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What Is Intuitive Eating? The Good, the Bad and the Key Takeaway for Success!

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What is Intuitive Eating: Definition

Intuitive Eating is a self-care eating framework, which integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought. Intuitive eating is a flexible pattern of eating that involves: trust in and reliance on internal hunger and satiety cues, eating for physical (rather than emotional) reasons, granting unconditional permission to eat, and choosing foods that support health and body functioning.1

Why and how Intuitive Eating evolved?

Two RD's developing Intuitive Eating

The current problem with weight loss diets.

Restrictive dieting may reduce weight temporarily, but it has been shown to be ineffective over time. Even worse than diets lacking effectiveness, calorie restriction seems to contribute to psychological and emotional harm for some groups. Chronic dieting, independent of weight, is a precursor to eating disorder development for many women.2

In today’s society there are so many fad diets, diet pills, medications and surgeries for weight loss. When they don’t work, all the blame is still on the consumer. This has placed many at risk for poor body self-esteem, obsessive dieting, the development of eating disorders and diet induced weight gain! Given these realities, it appears necessary that alternate approaches to healthy weight promotion be developed and evaluated.3

Stop sign on a scale

Who developed the Intuitive Eating Framework?

Intuitive eating approach was originally developed by two Registered Dietitians who after years of practice continuously saw their clients fail to lose weight and keep it off long term with prescribed calorie restriction diets and exercises alone. Despite many studies showing the effectiveness of calorie restriction and weight loss, other studies have claimed that the majority regain their weight within a year 5 and almost all of them within 5 years.  Intuitive eating is a health approach concept created by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, Registered Dietitians back in 1995.  They viewed that the diet culture does not work and is not sustainable. Restrictive dieting may reduce weight temporarily, but it has been shown to be ineffective over time.4

Make peace with food

What does an Intuitive Eating program look like?

Intuitive eating is an adaptive eating style using physiological cues, such as feelings of hunger and satiety. It is learning to eat for physical rather than emotional reasons. It is a lifelong approach and focuses on making the mind body connection. Listen to your body instead of your mind or internal signals to feed yourself instead of external cues. It is a journey of learning to listen to your own needs. It takes you back to your infancy when you instinctively ate when you were hungry and stopped when you were full. It is designed to empower you and improve your relationship with food.

Is Intuitive Eating a special diet?

Intuitive eating is not a diet. Intuitive eating is not designed for weight loss alone but to improve your relationship with food and improve your health in other ways. Intuitive eating is not restrictive. Intuitive eating is not a fad, but a practice and a way of life. Intuitive eating is learning to trust internal cues, and dieting is about following external rules and restrictions. With Intuitive eating there is no good or bad food, and you have unconditional permission to eat.

Is Intuitive Eating the same thing as mindful eating?

Mindful eating involves paying attention, without judgement, to the eating experience, to hunger and satiety cues and eating attentively without distraction. 5  It is conceptualized as being aware of the present moment when one is eating, paying close attention to the effect of the food on the senses, and noting the physical and emotional sensations in response to eating. 4

Both mindful and intuitive eating concentrate on internally focused eating; however intuitive eating does not include meditation. Intuitive eating also takes into consideration when choosing foods to enhance/support body function, engaging in exercise that feels good to you. It also involves giving oneself unconditional permission to eat not only when hungry but those foods one truly feels like eating. Intuitive eating includes the attunement of mind, body, and food and focuses on strengthening the relationship with all three 5

Are there health benefits to Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive Eating-freedom

There have been many studies involving intuitive eating and the majority show positive health benefits independent of weight loss. These have included:

  1. A reduction of emotional eating in response to external cues.
  2. Improvement in psychological and behavioral health by reducing disordered eating behaviors, particularly binge eating. 
  3. Improved self-esteem, body image, and overall quality of life while experiencing less depression and anxiety.4, 5, 6
  4. Intuitive eating does not seem to compromise the nutritional quality of the dietary choices. 2
  5. Intuitive eating is associated with fewer food anxieties and dieting behaviors and greater pleasure associated with food.  3
  6. Strong correlation between intuitive eating and self-reported weight stability. 2

What are the components of the Intuitive Eating approach?

