What does intuitive eating really mean?
In kitchens throughout the world, there is a quiet revolution taking place. Intuitive eating is changing the way we think about food … one bite at a time.
At its very core, intuitive eating (IE) is the simple philosophy of honouring ourselves by trusting our minds and bodies and eating only when we are hungry.
It’s been called the anti-diet because no foods are taboo, there’s no kilojoule counting, no meal plans to religiously adhere to and no portion control. It is a backlash to diet culture and it’s called intuitive eating.
Babies and small children instinctively know how to eat intuitively. They’ll eat enough so their hunger is appeased, and no more. As they grow and develop into little humans, they are bombarded by media images, lured by sugary treats in bright wrapping paper and later held prisoner to a diet ethos that feeds into often unrealistic body images, all of which impact on body positivity and body acceptance.
What does intuitive eating really mean?
IE is an evidence-based health approach created in 1995 by two dietitians, Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole. They have developed 10 core principles to guide people through what IE is in a nutshell and have penned a book that many consider the holy grail of IE. It’s now in its fourth incarnation.
Dietitian Nina Mills from Feel Good Eating says IE is a way of tuning into the biology of hunger cues, because there are so many emotions associated with food. “I like to think of intuitive eating as a way of coming home to our bodies,” she explains.
IE is a revolutionary way of thinking that’s liberating, comforting and thought-provoking. It’s food without judgement. It’s letting go of “good” or “bad” food labels and, in a broader sense, it’s giving yourself unconditional permission to nibble, taste, snack on or scoff whatever you fancy.
Author of Just Eat it, Laura Thomas, sums up intuitive eating as a personal process of honouring our health — it’s far removed from diet culture. “We are conditioned to leave our bodies and retreat into our heads, overthinking every meal or snack, every workout, and to scrutinise our body’s appearance,” she says.
Restricting or cutting out foods we enjoy altogether can make us crave them even more. Thomas says it rationally makes sense when you stop depriving yourself that those urgent cravings dissipate. “But (for me) it’s still kind of wild to have chocolate or cookies or whatever it is in the cupboards and not feel as though I have to eat them immediately,” she says.
Many studies have confirmed IE has been positively associated with various psychological health indicators, improved dietary intake and/or eating behaviours. It has also weighed into positive body image, improved self-esteem and sense of wellbeing.
Mills says IE is also associated with improved life satisfaction. “Many aren’t spending so much time and energy thinking about what they are and aren’t eating, so they can engage with life more,” she says.
Slim is still “in”
Despite a handful of plus-sized models on the catwalk and in the media, the culture of slimness proliferates. And it begins early, with some pre-teens watching every mouthful they eat, pretending to eat when they haven’t and cutting out whole food groups to keep slim.
Restrictive eating if you want to lose weight doesn’t work. Studies have shown it can contribute to the risk of future obesity and weight gain. And
that’s just the beginning.
According to the National Eating Disorders Collaboration of Australia, eating disorder symptoms are on the rise, with at least weekly binge eating increasing almost sixfold since the late 1990s and strict dieting increasing almost fourfold.
Most diets are doomed to fail, and losing weight and gaining it back when you fall off the wagon isn’t good for your health either. Weight cycling or yo-yo dieting is harmful — so much so, that a Chinese study of over 9509 participants showed those who did had a higher mortality rate.
Ditching the diet mindset honours our bodies in whatever shape, size or form they are in. IE is many things. What it is, isn’t a diet. In fact, some who discover IE may gain weight, others lose weight and some maintain the same weight.
Call a truce with food
If you were to stand at 10 paces away from a chocolate bar sitting on a kitchen counter, would you be more likely to (a) calmly walk away or (b) swoop in and gobble the lot? There is no right or wrong answer. But if you find yourself having a mental tug of war, then beating yourself up for giving into temptation or conversely congratulating yourself for resisting it, it’s high time to stop the food fight.
Alix Schram has a master’s in clinical nutrition and specialises in intuitive eating. She says it’s OK to scream a loud “No” to the food police, those thoughts in your head that declare you good for eating minimal calories or bad because you ate a piece of chocolate cake. “The police station is housed deep inside your psyche, and its loudspeaker shouts negative barbs, hopeless phrases and guilt-provoking indictments,” she says.
Listen to your hunger
One way to tune into your physical body hunger and fullness cues is to remove distractions and enjoy the experience of eating food. Slow down and put your fork down between bites. Check in to see how you are feeling. Do you feel full, satisfied? It also pays to avoid empty foods like diet drinks that fill you up but don’t provide any nutrients or energy to fuel your body.
