You may have heard of Intuitive Eating, or it may be a completely foreign phrase to you.
Lately, more and more Dietitians, Social Workers, Therapists, and other healthcare professionals are becoming introduced to the research and practice of Intuitive Eating, and more and more are becoming Certified Intuitive Eating Counselors (myself included!). I truly believe this framework resonates with EVERYONE, no matter your current relationship with food. It’s incredible to see how many non-diet health practitioners there are helping people break free from chronic dieting and improve their relationship with food. So whether you’ve heard of Intuitive Eating before, have embarked on the journey yourself, or have never heard the term, hopefully you will learn something!
What is Intuitive Eating?
In a sentence: Intuitive eating is all about trusting your inner body wisdom, making ultimate peace with food, and making nonjudgemental food choices that honor what your body needs – physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally.
In depth: Intuitive eating is a research-backed framework for an approach to health and eating by focusing on your own internal cues and signals (such as hunger, satisfaction, fullness) in place of external cues (such as what the scale says, what a meal plan says, the latest fad diet, or following the way someone else eats, such as an influencer on instagram). It is about eating for physical rather than emotional reasons, relying on internal hunger and satiety cues, and giving yourself unconditional permission to eat. It focuses on the total picture of health, not just food and fitness. It is the opposite of ‘Diet Culture’, which is the lie-based, fear-mongering diet world telling you to making food choices based on how it will change your body size, how someone else tells you to eat, or eating in response to strict food rules. Intuitive eating is based off of ten principles that were initially published in the self-titled book, Intuitive Eating, by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, CEDRD, and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, CEDRD in 1995.
Here are some examples of how Diet Culture thinks:
- “Eat these foods to burn fat!”
- “Lose weight and you’ll be happier!”
- “You have no willpower, how could you eat that?!”
- “Start this diet, everyone’s doing it!”
- “Go gluten-free, dairy-free, grain-free, soy-free, and nut-free or else you will die from disease!”
- “Lose weight by eating _____ way”
Not only is Diet Culture based on lies, but its entire basis is built off of you feeling poorly about yourself. Instead of building you up, it puts you down, to try and get you to jump on the bandwagon. People become tempted by diet culture when their lives feel out of control, as they are craving that ‘control’. Diet culture causes you to feel inadequate, to not feel enough, and guilts you into taking ‘control’ (which causes more problems).
What does Intuitive Eating look like instead?
On the polar end, we have intuitive eating, built off compassion, trust with one’s body, and flexibility. We are all born as intuitive eaters. Every one of us. Babies and toddlers cry when they’re hungry, eat, and stop when they’re full. As simple as that. They have no food rules. They don’t think about how the foods may affect their body size. They don’t count calories and they don’t compare their eating to others’ eating. Yet as we grow older, our intuitive eating nature gets muddled and hazy due to the influence of diet culture, the thin ideal seen in the media, confusing nutrition misinformation, magazines, comparing our eating to our friends and family, and all the ‘diet rules’ out there. It takes away our ability to listen to our bodies, and it teaches us to listen to an external rule or behavior, no matter what we feel. “Don’t eat past 7 pm!” “Intermittent fast for 16 hours!” “Don’t eat any carbs after noon!” “Drink water to trick your body from feeling hungry!” These crazy rules cause us to listen to other reasons for eating, rather than actually LISTENING to our body and honoring what it needs.
As a Registered Dietitian, sadly enough I didn’t understand intuitive eating or practice this incredible approach to health until very recently. While I had an incredible dietetic educational experience back when I was in school, it is truly a shame that HAES (Health At Every Size) and Intuitive Eating were not mentioned ONCE during my dietetic education. Not once! And this isn’t a totally new concept. The initial edition of Intuitive Eating was published in 1995, the year I turned FOUR. So it isn’t completely unheard of. And as for me, intuitive eating was a no brainer, as I was lucky enough that my parents naturally raised me as an intuitive eater (without even realizing it!). Sure, I eat nourishing plant-based foods most of the time because that what makes my body feel and perform best, but I won’t turn down a steak when my body wants it, and I definitely won’t turn down a good dessert. I always get so frustrated and upset when I seen people I know, especially those I’m close to, struggling with their relationships with food and going on fad diets. I get so upset when I see diet culture preached, as I see first-hand through my nutrition counseling how it damages, confuses, and greatly affects people.
