According to registered dietitians, intuitive eating and carb counting don't have to be mutually exclusive.

Christine Byrne, Nutrition review by Lisa Valente, M.S., R.D.
April 02, 2020
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In recent years, hoards of people have traded diets and calorie counting for intuitive eating. It's a gentler approach to food and nutrition, encouraging you to abandon food rules and instead listen to your body's needs and cravings. At first, it may feel really radical, but people who adopt an intuitive style of eating tend to be pretty healthy.

Pictured recipe: Skillet Chicken Potpie

Research shows that there are measurable benefits associated with intuitive eating, including improved body image, better weight stability, and decreased disordered eating patterns. Still, many people are skeptical about whether or not intuitive eating can work for diabetes management, which traditionally calls for a pretty structured approach to meal planning and carb counting. If you're wondering whether or not intuitive eating works for diabetes management, here's what you need to know.

Food choices play a big role in diabetes management, but there's no need to fear certain foods.

Eating a variety of nutritious foods is important, whether or not a person has diabetes. "However, with diabetes, we can do a lot with nutrition to manage blood sugars and slow or prevent the onset of complications, such as cardiovascular disease, nerve, eye and kidney damage, etc," says Glenys Oyston, RDN. But, she says, that doesn't mean cutting out carbs, or any other food group.

"Carbohydrates are still necessary to provide energy for your body. Protein and fat are still necessary for both nutrition and satisfaction. Foods like fruits, vegetables and fiber provide micronutrients and an anti-inflammatory effect." And, eating balanced meals made up of all three of these macronutrients can help prevent swings in blood sugar. Here's our comprehensive guide to carbohydrates and diabetes.

Intuitive eating might look a little bit different for someone with diabetes, but it's still possible.

When introducing intuitive eating to people with diabetes, Oyston makes sure to emphasize both pleasure and balance. If someone has been very rigid about food in the past, she'll recommend a gentle transition into a more intuitive approach: listen to your cravings and eat what you want, while still aiming for a balance of carbs, protein, and fat.

"Getting enough protein and fat in addition to carbohydrates will make a difference in how glucose is absorbed, and to satiety and pleasure," she says. For example, you might satisfy a craving with a bagel-and-egg sandwich, instead of with a bagel alone.

High-sugar foods aren't anything to be afraid of, either. In fact, eating them sometimes (along with regular medication and insulin, if necessary) likely prevents binges that could really spike blood sugar. "I emphasize the importance of including pleasure foods that contain sugar if a person really enjoys them, because most people won't be able to forever without them, and restricting them just increases the likelihood they'll binge on those foods at some point, and maybe even quite often," Oyston says. Get some healthy ideas for diabetes-friendly desserts and sweets.

Bottom Line

Stressing out about food choices and sticking to rigid carb counts or meal times can be challenging and won't necessarily help you stay healthy. If you have diabetes and you want to try a more intuitive style of eating and have more flexibility in your diet, speak to your healthcare team or reach out to a registered dietitian who specializes in intuitive eating. Applying gentle nutrition principles and enjoying foods you like to eat can help you eat better and feel better, while managing your diabetes.