Is it possible to do intuitive eating and strength training at the same time?
Reviewing the particulars of Intuitive Eating, the 4th Edition, "gentle nutrition," and how these things can (or can't) square with getting stronger.
First of all, thanks so much for your column and getting more women into strength training! You’ll see from my setup and question below that I’m brand new to this and your writing is so approachable and motivating; it’s been a really nice sanity-check for the tougher lifting days!
I’ve been on an intuitive eating/HAES journey for a couple years now, trying to recover from a long history of disordered eating and diet culture baggage. It’s been bumpy and I’ve had my backsliding moments, but it turns out that life is a lot more enjoyable?? when you eat food?? that tastes good??? when you’re hungry???? Who knew.
Okay so the crux of the issue:
I recently (a month ago, almost exactly) started lifting heavy at a powerlifting gym. I have a very chill and helpful boyfriend who has been a dream about helping me get into weights, which is a real testament to his patience because I am STRUGGLING. I’ve been having a hard time with the learning curve, and I think I really underestimated just how fucking tired and sore I would be all the time. I’m also all in my feelings because I’ve been bloated and seeing the scale tick up has me backsliding into that diet culture headspace.
The good news is that I’m making tangible progress and lifting heavier (for me, at least) already (although my bench is kinda stalled; any bonus advice there would be v appreciated as well if you don’t want to deal with the rest of this mess). Some days it does click and I GET IT but then others I wind up in frustrated tears.
To boil it down: do you have any advice for a newbie when it doesn’t feel easy or intuitive? I’m not giving up, but I want to look forward to the gym and not wind up crying through my deadlift set (lol). How long does that beginner struggle last?
Thanks again for any advice you can offer; again I really appreciate your writing and also your willingness to answer questions from strangers (you brave soul).
So the short answer is, there shouldn't be a "beginner struggle," as you are describing it; newbie gains where your strength goes up and up in your earliest sessions are usually the easiest gains you will ever see (benching advice here!). I see that your overall goal is to take care of yourself, and I'm honestly sad to see that strength training seems to have been interfering with that goal, rather than supporting it! But we're going to do a long unpack as to why it's been hard, and what can be done about it (possibly quite a bit very easily! But it depends a lot on you).1
I've written a bunch about the role of "recovery" in soreness generally. Recovery is anything you do outside of the gym that relates to the gym: eating, but also sleeping, managing stress, active recovery like walking or stretching. Recovery is always the first place to look when trying to address soreness. In general, you don't want to default to blaming any particular factor. But that said, I know this newsletter's audience tends to be women, and tends to be people who, like me, have struggled with dieting in the past. So in our collective case, I want to paint with a broad brush and say: if you're sore and miserable, you're probably not eating enough. And if you're SURE, mathematically sure, you are eating "enough," you are probably not eating enough of the things you need.
There, I said it. But this is nothing to be ashamed of or discouraged about! Many, many people, including me, have been in your same place. But to break it down for you in very simple, nearly rude terms: You can't get stronger if you can't find a way to eat. A central principle of intuitive eating is that you are supposed to eat so you feel good, right? Being sore and tired and miserable are sufficient cues that you are not eating enough, and secondarily, maybe not enough of the right things. So the intuitive eating bit of this, while helpful to your goal of rehabbing your relationship with food, is not (yet?) serving your strength building goal.
Fortunately, being that you are not some kind of Olympic athlete, there is no need for you to figure this out yesterday. You have, theoretically, your whole life to find this balance, with enough patience. But you raise a great question: Is it even possible to do intuitive eating at the same time you are trying to gain strength?
To begin with, if anyone is interested in intuitive eating, I think it's a good idea to read the book Intuitive Eating, rather than trying to osmosis its principles from Instagram posts (maybe not what's happening in your specific case, LW, but I see it around). To summarize, intuitive eating is a journey to unlearn the food-related reflexes given to us by the diet industry and re-attune ourselves to a relationship with food that is, in no particular order, a) nicer and kinder, b) more enjoyable, c) more responsive to the things that food is supposed to do, like keep our energy up and keep us in good biological working order.
