In this post, I dive deep and answer some of the most common questions I get about Intuitive Eating to help you decide if it’s the right approach for you.
What is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive Eating is a mind-body approach to eating that was developed by two American dietitians – Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch – in 1995. It is made up of 10 guiding principles that work together to help you tune into your body’s own inner wisdom and heal your relationship with food. Intuitive Eating is a powerful tool that uses flexibility and compassion to help YOU guide your eating decisions, rather than relying on external cues and rules.
Why is Intuitive Eating important?
Well, if you think about it, we were all born intuitive eaters! When you were a baby, you cried when you were hungry, and stopped eating when you were full and satisfied. You ate more on some days, and less on others. You didn’t follow a schedule (in fact, you asked to be fed on demand!). And as you grew, your appetite and food preferences changed. Much to your parents’ discouragement, you may even have wanted all the fruit on one day, only to despise them the next and wanting nothing more than plain pasta. But if we looked at the big picture, it all balanced itself out!
Unfortunately, as we grow, we are gradually exposed to diet culture: fad diets, food rules, unrealistic beauty standards and the lie that thin bodies are more valued and worthy. As we internalize these concepts, we burry our intuitive eater far away and start relying on external cues and rules to manage what, when and how much we should eat. We start believing that we can no longer trust ourselves and our bodies. This can lead to a cascade of harmful behaviors such as restrictive dieting, emotional eating, food and/or body obsession, disordered eating and eating disorders. In fact, eating disorders are on the rise in Canada and affecting younger generations each year.
What are the benefits of Intuitive Eating?
Research suggests Intuitive Eating can provide both physical and mental health benefits! In fact, intuitive eaters have:
Lower rates of disordered eating and eating disorders
Lower rates of emotional eating
Increased food variety, and increased feelings of pleasure and satisfaction when eating
Better body image, body appreciation and body acceptance
Lower stress levels
Increased feelings of optimism and well-being
Better coping skills
Better blood lipid profiles
Improved blood sugar control
Improved blood pressure
Increased satisfaction with life
Can Intuitive Eating help with weight loss?
Intuitive Eating is not a weight loss diet. In fact, Intuitive Eating is the internal process of helping you rediscover your body’s own hunger, satisfaction, and fullness. Dieting and weight loss, on the other hand, are quite blatantly external processes. Therefore, Intuitive Eating and weight loss cannot co-exist.
Intuitive Eating focuses on achieving health promoting behaviors rather than a specific number on the scale. That being said, some people may lose weight, gain weight, or stay at the same weight when practicing this approach. Everyone will be different. It all depends on your body’s natural set point – the weight at which your body naturally wants to be, where it will optimally function, and where YOU will be happiest!
The bottom line? You can experience amazing health benefits without losing weight. This is a great reminder that weight is not the only indicator of health!
The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating
Intuitive Eating is based on 10 guiding principles (read: not rules!). There is no right or wrong, pass or fail. Rather, Intuitive Eating is a journey of self-discovery and connection to your personal needs.
Let’s take a deeper look at each principle.
Principle 1: Reject the Diet Mentality
The first principle of Intuitive Eating is all about getting angry at diet culture and rejecting the diet mentality that fuels it. Diets have failed YOU, not the other way around. This step is essential in adopting the Intuitive Eating framework.
Take some time to reflect on how dieting, food restriction and food rules have impacted your life. Has striving for weight loss ever given you long term health and happiness? Probably not.
To start, recognize and acknowledge the damage dieting has caused – biologically, mentally, and emotionally. Become aware of diet-mentality traits and thinking that you may have become accustomed to. Get rid of dieting tools (like the scale or tracking apps) and cleanse your social media of accounts that only serve to compare and make you feel less-than.
Principle 2: Honor Your Hunger
This principle is all about relearning to keep your body biologically fed with adequate food, calories, and carbohydrates to prevent that primal drive to overeat and impulsive food decisions.
I like using the following analogy here: when you have an urge to pee, you don’t stop yourself and think “It isn’t time to pee, yet. I’ll have to wait!”. You don’t try to ignore and suppress that feeling (because that would be silly!). You simply go. Feelings of hunger are a biological sign you need to fuel and are as natural and normal as going to the washroom.
For many individuals, years of dieting and restricting can blunt these biological cues. But with practice and time, you can re-learn what hunger and satiety feel like to you and build trust in your body.
Principle 3: Make Peace with Food
This principle is all about giving yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods. Restricting specific foods (like sweets, pasta, or bread) will only lead to out-of-control feelings and intense cravings (which may even feel like an addiction). Allowing all foods equally and eliminating the “good” and “bad” food mindset can help bring forbidden foods off their pedestal and end the all-too-familiar restrict-binge cycle.