Intuitive Eating hunger cues
  1. Reject diet mindset and all the strict rules about good and bad foods and fad diets. Do not allow yourself to believe in the false hope of these fad diets.
  2. Get In tune and honor your body’s hunger signals and allow yourself to eat and or stop when your body tells you it is full.
  3. Make peace with food. Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. 
  4. Challenge the food police. All foods should be allowed and there is no good or bad food. Food contains no moral value.
  5. Respect your fullness.  Let your body instead of your mind tell when to stop eating. Remove distractions and slow down your eating so you can learn to pay attention to your internal cues telling you to stop eating.  
  6. Discover the satisfaction factor. Relearn how to enjoy the eating experience. Really enjoy the smell, taste, and atmosphere.
  7. Honor your feelings without using food. Learn new ways of providing yourself comfort during times of stress, anxiety, loneliness and boredom. Food will not fix these problems and emotional hunger will only make you feel worse in the long run. 

Intuitive eating gentle exercise2 women walking

8. Respect your body. Respect the body you have and all it can do for you and avoid judging it with negative thoughts. It will be hard to reject the diet mentality if you are placing your value on your body size.

9. Engage in exercise that feels good to your body.  Shift your focus on how it feels to move and your energy level during and after.

10. Honor your health.  Being healthy does not mean being perfect at eating the right foods, but make gentle food choices that honor your health and taste buds. Pay attention to how the foods you eat make your body feel. One meal, food or snack will not ruin your health. It is what you eat consistently over time that matters to your overall health. 8

*Disclaimer: Author’s thoughts and personal experience with Intuitive Eating.

The overall problem with weight loss diets.

With the continued growth of Obesity and related chronic illness as well as eating disorders it is apparent that current approaches are not effective long term. Restricting diets and increasing exercise can help promote weight loss but once people revert to old habits the weight returns as well. This causes a lot of frustration, negative feelings and many times leads to weight gain above the original starting weight. Learning a new lifestyle that promotes healthy long term habits that you can live with and finding enjoyment from is the key to maintaining success.   

Young gymnast- intuitive eating

My personal experience with diets started at a young age.

My own personal journey with restrictive dieting started at a ripe young age of 12. I was a competitive gymnast in the 1970’s. I can remember bitterly the Friday afternoon weigh in’s. It was a torturous feeling wanting to be “good” and not weigh too much. I can remember being conditioned at a very young age that my body weight was somehow correlated with my value and self-worth. 

It was not long after this that my eating disorder began. I was so preoccupied with managing my weight so I could be considered “good”. I struggled with this for years until I entered college to study…. you guessed it, nutrition! I studied science and nutrition and completed a Master’s degree in human nutrition.

Intuitive Eating Dietitian

My current perspective as a health care provider.

I have worked as a Registered Dietitian for over 27 years in mostly acute care hospitals. Over the years I have gradually made peace with food and my weight.  I have adapted a healthy lifestyle and have maintained my weight over the past 20 years within a 5 pound range. I use many of the intuitive eating principles in my personal life and this has made eating more enjoyable. I also have developed a keen sense for what foods and how much my body truly needs. I have learned to trust myself.

After years of experience working with patients, I feel the saying “one size doesn’t fit all” is true for diet programs. I would also say what works for you during one phase of your life may not work during the next.  No one program or philosophy is perfect.   

Is Intuitive Eating Appropriate for everyone?

Intuitive eating may not be appropriate for those with hormonal imbalances or other chronic disease unless under the supervision of their health care provider. Some chronic diseases including kidney, liver, or heart failure will have mineral and fluid restrictions as part of the medical treatment.  It is necessary to keep in mind these restrictions when choosing foods throughout the day.  If you have an eating disorder or are underweight, you will want to treat this first before you begin a intuitive eating program. In general, it is best to work with your medical provider and get regular annual health checkups and see what programs would be best for your individual situation.