What I don't see talked about online as much is that intuitive eating is not an amorphous, continuous state of "eat whatever 'your body tells you to.'" It's actually a linear trajectory with ten parts. The first nine parts are stages you move through one at a time (with no time pressure and according to your needs), and the last part is sort of a softer-focus, open-ended phase where you continuously negotiate your existence between your intuitive eating needs and "external health values." This chapter is called "Gentle Nutrition," and it encourages eating lots of specific things that are not specifically intuitive: fruits, vegetables, fish, whole grains, whole and "nutrient-dense" foods over processed ones, "protein-rich" foods, quality fats. Given how complex this stuff is, the chapter is, in my opinion, a little rushed. But obviously books can only be so long, and there are a number of other books and experts that have picked up the gentle nutrition thread.
So this says to me two things: One, intuitive eating is a priority in and of itself and meant to be focused on. If you are mid-stage with intuitive eating, and you think it's helping you and you want to finish, you should, and deserve to, stay focused on it. Two, intuitive eating is meant to, if not end, reach a point where you open up to incorporating other factors in your eating process aside from "what and when and how much your body is telling you to eat." That is the point that you need to be at in order to build strength and, in all likelihood, not feel frustrated, tired, and sore all the time.
You very likely feel tired and sore because you do need to hit nutritional marks for strength-building, and our biological signals aren't refined enough to guide us there. You need your protein (absolutely minimum 0.82 grams of protein per pound of body weight, but I like around a gram per pound for a margin of error); you need your carbs; you need your fats; and you need all of your calories. For some people, just the activity of any tracking at all triggers their disordered behaviors. Also for some people, any kind of exercise, including strength training, becomes a replacement obsession instead of dieting alone, and you don't want that to happen either. You don't have to mathematically track the government's numbers of grams and calories in order to succeed with strength building,2 but you would have to be okay with putting the margin of error on the side of "eating too much," adding more "palms" of protein and "fists" of carbs until you are no longer sore and miserable.
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What is confusing about this is that there are a lot of extremely aesthetic and/or strong people out there claiming not to track food very closely, or that they are entirely intuitive. Maybe I am contributing to this confusion; I would say that for most of the last couple years, I've been primarily intuitive, insofar as I have worked to learn and heed my cues, and not ruminate on food outside of the joy and/or nutritional needs aspects.
But like so many things about how people look and what they do and what they eat, to look at them and think "they have what I want so I should do exactly what I see them doing right now" is to flatten what was probably a journey with a lot of contours. It's hard to know if they a) went on their own whole healing process before locking into a more regimented mode to build their muscle, and then flexed back out into intuitiveness, b) something else, c) are straight-up lying, or d) have done the swapping-one-obsession-for-another thing. (Many fitness influencers out there claim something exists called "intuitive eating for weight loss," which every RD on earth will tell you is not a real thing. Our bodies are stupid; they were not prepared for this world with the NutriFast programs and models with 70 million Instagram followers. They know only "hungry; eat." That's the extent of their intuition. Bodies are not the Oracle of Delphi. We are much more like dogs than we are Dr. Manhattan.)
I believe these kinds of people are often not as intuitive as they say, or are doing more of a “gentle nutrition” thing; most of them seem to have tracked food before so they can eyeball their proteins and so forth. But anyway, in any of these cases, it would be wrongheaded to try and "do what they do," because what they did was probably much more of a complex, long, and personal journey than it might appear on the surface. So if that's your guiding principle here, abandon it immediately.
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The last sort of question here is, does someone with a disordered eating background NEED to do intuitive eating first and complete that journey before they can dip a toe in strength-building waters?
I don't want to talk anyone out of intuitive eating if they are interested in it and/or are currently finding it helpful; many many people do. And for the millionth time, I'm not a or your doctor, so what I'm doing here is sharing possibilities, not making recommendations. But it didn’t happen for me this way, and I think it would be unfair to a lot of people to say that they have to achieve perfect food and body enlightenment/detachment before they are allowed to try strength training.
