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A Beginner's Guide to Intuitive Eating

Here's what it is and how it could help you eat mindfully.

Imagine the following scenario: You are at the office, and a co-worker brings in an assortment of cookies and baked goods for all to enjoy. It's 3 p.m., you've been working hard all day, and you eye a beautiful chocolate chip cookie. Almost immediately, your inner food critic dialogue kicks in thinking, "But cookies are full of sugar and fat," "It's not my cheat day," "If I eat this cookie, I'm going to gain weight,"and worst of all, "If I eat this cookie that means I'm being bad."

You resist eating the cookie, walk back to your office, still thinking about the cookie, but are determined not to give in to the craving. It's now 3:15 p.m., you find yourself searching your office drawers for your stash of low-calorie rice cakes, munch on a few, then munch on more. By the time 3:18 p.m. rolls around, the package is gone. You sneak around the corner to your office mates' candy jar and grab a few pieces while making friendly conversation. By the time 3:23 p.m. rolls around, you find yourself back in the office kitchen, reaching for the chocolate chip cookie, and by the time 3:25 p.m. strikes, the cookie is gone and an insurmountable wave of guilt and shame rolls in because you caved and let yourself eat the chocolate chip cookie.

Now, imagine a different scenario. You see the delicious assortment of baked goods in the staff kitchen, the chocolate chip cookie seems truly satisfying, you pick one up and take it to a relaxing location that is not your office, sit down to enjoy the taste, texture, and flavors of the cookie, and once you are satisfied, you walk back to your office to finish the rest of the workday.

Which scenario do you identify with the most? If you identify with the first scenario, you are not alone. It's estimated that about half of US adults are on a diet for weight loss purposes. If the second scenario sounded more appealing to you, then exploring intuitive eating might be right for you.

Here, learn more about intuitive eating, its 10 basic principles, and if it's right for you.

What is intuitive eating?

Intuitive eating is an evidence-based, mind-body health approach that was created by two registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, in 1995. Intuitive eating is comprised of 10 principles, which serve to either cultivate or remove obstacles to interoceptive awareness, or one's own ability to be in tune with body cues. Intuitive eating is very much a personal process, and no two individuals will experience intuitive eating the same. The underlying rationale behind it is eating when you are hungry, stopping when you are full, eating foods that truly satisfy, having unconditional permission to eat, and managing emotions without using food. Doing so allows your body to naturally adjust to its intended weight, and when you eat foods that are truly satisfying, you will naturally gravitate toward a varied and nutritionally balanced diet.

What are the basic principles?

Critics of intuitive eating warn that if we all started to eat whatever we wanted when we wanted, we would lose all form of self-control and nutrition principles would fly out the window. What critics tend to miss is that intuitive eating is much more nuanced than eating what you want whenever you want it, which is why there are 10 guiding principles to intuitive eating to help us along the way.

Principle 1: Rejecting the Diet Mentality

This principle gets to the heart of the matter and addresses the dangers of dieting. Right from the start, you are asked to get rid of any diet tools you are holding on to, and to let go of the pursuit of weight loss. In order to fully embrace intuitive eating, decisions about what foods to eat, when, and how much must be dictated by internal cues rather than external cues. If weight loss is the ultimate goal, food choices will be driven by external cues.

Principle 2: Honor Your Hunger

This is the first step toward re-establishing interoceptive awareness. Here, you are told to eat when you are hungry, which may be different from what you've learned when dieting, especially if you were told you needed to 'earn' the right to eat (which meant only eating when you were completely famished and ravenous with hunger). With practice, intuitive eaters become very skilled at being able to distinguish between polite hunger, taste hunger, emotional hunger, and there's even something known as practical hunger. Honoring hunger is introduced early in the process, as it's an essential piece to reconnecting the mind with body cues.

Principle 3: Making Peace with Food

This helps you begin to make peace with food—all foods. In this intuitive eating principle, you will be asking yourself a lot of questions about how and why you label foods as either "good" or "bad." In a systematic way, you will slowly navigate your way through debunking myths behind why certain foods have become off limits, why you believe you cannot trust yourself around these foods, and eventually you will be asked to incorporate these foods back into your eating routine. Some people find they benefit from additional support during this step, and seeking guidance from an experienced professional can be a great way to safely practice this step.

Principle 4: Challenge the Food Police

This principle often gets folks riled up because it's all about pushing back and challenging your own thoughts. During this principle, you will most likely be stirring up old memories from early childhood that perhaps you haven't thought about for decades. Food rules are often passed down by well-meaning family members, and in order to take inventory of the food rules that no longer serve you, it's necessary to do some deeper work here. You will also learn about the different types of "food voices" you might be challenged with, like the nutrition informant who reminds you of calorie counts and grams of added sugar. You will also learn how to turn unhelpful internal dialogue into helpful, nurturing messages.