After a few years of counseling clients the traditional way, focusing on “foods recommended, foods to avoid”, offering up simple changes to eat healthier, and debunking all the crazy nutrition myths I’ve heard in my office (Ranging from ‘carbs are the devil’ to ‘sugar will cause diabetes’), I knew something was missing, that there had to not only be more, but a better approach. The majority of clients I’ve seen have either tried countless diets in the past, still have crazy food rules they follow or think (even if they aren’t necessarily on a “diet” per say), and have so much confusion with nutrition.
When I was just starting out as a counseling Dietitian back in 2016, my client’s weights weren’t necessarily budging (which was important to them), unless they were completely overhauling their diet and being over-the-top about it (hint: probably not having a totally healthy relationship with food). And those that did make healthy changes in their lives didn’t necessarily see (scale) progress, and I could see their disappointment in their faces, likely causing them to want to just throw in the towel and give up making healthy behavior changes whatsoever. By focusing solely on the number on the scale, they were actually inhibiting their progress and their well-being. WEIGHT DOES NOT EQUAL HEALTH! As early as 1992, the American National Institutes of Health (NIH) released a consensus statement that dieting is an ineffective method to produce sustained weight loss, so we have known this for a while, so why are we still promoting weight loss as an answer for health? There are very, very, very few people that can sustain long-term weight loss according to the research. The majority of people who embark on intentionally losing weight regain the weight, and actually end up gaining more weight in the long run. (Sure, we know plenty of people who have lost weight short-term, but let’s see how they fare 5 years from now…) Research shows that people who adopt healthier behaviors (such as eating enough fruits and veggies, drinking plenty of water, not smoking, staying active) actually reduce their risk of obesity-related conditions, no matter if they lose weight or not. Not to mention, BMI is an inaccurate predictor of health (it was created based off research of just men/no women, and was not developed for health reasons, but rather to help the government allocate resources to the population. Not to mention it does not show body composition). There are also plenty of studies showing that having an overweight BMI can actually be protective and decrease mortality risk! Not to mention, focusing on weight and BMI is incredibly stigmatizing, which has its own host of issues.
And now by utilizing a non-diet approach, I’ve never seen my clients happier, more full of hope, or more relieved that’s there’s another (actually science-backed) way towards good health other than “dieting” , as they so believed (which doesn’t work, in case you haven’t realized that yet 😉 ). I’ve never felt more fulfilled, and I can honestly say that ~90% of clients come into my office pursuing weight loss and think I’m going to “put them on a diet”, and that could not be further from the truth. I simply hope that now as a newly non-diet practicing RD I can help educate others, especially my dietetic interns who work under me, regarding the incredible research being done on this.
The amazing research-based benefits of Intuitive Eating:
- Higher self-esteem and trust with one’s body
- Decreased disordered eating
- Decreased BMI (without obsessing over the thin ideal)
- Decreased Triglycerides
- Better glycemic control
- More satisfaction with eating
- Decreased emotional eating
- Wider variety of foods consumed
- Reduced stress
- Improved metabolism
- More positive body image
- Decreased binge eating and cravings
A quick synopsis of the 10 Principles:
- Reject the Diet Mentality – quit trying every fad diet and believing the lies that are being fed to you. Research shows dieting is harmful. If you allow even one small hope to linger that a new and better diet might be lurking around the corner, it will prevent you from being free to rediscover Intuitive Eating.
- Honor Your Hunger – keep your body fed regularly with adequate energy and nutrients. Undereating causes ‘primal hunger’ to turn on, causing us to overeat and crave foods. When you wait too long to eat, your blood sugar will drop and every attempt to eat consciously will be thrown out the window. Eat when you’re hungry, and you’re more likely to keep stable blood sugars and prevent overeating. Ever skipped a meal and ended up eating hours later, only to be completely starving, overeat and feel uncomfortably full? Eat when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re satisfied.
