What is Intuitive Eating, Anyway?
It’s a term with a lot of buzz right now, but what does it mean?
The concept isn’t new, but as the anti-diet movement picks up steam and more and more research demonstrates the ineffectiveness of dieting, we’re hearing a lot more about intuitive eating lately. Intuitive eating has been around since 1995 when dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch published the first edition of the book, Intuitive Eating, which is now in its 3rd edition, with a 4th edition celebrating its 25th anniversary due out next year.
What Intuitive Eating is, and isn’t
First of all, let’s start with what Intuitive Eating is not. It’s definitely not another diet. It’s not a weight loss method, nor is it a set of rules to be strictly adhered to. It does not tell you what to eat, or what not to eat, and it’s not just about eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full. It’s also not, as it’s sometimes mischaracterized, just “eating whatever you want, whenever you want it.” Having the freedom to eat what you choose is a big part of it, but there’s a lot more nuance involved in the process of eating intuitively.
What Intuitive Eating is, according to co-author Evelyn Tribole, is “the personal process of listening and responding to the direct messages of your body in order to get your physical and psychological needs met.” This means that rather than turning to external sources to determine how to eat (such as counting calories, tracking macros or points, measuring portions, or following a diet or meal plan), intuitive eaters turn inward to listen to their body’s cues for guidance on what, when, and how much to eat. Because intuitive eating is a non-diet approach, it’s not about losing weight or using the scale to track progress; instead, the focus is on adding healthy behaviours to your life and improving your relationship with food.
You Were Born an Intuitive Eater
We’re all born knowing how to eat intuitively. Babies instinctively know when they’re hungry and when they’ve had enough to eat. But as we grow, we’re repeatedly given messages that our bodies can’t be trusted, and by adulthood, many of us believe that we couldn’t possibly know how to eat without following strict diets, meal plans, and food rules. By this point, we’ve also spent our lives learning that thin bodies are the ideal, and that they’re valued more in our society than larger bodies. Our reliance on food rules, coupled with our desire for thinness, can make intuitive eating seem scary and, ironically, counter-intuitive. What should be natural to us, and what we were born knowing how to do, can seem foreign and complicated after years of dieting. Part of the process of leaving diets behind and learning to eat intuitively is understanding that we are the experts of our own bodies, and that we don’t have to buy in to the thin ideal any longer. Learning to eat intuitively, then, involves unlearning the diet rules that are so ingrained in many of us, and also learning to accept the shape and size that our body takes when it’s well nourished and no longer subjected to restrictive diets.
Why Choose Intuitive Eating Over Dieting?
Dieting, which can be defined as following external rules about how to eat for the goal of weight loss, is ineffective and harmful. The majority of those who lose weight through dieting not only gain the weight back, but risk gaining back more than they lost. A focus on weight and intentional weight loss “is not only ineffective at producing thinner, healthier bodies, but also damaging, contributing to food and body preoccupation, repeated cycles of weight loss and regain, distraction from other personal health goals and wider health determinants, reduced self-esteem, eating disorders, other health decrement, and weight stigmatization and discrimination” (Bacon & Aphramor, 2011). Not only do the extreme, overly restrictive diets not work, but even those we view as “sensible” fail us in the end. Weight loss is often possible in the short term, but almost never sustainable beyond 2-5 years, for the majority of dieters.
Intuitive eating, on the other hand, allows us to pay attention to the signals our bodies have been trying to send us all along. Instead of eating by the clock, we eat when we feel sufficiently hungry. Rather than trying to eat from a list of “approved” foods, we pay attention to which foods satisfy us and make us feel good. Where diets dictate how much we’re allowed to eat, intuitive eating allows us to pay attention to when we feel comfortably full. There are principles to guide us through the process, but no rules, so we can’t mess up or “fall off the wagon.”
Intuitive eating has also been found to have many benefits, including improved self-esteem and body acceptance, higher HDL (good cholesterol), lower triglycerides, less disordered eating and emotional eating, and higher well-being and optimism. (See sources here).
An Overview of the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating
REJECT THE DIET MENTALITY
This is an important place to start, because we’re all surrounded by diet culture, and any lingering diet mentality will make it difficult to trust your body’s cues and learn to eat intuitively. This is where you can really assess your own history with dieting. It might be all you’ve known, for years or even decades, and the thought of leaving it behind can be scary. You might even view many of your past diets as successes, but when you look back on the experience, ask yourself: was it sustainable? Did the weight loss last? Was it restrictive and did it leave you feeling miserable and deprived? It’s important to acknowledge the harm that diets cause, and that even when it feels familiar and comforting to go back to one more diet, they are never the answer. Diets cause harm both to our physical health and to our psychological and emotional health, including decreasing metabolism, increasing binges and cravings, increasing risk of eating disorders, and decreasing confidence and self-trust.
HONOUR YOUR HUNGER
Diets force us to ignore or suppress our hunger, so much so, that many people find it difficult to detect hunger signals when they first quit dieting. Intuitive eating guides you to begin to tune in to those signals once again, and to honour them by adequately nourishing your body. Ignoring hunger for too long can trigger a primal drive to eat past the point of comfort, so it’s important to learn to detect various levels of hunger, and to try to eat before you feel ravenously hungry. Intuitive eating will teach you to listen for the many signals your body can use to tell you it’s hungry (including light-headedness, stomach pain, irritability, and headache), and to distinguish from gentle to ravenous hunger.