When bringing forbidden foods back into your life, it’s normal to experience a “honeymoon phase” where you may eat larger quantities of less nutritious foods. However, it’s very important to go through this phase with compassion as you begin to experience habituation. This phase can take time and inner work as you move through and past your food fears.
Principle 4: Challenge the Food Police
Do you feel “good” for eating a salad and “bad” for eating a cookie? That’s the Food Police shouting in your ear!
This principle is all about learning to give yourself the emotional permission to eat all foods. You can do this by exploring your learned food rules, and challenging/reframing your negative self-critical thoughts (aka the Food Police attaching morality to your food choices). You’ll begin to develop more helpful, nurturing self-talk that’s rooted in self-care, rather than punishment.
Principle 5: Discover the Satisfaction Factor
As a result of dieting, dieters may lose their sense of pleasure when eating and don’t know how to get it back. But when we eat foods we truly enjoy, it becomes easier to feel our fullness and we are less likely to feel deprived and binge.
To help you rediscover the satisfaction factor, ask yourself what you really want to eat: what flavors, textures, temperatures, smells, and colors will satisfy you? What will make you feel good – both physically and emotionally?
Satisfaction will also increase when we eat balanced meals mindfully, slowly, and without distractions in a relaxing, enjoyable atmosphere. Mindful eating practices can therefore come into play in principle 5.
Principle 6: Feel Your Fullness
Just like years of dieting can lead to blunted hunger cues, we can also learn to ignore our fullness. This principle helps you reconnect with your unique feelings of fullness, so that you can stop eating before becoming uncomfortably full.
Checking-in with your hunger and fullness levels before, during and after eating can be helpful in achieving this.
Principle 7: Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness
Eating for reasons other than physical hunger (aka emotional eating) is often viewed as being a bad thing. However, emotional eating is actually a normal human experience! But for some, it may be the only tool to help deal with difficult or uncomfortable emotions – which can become problematic.
This principle is all about learning additional coping strategies and helping you practice self-compassion and kindness when emotional eating does occur (because hey – we’re all human!).
Principle 8: Respect Your Body
The all-so-popular body positive movement that has taken over social media may feel forced and out-of-place to you. This is not that! In fact, you are not required to love your body in order to take care of it.
This principle is about teaching you to respect your body and genetic blueprint, so that you can end the body bashing and arrive to a place of body neutrality and acceptance. It shifts the focus from your appearance to what your body can do (for example, appreciating your changing body for creating a tiny human, or expressing gratitude for your legs that can take you places).
You can also respect your body by engaging in self-care. This may look like eating balanced meals regularly, practicing joyful movement, attending your healthcare appointments, buying clothes that fit, and setting boundaries.
In the end, all bodies deserve respect and dignity, regardless of their size or appearance.
Principle 9: Movement – Feel the Difference
If you have ever approached exercise from a place of punishment or as a tool to make you thinner, it makes sense that you may not enjoy it. Principle 9 is all about decoupling exercise from weight loss. It’s about discovering joyful movement and reframing exercise as a form of self-care.
Principle 10: Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition
Gentle nutrition is the last principle for good reason. It’s important to heal your relationship with food before tackling this one, otherwise you’re putting yourself at risk of simply following more food rules/dieting.
Gentle nutrition means making food choices that honor your health goals and taste buds, while making you feel your best. This is why Intuitive Eating is certainly compatible with managing a health condition, such as diabetes or heart disease. In short, this principle helps you combine nutrition information with your internal cues.
So, is Intuitive Eating right for me?
Intuitive Eating may be the right approach for you if:
You spend a lot of time and mental energy thinking about food each day.
You view food as “good” or “bad”.
You stress about eating the “right” or “wrong” thing.
Food causes you to feel anxious and unhappy.
You experience guilt or shame after eating certain foods.
You are always trying the latest diet, or following food rules.
You don’t trust your body to tell you what or how much to eat.
If you see yourself in one or more of these statements, consider working alongside a dietitian that believes in this framework and can help guide you in your journey.
An alternative approach: Mindful Eating
If you aren’t quite sure that Intuitive Eating is right for you, but you’d like to improve your relationship with food, an alternative and still very beneficial approach is Mindful Eating.
Mindful eating – based on the Buddhist concept of mindfulness – is part of Intuitive Eating and involves:
Eating with intention.
Paying attention to our food, on purpose, without judgement.
Engaging all our senses during the eating experience by noticing the colors, smells, textures, temperatures, sounds and flavors of food.
Noticing the effects of food on our feelings, emotions, and physical sensations before, during and after the eating experience.
Appreciating our food and practicing gratitude for how it came to be on our plate.