Signs of hunger vary from person to person — from tummy rumbling to feeling lightheaded, or others might feel a little sick to their stomach. Once you understand your hunger signals, you can then determine if what you are feeling is the real deal or emotional hunger (feeling sad, lonely, stressed or bored).
IE honours physical hunger, not emotional hunger. If you are feeling the latter, do something that lifts your spirits like soak in a bubble bath, call a friend and have a chat or write in your gratitude journal.
Intuitive eating versus mindful eating
Mindful eating focuses on the present moment. It’s about calmly accepting and immersing yourself in the feelings that wash over you and the bodily sensations you experience as you eat. Mills says it also brings awareness to our internal physical signals of hunger and fullness. “It can guide when we start and stop eating, and engages all of our senses,” she says. The crisp crunch of watermelon, the luxurious taste and texture of a soufflé, the exotic aroma of spicy curry and the feel of a ripened cherry tomato that explodes in your mouth as you bite into it are all sensory experiences with food.
Mills points out that mindful eating is only one part of IE. “IE is bigger than eating mindfully,” she says. “It’s a mind and body wellness paradigm, a philosophy and a way of living.”
Begone food fear and anxiety
While you might think the idea of intuitive eating gives you carte blanche to eat what you want, before you reach for your second bag of potato chips, listen up.
IE is health-promoting — it doesn’t mean you can’t wolf down a cream bun or two — but once you give yourself permission to, it’s unlikely that you’ll want to. IE is all about gentle nutrition and fuelling your body with foods that make you feel good, that honour your health, that will make you feel strong and energised.
Trusting yourself is a key fundamental of intuitive eating. IE gives you permission to eat. And for those who have struggled with food, that heady sense of freedom can be in equal measures intoxicating and frightening. Mills says for those just beginning to learn about IE, there is what they call a “honeymoon” period. “Many eat all the things you told yourself you couldn’t have,” she says. “It’s a messy dichotomy; you are enjoying it but also freaking out thinking about what will happen to your weight.”
Honour your uniqueness
We are all different. Resch and Tribole say IE is also about accepting your genetic blueprint. There is no one else on this planet who is just like you. You might be a curvy size 18 or a petite size 8. And that is OK.
Body positivity is a social movement that is gaining traction across the globe. Its core ethos is about promoting equality and acceptance for bodies of all types, shapes and sizes. It’s about time that societal “norms” were challenged. Taking it one step further, body acceptance defies the myth that your physical appearance determines your intrinsic value as a human. It can be challenging to reject the diet culture and embrace IE if you don’t accept your body. You are beautiful. You are you.
Get your body moving
The concept of IE is about a shift in thinking away from exercise as a way to burn kilojoules to embracing exercise because it just plain feels good. It’s moving your body because you want to. It’s finding a form of movement that brings you joy, like joining a dance class to have a giggle with newfound friends, or walking in the rainforest or kicking a football around with your nephew.
Be a scribe
One way to get started on your IE journey is to keep a journal. It’s something Thomas advocates and says she invites her clients to approach it like a scientist doing an experiment; they’re just gathering data. “We need to be really gentle with ourselves and ask, What do I notice? What information is this giving me? What have I discovered that I didn’t know previously? It can also help us notice the smaller, more subtle shifts and ‘wins’,” she says.
Let nature nurture
Mastering the art of intuitive eating is a process. Like anything it takes time to get into the swing of it. Thomas says diet culture teaches us that “success” is measured on the scales. With intuitive eating we need to gently shift our perception to “progress”. “Notice things like if we’re spending less time worrying about our weight, or more time being present with our friends, more time enjoying our food and less time worrying about having sweets in the house,” she says.
When you begin your journey of intuitive eating, it’s important to be kind to yourself. As Mills agrees, it is a slow process. “At times it might feel as though you have been put out to sea without a life raft. Building self-compassion before you begin your journey with intuitive eating is key.”
Because intuitive eating invites us to tune into our bodies, some of the key concepts of IE might not work for everyone. For example, Thomas points out that for those with an eating disorder, illness or brain-based differences that make checking in with our bodies harder, it may mean exploring other parts of intuitive eating besides just hunger and fullness. “For instance, we may start by learning about diet culture and rejecting the diet mentality, or with learning to respect our bodies,” she explains. “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing; we can take what we need from the framework and leave the parts that don’t work for us or we’re not ready for yet.”
The 10 principles of intuitive eating
- Reject the diet mentality
- Honour your hunger
- Make peace with food
- Challenge the food police
- Discover the satisfaction factor
- Feel your fullness
- Cope with your emotions with kindness
- Respect your body
- Movement — feel the difference
- Honour your health with gentle nutrition