Intuitive Eating

When eating makes you feel ashamed

Updated May 25, 2024
A pink cartoon brain stands on top of a pepperoni pizza against a black background.

Someone in an intuitive eating online space I’m in recently posted, “I’m ashamed of eating more than other people.” When I read this comment, I physically felt in my own body the shame this person is experiencing.

It’s been 10 years since I started my own intuitive eating path, but I can still remember times when my eyes would rove from my plate to that of my dining companions and back to mine, anxiously monitoring intakes. All the joy and pleasure would get sucked out of sharing the meal. Yet I would stay smiling and keeping up the conversation while the tightness of shame spread across my chest and belly.

Anybody can engage in this shame-game of compare and despair. But for people who are trying to leave dieting behind and take up intuitive eating, there is an additional quality of worry that rides along with the shame.

Because it can take a while to get the hang of it, intuitive eating newbies often worry about whether they are “doing it right.”

What they are used to is dieting, where there are clear rules. And as torturous as those rules invariably become, there is safety and comfort in them.

With intuitive eating, everything having to do with food is entirely different. Instead of rules, you follow your felt sensations (e.g. hunger cues like light-headedness, grumpiness, stomach growling, etc.). This requires attention and atunement to one’s own body, plus an openness to honouring those sensations. As long as you are staying in full allowance of what your body is asking for, there’s nothing to really “get right” or wrong about intuitive eating (allergies and medical caveats notwithstanding, natch).

In my coaching practice, when people talk about feelings of shame, I take time to help clients unpack them. I don’t want to rush to strategies and advice; I know there is no shortcut out of shame, especially not if those feelings don’t have space to be expressed.

In unpacking those feelings, though, I also want to do a reality check into any assumptions that might be at play.

  1. I’d want to open the possibility that the disparity in food intake is a matter of perception and not a reality. As anyone who has ever scooped ice cream into a bowl knows, it’s actually very difficult to accurately detect exact differences in portion sizes just by eyeballing them. So perhaps the amount of food one person eats is not significantly different at all to what others at the same meal are eating—it can just look that way.
  2. Then I would want to consider alternate ways of framing what’s happening. Perhaps it’s not that you, the ashamed person, is eating soooo much more than others. Maybe it’s about the other people.
  3. Maybe it’s that:
  • other people are feeling self-conscious about their intake, so they are limiting it
  • or they are physically much smaller than you, and don’t have the same requirements you do to nourish their body
  • or they had a super sedentary day and don’t have a very high need for energy intake
  • or they are getting sick
  • or they had snack earlier and just aren’t as hungry as you are

3. And then there’s this possibility:

Maybe your body is telling you that it is hungry and so it wants to eat. Maybe it wants to have a really big, satisfying meal. Maybe you worked out really hard earlier that day, or had a shitty night’s sleep, or you didn’t have much to eat that day so your appetite is larger than normal. Or…

What would it feel like if we entertained this as a serious possibility?

I ask this as a serious question.

Because guess what? Being hungry is actually fine. It is NOT a moral failing. It is not a sign that something is wrong. It is as morally complicated as a low fuel gauge. It is a signal from a sentient being. It is a requirement for a living thing to indicate.

For anyone who feels ashamed of eating more than other people, I have two pieces of advice.

One, try the reframing practices listed above.

Two, consider where the judgement about your eating is coming from. Is it coming from your dining companions? If so, consider speaking up, setting boundaries, or discontinuing eating with them. Is it coming from your own mind? Then have a conversation with yourself about what you are making this situation mean. Let’s say you do eat more than others. So what? What does this mean to you and why? Where does the belief that you are supposed to eat less come from? Who benefits from that belief? Keep unpacking this belief in your badness until you understand its origin.

You may benefit from professional support from a counsellor, coach, or therapist specializing in disordered eating or eating disorders as you unpack these beliefs.

Finally, consider the bitchcraft angle: you are a human being who is allowed to have appetites and desires, who is allowed to have a body, and who is allowed to eat. You’re also allowed to have a body that changes and has different nutritional demands day to day and year to year. The requirements of diet culture—the dictate that you make your body and the food on your plate as small as possible—are bullshit and, with time and practice, need not apply to you at all.

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