If you’re fed up with diets, nutrition fads and “wellness” trends, specifically those related to “weight loss” and achieving a certain body type (which is completely socially constructed), you’ve come to the right place. In this post I’ll introduce you to what is intuitive eating, the 10 intuitive eating principles, and how it can help you gain freedom around food and eating.
When I first started my career as a dietitian, most of the requests I received were for weight loss dietary plans. So I’d whip out my “flexible” eating plans based on exchange lists, calculate daily calorie needs based on the client’s “healthy” weight and made a well distributed meal plan with a week’s worth of meal examples to make everything set and done. So what was the problem?
The problem was that my clients would get temporary results, and then back to square one. Then they’d get frustrated with themselves for not “succeeding” with the diet and I’d get frustrated with myself for not being “better” at diet making. What I didn’t know is that diets failed us both, because diets just don’t work! At least, not long term.
I don’t remember how I came upon the book Intuitive Eating, but once I read it, it became crystallized for me that dieting for weight purposes (1) wasn’t a worthy pursuit and (2) could be potentially damaging in a lot of ways. And I also realized I’d been unknowingly intuitively eating all this time, ever since I kicked my eating disorder to the curb. So why was I asking my clients to weigh and measure their food when I don’t even do that? I saw intuitive eating, and promoting an anti diet message, as an amazing way to teach people how to nourish their bodies without dieting, or the damage that comes from dieting. Also, as a health professional, I feel like it’s my duty to contribute to breaking the wheel of diet culture (yes, I’m a huge Game of Thrones fan!).
What exactly is intuitive eating?
Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch define intuitive eating the following way: ” Intuitive Eating is a self-care eating framework, which integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought and was created by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995. Intuitive Eating is a weight-inclusive, evidence-based model with a validated assessment scale and over 100 studies to date“.
Intuitive eating is the opposite of dieting. Did you know we’re actually born intuitive eaters? We are not bombarded with societal messages about body image and food at this stage. We’re later conditioned by diet culture to unlearn our natural hunger and satiety cues.
Buy it Here: Intuitive Eating
As this interesting article from Today’s Dietitian explains it: “Consider how a hungry baby will cry until fed and then turn his or her head away when satiated. When children are fully aware of physical sensations of hunger and fullness, yet receive messages that they can’t possibly be hungry or that they have to eat everything on their plates before being excused from the table, it erodes trust of their bodies and autonomy”.
Dieting, as we can see, teaches you not to trust yourself, your body or the foods you eat. It fosters unhealthy relationships with food such as:
- Eating disorders
- Unhealthy food preoccupation
- Food paranoia
- Guilty feelings around eating and/or certain foods
- Moralizing and demonizing foods
- Not taking pleasure into account when eating
“The more you go to external sources to “judge” if your eating is in check, the further removed you become from Intuitive Eating. Intuitive Eating relies on your own internal cues and signals”.Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, Intuitive Eating
The main objective of intuitive eating is to teach you to re-learn how to eat the way you were born to. Before diet messages and marketing tripped us up. In this next section, I’ll discuss what is involved in this different eating paradigm.
What are the 10 principles of intuitive eating?
Here is a short summary of the 10 principles of intuitive eating, derived from Tribole and Resch’s book. I’ll be covering each principle in more detail in future posts.
1. Reject the Diet Mentality
Diet mentality is the belief that dieting is the key to all of your health and happiness. It is based on the common, yet incorrect assumption that intentional weight loss is a worthy goal to strive towards, that thin=good and being in a larger body=bad. A diet mentality also clouds, or completely blocks, your ability to tune into what your body needs, and what it’s telling you every day.
The authors state that “Only when you vow to discard dieting and replace it with a commitment to Intuitive Eating will you be released from the prison of yo-yo weight fluctuations and food obsessions”. But ditching the diet mentality is of course very challenging. That’s why we have to first recognize the damage it’s been doing to us and choose to to heal from this toxic way of relating to food. Then we have to recognize it in everyday life, because just like diet culture, a diet mentality may be operating without us even realizing it. Ultimately, this is an ongoing process that invites us to tune into and trust ourselves, rather than rely on externally imposed regulations.
