NOTE: Intuitive Eating is a complex topic. Addressing it comprehensively would require diving into discussions of physiology, psychology, a history of bias in the medical and healthcare fields, and so much more. Since I cannot possibly do so in just one post, I am going to use this article to give you a (very) brief introduction to the subject and leave you with some resources on how to learn more about if it resonates with you. ———
What is Intuitive Eating?
In a nutshell, Intuitive Eating (IE) is a non-diet approach to food, wellness, and self-care, stemming from a belief that our body knows exactly what it needs to be healthy and thrive. By relearning how to decipher our body’s messaging and signals, IE helps us tune into the innate wisdom we all carry within us.
While this might sound like a pseudo-spiritual approach to wellness, I can assure you that it is so much more than that. Developed in the 90’s by Registered Dietitians Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole, Intuitive Eating has not only stood up to the test of time (while countless fad diets have since come and gone), but most importantly has withstood the scrutiny of rigorous academic research.
Diets Don’t Work
IE’s foundation is built on the fact that diets do not work. Would you take medicine if your physician told you that there was a two-thirds chance it would fail? How about if they told you that after taking the medicine, you might feel relief for a short while, but your symptoms would likely return with a vengeance, leaving you feeling worse than before? This is what dieting offers us.
For example, a groundbreaking analysis by UCLA researchers revealed that up to two-thirds of dieters gain more weight than they lost over the course of their diets in the long-term. Meanwhile, these individuals failed to present with significant improvements in other health markers, regardless of diet outcome. In fact, dieting itself is a strong predictor of future weight gain.
These studies are just a small taste of a robust and growing body of research that reveals that not only does dieting not work but, in fact, it often causes more harm than good.
Honor Your Hunger
Toddlers are the quintessential intuitive eaters. Have you ever tried to tell a hungry two-year-old that she can’t have a snack because it’s 9:45 am, and she “shouldn’t” feel hungry because she just had breakfast? Imagine having to force that toddler to wait until lunchtime at noon, because that is when she is “supposed” to eat? On the other hand, have you ever tried to feed a toddler who is full? It’s virtually impossible, and for good reason: children respect their biology until society begins to teach them otherwise.
Intuitive Eating quite simply asserts that you should honor your hunger — eat when you’re hungry, and stop when you are not (in other words, channel your inner toddler).
Failing to honor one’s hunger sets off a biological cascade which is both physiological and psychological, resulting in overeating and bingeing. One component of this cascade involves neuropeptide Y (NPY), which is a chemical produced in the brain that drives us to seek and eat carbohydrates (the body’s primary and preferred source of fuel). Caloric restriction results in the increased activity of NPY, driving us to eat more carbs for longer durations. This is not a failure or a lack of willpower on our part, it is a perfectly normal physiological response to primal hunger, and is one of many reasons why diets fail.
What’s more is that the longer we ignore our body’s hunger and fullness cues, the harder it is to recognize them. We need to relearn how to hear and trust our body’s messaging, while our biology quite literally needs to trust that when it is hungry, it will be fed.
Food does not have a moral quality:
You can’t eat your way to a Nobel Peace Prize. Eating a bag of chips does not mean you are being “bad”, nor does eating a vegetable and avocado-laced quinoa bowl make you “good”. Can one meal be more nutritionally dense than another? Absolutely! Nutrition certainly matters, but food shouldn’t carry a dogmatic weight. Being at the constant mercy of the food police fuels disordered eating and takes the joy out of one of life’s most central blessings.
IE asserts that if you are craving food you have condemned as “bad” or “unhealthy”, you should nonetheless eat it. And eat it without guilt or shame (this will be challenging at first, but is a worthwhile exercise). Allowing yourself to eat what you want, and when you want it results in habituation, a response where the novelty and appeal of the food begin to wane. This decreases the likelihood of bingeing and overeating as a result of restriction.
The Principles of Intuitive Eating, (And How to Start your Journey):
Tribole and Resch break down Intuitive Eating into 10 Principles, each of which deserves a post of its own. By working through each of these principles, we relearn how to listen to (and trust) our biology, as it guides us towards our best health. These principles are:
Reject the diet mentality
Honor your hunger
Make peace with food
Challenge the food police
Feel your fullness
Discover the satisfaction factor
Cope with your emotions without using food
Respect your body
Exercise — feel the difference
Honor your health with gentle nutrition.
If you are interested in Intuitive Eating, I highly suggest reading the book in order to learn more. To say that many clients have found it life-changing is an understatement. I also specialize in this approach and use it often in my practice. You can learn more about me and my work at www.nourishedliving.com.