What is Intuitive Eating?
This post is intended to give a basic overview of what intuitive eating is and why, as a registered dietitian, I have embraced this framework both personally and professionally. I have seen how intuitive eating can help empower individuals to obtain a healthy relationship with food and their body. Over the coming weeks, I will be unpacking each of the 10 principles of intuitive eating in a series of blog posts. So, let’s get started!
Background/History of Intuitive Eating
Intuitive Eating was developed in 1995 by two registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. They wrote the book, Intuitive Eating, which outlines the principles (more on those in a minute) and dives deep into research + case studies about the behaviors, beliefs, biology/physiology, and psychology around dieting. The book was inspired by their work in private practice, after years of using conventional approaches of “portion control” and “calories in versus calories out.” They learned that over time, individuals would have “success” for a period, but would then come back weeks or months down the road, having “fallen off the wagon” or struggling to maintain behavior changes.
Intuitive eating teaches you that you have the innate wisdom to know what, when, and how much to eat. We are all born intuitive eaters. For example, babies and toddlers have an amazing ability to self-regulate their food intake. They eat when they are hungry and stop then they are full. They go through phases where they eat more or eat less, often dependent on their growth rate. There are many studies that show that when toddlers are given freedom to select a variety of foods, they will balance out and meet their nutrient needs over the span of several days. They aren’t asking how many calories are in foods, or if it “fits their macros.” They eat without any guilt or shame.
By definition, per the authors, “intuitive eating focuses on nurturing your body rather than starving it, encourages a reconnection with your body’s innate signals of hunger, fullness, and food preference, and helps you find the weight you are meant to be.”
The Principles of Intuitive Eating
Intuitive eating teaches you to be the expert of your own body. There is no dietitian, medical professional, or diet guru who knows moment to moment, day to day, when you are hungry or what sounds satisfying to you. Through the framework of intuitive eating, you learn to build trust with your body to meet your physical and emotional needs.
Here is a quick overview of the 10 principles, which I will be going into more detail over the coming weeks:
1. Reject the Diet Mentality
The diet industry is a 60 billion dollar per year business designed to profit off your insecurities, making you believe that you aren’t smart enough to know how to eat or care for your body. Unfortunately, dieting doesn’t work and it is a broken, harmful system; 95% of dieters regain weight lost within 2-5 years and many end up with a deep distrust of food, their body, slowed metabolism, loss of lean muscle tissue, and psychological harm. The diet mentality focuses on controlling, restricting, and depriving food intake, with an underlying view of weight or body shape as markers for “progress.” Rejecting the idea that you need a set of rules for eating or moving your body can be scary, but it is the first step to becoming an intuitive eater. Ask yourself, how have diets worked for you in the past? What worked? What didn’t work? How do you imagine your life being different if you weren’t consumed with negative thoughts about food or your body?
2. Honor Your Hunger
Hunger is a normal, biological response designed to keep you alive. You need calories (aka energy) in order for your body to function properly. Hunger is a signal that tells you to eat. When you ignore hunger or try to quell it with low-calorie or calorie-free diet foods it can have a backlash effect. There are many nuances of hunger for each individual. Learning to tune into and trust your physical hunger cues can take practice if you have spent years not listening to your hunger, being fearful of hunger, or engaging in disordered eating behaviors.
3. Make Peace with Food
Making peace with food means giving yourself unconditional permission to eat ALL foods (that is, of course, if there is no medical reason to be avoiding a particular food, for example, having a food allergy). There are many studies that show restrained eaters can end up binging or overeating on certain foods that they deem “forbidden,” followed by guilt and shame. When you eat with attunement, there is no need for cheat days, cheat meals, or judgement about your food choices. Making peace with food breaks the restrict-binge cycles that many dieters struggle with.
