Intuitive eating is a non-diet approach to eating that emphasizes on your body’s internal cues over learned external diet rules. What does that mean? Non-diet means that the focus isn’t on the number on the scale, but instead on promoting health-enhancing behaviors, better body image, and a healthier relationship with food specific to your individualized needs.
To help guide eating choices, intuitive eating helps you get back in touch with body’s internal cues, like hunger and fullness, cravings, and how food makes you feel and how food fuels and nourishes your body. Intuitive eating eliminates diet rules, like what, how much, and when to eat, so you’re better able to respond to your internal cues and nourish your body with the nutrients it needs.
Did you know that we are all born intuitive eaters! Think of babies, who cry when they need food, stop when they’re full, then cry when they need to eat again. Unfortunately for tired parents there isn’t a set schedule. They may eat more one day and less the next, but it all balances out. Kids do the same. You may notice their changing food preferences - one day they eat tons of fruit, the next day all they want is bread or pasta. If you zoom out and look at their whole diet, they’re often getting a variety of foods and enough to support healthy growth - or at least will in an environment with food security and variety.
Down the road in life we are introduced to diet rules, culture and body image. For example, we’re forced to finish our plate before we can leave the dinner table, even if we’re full. We’re told to eat certain foods at certain times and told to limit other foods. When this happens, we vear away from using internal cues and start listening to external cues about what, how much, and when to eat. This can set off a cascade of unwanted food behaviors including dieting, restricting, binging, emotional eating and obsessing about food. Intuitive eating is a counter to this. It teaches you how to get back to eating the way you were born to.
In short, intuitive eating is normal human being eating.
WHAT HEALTH BENEFITS CAN COME FROM INTUITIVE EATING?
· Higher HDL (“good”) cholesterol
· Lower triglycerides
· Lower rates of emotional eating
· Lower rates of disordered eating and eating disorders
· Higher self-esteem
· Better body image
· More satisfaction with life
· Optimism and well-being
· Proactive coping skills
Intuitive Eating has benefits to both physical and mental health. We often talk about nutrition and health in a very clinical way, forgetting that there are people with complex thoughts and emotions. Dietary change that negatively affects mental health isn’t actually making you any healthier.
With a non-diet approach like intuitive eating, you’re also negating the negative health effects associated with dieting, including the following:
· Food and body preoccupation
· Weight cycling (i.e. yo-yo’ing)
· Lower self-esteem
· Eating disorders
· Weight stigma/discrimination
· Focus on weight vs. sustainable health promoting behaviors
There are 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating
Intuitive eating is based on 10 principles, not rules. There’s no wrong or right, just basic principles you can incorporate into your life at the pace that suits you and your healing.
PRINCIPLE 1: REJECT THE DIET MENTALITY
The first principle of intuitive eating is all about rejecting the idea the system of dieting, and the diet mentality. YOU are not the reason 95% of diets fail, it’s simply a flawed paradigm. There is not a single bit of research suggesting more than a small number of people can lose weight and keep it off permanently. Yes, there are a bazillion weight loss studies, but almost all are less than a year, and most are less than 6 months. Yet one third to two thirds of weight is typically regained within a year, and almost all is usually regained within five years. In fact, you are more likely to gain weight with dieting, as approximately 60% of people who diet gain back more weight than they lost.
I encourage you to reflect on your own dieting history. Has dieting ever helped you sustainably improve your health? Live a life in line with your values? Or, has it set you on a spiral of dieting, restricting, giving in to a craving, shame and guilt, binging, and then starting all over Monday?
PRINCIPLE 2: HONOR YOUR HUNGER
This principle focuses on learning to feed your body adequately throughout the day with energy and carbohydrates. Your body simply deserves to be fed adequately, and functions best when it is. Under fueling often results overeating, as well as impulsive choices around food. Feeding your body adequately may sound simple, but our society has made it so complicated. In my practice, I’ve had many clients notice eating concerns or digestive issues almost completely resolve simply from fueling more adequately. This principle also teaches you how to identify the more subtle signs of hunger. Years of suppressing hunger through dieting and restriction can disrupts normal hunger cues, so intuitive eating includes practices to get back in touch with those cues.
PRINCIPLE 3: MAKE PEACE WITH FOOD
Making peace means giving yourself permission to eat the foods YOU enjoy, including those that may have previously been “off-limits.” Telling yourself you can’t have a certain food just leads to uncontrollable cravings of that food. When you do eat the forbidden food, you may feel shameful. We call this Last Supper eating, and it usually results in eating larger quantities or in a way that feels guilty or disconnected because you’re not sure when you'll allow yourself to eat that food again. Food restrictions do not allow for you to gain the skills to eat like a normal human being, and by bringing these “off-limit” foods back in you can begin to gain experiences that help you make peace with them.
After bringing off-limits foods back in, it’s really normal to experience a bit of a honeymoon period, where you might be eating a lot more of those foods than normal, and maybe eating isn’t quite so nutritionally balanced. This period can last for a short time, or a long time depending on your unique history with food. It’s ok, I am here to help through it and provide strategies on how to work through this phase. It’s really important to go through this period because it allows for you to experience habituation, when those foods start to lose their “special” and become less exciting.
