Intuitive eating has gained a lot of popularity over the past few years. As a non-diet dietitian who teaches intuitive eating strategies, I am thrilled that more people are realizing the power and freedom that comes with this approach. You may or may not have heard of intuitive eating before, and if you have, you might still be wondering what it really means. If so, this article is for you. Let's dive in!
What is intuitive eating?
Intuitive eating is an evidence-based, non-diet approach that emphasizes relying on your body's internal signals to guide your eating habits, rather than relying heavily on external guidance like diet rules. It is an approach that honors the interconnection between mind and body and helps us reconnect with our inner wisdom concerning food and what our bodies need. The intuitive eating framework was created by two registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, in 1995 when they released the book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works. Intuitive eating is a weight-neutral model, which places the focus on building healthy habits rather than focusing predominantly on weight loss. There is little evidence to suggest that weight-loss dieting results in long-term success. It is statistically common for people who lose weight on weight-loss diets to gain the weight back at some point. What has many health care professionals perplexed is that weight-loss diets continue to gain popularity, yet obesity rates remain high. On the other hand, plenty of health care professionals recognize the downfalls of dieting and are teaching alternative ways to approach food. Simply put, diets don't work, so we have to do something else. You can read more about why diets fail us from my previous blog post here. Not only do weight-centric diets lead to unsustainable weight loss and weight management, they also tend to fuel weight stigma, body image issues and disordered eating. Since the science has continually supported the failures of weight-loss diets, health care professionals have worked hard to develop alternative approaches to set people up for long-term health and well-being. Intuitive eating is one of those alternatives that has improved the lives of many.
With intuitive eating, the paradigm shifts away from typical weight-loss diet procedures and ideas, such as meticulous calorie counting, macronutrient tracking and weight-centric goals. Essentially, intuitive eating helps us get back to the basics. Think about how kids eat. We are born with a natural ability to eat when we are hungry, stop when we are full, assess what our cravings are and listen to other body signals that can guide our choices. As we get older, we are exposed to diets and rules that tell us to ignore the knowledge we have about our own bodies and follow a strict set of rules that may or may not actually apply to our lifestyle and needs. This isn't to say that some external guidance isn't helpful. As an intuitive eater, it's important to have enough knowledge about food and nutrition to feel empowered in your choices. It's about using the knowledge we have about nutrition to create habits that fit our individual needs. It's ultimately a framework that honors you as the expert of your own body.
Intuitive eating consists of 10 basic principles which are listed below:
Reject the diet mentality. While there are countless studies that have reviewed the efficacy of weight-loss diets, most of them look at short-term results. The ones that have assessed long-term results report that after initial weight loss is achieved, people often gain the weight back or end up weighing more than they did before starting a diet. Aside from what studies say, think about your own journey with food and diets. Have you tried dieting in the past or are you on one now? What have your results been like? How have you viewed food throughout the process? Do you feel at peace with food now? Many people end up feeling deprived, hopeless and uneasy around food as a result of dieting. When someone gains the weight back after attempting a weight-loss diet, they often blame themselves. It's not the dieter's fault, it's the diet's. Diets set people up for failure because they don't provide the tools necessary to build a lifelong healthy relationship with food.
Honor your hunger. This principle focuses on ensuring your body is adequately fed throughout the day by being in tune with your natural hunger signals. This may sound simple, but for someone who has dieted for years, listening to your hunger cues can be challenging. Being in tune with hunger cues can look like eating when you are moderately hungry instead of waiting until you are famished. When you reach an extreme level of hunger, you are more likely to overeat, as that inner drive to find food quickly kicks in. Listening to your hunger cues can also look like asking yourself whether you are truly hungry when you reach for food.
Make peace with food. If you've ever restricted a certain food or food group because of a diet rule, you may have felt an overwhelming desire to have that food again. If so, you aren't alone. As we restrict certain foods, it is normal to become consumed with thoughts of them. It's also common that as people restrict, they are prone to overeating or binging on that food once they allow themselves to have it again. By making peace with food, you give yourself unconditional permission to eat whatever and whenever you want. Now, I know that may sound scary at first. Once a dieter gives themselves permission to eat how they want, it is common to go into a "honeymoon phase" where they may want to indulge in certain foods frequently. As time passes, the inner drive to binge on those particular foods disappears. This is because that food is no longer seen as "forbidden" or "off limits." If you know that you are unconditionally allowed to eat that previously "forbidden" food, it doesn't have the same allure it did when you were restricting yourself from it. It's important to note that this principle isn't encouraging you to eat cake all day, every day. The idea is to break down any unnecessary food rules that can damage your relationship with food and your ability to eat in a balanced manner. You'll find that, if you are actively paying attention to how your body feels, you won't want desserts all the time. Once in awhile you may want them, other times you'll want veggies, fruit or many other foods that contribute to a balanced diet.
Challenge the food police. Challenge that voice in your head that tells you you're "bad" for eating one thing and "good" for eating as few calories as you possibly could that day. These thoughts and beliefs that have been created by the unofficial "food police", a.k.a. diet culture, only harm our relationship with food. Food is food. There is no moral value placed on food. It's normal to recognize that certain foods may be more nutrient-dense than others, but that doesn't mean each food or food group doesn't have its place in an overall healthy, balanced diet.
