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Intuitive Eating Basics: What is it and What Are the Benefits?

Posted by Jon Lanman on
Intuitive Eating Basics: What is it and What Are the Benefits?

People have suffered from the dieting paradigm for decades, hopping from one fad diet to the next. It’s a phenomenon called yo-yo dieting, and the result often leaves people frustrated and confused about what to eat, how to lose weight, and how to become healthier overall.

What if you didn’t have to worry about counting calories, or weighing out your portions? What if you could throw away those diet books of yesteryear, and just listen to your own intuition? Insert the growing trend of intuitive eating.

What Does Intuitive Eating Mean?

The term “intuitive eating” was first introduced in 1995, by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. The basic premise of intuitive eating was to reorient people toward their own internal eating cues vs. external eating cues, or rigid calorie counts. Rather than focusing on your weight, or calories, the goal of intuitive eating is to focus on how you feel.

The 10 Intuitive Eating Principles

In their work, Tribole and Resch have laid out 10 principles of intuitive eating.

1) Reject the Diet Mentality

For intuitive eating to work you must let go of the hope for quick-fix diets. You’re encouraged to get angry at previous diets and false promises that have made you feel guilt for failing at weight loss and dieting.

2) Honor Your Hunger

Listening to your hunger cues is important. By ignoring them you might trigger rebound overeating at a later time. The more hungry you get the more difficult it becomes to make conscious, intentional eating choices.

3) Make Peace with Food

It’s okay to eat, and relax. If you repeatedly look at foods and think “I can’t” or “I shouldn’t” it can lead to eventual binging, overeating, and guilt. This is an unhealthy pattern. Instead, make peace with eating, and listening to your internal cues.

4) Challenge the Food Police

Your food police might have originated from previous books you’ve read, or social norms. But, they exist within your head and lump your behavior into “good” or “bad” diet choices. This introduces negative thinking that is not conducive to making improvements.  

5) Respect Your Fullness

Your body has cues to tell you that you're full. But sometimes you need to make sure you’re listening. You can prompt yourself during meals by simply pausing, and asking yourself how you feel. Is the meal satisfying? How full do you feel? Observe how your body feels.

6) Discover the Satisfaction Factor

We need food to get energy and to fuel our body. But, eating should also be pleasurable. By enjoying your food in a comfortable environment that is pleasurable, you can also increase your satiety with less food.

7) Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food

Anxiety, stress, and boredom can often be triggers for eating to appease our emotions. However, food is not a fix to these emotions, and can make you sometimes feel worse in the long run.

8) Respect Your Body

Your body is unique, with its own shape and genetic code. Respect who you are, and avoid unrealistic expectations that cause you to be overly critical of things you have little control.  

9) Exercise - Feel the Difference

Rather than exercising to look good, or get fit, just pay attention to how you feel. Working out to burn calories is less motivating than working out to feel energized. Get in tune with how you feel during and after exercise.

10) Honor Your Health

Your diet doesn’t need to be perfect for you to be healthy. Instead, your health depends on consistency over time, and making choices that make you feel well.

Intuitive Eating Research

There is still a need for more research on intuitive eating, but several studies have shown some positive results.

In a study of 117 women with gestational diabetes, intuitive eating practices was associated with lower BMI, weight retention, fasting glucose, and Hemoglobin A1C at 1-year postpartum. This suggests that intuitive eating may be an effective method for weight and blood sugar control. Another study showed that intuitive eating resulted in improved dietary behaviors, and lower BMI.

Studies have also shown that intuitive eating is good for the psyche, with improved self-esteem, better body image, and less anxiety and depression. People are also more likely to stick to the intuitive eating program than diets, therefore increasing their opportunity to make positive behavior change.

Why Intuitive Eating Doesn’t Work for Some People

Some people claim that intuitive eating doesn’t work, or they argue that people already eat intuitively, which is part of their problem.

The problem, or challenge with intuitive eating is that it requires you to very closely listen to your own internal cues and feelings. And this is a lot harder than it sounds. If you’ve developed an unhealthy eating pattern throughout your life, it’s going to be difficult to break that pattern. It’s going to take time to observe your choices, listen to what your body is telling you, and then change your actions. The whole process can be somewhat frustrating, especially since it feels somewhat ambiguous.

But embracing this ambiguity is part of the process. To reject the traditional diet mentality, you have to let go of the search for a quick fix, and/or diet guru. The whole process can feel chaotic to some people because you’re turning the whole dieting paradigm on its head.

A common reaction to the intuitive eating paradigm is that people interpret it to mean they can eat anything they want, whenever they want. But, that’s not really accurate. Intuitive eating means that you can give yourself permission to eat what you want, whenever you want, but it also involves using critical thought to make decisions that weigh your hunger, satisfaction, and mood. Intuitive eating requires you to be introspective and develop interoceptive awareness.

Tapping back into your body can be difficult if you’ve been working off the old diet paradigm. That’s why it can be helpful to get a nutrition coach, or registered dietitian to help expand your awareness, and cue you to listen to your own body.

Intuitive Eating: Where to Start

If you’re tired of endless dieting, and want to learn a new approach to eating that doesn’t require meticulous calorie counting, there are a number of resources to get your started with intuitive eating. One of the best places to start is with with authors who coined the phrase in the beginning. Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch provide a vast amount of information on their website, including a directory of certified intuitive eating counselors. You can also refer to their original book or workbook on the subject.

While you’re learning more about intuitive eating you can resort to a few basics to get you started. Start by paying attention to your hunger cravings. What do you feel like when you get hungry? When you eat, ask yourself “am I eating out of physical hunger or emotion?”. At the beginning stages try to get curious about your eating practices, and avoid judging them. Try to just observe and become familiar with your eating choices, and explore the reasons you’re making them.

You might be tempted to judge your decisions. But, avoid that urge, and instead just observe. As you get more comfortable with this process, you’ll set the foundation for intuitive eating.



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