4. Challenge the Food Police
We can have many inner voices that tell us what to eat (or not eat), how much to eat, and when to eat. You are not born with these voices. They are learned over time through culture, the media, dieting programs, family, peers, etc. Challenging the food police involves exploring where your thoughts and beliefs about food have come from and how they are serving you. Are they based in fact? Are they helpful or unhelpful? Through the process of becoming curious about the rules you have around food and practicing how to reframe negative thoughts, you can then discover your innate intuitive eater voice. Ultimately, your intuitive eating voice helps you feel confident and safe about your food choices.
5. Feel your Fullness
On the flipside of hunger is fullness. Feeling satiated, or full, is difficult if you are eating distracted, eating quickly without savoring your food, or have been taught to “clean your plate.” If you have been engaging in disordered eating behaviors, feeling full can also be an uncomfortable territory that may bring up difficult emotions. Just like hunger, there are nuances to fullness and learning when you have had enough to eat can take practice. This principle also explores foods with “staying power” i.e. foods that help you stay feeling full and energized until your next meal or snack. When you honor your hunger and fullness, you begin to learn and trust that your body can guide you with when and how much to eat.
6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
This principle is probably one of my favorites because I LOVE FOOD and believe that food was designed to be satisfying. If food didn’t taste good – we wouldn’t eat it, right?! Satisfaction is the “hub” of intuitive eating. Did you know that Americans are ranked highest with “food worry”? Instead of food being revered and celebrated, as it is in several other countries, we make food out to be an enemy. We feel guilty and ashamed for simply liking to eat. Discovering the satisfaction factor involves honoring your hunger and considering what tastes, textures, temperatures, and aromas sound appealing to you when you eat.
7. Coping with your Emotions without Food
Food can become a coping mechanism, and studies show that dieters are at higher risk for using food to cope. This principle resonates a lot with me personally, as I used to use food to deal with uncomfortable feelings – from anxiety, stress, boredom, procrastination, and depression. Emotional eating is not inherently bad. It becomes problematic when it is your only tool in your tool box to manage emotional triggers. Healing emotional eating requires self-compassion, nurturance, engaging in self-care activities, and learning how to sit with your feelings.
8. Respect Your Body
Just like we are not born with a set of food rules, we are not born hating our bodies. It is a learned behavior that develops as a result of our culture, social media, weight stigma, and the chase for the “thin ideal.” Since it is learned, it can be unlearned. If you are constantly consumed with negative body image thoughts, it will be difficult to reject the diet mentality as they are interconnected. Respecting your body by being grateful for what it can do allows you to take care of its basic needs. While you may not like your body the way it is right now, accepting it as the amazing vessel you have to carry you through life will help propel you forward on your journey.
9. Exercise – Feel the Difference
There’s no denying that engaging in physical activity has many positive benefits to your health. However, when exercise is coupled with the diet mentality, it is often a recipe for discontent, inconsistency, and burnout. Exercise is a celebration of what your body can do, not a punishment for eating or as a way to conform to a certain aesthetic. When you switch gears from militant behaviors with exercise and instead focus on how moving your body makes you feel + explore forms of movement you actually like, it becomes much more joyful and positive.
10. Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition
Last but not least, the tenth principle of intuitive eating is to make “food choices that honor your health and taste buds while making you feel well.” Getting to this principle is often saved for last, because until the others are explored fully, using nutrition information may cause an individual to stay stuck in the diet mentality. Gentle nutrition is achieved by integrating the guidelines and recommendations around nutrition with your inner attunement. It encourages variety and balance from carbohydrates, proteins, fats, fiber, and vitamins/minerals. It emphasizes flexibility over perfection.
Remember that intuitive eating is not a diet. It is not a pass/fail process. It is not another quick fix for weight loss. This is a weight inclusive approach for all body shapes and sizes that acts as a foundation to help you heal your relationship with food and your body to achieve true, vibrant, authentic health. It helps you to free up brain space to focus on what really matters and what you value in life.
I hope you have found this overview helpful and will come back to learn more about each principle in the coming weeks. If you have questions, please comment below or feel free to reach out privately!