I have referred to it often in my nutrition posts and in my professional bio. In January, it was written up in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and made an appearance in February’s Bon Appétit magazine. The term “intuitive eating” is more prevalent these days than ever. This 2-part series will outline the framework of intuitive eating, and then shed light on some of its more controversial points including how intuitive eating connects with other social movements.
The Framework of Intuitive Eating
Intuitive eating is defined as “a self-care eating framework, which integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought.”
If this sounds like some touchy-feely woo-woo thing that doesn’t have much substance, I hear that, because I honestly used to think so myself. In fact, I thought it was just an excuse for pretty people to take photos of themselves eating cake.
Ironically, it was the professors in my highly clinically focused nutrition program that assigned the book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. The same folks who were teaching us to memorize the metabolic pathways of each and every vitamin and mineral wanted us to think more broadly about nutrition.
I appreciated that and was remarkably impressed by what the authors had to offer.
What is the Biggest Takeaway from the Book?
The book starts by asking people to shift focus away from weight loss and put the scale in the closet (or out the window!).
This is a pretty radical ask, especially because it was written in the 1990’s when everyone was on a diet (including my mom who decided to only eat grapefruit for a week and take Jazzercise every morning – anyone else?).
For many, it’s terrifying to leave weight loss and weigh-ins behind, because it can feel like a part of our identity. But the truth is, once we take the focus off weight, we can actually enjoy food without all the worries and guilty feelings, and it’s absolutely liberating.
The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating
These principles are meant to guide readers towards a healthier relationship with food. They are not meant as steps or rules, but rather areas of focus depending on the individual and which principles feel most meaningful to them.
Following is a condensed version of each principle which provides a general sense of how intuitive eating represents a shift in thinking. Do any of these speak to you?
Principle 1 – Reject the Diet Mentality
The goal here is to stop all dieting and reject the belief that thinner is better, realizing that diets have failed us, not the opposite way around. If this seems unrealistic, remember that:
- Each diet we go on slows down our metabolism. The more drastic the diet, the slower it gets. This is one of the reasons why studies of contestants on The Biggest Loser show almost all of them regain ALL OF their weight and some are heavier than before they went on the show.
- One of the strongest predictors of weight gain is dieting, regardless of the dieter’s weight. The more diets we try, the more weight we gain, because almost all of our diets fail us.
Principle 2 – Honor Your Hunger
When we ignore our hunger cues our bodies stop trusting us. For those who think that eating from a meal plan, skipping meals, or eating at set times of day will prevent overeating, consider this:
- The more we ignore our bodies’ cues for hunger, the more we start tuning it out. This leads to surprisingly intense feelings of extreme hunger that seem as if they are coming out of nowhere, with no warning (but our body did try to warn us!). This is what leads to out-of-control or binge eating.
Principle 3 – Make Peace with Food
Give yourself unconditional permission to eat without penance or compensation. Let in those off-limits foods or foods that were never allowed to be kept in the house. If this seems too risky, consider it in this way:
- Habituation, or consistent exposure, allows us to adapt to an experience. This is a helpful tool, because by eating the same food over and over, it becomes less thrilling. Dieting and restricting heightens the excitement of forbidden foods.
Principle 4 – Challenge the Food Police
Answer the inner (our outer) food judges and jury by reasonably evaluating food choices without spiraling into catastrophic narratives. Be self-compassionate. If frequently feeling guilty after eating, consider this:
- The food police is warden of food rules and keeps our body at war with food.
- The food police pretends to act on behalf of our health, but it promotes diets and restrictions (which we know are harmful).
- Binary thinking (good or bad) is based on achieving dietary perfection, which is bound to fail.
Principle 5 – Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Rediscovering the pleasure of food can be joyful and healthful. Pleasure is a powerful force in allowing us to feel content and satiated after eating. For those who feel pleasure in foods is too good to be true, consider the French Paradox:
- French culture is the most food-pleasure-oriented. They enjoy their food and eat for a longer period of time. They diet less and have lower incidence of eating disorders. Interestingly, they also happen to have a longer life expectancy and lower rate of heart disease than Americans.
Principle 6 – Feel your Fullness
Listen to body signals when they tell us we are no longer hungry. For members of the clean plate club 🙋♀️ who have a challenging time identifying when they are full or consistently eat past the point of fullness, consider this:
- Research shows that those who score highest on intuitive eating scales (meaning essentially that they demonstrate these principles) have more interceptive responsiveness, or an ability to respond to the signals our bodies send us.
Principle 7 – Cope with your Emotions with Kindness
Having feelings is normal. Find ways to sit with emotions, and process them independent from food. For those who turn to food when sad, stressed, or having intense emotions, consider this:
- Dieters experience more episodes of emotional eating than those who don’t have a history of dieting.
- If eating when not biologically hungry, there may be outstanding emotions to process.
Principle 8- Respect Your Body
Accept genetics. Give bodies respect and dignity and be thankful for what our bodies have accomplished. BMI is not an indicator of self-worth. For those who want to be in a smaller body or think their body is not good enough, consider this:
- The majority of American women wear size 16 and up.
- There is no ideal body weight.
- A 2016 study found 54 million Americans were labeled overweight or obese AND had healthy metabolic indicators.
- A 2013 JAMA systematic review and meta-analysis found that those who are considered “overweight” with a BMI 25-29.9 have the lowest risk of death. Those with a BMI <18.5 have the highest risk of death.
Principle 9 – Movement – Feel the Difference
Shift focus to movement that’s enjoyable rather than choosing an activity for its calorie burning effects. For those who dread going to the gym, consider this:
- All types of movement, or exercise, have important health implications independent of weight loss. These include increased bone strength, higher levels of HDL, and improved mood, as well as decreased blood pressure and risk for chronic diseases.
Principle 10 – Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition
Eat foods that taste good and feel good. Our brain and our taste buds can work in tandem to help us make food choices. For those who question how we can eat what we want while also being mindful of nutritional impact, consider this:
- Intuitive eating is associated with a greater variety in food intake.
- A diet high in fruits and vegetables is associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases, independent of weight. Intuitive eating is associated with higher fruit and vegetable intake in adults.
The Bottom Line
If you have had enough of dieting, restricting, and trying to lose weight, consider the intuitive eating approach to re-build a healthy relationship with food and nutrition.
The 10 principles of Intuitive Eating are not meant as a set of rules, but as guidance on how to reject the diet mindset and, in turn, refocus energy on responding to our bodies’ cues and signals rather than on weight loss.
Intuitive Eating is a personal journey unique to everyone and is often best approached slowly with a dietitian, therapist, or coach who is a “Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor.”
Part 2 is coming in a few weeks – stay tuned! In the meantime, I welcome your comments and questions. I always love hearing from you!
For more information, here are some great resources!
Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach: Fourth Edition by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch along with The Intuitive Eating Workbook which is a great companion to work through each principle.
Gentle Nutrition: A Non-Diet Approach to Healthy Eating by Rachael Hartley focuses on Principle 10 but linking recipes with intuitive eating.
Unapologetic Eating: Make Peace with Food and Transform your Life by Alissa Rumsey, shows us how to reconnect with our bodies and make peace with food.
Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating by Christy Harrison walks us through her journey to intuitive eating including evaluation of research studies and riveting stories about food movements over the past 20 years.
Over 100 research studies in support of intuitive eating have been logged so far, and can be viewed at https://www.intuitiveeating.org/resources/studies/. This website also has more information on intuitive eating, and is managed by Tribole and Resch.