Living with diabetes means making a steady stream of decisions about your health around the clock. You’re not only constantly aware of meticulous details such as your insulin doses and blood sugar levels, but you’re also thinking about the food you’re eating, how much you’re exercising, your sleep schedule, even how your period could be affecting your blood sugar.
To say the least, managing diabetes can be stressful—and that stress is often compounded by toxic messages of diet culture that you see in everything from social media feeds to brand marketing campaigns. “Society tells us what to eat, how much to eat, what we shouldn’t eat,” explains Lorraine Chu, a registered dietitian (RD) and health coach at One Drop. “There’s a lot of unlearning to do."
Intuitive eating is one way to begin that process of unlearning. Created by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN in 1995, intuitive eating is an evidence-based, weight-inclusive, mind-body approach that combines instinct, emotion, and rational thought when it comes to eating.
The practice involves 10 principles that are all meant to improve your awareness of your body and its cues:
- Reject the diet mentality (e.g. one size does not fit all)
- Honor your hunger
- Make peace with food
- Challenge rules around food
- Aim for satisfaction each time you eat
- Feel your fullness
- Experience your emotions without using food to cope
- Respect your body
- Exercise in ways you enjoy
- Honor your health with a gentle approach to nutrition (think: progress over perfection)
Intuitive eating is ultimately about “listening to what your body is telling you so that you can have a more sustainable, happier approach to food,” explains Chu.
But that also means accepting what you can realistically do to feel good, full, and satisfied, whether that entails an adjustment to your insulin doses or swapping fresh for frozen veggies at the store because that’s what fits your budget right now.
Bottom line: What works for one person may not work for another. Intuitive eating is about finding what works for you. Here’s how the approach can take the stress out of managing diabetes.
1. Intuitive eating helps you break the restrict-binge cycle.
If you’ve ever dabbled in a diet or two, then you’re probably familiar with the cycle of binging and restricting. It usually goes something like this: The diet states that this or that food is “forbidden,” so you avoid it as best you can, but inevitably, you succumb to the temptation at some point—sometimes, to the extent of binging and feeling uncomfortably full. Then you restrict again to make up for the binging, and the cycle continues.
Restricting and binging is associated with a number of health problems, from cardiac to mood issues; it can also affect your blood sugar control. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders suggests a link between binging and blood sugar spikes among people with type 1 diabetes, which may be due to difficulties in determining insulin-carb ratios following a binge-eating episode, according to the results.
In other words, binging can muddy your ability to accurately assess what your body needs in a given moment, explains Chu. Intuitive eating, on the other hand, encourages you to listen and respond to your body’s cravings rather than automatically label foods as “good” or “bad.” In lieu of restrictions, you have permission to enjoy food for what it is, whether it’s a snack in the middle of the day or a feast to celebrate a friend. Once you can look at food without these moral labels, says Chu, you’ll be less likely to flip-flop between devouring a meal and the overwhelming need to restrain yourself.
2. Listening to your body removes judgment from the equation.
When your blood sugar goes out of range, your knee-jerk reaction may be one of shame, guilt, or self-criticism.
But intuitive eating challenges you to reflect on these missteps from a place of kindness and acceptance rather than judgment, explains Chu. Instead of critiquing what you did “wrong,” ask yourself: How did that meal make me feel? What are the numbers I’m seeing in my blood sugar that perhaps reflect that feeling?
If binging led to a blood sugar spike, think about the emotions you felt right before binging as well, suggests Chu. What compelled you to eat that much? Maybe you only had a few minutes to spare in between long work meetings, so in a moment of stress, you ate too much too quickly. Or perhaps you went in on the sugary snacks at that networking event when you felt nervous about meeting new people.
“Whatever it is, just knowing where that behavior stems from and why it happened can be really helpful,” explains Chu.
In many cases, she continues, you’ll likely find that you were using food as a coping mechanism to deal with a difficult situation. The key, then, is to find other ways to cope. Maybe you’ll talk to your One Drop coach, or a trusted friend, or you could even lean into journaling. Whatever your method is, that source of support can help you maintain a healthy relationship with food, explains Chu.
Once you can identify the root of the problem, and you feel like you have a solid support system around you, then you can come up with solutions. For instance, Chu recommends meal prepping so you can have easy snacks and quick-to-prepare meals ready at all times—because, the truth is, you won’t be able to avoid every stressful moment in life. But you can control how prepared you are for them, and how you respond to stress.
3. Intuition can be used in more than just eating.
You already know that staying active plays a big role in managing diabetes. But if you’ve struggled to stick with a consistent routine, it might be time to employ some of the principles of intuitive eating.
Translation: You don’t have to sign up for a gym membership or attend that weekly Pilates class if you don’t actually enjoy either of those activities. As Chu reminds us: “Doing chores around the house counts as movement. Dancing with your friends is a form of movement. Taking your dog on a walk counts as movement.”
Zero in on what you like to do to stay active, and run with that (perhaps literally, if your go-to workout happens to be running!). If you like to get your heart pumping during your daily chores, put some music on in the background so you’re even more likely to stay moving between tasks. If you like walking your dog, take the long way home through the park to get some extra steps in.
It might take some trial and error to figure out what you like and what you don’t. And yes, it’ll take some dedication and commitment to build the habit. But, chances are, says Chu, sticking with what you enjoy is going to be much more sustainable long-term than forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do.
This article has been clinically reviewed by Jamillah Hoy-Rosas, MPH, RDN, CDCES, and VP of clinical operations at One Drop.