I say this in part because this is how it went for me: I went from fairly extreme food-restricting to eating in a loosely structured way to support lifting, and it did not become a replacement problem. What I think was important to it not becoming a problem was that a) it was a lot of food, and b) the method I followed still allowed for flexibility. At that time, I was doing a then-popular eating framework called IIFYM (if it fits you macros) that has since fallen out a bit out of favor for reasons that I'm not entirely sure of; I think too many people tried to take it to extremes and be like, "look at me eating 25 Pop Tarts and 5 whey-protein-and-Metamucil shakes per day; I Am IIFYM." But nonetheless, IIFYM was sort of a reaction to clean eating, in that there were no good or bad foods. As long as you were meeting your macros, it was fine to eat, I don't know, fried chicken and ice cream and burgers. This was somewhat revolutionary at the time. (Now, my top rec for learning about strength-training eating is Renaissance Woman.)
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There was also c) that it was helpful to my food fears to both learn, AND experience, synergistic things about food through the strength training process and strength-training-oriented resources, like:
- bodies can smooth out caloric noise through NEAT, such that a few grams or several dozen calories here or there is not the end of the world;
- bodies experience food more on a week to week basis than day to day or meal to meal
- bodies can't tell the difference between naturally occurring and added sugar, and there’s no such thing as “good” or “bad” foods
- bodies need to rest and recover, and it simply doesn't make sense to feel guilty about that
- all of the kinds of foods are important: protein built muscles, carbs gave me energy, fats kept me full
- I could focus on what I needed to be eating instead of making food all about managing wants, and/or what I "should" or "shouldn't" be eating
Some of these things overlap with what intuitive eating teaches. For instance, here's one quote from the "gentle nutrition" section at the end:
Most nutrition recommendations are intended to be an average over time, not for a single meal or a single day, and with good reason. You will not suddenly get a nutrient deficiency if you did not eat enough in one day. Similarly, you will not make or break your health from one meal or even one day of eating. It is consistency over time that matters.
A two-page photo spread in People magazine, with Phelps in his Olympic Speedo, surrounded by the foods he typically eats, is quite an image. Phelps appears as if he is a poster boy for eating a diet of nutritionally questionable foods. This visual aid has helped many of our clients. When clients see this photo spread and examine it carefully, they are asked, “If foods that some people call junk food could automatically make someone unhealthy—why can Phelps perform so well, eating foods like these?” The point in this example is to remove the power of the widely perceived belief that eating a particular food will automatically make you unhealthy and unfit—that food is either good or bad.
The intuitive eating book even has a whole section assuaging fears about gaining weight eternally by eating more, or eating open-endedly. I learned this when I tried out bulking to gain strength, which, it was a quantum leap for me to commit to deliberately gaining weight. But it allowed me to see that I loved that process, and also I did reach a point where, after a while, I simply didn't want any more Oreos.3
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For me, eating to support lifting also did immediately assuage a lot of the physical symptoms disordered eating caused. Because I was eating a lot more, I no longer had cravings or obsessive food thoughts. I was no longer cold all of the time. I didn't feel terrible. It was a process to learn to how eat enough protein in only a few meals a day, but that was mainly because cooking meat was a hassle in my tiny apartment (nowhere to buy not-sketchy meat within a mile, no car with which to get to the stores that were more than a mile away, no freezer, tiny stove, no exhaust vent), and I didn't eat many other protein foods.
Someone could read this and say that wasn't TRUE healing, because it's not full enlightenment to only be okay with eating so long as it's to an external purpose (strength training). While that type of thinking might have been an intermediary step for me on this journey, I would say it no longer rules how I think about food. I'm fine with eating now; I try to eat my protein and vegetables, but I'm truly bad about it unless I'm working on a deliberate strength goal, which isn't the case most of the time.4
So, could anyone do things in this order instead? Only they know. For some people, doing this could definitely make things worse before they get better. It’s possible to, for instance, become equally obsessed with "body composition" as with "body weight"; I've seen this constantly on r/xxfitness over the years. It was hard for me, in a way I am not proud of but nonetheless is true, to open myself up to the possibility of gaining weight, something I'd lived in mortal fear of for all my life. Suddenly eating 50% more food while also cutting back on working out was a big leap.