Discover the satisfaction factor. Have you ever chosen an item on a menu because you believed it was the "healthy option", but realized you didn't feel satisfied after you ate because you were truly craving something else? This happens all too often. Being full and being satisfied are not the same thing, yet they are equally important. If you find that you didn't listen to your cravings and ate something that didn't satisfy you in the moment, you may be susceptible to overeating soon after in order to meet that craving. Food is nourishment, but it is also meant to be enjoyed. Other cultures that prioritize enjoyment over diet rules tend to have a healthier relationship with food and better health outcomes. You may be thinking that it's a bit counterintuitive to listen to your cravings as a way to balance your eating habits. Seeking satisfaction works because you will be better able to tell when you feel physically content. Then, you can comfortably move on and stop eating before you overeat.
Feel your fullness. Eating until you are comfortably full, but not stuffed, is a great place to finish eating. There is a spectrum of feelings of fullness, from lightly full to feeling uncomfortably stuffed and sick. Being aware of where you are with your fullness before, during and towards the end of your meal is a beneficial practice. Midway through a meal, check in and ask yourself how the food tastes and how full you feel. This mindful skill will help you determine whether or not to keep eating so you can reach a physically comfortable fullness level.
Cope with your emotions with kindness. I'm sure we've all felt the emotional comfort of digging into a food that reminds us of childhood, or having pizza at a party in celebration of a friend's birthday. The reality is, food has an effect on our emotions. It's okay to use food to cope with emotions from time to time. The problem lies in using food as your ONLY source of emotional comfort. We all experience feelings of stress, sadness and boredom. While food can provide some temporary relief, it doesn't help you tackle the root cause of those feelings. It's important to find other ways to cope with feelings of discomfort so you can maintain a healthy relationship with food.
Respect your body. Diversity in body shape and size is inevitable and should be respected. Outside of diet and lifestyle patterns, genetics and environmental factors play a big role in what our bodies look like. Even if everyone on the planet ate and moved their bodies in the exact same way, we would still notice a wide diversity in body types. Therefore, it is unreasonable to expect everyone to fit the body size ideal that was arbitrarily created by society. Intuitive eating focuses on behaviors rather than scale-based goals. If you treat your body with respect, that is by nourishing it, managing stress well, sleeping enough, exercising regularly, and so forth, then you should be able to maintain a healthy weight that is meant for you. It's important to emphasize that this principle is about "respect" and not about body "positivity." It's hard for us to feel 100% positive about our bodies at all times, because well, we're human. Changing our mindset towards respect rather than positivity is about treating yourself with compassion and kindness.
Movement- feel the difference. Diet culture teaches us to exercise in order to "punish" ourselves for how we eat or to focus solely on the calorie-burning effect of exercise. This isn't the best mindset around exercise. Exercise benefits our health in so many ways and it's important to find forms of movement that you enjoy and can commit to. Try paying more attention to how exercise makes you feel, both physically and mentally. This can help change your attitude around exercise so you can find more joy in it.
Honor your health- gentle nutrition. Having knowledge that enables you to nourish your body well is invaluable. It's also important to find ways of eating that bring satisfaction and peace with food, as we discussed above. This principle is called gentle nutrition because it emphasizes that nutrition should be looked at from an overall perspective, rather than worrying about the effect of each individual meal or snack. You aren't going to go into a nutrient deficiency or damage your health after one meal alone. What matters is your eating patterns overall.
The benefits of becoming an intuitive eater
There have been over 120 studies done on intuitive eating to date (November, 2020). A list of recent intuitive eating studies can be found on the intuitive eating website. Overall, these are the benefits that have been discovered among those that adopt intuitive eating patterns:
Better body image
Lower rates of disordered eating and eating disorders
Better weight management
Lower body mass indexes
Improved blood sugar control
Increased well-being, positivity and satisfaction with life
Lower triglyceride levels
Higher HDL (good) cholesterol (1)
What intuitive eating is NOT about
Intuitive eating is not a diet. There is no right or wrong way to eat intuitively. You don't get a passing or failing grade on how well you can eat intuitively. Instead, it is a way of approaching food and your body that is meant to be practiced throughout life. It's about continual practice and progress, not perfection.
Intuitive eating is not meant to be a weight-loss method. Although weight loss is possible when you start practicing intuitive eating, that is not the focus of adopting it. It's possible to either lose weight, gain weight or maintain your weight when you become an intuitive eater. It depends on where you started out and how close or far away you were from your natural healthy weight. As you maintain the healthy habits under the intuitive eating framework, you should be able to maintain a healthy weight as well.
Intuitive eating is not anti-health. Living a full and healthy life, free from restrictive dieting or disordered eating, is the ultimate goal of adopting intuitive eating strategies. Intuitive eating helps people form a healthy relationship with food, which is one of the most valuable ways to honor your health and well-being in the long run.
The difference between intuitive eating and mindful eating
The Center for Mindful Eating defines mindfulness and mindful eating as such:
"Mindfulness is the capacity to bring full attention and awareness to one’s experience, in the moment, without judgment. Mindful Eating brings mindfulness to food choice and the experience of eating. Mindful eating helps us become aware of our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations related to eating, reconnecting us with our innate inner wisdom about hunger and satiety." (2)
Given the definition, it's easy to see why people use the terms mindful eating and intuitive eating interchangeably. Although intuitive eating encompasses the mindful eating aspect, it also includes a few additional concepts such as rejecting the diet mentality, challenging the food police, coping with your emotions with kindness, respecting your body and feeling the difference with movement. I use both frameworks when working with clients as both have the ability to help others form normal, balanced eating habits.
Ready to learn more?
Interested in learning more about intuitive eating? You can check out the intuitive eating website that was created by the founders, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, here. You can also check out the latest edition of their book on Amazon here.
Interested in working with a dietitian who can help you implement intuitive eating strategies in your life and form a healthy relationship with food? Let's chat! Contact me here to set up a time to talk. I look forward to hearing from you!
Until next time,