- Make Peace with Food – Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. This is always a hard one for most people. Don’t view foods as “good” and “bad”. Allow yourself to have any food you want, at any time, to truly decrease that food’s control over you. When you often give in to a “forbidden” food you have told yourself you won’t eat, guilt, shame, bingeing, and overeating occurs.
- Challenge the Food Police – Challenge those false food lies you tell yourself and those diet rules ingrained in your brain. Fight back to those thoughts telling you you are “good” for eating a salad and “bad” for eating a brownie. Most of the ‘diet’ thoughts we have are completely false and not the truth, so fight back with the actual science behind your thoughts.
- Respect Your Fullness – listening to your body and your satiety cues is a key in intuitive eating. You’ll learn to stop eating when you’re content and satisfied, not overly stuffed. Pause during a meal and ask yourself “Am I still hungry? How full am I? Does the food still taste good?”
- Discover the Satisfaction Factor – Satisfaction plays a very large role in being content and satisfied after eating. If you eat a bland salad just to be “good” and don’t even enjoy it, you will continue to seek food or satisfaction elsewhere, even if you’re physically full. Pick foods you want to eat, and truly enjoy eating and you’ll find you likely won’t need as much to feel like you’ve “had enough”.
- Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food – find ways to nurture your emotional and mental health without using food. Intuitive eating helps you learn to deal with loneliness, anxiety, stress, sadness, boredom without food, as food doesn’t help these feelings go away and can instead make you feel worse. Distinguishing between physical hunger and emotional hunger can help you become more of an intuitive eater.
- Respect Your Body – you aren’t going to want to treat your body well if you hate it. You won’t become happier just by losing weight. Focus on respecting your body as it is now. Our body shapes and sizes are all different, our genes make up the majority of our body shape and size, and we can’t expect everyone to conform to one “ideal” size! ALL bodies are unique and beautiful. It’s hard to reject the diet mentality if you are unrealistic and overly critical about your body shape.
- Exercise—Feel the Difference – focus on exercising to feel good (hello, endorphins!), not just for burning calories or weight loss. Focus on other measures of tracking progress besides weight change, such as how much stronger you feel, beating a PR, or increased endurance. There are so many proven health benefits of exercise beyond changing your body shape. Find movement you enjoy, such as dancing, swimming, biking, etc. rather than joining a gym if you hate it. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing – all movement is beneficial! Focus on mindful movement that you actually enjoy and you’re more likely to stick with it.
- Honor Your Health – Gentle Nutrition, the final piece of intuitive eating. Make food choices that honor your health and tastebuds while also making you feel good. Remember that you don’t have to eat a perfect diet to be healthy. There’s more to your overall health than simply exercise and food. You will not suddenly get a nutrient deficiency or gain weight from one snack, one meal, or one day of eating. It’s what you eat consistently over time that matters, progress not perfection is what counts. Eat a salad because you want it, you know it makes your body feel good, and you’re in the mood for it, not simply because it’s low calorie and you are scared of other ‘unhealthier’ foods.
The final principle – What does Gentle Nutrition look like?
- It looks like truly enjoying a delicious slice of birthday cake at your friend’s party but listening to your body the next day and maybe enjoying a salad (but not because you have to “make up” for eating the cake).
- It means having your favorite meals, but maybe adding in some leafy greens or vegetables to add a little bit of extra fiber and nutrients.
- It means eating a variety of foods, without food restrictions, to get the most nutrients.
- It means not limiting yourself to one set way of eating or rigid food rules, as healthy eating is flexible and your needs may change over time or even day-to-day.
- It means aiming for progress with healthy eating, not perfection.
- It means eating more fruits and vegetables for health reasons, rather than to control your weight.
- It means enjoying complex carbs, lean protein, and healthy fats to keep you satisfied and fueled longer, not because it’s part of a diet rule.
- It means choosing foods with a nonjudgemental approach, based on what you want to eat, what is healthy for your body, and what will have staying power, keeping you satisfied and energized.
Intuitive Eating Myths:
Intuitive Eating is a way to lose weight.
