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Culture » Culture Features

Intuitive Eating

Local health coach advocates for breaking the cycle of chronic disordered eating

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Health coach Brittney Sullivan advocates for a well-rounded approach to health, which includes eating when you're hungry, body positivity and copious amounts of time outdoors with pets—like the one pictured here. - K.M. COLLINS
  • K.M. Collins
  • Health coach Brittney Sullivan advocates for a well-rounded approach to health, which includes eating when you're hungry, body positivity and copious amounts of time outdoors with pets—like the one pictured here.

Disordered eating was a struggle Brittney Sullivan faced for several years, including during training for her health coach certification. Societally, this is by design. "The diet industry generates $66 billion a year, and 97 percent of dieters gain everything back within one to three years," says Sullivan.   

Self-described as "orthorexic," Sullivan's past obsession and pursuit of "perfect" healthful eating took up the vast majority of her mental and emotional energy. Her self-worth was tied to how many calories she burned each day, her physical appearance, and "good" and "bad" labels for food and food habits.

"All of these behaviors, which fall under the umbrella of disordered eating," Sullivan explains, "are actually normalized in our society and lead to depression, anxiety, preoccupation with food and binge and emotional eating. Once I became certified as a health coach and it was time to take on clients, the thought of recommending disordered eating, under the guise of health, was something I couldn't bear. This is why I am now a Body Positivity and Intuitive Eating coach."

IE, as Sullivan describes it, is a non-diet approach to health and wellness aimed at putting trust back into the body's innate wisdom—a process of becoming attuned to the body's signals (like hunger and fullness), breaking the cycle of chronic dieting and healing one's relationship with food.

Sullivan believes humans are born intuitive about food. "Or you could call it instinctive eaters. As babies, we cry when we're hungry, eat until we're full, and don't eat until we become hungry again. As we get older, society's beauty standards and the pressures and mixed messages from diet culture leave us trapped in the yo-yo dieting cycle and eating disordered behaviors, such as food journaling, calorie counting, binge and emotional eating."

Sullivan describes an intuitive eater as a person who can make food choices without guilt or an ethical dilemma, honors hunger, respects fullness and enjoys the pleasures of eating.

Two years of Clinical Herbal Medicine studies also informed Sullivan's view of food. "Treating people with plant medicine shined a light on the fact that many folks wanted to use herbs as they would conventional medicine—to mitigate symptoms instead of addressing underlying cause of symptoms. I like to help people gain insight and empowerment in their personal health. With my health coaching programs, I can address the person as a whole, diving deep into all determinants of health—not just diet and exercise, or 'take X for this symptom' treatment," Sullivan reflects.  

With IE, Sullivan finds her clients often free up mental and emotional energy to do the things that bring them joy and passion. At the same time, she cautions about the misconception that IE disregards nutrition. Instead, it's about making foods "emotionally equal."

"Before we can introduce gentle nutritional guidelines, we first have to lift all restrictions in order to make peace with food. IE is not 'eat whatever you want, whenever you want it.' IE encourages you to be in tune with your body, to eat with regard to your hunger and fullness, to eat mindfully and to discover which foods satisfy you more, sustain you longer and help your body function better. Also, body positivity is not about promoting or glorifying obesity."

Sullivan says she pretty much loves all food, with the exception of corn. She often makes stir-fries because they're tasty and contain many different-colored veggies. Burgers, pizza, beer and good wine are also staples in the Sullivan kitchen.

Sullivan maintains a private Facebook group designed as a private space where women can share their struggles with food, and regularly produces live videos as another health conversation tool.

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