MAKE PEACE WITH FOOD
This principle is one of the most misunderstood of the ten principles, perhaps because we’re so afraid of feeling “out of control” around the foods that we’ve limited or avoided for so long. Making peace with food is about giving yourself unconditional permission to eat. It’s about throwing out the old rules about what’s allowed, or off-limits, and allowing yourself to eat any food that you choose to eat. The problem with having “off-limits” foods is that it leads to feelings of deprivation, which can turn into intense cravings or bingeing. When all foods are allowed, the cravings eventually subside, and bingeing is usually not an issue. When first giving yourself permission to eat previously forbidden foods, there is often a period of time when it feels like you’ll never stop craving this food. It can feel scary, and many people fear that this phase won’t end. I promise, it will. With time, you’ll grow bored of these foods, and they just won’t have the same appeal that they had when they were restricted, and your body will start to crave a variety of foods that make it feel its best.
CHALLENGE THE FOOD POLICE
Ah, the food police: that voice in your head that praises you for eating “good” foods and fills you with guilt for eating foods you judge as “bad.” Years of dieting have likely made the food police hard to ignore, as every bite of food is judged as healthy or unhealthy, clean or unclean, and consequently you judge yourself as good or bad based on your food choices. This voice has got to go in order to be able to eat intuitively and free yourself from feelings of guilt and shame surrounding how you eat. This principle guides you through challenging the negative thoughts and diet rules that surface when you eat, and to replace them with rational and positive self-talk that allows you to eat without fear or judgement.
FEEL YOUR FULLNESS
With this principle, you’ll learn to detect signs that your body is comfortably full, and to eat mindfully so that you’re able to pause and determine how your food tastes, and what your current hunger level is. Rather than feeling like you need to eat until your plate is empty, or adhere to portion sizes determined by some diet, you’re able to judge how much food your body needs based on your hunger and fullness signals, and feed your body appropriately. Having made peace with food is crucial here, so that you can stop eating when you’re full, leaving food on your plate when necessary, and know that you’ll be able to eat that food again when you choose to do so. Part of feeling your fullness is also recognizing what comfortable satiety feels like, such as a feeling of stomach fullness, or feeling satisfied and content. It’s important to note, here, that because these are principles, and not rules, you can’t break them. It’s perfectly okay to eat past full sometimes, or to eat when you’re not hungry.
DISCOVER THE SATISFACTION FACTOR
Have you ever eaten a meal, and gotten to the point where you feel full, but it just feels like something is missing? That something is the satisfaction factor! When we eat something unsatisfying, it often has us searching through the fridge and the pantry after we’re finished, trying to fill the void that’s left when our meal doesn’t quite satisfy our cravings. Eating enough food, but not feeling satisfied, still leaves us feeling deprived, which is a big problem with dieting. Intuitive eating allows us to choose foods that we find pleasurable, by asking ourselves what we really want to eat, and by eating in a mindful way that allows us to savour our food and have an enjoyable eating experience.
COPE WITH YOUR EMOTIONS WITHOUT USING FOOD
Let me start by saying that emotional eating is not as much of a problem as diet culture makes it out to be. Eating is inherently emotional from the time we’re infants being comforted with milk, and as adults, food is often used to celebrate, come together with friends or family, or to comfort us when we need it. The issue is when eating is your only coping mechanism; but know that turning to food for comfort on occasion is completely normal and healthy. It can be helpful to explore ways to deal with anxiety, loneliness, boredom, and anger that do not involve eating, so that you have a larger toolbox of techniques to find comfort and distraction when it’s needed. You can learn to meet your needs without food in many ways, like making self-care a priority, writing your feelings in a journal, or distracting yourself with activities you love to do.
RESPECT YOUR BODY
This can be one of the most difficult principles for many chronic dieters, who have spent a lifetime trying to change their bodies, never feeling satisfied with their weight or appearance. Diet culture tells us that thinness is important, and that we can all have the ideal body if we eat “right” and try hard enough. Part of rejecting the diet mentality is rejecting this messaging. Thinness is not better or worthier, and we are not all meant to have thin bodies. Learning to respect your body means recognizing that your body is good and worthy no matter how it looks. It’s also about realizing that you are so much more than a body, and that your worth is not predicated on how you look or what you weigh. Your body deserves respect, nourishment, and care no matter what. Respecting your body means that instead of being concerned with weight, you can focus on adopting healthy behaviours. You don’t have to believe that you’re beautiful, or like every part of your body in order to show it respect. Even if you’re not quite ready to accept your body as it is, you can begin to treat it with respect by acknowledging that it deserves to be fed, treated with dignity, dressed comfortably, and to move in ways you enjoy.
EXERCISE - FEEL THE DIFFERENCE
Exercise can benefit our bodies in so many important ways, but the problem for many chronic dieters is that exercise has become merely a way to punish the body, burn calories, or lose weight, and so it feels like a chore rather than an enjoyable part of the day. Exercise doesn’t have to be militant and exhausting in order to “count.” Any kind of movement that you enjoy and that feels good is worth pursuing and can enhance your health and your life.
HONOUR YOUR HEALTH WITH GENTLE NUTRITION
This principle comes last for a reason: if we haven’t completely ditched the diet mentality and made peace with food, trying to incorporate nutrition too soon can turn intuitive eating into just another diet. But when you’re ready, gentle nutrition looks like making food choices that honour both your health and your taste buds, while making your body feel its best.
Want to learn more?
Read Intuitive Eating or work through the Intuitive Eating Workbook
Follow Intuitive Eating accounts on Instagram. A few of my favourites are:
Intuitive Eating Podcasts:
You Can Eat With Us
Don’t Salt My Game
Trust Your Body