2. Honor Your Hunger
Hunger is a normal, biological process. Honoring your hunger involves learning to listen to what your body is telling you, instead of relying on external regulations (diets). This step is vital towards becoming an intuitive eater and towards building trust with yourself and with food.
Foe example, let’s say I had dinner, then an hour later decided to do a fun Zumba class. After the class, and after using up a lot of energy, I start to feel hungry again. Diet culture would tell me something like, “you already had dinner, plus you’ll lose the benefit of those calories you just burned by eating again”. Which is an outright lie. The body needs energy, and hunger signals are the way it tells you that it needs to be fed. Intuitive eating, on the other hand, would notice the hunger, recognize that yes, I need food in my system, and eat accordingly. No second guessing, no guilt.
“A dieting body is a starving body”Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, Intuitive Eating
3. Make Peace With Food
This principle involves giving yourself permission to eat all types of food. Yes, even the “unhealthy” ones. Because at the end of the day, food is just food. It’s time to stop moralizing foods as “good” or “bad”. No one food has the power to make you healthy, just like no one food has the power to make you unhealthy.
And yes, we need food to nourish our bodies and provide it with energy, but it also has a place in nourishing our emotions and our souls. We have a right to enjoy food without guilt or negative feelings attached.
Think about it. You can have a meh tasting “diet” brownie and feel completely unsatisfied. Or, you can allow yourself to have the real thing, and fully enjoy it because that’s what you really wanted. Allowing ourselves to eat what we want starts to build a positive relationship with food. There are no more “sinful”, “bad” or “forbidden” foods. They’re all available to us! In turn, food starts to lose its control over us and we can be free from cravings and guilt around food.
4. Challenge the Food Police
The food police is those “rules” we’ve adopted from diet culture. It’s the thoughts that tell us we’re “bad” for eating pizza and “good” for sticking to a water fast (please say NO to this!). These are the unconscious forces that dictate our food choices, and are driven by the cultural collective and our programming around food.
The food police is responsible for unhelpful food labeling such as:
- “Good” or “bad” foods
- “Healthy” and “unhealthy” foods
- “Sinful”, “cheat day” “bad for you” foods
- “Clean” foods
Worst of all, the food police is responsible for feelings of guilt around food. Guilt per se is a useless emotion. Guilt doesn’t move you to learn and improve. All it does is keep us stuck in feeling bad about ourselves and ruminating on the past. And guilt related to food is, in my opinion, physiological heresy. What’s the use of guilt with respect to a normal, biological function like eating? Would you feel guilty if you had to use the bathroom? Then why do we allow guilt around eating? The corrupt food police has to be brought down!
5. Feel Your Fullness
Just like honoring your hunger, feeling your fullness is key to becoming an intuitive eater. Many times, our fullness signals get buried under messages from our well-meaning caregivers who would tell us to “clean your plate” or take “one more bite”, even if we were already stuffed.
Getting to know your hunger and fullness cues is one of the first steps when learning intuitive eating. Listen for signals that tell you that you are feeling comfortably full and satiated. Another important point is tying this principle in with allowing yourself to eat. Most people find that when they know that they will eat again (versus being in starvation mode with a diet), it’s easier to tune into their fullness cues. As Tribole and Resch put it: “What starving person would stop at comfortable fullness if [he/she] thought [he/she] was never going to eat again…?
6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
I blame the low fat/fat free food boom of the 90s for this one. I’m kidding (sort of). But since when did we start disregarding the pleasure that foods and eating can bring us? In an attempt to eat “guilt free” (there’s that pesky guilt again?), many food companies came up with “light” and “healthy” versions of “sinful” foods. The problem was that they were also full of added sugars and other processed ingredients as well. But worst of all, they didn’t really satisfy what we were actually craving.
And so this plays out in feeling full physically, but unsatisfied otherwise. When we start allowing ourselves to actually eat what we’re craving, we find that:
- The cravings start diminishing
- Certain foods no longer have control over us, since they’re not “forbidden” anymore
- We actually feel good and satisfied!
Diet culture would tell you to satisfy your sweet craving with fresh fruit. Intuitive eating tells you to satisfy your craving with what you’re actually craving for, while savoring and enjoying it. Let’s start taking pleasure in eating again, shall we?