PRINCIPLE 4: CHALLENGE THE FOOD POLICE
Challenging the food police is all about giving yourself the emotional permission to eat all foods. With this principle, you’re learning to challenge that voice inside your head that tells you that you’re being good for eating certain foods, and bad for eating others. It helps you take the morality out of eating choices.
Part of challenging the food police is speaking to yourself in a nurturing voice. By chipping away at the food police, you’ll begin to be able to look at nutrition in a more helpful way that’s rooted in self-care, rather than punishment.
PRINCIPLE 5: RESPECT YOUR FULLNESS
That place where you are satisfied, but not so stuffed that you can’t move? That’s a great place to stop in a meal. Not eating a specific number of calories an app designed for us, but actually LISTENING to your hunger and fullness levels. This is a place where mindfulness skills are helpful.
PRINCIPLE 6: DISCOVER THE SATISFACTION FACTOR
Looking forward to meals should be a goal of healthful eating. If you follow strict diet plans consisting of chicken, broccoli and sweet potatoes because you know the exact calorie amounts or macros, that takes all of the fun enjoying new flavors and textures. Other cultures value pleasure above health and actually have better health outcomes. Everyone has the right to enjoy the food they eat. Enjoying tasty food enhances mental health and is part of the human experience! Food is social and we were designed to connect with others over food.
Also, by intentionally choosing pleasurable food, you’re less likely to overeat or experience binges. That might sound counterintuitive, as many people fear they won’t be able to stop eating a food if it tastes good. In actuality, eating enjoyable food and eating more mindfully, you’ll start to notice when a food stops tasting good, and be able to stop eating.
PRINCIPLE 7: COPE WITH YOUR EMOTIONS WITHOUT FOOD
Food alone is not an effective coping mechanism. Food may make us feel better while we are eating it, but it rarely helps us deal with the root cause of our emotions. Often, emotional eating can make you feel worse, especially if it leads to guilt. But think about decompressing after a tough day at work with pizza and beer with friends or making your favorite mac and cheese recipe from scratch to cheer yourself up when you’re feeling depressed. Is it the food alone that is making you feel better or the socialization and cooking that are making you feel better, or perhaps a combination of both?
We need to have other coping skills too, because when food is our only coping skill, that’s when it becomes a problem. IE comes in handy teaching you how to identify the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger, ways to cope with emotions without food, and how to emotionally eat in a more helpful way.
PRINCIPLE 8: RESPECT YOUR BODY
Body diversity is normal! Genetics are a natural part of human existence. If you fed 5,000 people the exact same food in the same amounts, moved their bodies exactly the way for the same amount of time, you would still have 5,000 different body shapes and sizes!
Just like we couldn’t diet our feet down to fit a smaller shoe size, we can’t expect our body to permanently stay in a smaller size than it’s genetic blueprint wants it to be. Instead, intuitive eating focuses on behaviors rather than the number on the scale. When you’re feeding your body adequately and appropriately, moving it semi-regularly, getting good sleep and managing stress - basically, when you’re being a good steward of your body - your weight will settle in the range it’s supposed to be in.
PRINCIPLE 9: EXERCISE - FEEL THE DIFFERENCE
This principle of intuitive eating is all about uncoupling over exercise from weight loss. When exercise becomes wrapped up in solely weight control, it often results in excessive exercise to the point of harm as one tries to militantly burn calories, or exercise avoidance, as exercise becomes a chore. Most frequently, it results in cycling between the two. With intuitive eating, one learns the art of exercising for health and for individualized wellness goals. If you want to learn more about exercise, athletic performance, muscle physique and more, check out Ed Miller and his team at The Rack Athletic Performance Center! https://www.therackapc.com/
PRINCIPLE 10: HONOR YOUR HEALTH WITH GENTLE NUTRITION
Believe it or not based on what you have just read, Nutrition is an important part of intuitive eating! After all, intuitive eating was created by two dietitians. Nutrition is the last principle because it’s important to heal your relationship with food first, otherwise gentle nutrition can quickly become wrapped up in diet mentality. Nutrition is all about taking a birds-eye view to eating habits. One meal or day of eating won’t make or break health. To get perspective on eating over time, and consider things like how food makes you feel, and your personal health goals.
Why Intuitive Eating is Important
Intuitive Eating is sustainable and overall can improve quality of life! Counting every calorie and macronutrient is tedious and can be overwhelming. Learning about what nutrients your body needs from a dietitian and listening to your body's hunger and fullness cues leads to correct fueling for your body. Anyone can break down macros and have you calculate them, but macros don't account for all of the other factors at play, hormones, activity factor, stress, etc. BALANCE is key.
Where do I go from here?:
Intuitive Eating may not be for everyone, and I understand that. I use an intuitive eating approach with 90% of my clients. Together we work through these food and diet
rules they have set for them self and work together on making mindful choices towards a healthier version of themselves! If you are interested in learning more or working with me, email me at Christina@dietitiandish.com to schedule a free 15 minute discovery call!
What questions do you have about intuitive eating? Leave your questions in the comments!
Christina Ellenberg MS, RD, LDN, CSCS is a Registered Dietitian located in the metro Atlanta Area, GA.