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A Dietitian’s Guide to Intuitive Eating for Fertility Patients

A dietitian nutritionist explores the 10 principles of intuitive eating and the benefits of this framework for those navigating fertility treatment or PCOS.

December 8th, 2023 | 11 min. read

By Jennifer Walsh, RDN

What is intuitive eating? And how can this non-diet approach to nutrition be beneficial for those struggling with fertility? A registered dietitian nutritionist shares her expertise.

In this article:

Feeling disconnected from your body?

When you are trying to conceive, going through fertility treatment, or trying to navigate PCOS, understanding what your body needs can feel confusing. Your feelings about your body may be shifting from day to day, and you may begin to question your normal eating habits.

If you are asking yourself any of the following:

  • Why is my body not doing what it is supposed to do?
  • Why am I gaining weight?
  • Why am I feeling so bloated, tired, and constipated?
  • Why do I have no appetite?
  • Why do feel like I need to restrict certain foods?
  • What am I supposed to eat (or not eat) to make all of this better? 

...you're in the right place! 

All of these are valid questions to explore, and while it may feel harder to trust your body right now, providing it with nourishment during this time by using an evidence-based approach such as intuitive eating (IE) may be just what your body (and mind) need.

Let's explore what intuitive eating is and some principles you can adopt in your daily life.

Intuitive Eating 101

In 1995, an era when low-fat, restrictive diets were the norm, dietitian-nutritionist duo Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch introduced the concept of intuitive eating in their book, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach

Their goal? To help people make peace with food, free themselves from chronic dieting cycles, and rediscover the pleasures of eating. 

According to Tribole and Resch, "Intuitive eating is a compassionate, self-care eating framework that treats all bodies with dignity and respect." Intuitive eating proposes that we stop counting calories and obsessing about the number on the scale, and instead, turn our attention to how what our bodies are trying to tell us.  

Nearly 30 years after the book's release, intuitive eating has had a resurgence, with more people practicing the method than ever.

The Benefits of Intuitive Eating

Intuitive eating can be incredibly beneficial for those in eating disorder recovery. Besides healing your relationship with food and putting trust back into your body, intuitive eating has been shown to have many other physical and psychological benefits. 

There are more than 100 academic studies on intuitive eating that provide evidence of its merits. A 2021 meta-analysis that found that the method was positively linked to participants' body image, self-esteem and mental health.

Studies have shown that intuitive eating can improve blood pressure and lipids. It can also promote weight stability, putting a halt to weight cycling. Research has shown that weight cycling (losing and gaining weight repeatedly) can increase your risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes. 

As New York Times writer Michelle Ruiz notes, "The program isn’t promising better health metrics per se, [but] some preliminary studies link intuitive eating to improved blood sugar and cholesterol levels and increased intake of fruits and vegetables."

How does intuitive eating work?

To make decisions about what (and how much) to eat, intuitive eaters use inner cues such as hunger, fullness, and what would be satisfying and enjoyable, rather than allowing diet culture or outside influences to interfere with their choices.

At its core, intuitive eating is being able to eat without guilt or shame.

With intuitive eating, you are in control, which may feel like a foreign concept while struggling with fertility issues or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Having control over something during this time can greatly improve your sense of trust in yourself. 

10 Principles of Intuitive Eating

Intuitive eating is guided not by hard and fast "rules" but instead by ten helpful principles that can provide a framework for your new eating journey. Let's explore each of them together:

1. Reject the Diet Mentality

At Illume Fertility, we do not recommend restrictive diets when trying to conceive or manage PCOS. Instead, we emphasize that it’s about what you can add to your diet instead of what you should take away.

Why? If you're being too restrictive, your body may go into starvation mode, which can then lead to overeating as your body is trying to get all the nutrients it missed!  

2. Honor Your Hunger

Now is the time to listen to your body: Hear that tummy grumbling? Feel yourself getting a headache? Feeling shaky? Start to take notice of hunger sensations and check in with your body - don't ignore these signs.

Ask yourself what your hunger level is. When you are eating, start to notice when you feel satisfied. Being in tune with these signals can help you trust your body's desire to eat when hungry and stop when content.

Note: It may be tricky to recognize that feeling of contentment at the beginning of this journey - but as you practice these principles, you will start to notice it more clearly. 

There may be some days during treatment when you feel hungrier than usual or your body feels different than your "normal" and that’s okay! This is why it’s so important to look inward and make that determination to eat or not to eat.