Yes, research shows intuitive eaters tend to have lower BMIs, but Intuitive Eating IS. NOT. FOR. WEIGHT. LOSS. It’s not a diet either, and intuitive eating is all about improving your relationship to food, no matter what happens to your body shape. No one exactly knows what will happen with your weight with intuitive eating. If you’ve been restricting for years and are at a low BMI, you may gain weight when you give up your disordered eating habits and have a healthier relationship with food. On the other hand, if you’ve been struggling with binge eating, been off and on diets for many years, and struggle with emotional eating, you may lose weight with intuitive eating. Every body is different and the whole point is to NOT embark on intuitive eating to manipulate your weight or body, that’s missing the entire point. No one can tell you how your weight will be affected when you go on the path of becoming an intuitive eater.
Intuitive eating can only help those with disordered eating.
Intuitive eating certainly can help those with disordered eating, but it truly helps ALL people! Even if you have a general healthy relationship with food, we have all likely had times in our lives when our natural intuitive eating nature has been blocked due to influences in life. Even with our fast paced world, it’s so common for us to skip meals because we’re busy, eat on-the-go, and overeat from stress or tough emotions. Intuitive eating helps with all of this. EVERYONE can benefit from intuitive eating, not just those with a damaged relationship with food.
The intuitive eating journey must be done with a certified counselor.
Not necessarily. Certainly working with a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor is recommended, but you can absolutely read the book and go through the workbook on your own. It’s YOUR journey, and YOUR experiences that you will learn from! There are plenty of incredible resources to learn more on your own terms (see bottom of post).
Intuitive eating is a free-for all when it comes to food; eat whatever you want, whenever you want.
Intuitive eating isn’t about eating brownies all the time just because you “can” and want them. It’s about honoring your body and feeding it what it needs to feel its best, and let’s be honest, eating brownies all the time wouldn’t feel too good. What’s important is eating according to your hunger cues, your satiety cues, and not just eating according to your “taste” hunger. It doesn’t ignore nutrition either, which people often think. As you become an intuitive eater and are open to eating any and all foods anytime you want, those foods which previously may have been deemed ‘bad’ or made you feel guilty have less of an appeal to you. You may find they might not even taste as good as you thought when they were ‘off-limits’. They will become NO. BIG. DEAL. And your body is extremely smart if you listen to it – it’s going to tell you what it needs, which is a variety and balance of foods and nutrients.
Intuitive eating is only about food and eating.
Intuitive eating is more than just what you’re eating. It can change your entire life! (not to sound too cheesy). When you’re too focused on dieting and food preoccupations, you have much less room in your brain to focus on what truly matters: relationships, family, experiences, life, career, fun, relaxation, hobbies, traveling. Intuitive eating gives you the freedom to LIVE, free from dieting or food rules. It also helps you become more in tune with your body, and improves coping skills, increases your self-esteem, helps you better handle stress and emotions, and gives you more JOY and pleasure in life.
My Favorite Intuitive Eating Resources and Studies:
- THE OG Website for all things Intuitive Eating – Intuitiveeating.org
- Golden (2016).Eating Disorder Prevention
- Herbert (2013) Interoceptive Awareness & Intuitive Eating
- Tribole (2010) Intuitive Eating in the Treatment of Eating
- Eneli (2008) Trust Model Child Feeding
- Initial Hunger and Insulin Sensitivity. JNM.2010
- Neumark-Sztainer 2011 10-Year Dieting Study
- Denny (2013) Intuitive Eating…Project Eat Study
- Bacon (2011) Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence
- Tylka (2006) Intuitive Eating v Eating Disorders?
- Bush (2014) Intuitive Eating Worksite Intervention
- Miller (2012) Mindful Eating Intervention Diabetes
- Wheeler (2016) Intuitive Eating and Diabetes
- Bombak (2014) Obesity, Health At Every Size, and Public Health Policy
- Stice (2008) Fasting Increases Risk of BED
- Stice (2013) Caloric Deprivation Increases Reward
And here is a PDF of the full list of research/studies regarding Intuitive Eating: click here.
I hope this answered a lot of questions about Intuitive Eating, and please reach out if you need anything else answered or would like more information!