By Natalie Scott, Accredited Practising Dietitian
We are all born with Intuitive eating skills! Just look at a young child who eats when they are hungry and stops eating when they are full. You don’t see a baby counting calories or “tracking their macros.”
Unlike us adults, children are not influenced by external factors such as the ‘diet culture’ we live in constantly telling us our bodies are wrong or that our food choices are either “good” or “bad.”
So what is intuitive eating and how can it help you and your relationship with food? Let’s take a look!
What is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive Eating is a philosophy and approach to eating and health where you learn to trust your body around food and tune into your hunger and fullness signals.
This weight inclusive approach has nothing to do with dieting, restriction, calorie counting or willpower and everything to do with getting back in touch with your body’s natural internal wisdom with regards to eating and movement.
The Intuitive eating framework (including the 10 principles) was developed by two Dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995 based on research and the work they were doing at the time.
Today the benefits of intuitive eating are well documented with over 100 published scientific research studies. The studies show that intuitive eating is associated with:
Improved relationship with food
Improved body image
Lower rates of emotional eating
Lower rates of disordered eating
Intuitive Eating involves a strong connection between your body and your brain. This is also known as interoceptive awareness.
Diet culture which tells us to follow external rules for eating which breaks this connection between our body and brain. This moves us away from the natural internal wisdom of knowing what, when and how much to eat for good health, enjoyment and satisfaction.
The practice of intuitive eating can help you to re-learn or re-connect with this innate wisdom and restore the body-brain connection.
It involves re-learning to tune into your body’s internal cues for eating, challenging food rules, pushing back against diet culture and respecting your body in order to meet your physical and psychological needs.
The 10 Intuitive Eating Principles
The 10 principles are the framework and the foundation of intuitive eating: As a non-diet dietitian, I can help you to apply these principles to your own situation and help support you to move away from dieting and disordered eating behaviours and move towards taking care of your body. Listed below are the 10 Intuitive Eating Principles with a brief description of each one:
1. Reject the Diet Mentality
Think back to what focusing on weight loss has done for you in the past… how did it affect your body… or your mind? If dieting has caused you nothing but pain then you’re not alone. Research shows that 95% of people who attempt to lose weight, regain it back in the long term.
So get mad at the lies that you have been sold by the diet industry that you can lose weight quickly, easily and keep if off in the long run, because we know that diets don’t work.
If you let yourself hang on to any hope that a new and better diet might be just around the corner, it will stop you from being open to rediscovering Intuitive Eating.
2. Honour Your Hunger
Our bodies are very clever and biologically designed to seek out food and eat when required. If we ignore this natural drive by not eating enough calories or carbohydrates (eg dieting or fasting) this can trigger cravings and binges potentially result in overeating.
Therefore ensuring that you are nourishing your body adequately and honouring your hunger is the first step to have you on your way to re-building trust with yourself and food.
3. Make Peace with Food
Realising that there is no such thing as “good” and “bad” food and giving yourself permission to eat all foods is an important step in learning to eat intuitively.
Having off-limit / banned / forbidden / naughty foods can lead to feelings of deprivation which can snowball into intense cravings. This inevitably ends in “giving in” to that food which can end in bingeing/overeating followed by feelings of guilt and shame.
4. Challenge the Food Police
The food police are the thoughts in your head that monitor the crazy rules that dieting has created for you. Such thoughts might be “oh I’m so good for not eating that piece of cake” or “I need to “be good” tomorrow and exercise because I ate dessert tonight.” These thoughts evoke feelings of guilt and shame and can keep you stuck in the dieting cycle. We need to push back against these thoughts to be able to return to intuitive eating.
5. Respect Your Fullness
Our bodies are amazing! Your stomach sends signals to your brain that tell you when it is filled up and you are no longer hungry. When we are dieting or restricting we learn to clean our plates (and sometimes push past fullness) because we know that it will be some time before we are “allowed” to eat again. Intuitive eating helps you learn to observe the signs that show that you’re comfortably full and stop eating (even if there’s food on your plate) knowing that you can eat again later when you feel like it.