Reminder: Don't Skip Meals

Sometimes, our patients will express that they just don’t feel hungry anymore.

This can be caused by skipping meals, dieting, or ignoring hunger cues. We encourage you not to skip meals or wait too long in between meals! Once you begin to eat more regularly again, those hunger cues should slowly come back.

Eating little meals or snacks every few hours can also ensure your body is getting what it needs while trying to conceive - and during pregnancy. Eating more frequently can also help to stabilize blood sugar and insulin.

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3. Make Peace with Food

Though it may sound counterintuitive, allow yourself permission to eat and enjoy ALL foods, and think of food as morally neutral. Why? Restricting certain foods or food groups (such as carbohydrates) will actually cause you to crave them even more!  

4. Challenge the Food Police

Turn off those sirens! You are not GOOD for eating certain foods and BAD for eating others. With intuitive eating, feeling less guilt and more pleasure through food is encouraged.

Note: When trying to conceive, there are some wonderful, nutrient-packed foods that are great to add to your diet, but you should know that there isn't one magical superfood that you should eat to get pregnant. 

5. Respect Your Fullness

Intuitive eaters in training slowly learn to stop eating when they have enough to fill their stomachs comfortably - without feeling overly full. It’s easier to quit eating at this point and leave food behind when you know that you can eat it again later.

When you stop feeling like the foods you love are restricted or forbidden, you're able to relax a little and feel confident that you'll be able to enjoy them again. This decreases the feeling of scarcity and urgency when eating. 

6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor

Enjoy your food! Take notice of the texture and how it smells and tastes. Recognize how certain foods make you feel and allow yourself to find pleasure in the foods you eat.

Craving something crunchy? Something warm? Something sweet or salty? Try and consider what you want before a meal or snack, so you can choose something you really want to eat, not what you "should" eat.

Tip: If you struggle with PCOS (or are simply looking for some great new combos), our nutritionist-approved snack idea list is excellent place to start!

7. Honor Your Feelings without Using Food

Sometimes, we may use food to help us cope with challenging emotions (whether that's sadness, loneliness, stress, disappointment, or anxiety) or distract us from difficult situations that we're overwhelmed by and trying to navigate.

Think of other activities that may be helpful instead of immediately turning to food for comfort or distraction. Maybe that's listening to music, doing yoga, giving yourself a home manicure, putting on a face mask, talking to a friend, or going for a walk.  

Tip: Make a list of those activities, then save it in your phone or write it down on a piece of paper and keep it next to your bed so you have ideas ready when you need them!

8. Respect Your Body

This may be a tough one to put into practice when you're going through fertility treatments or dealing with PCOS, but during this time it is even more important to give your body what it needs. Your body deserves to be nourished and hydrated - no matter what.

9. Exercise—Feel the Difference

We always encourage our patients to find exercise or movement that they enjoy, not what you think you should do for fertility or PCOS.

Love yoga? Start a yoga practice of your own or try our free Fertile Yoga classes! Enjoy cycling or kickboxing? Go for it! The key is to choose movement that feels good physically and mentally - let that be whatever you need at that moment.

Think you may have PCOS?

A nurse explains how polycystic ovary syndrome is diagnosed, who it typically affects, and what symptoms to look out for.

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10. Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition

Let's be honest - your body is probably going through a lot right now. Aim to eat three meals a day and add snacks in between if your body needs them. Choose protein, veggies, and carbs that will be enjoyable and satisfying.

Use these intuitive eating principles as your guide to build your mealsRemember, these principles are simply helpful suggestions, you don’t have to be perfect at it every time!

Note: If you're feeling stuck about how to incorporate intuitive eating, please reach out to get connected with our Nutrition Team. We are always here to help!

2. Honor Your Hunger
1. Reject the Diet Mentality
3. Make Peace with Food
4. Challenge the Food Police
5. Respect Your Fullness
6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor

7. Honor Your Feelings without Using Food
8. Respect Your Body
9. Exercise—Feel the Difference
10. Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition   

Ready to ditch the diets?

We'd love to help you get started!

If you're looking for support making diet and lifestyle changes or exploring intuitive eating further, reach out to schedule a consultation today. If you're an existing Illume Fertility patient, you can ask your Patient Navigator to schedule a nutrition visit for you.  

To learn more about intuitive eating, check out these additional resources:

Jennifer Walsh, RDN

Jennifer Walsh is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who is also a former Illume Fertility patient. She understands how challenging a fertility journey can be and approaches each interaction with her patients with kindness and expertise to help them reach their unique goals.