While I think I would have been modestly interested in intuitive eating back in my disordered days, frankly, it would have been a bit too abstract "your body should be cherished and honored" for me, hating myself as much as I did. I have described before the place that I was in, which was to snottily look down upon the people who primly preached "your body's value is not its weight," and that my response would be to think to myself, "Bully for you but I don't care what it takes, I will do whatever I have to to feel hot and loved." I truly believe that trying to talk me out my body's function as an aesthetic object and into the idea that I deserved to eat and exist as ends in and of themselves would have been a bigger logical leap for me than backing into it with something more deliberately and objectively constructive, like "your body is where you live and it can grow back to functioning well if you take care of it, if you eat this much, and you do these specific tasks, but only so much."
Maybe this is the most fucked up thing you have ever read. I don't know. But it's all a long way of saying that I think I got to the same place in a way that ended up working better for me. There is good research that, for a lot of people, trying to stop habits doesn't work as well as replacing them, and I think this falls into that overall category. I believe strength training as a corrective force for people with disordered eating behaviors is an under-researched area; here is one such study from 20 (!) years ago. Most of them tend to focus on how strength training mitigates the physical symptoms versus the psychological ones, and only in clinical eating-disorder cases. There are a number of anecdotal accounts about it, though, in the last several years. For the third time, it's important to always be careful about replacing one unhealthy habit with another, and I always recommend consulting professionals for your personal needs. But for me, this did constitute replacing an unhealthy thing with a healthy thing, and it was not only possible but overall helpful.
This is all to say that, to return to your letter, there shouldn't be a beginner struggle, in this respect. Laying aside the difficulty of eating, adding weight and getting stronger should be one of the easiest parts early on. Your body is good at this. For a newbie, learning form is tricky; getting used to a gym is tricky; getting strong is pretty easy.
So this answer is both easy and hard: You might need to let yourself get through more of your intuitive eating journey first, and think about all of this in stages (intuitive eating now, strength training later). And to answer this column's central question, trying to embark on an intuitive eating journey and also start strength training would frustrate anyone, because they are at odds. Intuitive eating requires eating to re-attune to joy and your inner needs as your top priority, at least for most of it; strength training requires hitting some nutritional marks as your top priority (though you can and should still obviously enjoy food).
However, given that the intuitive eating journey is technically open-ended and accommodates the “gentle nutrition” bit, it IS actually possible to do both at once; even per the intuitive eating text, structured eating is not bad or disordered or at odds with mental health by default. You just need to have completed most of the intuitive eating process first and be ready for the "gentle nutrition" part. If you're reading all this and still feel a bit lost, an RD or therapist would be a great guide and sounding board for working through what might feel like competing desires.
If you think you'd be well-served in terms of rehabbing your relationship with food by eating to support strength training, I personally don't think that's not not a viable option. I found it helpful to my recovery to learn that particular new way of thinking about my body, and I think it'd be disingenuous of me to represent otherwise. I would say that's even supported by the "gentle nutrition" ideology of intuitive eating down the line. But again, not a or your doctor.
But above all, you did the right thing to stop and ask questions around the time you were crying during your deadlifts. I believe strength training is for everyone, but not everything can be for everyone all of the time at any time. You should return to the question of what supports you best in taking care of yourself, and per the "gentle" part of "gentle nutrition," be nice to yourself.
As usual: I’m not a doctor, this information is for theoretical education/entertainment purposes only. If you wish to act upon anything in these realms, you should do it with the guidance of a medical professional. I’m going to repeat this several times within the column, for posterity. ↩
The “nutritionism” section of Intuitive Eating is specifically against grams and calories. If I had to personally disagree with one part of the book, it would be that; numbers aren’t necessary or hard and fast rules, and are maybe a significant digit too specific, but I found them useful training wheels for learning to eat enough. ↩
god, I see so many bitter people online mired in the disordered eating bog who literally don't believe this is true. It's true! I wish I could categorically prove it! I may be a smug bitch sometimes, but I'm not being a smug bitch now! ↩
Even if I am, I'm lately a bad student, and I'd be lying if I said it's not in part that I worry I will be judged for banging the "weight loss is a fake concept" drum and then trying to cut body fat in service of gaining muscle overall. I know for my own purposes there are clear lines of thinking there that do harmonize with each other, but they don't scan easily to people who don't know a fair amount about this stuff, so I have nearly stopped talking about that. But I did get there, in a way that I was not specifically harmed by focusing on strength.