In the early 20th century, the link between obesity, poor health and untimely death started to be understood. Since then, society has accepted a comprehensive spate of diets, ultimately dumped in favor of newer fads. We have been on a mission to find the best diet to imbue us with health, help us lose weight and drive optimal performance. Every couple of years, a new diet is purported by experts to be the one. From a ketogenic diet to veganism, we have been through the wringer in settling on the ideal diet.
It is not a stretch to say that there might be a problem with dieting — or at least diet culture. Following a rigid set of food-related rules creates an environment primed for disappointment, frustration and self-imposed punitive measures. Anyone who has attempted a diet and transgressed from it even slightly can relate to this torrent of negative emotions.
Academic literature points to worrying consequences related to dieting. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that individuals following restrictive diets are prone to adverse cognitive effects.
It is no surprise that intuitive eating (i.e., an eating and food philosophy) is being touted as a sustainable alternative to dieting. Since its inception in 1995 by registered dietician Evelyn Tribole and nutrition therapist Elyse Resch, intuitive eating has grown in popularity and merit.
According to a 2019 survey and report by the International Food Information Council, nearly 60% of respondents wanted to learn more about intuitive eating. The survey also found that almost 50% of American respondents aged 18-34 are familiar with the concept.
Intuitive eating is centered on listening to and trusting our bodies to regulate our appetite and eating habits. For anyone struggling with their relationship with food, self-image and weight, or for those looking to optimize their overall performance through a healthy eating philosophy, intuitive eating is a concept worth exploring.
What Is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating is a non-diet eating and food philosophy that focuses on tuning into one’s body’s needs and wants. Intuitive eating guides adherents to listen to internal cues instead of external ones. Individuals practicing intuitive eating trust their bodies to tell them when they are satiated and stop eating once they have perceived this signal. Conversely, someone following a diet would stop eating once they have reached a predetermined caloric threshold or eaten a planned meal.
Intuitive eating requires individuals to learn their body’s messages and trust that their body will regulate their appetite and eating patterns, as it is designed to do.
How Does Intuitive Eating Work Differently From Diets?
By nature, diets work through restriction. Whether it is restricting eating periods, portion size or food groups, diets require that adherents explicitly forego something.
Contrastingly, intuitive eating does not explicitly dictate when someone can eat, how much they can eat and what they can eat. It avoids the detrimental cycle associated with dieting — deviating from a diet, binging due to the restriction, feeling immense shame and guilt and then punishing themselves by implementing an even more austere dieting regimen. Subsequently, the individual will likely lapse again, fuelling the cycle.
Intuitive eating is more complex than eating when you want and eating until you feel full.
Intuitive Eating Principles
Tribole and Resch, the founders of intuitive eating, outlined 10 principles for those who wish to implement their eating philosophy.
- Reject the diet mentality. People must abandon the diet culture of deprivation and guilt to live totally free.
- Honor your hunger. You can avoid overeating by indulging in food when your body tells you it needs sustenance (i.e., the true hunger signals).
- Make peace with food. You can mitigate insatiable cravings and feelings of guilt by avoiding a list of no-go foods.
- Challenge the food police. To break the cycle of diet-related negativity, refrain from categorizing food groups as good or bad.
- Discover the satisfaction factor. By creating an environment for yourself to enjoy food, you can better tap into your body’s natural signals and determine when you are truly hungry or satiated. Stop associating meals with weight gain and guilt.
- Feel your fullness. Pay attention to your body’s signals about how full you are.
- Cope with your emotions and kindness. Emotional eating won’t dissipate your troubles. Make a concerted effort to identify your emotional triggers and distinguish them from genuine feelings of hunger.
- Respect your body. A crucial component of intuitive eating is accepting your physical and genetic makeup.
- Movement — Feel the difference. Get your blood flowing and your body moving without putting yourself under pressure to stick to strict workout schedules.
- Honor your health — Gentle nutrition. Your body will thank and reward you if you fuel it with real sustenance. Do not punish yourself over one food-related indulgence. Be patient. Actual progress happens over time — a single setback isn’t decisive.
You can succinctly break down these 10 principles into four overarching themes:
- Permit yourself to eat when hungry and eat what your body needs.
- Eat to nourish your physical body, not to alleviate emotional adversity.
- Filter out the noise and attune yourself to your internal signals.
- Prioritize your health and well-being.
What Are the Benefits of Intuitive Eating?
The well-documented benefits of intuitive eating impact physical, mental and emotional well-being.
A literature review of 26 studies (including nine clinical trials) by Australian-based researchers found that intuitive eating boosts psychological well-being, improves eating patterns and ameliorates blood pressure and cholesterol markers.
Additionally, a longitudinal study of over 1,400 participants between 2010-2018 found that intuitive eating reduces the probability of low self-esteem, body image issues, binge eating, depressive symptoms and abnormal weight-controlling behavior.
Intuitive eating has also been beneficial for specific population groups. A Canadian study of women in the Québec province who struggle with weight control and body image issues found that intuitive eating improved psychological well-being and eating patterns. Moreover, a study of women who implemented intuitive eating following bariatric surgery found that they were able to decrease their BMI.
Implementing Intuitive Eating In Your Life
Intuitive eating does not mean you must subject yourself to restrictive and punitive diets. You can enjoy a healthy relationship with eating, food and weight without enduring strict and rigid diets. Learn to listen to and trust your body, and you will understand when you are truly hungry and satiated.
If you or someone you know may be struggling with an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorder Association for support here. (QR code for print)