6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Pleasure and satisfaction is an extremely important part of eating – one that we often overlook or don’t see the value in when we are on a mission to lose weight.
When you eat the food that you actually want in a nice inviting environment – the pleasure that you get from that meal/snack will help you to feel satisfied.
You might even notice that it takes less food for you to reach this place and decide you don’t want to eat anymore.
7. Honour your Feelings Without Using Food
Food is often used to comfort us in difficult, stressful times. And this is completely natural and fine to do – sometimes! It becomes a problem when it is your “only” or “main” coping mechanism.
Often food will help to suppress negative emotions or feelings and make you feel better in the short term, but it is not able to sort out problems in the long term and often you may feel worse later from the discomfort of overeating.
Learn ways to nurture and comfort yourself without using food.
8. Respect Your Body
Accepting that we all come in different shapes and sizes is an important part of Intuitive Eating. It is unfair and unrealistic to expect to be able to shrink your body if you are naturally genetically meant to be in a larger body.
Just as we wouldn’t expect to be able to squish our size 7 feet into size 5 shoes! Being able to reject the diet mentality is hard enough without you being super critical/hard on your body.
9. Exercise—Feel the Difference
Do burpees make you want to hurl rather than rejoice? I can relate! Instead of punishing your body and moving it for the sake of burning calories, focus on how it makes your body feel.
Find activities that make you feel energised and amazing in your body. If the main focus of exercise is to lose weight – it is usually not enough to motivate you to do it on a regular basis! So get out there and move your body because it feels great!
10. Honour Your Health with Gentle Nutrition
There is no such thing as “the perfect diet” and you are not going to suddenly gain weight or get a nutrient deficiency from one meal or snack. It is what you eat consistently over time that matters.
Nutrition is the last principle as if it is focused on too early, it can get co-opted by diet culture and turned into ‘rules.’
Intuitive Eating does take health and nutrition into consideration and can be applied to any diet related health condition.
How Intuitive Eating can help you!
Intuitive eating can help you break free from dieting and start to care for the body that you have today. By applying the principles of intuitive eating you can:
Learn to care for and respect your body
Improve your relationship with food
Move from a place of food restriction to food freedom
Ditch dieting and diet rules
Stabilise your weight to where it is most healthy for your body
Find joy in moving your body
Enjoy food again without feeling guilt and anxiety
Will intuitive eating help you lose weight?
It is not unusual that some people come to intuitive eating hoping it will be the answer to help them lose weight. We do after all live in a weight focused society where being thin/losing weight is promoted at every turn.
Intuitive eating is however not a diet, in fact it is the opposite of a diet with the goal being to develop a healthy relationship with food and your body and break free from dieting and focusing on weight.
Your weight is a complex relationship between many factors including genetics, current health conditions, hormones, diet, physical activity, previous dieting history and many more.
There is no way that I (or anyone else for that matter) can predict what will happen to your weight if you undertake intuitive eating. For some of you, your weight may go down, for some, your weight may go up and for some your weight may remain the same.
What we do know with learning to eat intuitively is that your weight tends to settle where is most healthy for your body.
The key to learning intuitive eating is to put the desire for weight loss to one side. If we come to intuitive eating with the goal of weight loss – what we know is this is basically like putting yourself on another diet.
You will likely set new rules about how to eat in order to shrink your body such as only eating when hungry and stopping before getting full (also known as the hunger-fullness diet). And as mentioned earlier, we know from the research that diet’s don’t work.
So this is why it is helpful to separate weight from intuitive eating in order to be able to fully immerse yourself in learning the new skills involved to become an intuitive eater such as listening to your body and letting it guide you.
If you want to learn more about Intuitive Eating or get some help in a one-on-one setting, I am experienced in helping clients to learn to eat intuitively.
Whether you need to break free from chronic dieting, binge eating or emotional eating, I can help.
See my Services page to read more about what I offer.