? And all these external forms of diet culture can also affect your own thought process about food. If you find yourself needing to restrict certain foods that give you pleasure or needing to worry about your weight, then that’s diet culture slipping its way into your brain.
Intuitive Eating requires you to acknowledge the impact of diet culture has had on you and rid yourself of it moving forward. It can be difficult to deconstruct the understanding that health is more about how you feel than what you weigh. It is also about trusting the process, which can be difficult if you are looking for the freedom and confidence in making decisions immediately. It feels like you are waiting for this big change; when it is really it is tiny gradual shifts in conscious thinking that you do not notice until they have built up a bit. Intuitive eating will help you reflect on your current beliefs about food. A good practice is to stay alert and examine when diet culture invades your thoughts and actions. It will challenge you to find freedom within your food choices along with accepting your body the way it is and how it evolves. To learn more about this specific topic you can read “Peaceful Pregnancy- How to Identify and Reject Diet Culture While Prenatal.”
People have also noticed that this process is a little isolating because not many people are aware of Intuitive Eating, in general, or during pregnancy. One way to help with this is to join supportive communities or groups either online or in person. You can find these through a therapist or registered dietitian who practices an intuitive eating approach and who can also support you as you gain more confidence. Another idea is to invite your family and friends to join you on this intuitive eating journey. It might be beneficial to reflect on these concepts with people you are already comfortable with. Having support during pregnancy is very important. This could help you feel less lonely and allow your family and friends to better connect and support you through both
pregnancy and intuitive eating.
Why start during pregnancy?
Well, pregnancy in a way forces you to start listening to your body and naturally be somewhat of an intuitive eater. The change in hormones drives the body's attunement, which is how you react to bodily signals such as heartburn or nausea. These are clearly more intense signals, so intuitive eating will help you notice the more subtle ones. Pregnancy gives you permission to listen to cravings and lets you learn about how foods affect you. Intuitive Eating also emphasizes that food is morally neutral, and different food nourishes the body in different ways. It is not good or bad, just different It also gives you the tools to reflect on which foods are satisfying and filling. However, these are just the benefits involving food.
Intuitive eating also allows you to focus on yourself. Many times pregnant people feel that the pregnancy is more focused on the baby than on themselves. This weirdly seems like a normal expectation (and it should NOT be) but it is SO important to prioritize your own health, wants, and needs. The baby is a part of you and currently connected to you in more ways than one (literally!). This means that when you take care of yourself, you take care of the baby. Intuitive eating is a holistic process that can make you feel even more connected with your baby. It is also a process that allows you to really dive into how you feel and what you want. It gives you the permission to center yourself in this process.
Like I said before, intuitive eating can ease anxiety around the birthing process too. If you feel like you can listen to and trust your body signals, you will be able to respond to them more effectively. You can then clearly communicate this to anyone in the room during the birthing process and get the care you need. You will be able to listen to your body and trust what it is telling you it needs. You may find yourself just going with that feeling rather than second-guessing yourself. Intuitive eating develops autonomy which you can rely on in every aspect of your life.
Why continue intuitive eating after pregnancy?
Intuitive eating is a lifetime practice that allows you to explore self-satisfaction and seek freedom from the control food has over you in diet culture. If you are new to intuitive eating, you will learn how to incorporate intuitive eating during pregnancy and it might open the door to make it easier to understand your body now and in the future. This process of looking and listening inward develops non-judgemental thinking and self-compassion. These are key tools in bringing you back to comfort with your body. It is normal to feel uncomfortable in your body and feel out of touch with eating as you navigate changes in energy needs and the ability to feed yourself on top of the pressure to “bounce back” after pregnancy. This process helps you improve your relationship with food, and nurture a positive relationship with your body. This lifetime practice also incorporates gentle and pleasurable movement (instead of focusing on burning calories or trying to manage weight) which helps you feel comfortable in all the ways your body will change. And your body is changing a lot during pregnancy and post-pregnancy! Intuitive eating will help level out the waves of change.
Intuitive eating also has you analyze different ways you have been coping with stress. The reality is having a baby is stressful! It’ll bring on different ways of coping with the stress and guilt that comes with being a parent. Mommy guilt* is very apparent postpartum which can deter you from even taking care of yourself. It is easy to lose sight of yourself after you have the baby; especially when people exacerbate this by only asking about the baby instead of you. With intuitive eating, you will be able to recognize that your self-care is an act of love for you and your baby. This relates to the second principle of honoring your hunger. You would not let your baby cry without food for hours, so do not put it off for yourself. You can not be at your best when you are not meeting your own basic needs!
Intuitive Eating might feel like a counterculture process when you begin, but you are really reconnecting back to your own intuitive eater that you were born to be. Reclaiming that intuition and rejecting diet-culture is an ongoing lifelong journey. It will not only help you throughout pregnancy, but it will also help you throughout life. In addition to healing your relationship with food, intuitive eating may also positively affect other aspects for the rest of your life. This process might be frustrating and isolating at first but with practice and support, it becomes easier. It will also give you permission to focus on yourself and practice self-care as nourishing your body. All in all, it will help you gain trust in your body and make you feel confident in making decisions for it.
If you are curious about how to start intuitive eating during pregnancy, I’d love for you to reach out and schedule a discovery call to chat about how we can work together on your pregnancy journey.
*Mommy guilt: this is the mainstream term used to describe the guilt of taking care of yourself over your child(ren). It can be felt by any parent or caregiver and you may find another term more applicable.
Erhardt GA. Intuitive eating as a counter-cultural process towards self-actualisation: An interpretative phenomenological analysis of experiences of learning to eat intuitively. Health Psychology Open. January 2021. doi:10.1177/20551029211000957
Tribole E, Resch EM. Intuitive Eating: A Revoluntary Anti-Diet Approach. 4th ed. St. Martin’s Press. 2020.
Tribole E, Resch E. The Intuitive Eating Workbook: 10 Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food. New Harbinger; 2017.