What is Intuitive Eating?

intuitive eating

This week’s episode is all about Intuitive Eating. You’ve probably heard me mention Intuitive Eating on past episodes of the podcast or on my social media. But you may not know what it means. So for the next several episodes, I am going to be breaking down each of the 10 principles for you. I’m also thrilled to announce that I have some experts who will be joining me in upcoming episodes. So you will be hearing more than just my singular perspective. In today’s episode, we will be covering what Intuitive Eating is, some of the research behind it, the difference between Intuitive Eating and Mindful Eating, and who Intuitive Eating is for.

What is Intuitive Eating?

If I were to give my elevator pitch of what Intuitive Eating is, I’d say: Intuitive Eating is a way of eating where you tune in to your hunger, fullness, satisfaction while also learning to trust your body around food. It helps you get back to the way that you were born knowing how to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you are full. This is unlike the popular diets of today that have long lists of foods to exclude and restrictions on times when you can and cannot eat. As I mentioned briefly in episode 5 of the podcast, Intuitive Eating was originally created by two dietitians—Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole—in 1995. However, from my understanding, it didn’t really pick up in popularity until the last 10 years.

Part of the reason humans are able to tap into Intuitive Eating is because we are complex creatures who are able to utilize instinct, emotion and thought to make our food decisions. Scientifically speaking, we have three regions of the brain that are responsible for this: reptilian brain, limbic brain, and neuro cortex. As you might be able to guess, the reptilian brain is in charge of our instincts. The limbic brain is key for our emotions and social behaviors. Finally the neocortex provides us with rational thought and cognition.

I think it’s also important to mention that Intuitive Eating includes instinct, emotion, and rational thought because the concept of Intuitive Eating often gets watered down—and part of that’s just the nature of social media making it hard for nuance to be discussed. So you’ll hear things like “Oh, intuitive eating is just eating whatever you want” or “you just eat when you’re hungry and stop when your full.”  While parts of these statements may be true, it distorts the premise of Intuitive Eating.

So take the first statement for example, “intuitive eating is just eating whatever you want.” Yes, you do have the permission to eat whatever you want. But there are a number of reasons it may not work out that way. One reason might be that when you’re eating whatever you want ALL THE TIME, you may not always have a satisfying experience. Another reason you might not always just eat whatever you want is due to access or privilege. It’s very much a privilege to be able to eat every little thing that sounds good right at that moment. It’s quite nuanced. Which is why I want to take the time to go through all of the principles thoroughly.

The Principles of Intuitive Eating

Principle 1: Reject the Diet Mentality

This principle dissects some of the ideas about weight and nutrition you were led to believe because of mainstream diets. We live in a world that focuses on size and we’re even seeing a wave of healthism—and all of this is part of what we often refer to as “diet culture.” However, diets are set-up for failure and are often what trigger overeating. So in this principle, you are encouraged to push back at diet culture—unfollow diet-focused social media accounts, throw out the diet books that have been collecting dust on your shelf, and delete the calorie tracking apps. This is a liberating way to kickstart your journey to food freedom.

Principle 2: Honor Your Hunger

This principle is pretty self-explanatory but can also be very challenging if you’ve been ignoring your hunger cues for a long time. There is a hunger-fullness scale that you can utilize that will help you start recognize what hunger looks like for you because it’s not always as obvious as a growling stomach.

Principle 3: Make Peace with Food

In this principle, you are given unconditional permission to eat and all foods are allowed. Of course—this can be quite intimidating. But something that happens when you restrict a food is that you tend to crave them more. So it’s important that you make peace with food and start to look at all foods in a neutral light.

Principle 4: Challenge the Food Police

You’ve probably labeled foods as “good” and “bad” before and felt guilty for eating a certain way. But with this principle, you will learn to silence your inner food police.

Principle 5: Feel Your Fullness

Much like it’s important to tune into your hunger with Principle 2, it’s also helpful to understand what comfortable fullness feels like for you. Practicing mindfulness while eating can be helpful with this principle.

Principle 6: Discover the Satisfaction Factor

There is a difference between satisfaction and fullness. I can get physically full on celery sticks. But if I was craving cheese, then I’m probably not going to be satisfied. So let’s look at what foods are satisfying to you.

Principle 7: Cope with Your Emotions

We’ve all eaten emotionally in our life. It’s not inherently bad. But if you have no other coping mechanisms, then this can be problematic. Therefore, this principle helps you build a toolbox of coping techniques.

Principle 8: Respect Your Body

Each of our bodies has its own genetic blue print. In this principle, you will see a lot of overlap with Health at Every Size (or HAES) where you will learn to appreciate the diversity of your body

Principle 9: Exercise—Feel the Difference

When you’ve exercised in the past, you maybe associate it with a new diet or trying to lose weight. With intuitive eating, you will be thinking of exercise in terms of what makes your body feel good and energized.

Principle 10: Honor Your Health—Honor Your Health

This is where you can start incorporating your knowledge of nutrition. Intuitive Eating doesn’t mean that you no longer eat a balanced plate! You can now tie everything together while also considering nutrition.

Is Intuitive Eating Evidenced-Based?

YES! In fact there are over 100 research studies detailing some of the benefits of this way of eating. I’ll link to a list of studies in the show notes. In these studies, you will find that intuitive eating is associated with lower rates of disordered eating, lower rates of emotional eating, lower triglyceride levels and higher HDL cholesterol levels, etc. Plus there is tons of anecdotal evidence from fellow dietitians.

What’s the Difference between Intuitive Eating and Mindful Eating?

Mindful Eating is bringing greater awareness to your eating in terms of what you’re eating, how you’re eating, and the environment. There is a lot of overlap between Intuitive Eating and Mindful eating. Here’s an example of where it may differ: Let’s say I’m in a hurry, rushing across town in my car between appointments. It’s around lunch time and I’m quite hungry. So I quickly eat some fast food on the drive. This isn’t a particularly mindful way of eating. I was focused on my driving more than anything. However, I was honoring my hunger in this instance because I knew that I needed something to eat and I understood that sometimes it’s not always going to be in the most tranquil setting.

Who is Intuitive Eating for?

The short answer is “everybody.” Often, people think that Intuitive Eating is only meant for people with eating disorders because it’s frequently discussed in that capacity. However, anyone can utilize these principles. My only caveat is that if you are currently recovering from an eating disorder, you will likely need to work with your dietitian to come up with a meal plan if you currently do not have access to your hunger and fullness cues. HOWEVER< in the meantime, you can still be working through the other principles.

I hope you’ll stop back for future episodes that detail each of the principles!

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