7. Cope With Your Emotions Without Using Food
Emotional eating is a very common response to difficult situations. Emotional stress can affect eating habits due to:
- Poor interoceptive awareness: This means lack of awareness of the internal bodily signals we are continuously receiving, accessing and evaluating. The inability to identify or verbally describe our feelings is also involved.
- Confusion of hunger and satiety signals: Not knowing how to determine when we feel hungry or full.
- Body sensations associated with emotions: The body-mind connection is so strong, that our emotions can produce physical symptoms.
- Poor emotional regulation strategies: Using coping behaviors such as emotional suppression, avoidance of stress by distraction, or emotional eating.
By focusing on our internal signals, we can learn to determine when we’re eating out of hunger or out of emotional distress. Not that there’s a right or wrong time to eat! Food can certainly be used to soothe or cope with emotions, but it shouldn’t be the only way to do so. The importance of this principle is learning to get in tune with our bodies and our emotions, in order to respond to them in a way that offers a lasting solution.
8. Respect Your Body
I think the best way to challenge socially constructed body types is how the authors of Intuitive Eating illustrate it: “Just as a person with a shoe size of eight would not expect to realistically squeeze into a size six, it is equally as futile (and uncomfortable) to have the same expectation with body size”.
Instead of celebrating all the wonderful things our bodies allow us to do (live, dance, have fun, hug our loved ones, move around), diet culture has taught us to criticize, compare and belittle our bodies. Breaking out of this mentality is not easy, since we’re constantly pressured to look like “this” or “that”. But it’s crucial to learn to start loving and respecting our bodies as they are right now in order to stop harming ourselves with dangerous diet practices. Plus, this can also go a long way to helping us love, value and respect ourselves as a whole.
9. Excercise-Feel the Difference
Instead of trying to force ourselves into an exercise routine that is making us miserable, in order to look like “x” celebrity, intuitive eating calls us to reframe physical activity. It invites us to move our bodies because we want to, not because we have to. And yes, physical activity has a myriad of health benefits, but we can’t reap them unless we actually practice it. And we can’t practice something we don’t like, no matter how we try to force ourselves. In fact, trying to coerce ourselves into doing something that we don’t want to do usually backfires. We end up feeling like we “failed” and this hinders any motivation we may have to take better care of our health.
Intuitive movement invites us to move our bodies because it makes us:
- Feel good
- Sleep better
- Reduce stress
- ….or any other reason that feels good to YOU
This in turn fosters consistency, and improved health outcomes in the long run. So instead of exercising as “punishment” for something you ate, intuitive movement promotes exercise as a means to celebrate and take pleasure in what your body can do.
10. Honor Your Health With Gentle Nutrition
As a dietitian, this is my favorite principle! Because it teaches us that we don’t have to eat perfectly. Allowing flexibility in our food choices gives way to long term positive eating behaviors. You can honor both your pleasure of taste and your health.
This principle invites you to consider how certain foods make you feel, how they taste and how satisfying they are to you. It doesn’t mean that you’ll disregard foods that nurture your body and promote your health. It means you’ll learn to strike a balance between all types of foods. No moralizing, no “good” or “bad” or “guilty” food. Eating becomes the necessary and pleasurable biological function it was always meant to be. No diet strings attached!
Intuitive Eating Resources
If eating without dieting is something you’d like to adopt into your lifestyle, know I’ll be covering this topic more frequently and in depth in future posts. However, here are some great resources to help you get started in your intuitive eating journey. And if you need more one-on-one help, here’s the Intuitive Eating Counselors Directory.
Intuitive eating books
- Intuitive Eating and
- The Intuitive Eating Workbook by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
- Anti Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating by Christy Harrison
- The F*ck It Diet by Caroline Dooner
- Healthy Eating for Life: An Intuitive Eating Workbook to Stop Dieting Forever by Cara Harbstreet
Intuitive eating podcasts
And now I’d like to know what you think about intuitive eating. Do you think it’s a better alternative to diets and externally regulated eating? What do like about this approach? What do you think would be challenging in terms of becoming an intuitive eater? Let’s chat below in the comments section!
Hi! I’m Melissa, Registered Dietitian and mother of two dragons. When I’m not talking nutrition you can find me rolling around the floor with my kids, sewing, crafting, cooking or missing the 90s (seriously, music just isn’t the same). Read More…