The importance of honoring your health.

The 10th component of Intuitive eating is honoring your health and making nutrition choices that will honor your body. The basic nutrition education along with learning and living by the other 9 components can have many positive health impacts for your mind and body. Learning to enjoy food shouldn’t be hard but after years of making food the enemy, it might take some practice.   

Intuitive eating 10th component

I have gradually learned which foods make me feel good and which do not provide me the energy I need by paying attention to how I feel after meals . Intuitive eating encourages paying attention to how a particular food impacts you. For example, if I start my day with a large bagel, I start feeling shaky and hungry about 60-90 minutes later (most likely due to blood sugar drop). If I eat whole wheat toast, eggs and avocado, then I tend to feel more satisfied and feel much better with higher energy for a longer period of time. It takes time, but if you pay attention to how you feel after you eat, you will eventually learn how to balance your meal and choose the right foods to help you feel your best. 

My overall philosophy with nutrition and healthy eating is adding healthy foods, moderation and balance.  The key to being successful is not to feel restricted.  Listen to how your body feels after you eat to help you drive your own choices. Get in tune with your internal hunger and satiety cues. Discover other ways to treat your emotional hunger in more healthy and productive ways that are not harmful or self-defeating. Get support. Start where you are, with what you have.  Always remember, your health is more than just a number on the scale. And your weight and self-worth are not related!

If you only take one thing away from this Intuitive Eating post think “mindset”.

The diet mentality will leave you feeling deprived and it is counterproductive.  The restrictive mindset sets us up for failure. 9 Instead, we need to create a mindset of self-care and abundance.  Food and exercise are part of self-care. Stay focused and positive about what you CAN do.  These are some suggestions of how you may approach your new positive health plan:

Mindset Intuitive Eating
  • How can I care for myself today?
  • What food does my body crave?
  • What new tastes can I try?
  • What seasonal fruits and vegetables can I try this week?
  • What meals and snacks will I enjoy today?
  • Am I drinking enough water?
  • What type of physical activity will fit into my day?
  • Was I able to get 7-8 hours of sleep?
  • I am in charge of my body and what I eat.
  • How many steps can I get in today?
  • How can I honor my body today?
  • Today I will eat in a relaxed atmosphere.
  • Today I will pay attention to the flavor of my food.
  • Today I will put my fork, spoon or food down in between bites and enjoy the moment.
Mindset for Intuitive Eating
  • Today I will pay attention to how I feel after eating and notice my energy level.
  • Today I will pay attention to how my body feels when I want to snack on something.
  • Today I am going to rest if I feel my body needs it.
  • Today I will get some fresh air.
  • Today I am setting some time aside to read my favorite books.
  • Today I am going to put on my favorite music and clean my house, walk outside, dance like nobody is looking or start a dance marathon with my children, friends or family.
  • Today I will honor my mind, body and health. 
  • Today I am going to honor my body.  It is the only body I have to live in.
Be good to yourself, intuitively eat

References

  1.  Intuitive eating is associated with weight loss after bariatric surgery in women (oup.com)
  2. Intuitive eating is connected to self-reported weight stability in community women and men: Eating Disorders: Vol 28, No 3 (tandfonline.com)
  3. Intuitive eating, diet composition, and the meaning of food in healthy weight promotion (tandfonline.com)
  4. A structured literature review on the role of mindfulness, mindful eating and intuitive eating in changing eating behaviours: effectiveness and associated potential … (cambridge.org)
  5. Teaching intuitive eating and acceptance and commitment therapy skills via a web-based intervention: a pilot single-arm intervention study (researchprotocols.org)
  6. Intuitive eating longitudinally predicts better psychological health and lower use of disordered eating behaviors: findings from EAT 2010–2018 (springer.com)
  7. Intuitive Eating for a Healthy Relationship with Food | Home & Garden Information Center (clemson.edu)
  8. 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating (evelyntribole.com)
  9. Metabolic adaptation to caloric restriction and subsequent refeeding: the Minnesota Starvation Experiment revisited (oup.com)
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