Principle 5: Respect Your Fullness

This one does not immediately follow principle 2 as you might expect. That is because it is much easier to recognize when you are hungry and to eat when hungry, and a bit more challenging to recognize the different levels of fullness and actually stop eating when you've reached that comfortably full level. Here, again, we find well-intentioned family food rules coming into play—if you grew up with the expectation that you must eat every single last speck of food off your plate before you were allowed to leave the table or have dessert, this principle may take time to undo that hardwired habit.

Principle 6: Discover the Satisfaction Factor

This is probably one of the most fundamental principles of the entire concept of intuitive eating. When we choose food based on flavor, taste, texture, aroma, and not based on fat grams or calories, the eating experience is more satisfying, and we are actually likely to eat less food in the long run. During this principle, you will be asked to consider motivations behind food selection, and you will be asked to go on a sensory journey with your food choices, reconnecting with all of the different complexities of foods that are truly satisfying to you. You might also find yourself being pleasantly surprised to find that previously off-limit foods are actually not that satisfying at all!

Principle 7: Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food

This requires you to expand your current toolbox of emotional coping mechanisms. For many adults, when faced with an emotionally stimulating situation, food is used as a solution to self-soothe. This makes perfect sense for those who were raised in families where food was used as a reward or as a comforting proxy for upset feelings. In this principle, you will learn how to better identify and label your emotions, learn how to sit with uncomfortable emotions, and learn how to manage emotions in productive ways rather than silencing them with food. It is often at this point in the process that some people recognize they would benefit from additional support to help address past traumas.

Principle 8: Respect Your Body

This principle of intuitive eating is all about getting into the habit of addressing your body with kindness and respect, and recognizing that it has continued to show up for you, despite years of body abuse from dieting. The authors and creators of intuitive eating are very intentional about emphasizing the fact that in order to take care of something, you must respect it first. Respecting your body does not require you to fully accept it the way it is, but it does help you see all the wonder your body does.

Principle 9: Exercise—Feel the Difference

This helps readers debunk exercise-related myths and broadens the idea of exercise into general movement. When we move our bodies for enjoyment rather than for weight loss purposes, we are much more motivated to move more often during the day. Many chronic dieters have an adverse reaction to the term "exercise," so this principle requires a gentle reframing of what movement can look like. You will rediscover the types of movement that bring your body joy, that lifts your mood, and makes you actually look forward to that activity.

Principle 10: Honor Your Health—Gentle Nutrition

This principle is saved until the very end so that the intuitive eating concept doesn't fall under the diet category. In this principle, concepts of nutrition science are discussed; however, one does not need to get caught up in the nutrition minutiae, because the evidence shows that when you are eating intuitively, you will naturally gravitate toward a more nutritionally balanced way of eating. Yes, nutrition really can be that simple!

What are the health benefits of intuitive eating?

To date, there have been over 90 studies investigating the benefits of intuitive eating. Individuals who score higher on the Intuitive Eating Scale benefit physically, psychologically, and emotionally.

To summarize, intuitive eaters, across all age groups, genders, and ethnicities have the following in common:

  • Lower body mass index (BMI)
  • Lower triglycerides
  • Higher HDL (the "good" cholesterol)
  • Higher self-esteem, well-being, optimism, body appreciation and acceptance, proactive coping skills, psychological hardiness, unconditional self-regard, pleasure from eating, and eating a variety of foods
  • Less internalized ideal of being thin, eating disorders, emotional eating, and self-silencing

Critics of intuitive eating warn that if you eat whatever you want, whenever you want, you will lose all sense of control and will not feel motivated to eat a nutritionally adequate or balanced diet. However, quite the opposite is true! A 2006 study found that intuitive eaters ate a more diverse diet without turning to junk food, took more pleasure in their eating, and ate a healthier diet than those who did not eat intuitively.

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Is there anyone who shouldn't try intuitive eating?

Intuitive Eating has been proven beneficial and effective globally in children, adolescents, adults, and in people with different chronic diseases such as diabetes. The key point to keep in mind is that intuitive eating is very much a personal process. As an example, someone in the early stages of recovery from an eating disorder may not be ready to rely on hunger or fullness cues, but they can start working on other principles such as challenging the food police and respecting their bodies.

How can someone get started with intuitive eating?

Fortunately, there are loads of great resources for those who are interested in getting started with intuitive eating! You can get yourself a copy of the Intuitive Eating book and accompanying workbook. There are online support groups and in-person support groups popping up all over the world. You can also find a certified intuitive eating counselor in your area, and some even provide virtual coaching.

Is this an effective way to lose weight?

The authors of intuitive eating make it very clear from the beginning that intuitive eating is NOT a weight loss program, and that in order to fully embrace intuitive eating, weight loss goals must be put on the back burner or else food choices will be made with the motivation for weight loss and not with the motivation for satisfaction. A 2012 study shows that individuals who score higher on the Intuitive Eating Scale tend to have lower BMIs. This suggests that people who eat in response to hunger and satiety cues have unconditional permission to eat and cope with emotions without using food, and they are less likely to engage in eating behaviors that lead to weight gain. However, most individuals who embark on the intuitive eating journey quickly realize that the benefits gained go so far beyond weight loss, that weight loss soon becomes a non-issue.

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