Ask the experts: How can I get started with intuitive eating?

When it comes to setting health goals or changing the way you eat, it’s easy to be influenced by societal expectations and diet culture. If you’re ready to let this go and lean into something more gentle, inclusive and beneficial for both your mental and physical health, you may want to consider intuitive eating.

woman eating ice cream

Here we speak to Isa Robinson, nutritionist and certified intuitive eating counsellor and ask her to answer your questions on this approach.

I keep hearing about intuitive eating, but I’m not sure what it is, could you explain what it involves? 

Intuitive eating is an approach to eating that was co-developed by two US based dietitians Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole. It’s about cultivating a healthy relationship with food, mind and body based on the individual. Intuitive eating is weight inclusive and promotes authentic well-being, blending some objective science with what we know to be true and beneficial for our own unique body’s. 

It is based on 10 principles: 1) ditching diet mentality, 2) honour hunger, 3) respect fullness, 4) make peace with food, 5) challenge the food police, 6) pleasure and satisfaction, 7) coping with emotions with kindness, 8) body respect, 9) joyful movement, 10) gentle nutrition. The principles focus on increasing interoceptive awareness, an awareness of and attunement to signals coming from the body, whilst reducing disruptors to these. 

Intuitive eating is backed up by over 125 studies indicating intuitive eaters have less disordered eating, eating disorders, weight cycling and lower BMIs, as well as improved self-trust, emotional functioning and body image. 

I’m changing up my health goals this year and want to work on improving my relationship with food, do you have any advice for how I could get started?

Unsubscribe from diet culture. Detox your social media feeds, book shelves and email inboxes from all content pushing weight loss, from all content that only considers one ideal of beauty, that makes you feel bad about yourself, your body or your food intake and that equates food and eating to morality. This is about ripping up the rule book of diet dogma and getting curious about what feels best for you. 

Think about what a “healthy” relationship with food would look like for you. This way, you can have an idea about what you’re aiming towards. For example, does a more positive relationship with food include nourishing your body more adequately? Does it mean tuning in more to your needs Vs arbitrary meal times and portion guides? Does it mean giving up weight/diet tracking apps? Does it mean being able to enjoy a slice of birthday cake with your loved ones or a drink with your friends without guilt or worry? Whatever it is, I invite you to write it down and keep it close to you. 

Isa Robinson

Trust the process  – imagine a child with parents that have well intended yet extremely strict rules around food. No sugar, only one thing from the sweetie drawer per week, eat your veggies, beetroot brownies for dessert. Now imagine this child goes to stay at a friend’s house where there’s unlimited sweets, ice cream, pizza and doughnuts. Do you think the child will stop at just one doughnut? Would you have? This child is ecstatic, every bite is pure blissful excitement and joy. The child thinks, ‘I’ve got to eat every last bite here, because who knows when I will get to have all this deliciousness again’. 

When beginning working on your relationship to food, you might feel like this child. All of this previously “off limits” food is ridiculously exciting. Your body and cells haven’t yet had the chance to trust that this food will be coming again. It thinks at any point you might be taken back into the perils of courgette noodles and halo top ice cream. Subsequently you find yourself gravitating towards fun foods frequently and may even feel a little out of control or think “but what about my health”. This is often referred to as swinging from diet land to doughnut land in the initial stages of making peace with food.

My advice? Don’t panic. This is a very normal response to dieting and restrictive eating. As your body begins to trust food is coming and that these foods will always be available, the pendulum will find its way back to an equilibrium and they will become neutral. Just like the child who’s used to having access to all foods probably isn’t interested in a chocolate and doughnut overload, and would prefer to have enough that feels good and then move on, it’ll be there later. 

I want professional support to help me with intuitive eating, what should I look for when contacting a nutritionist?

If your nutritionist is specialising in Intuitive eating and weight management – run! It is impossible to pursue the two together. 

Intuitive eating is not anti weight-loss per se, it’s anti the pursuit of intentional weight loss. To caveat, you are perfectly entitled to vocalise a desire for intentional weight loss as part of the process (in a culture that seems to value slenderness above all else, this makes you a human being). At the same time, intuitive eating recognises that intentional weight loss/dieting is a trust disruptor, if you’re intentionally under nourishing your body, you are naturally going to begin to feel more hungry, irritable and experience loss of control eating. 

Intuitive eating also acknowledges the ways in which diets can backfire for example, through the  “blown it effect” (I’ve eaten one “bad” thing so I might as well eat everything in sight), and the forbidden fruit phenomenon (how much more alluring food is when it’s off limits).

A great place to start is the Intuitive eating counsellors directory which is a list of individuals who have been trained and certified by Evelyn Tribole herself. 

I can be very mean to myself when it comes to food and my body, do you have any tips to help me be kinder to myself?

Self-compassion might sound a little cringy, but it’s an evidence-based intervention coined by psychologist Kristen Neff. It has been found to lower anxiety, self-comparisons, disordered eating and negative body image, whilst increasing emotional resilience, resilience to stress and trauma and psychological well-being. 

A self-compassion practice might look like:

  • Cultivating a sense of non-judgemental awareness of what’s coming up for you in the present moment. For example, you may want to write a list of all the critical and judgemental things you say to yourself. Or say, “I am noticing that I am having the thought that [insert thought here]’. This can help us get more of a sense of what’s going on for us, and put some distance between ourselves and our thoughts and feelings. 
  • Invite yourself to consider, would I say these things to someone I really cared about or a young child? What might I do or say to them? Could I offer myself the same level of baseline respect or kindness as I give to others? 
  • Write down some affirmations and reminders for when negative thoughts are really loud. For example, “I am only human”, “Don’t believe everything you think” or “How am I talking to myself right now?” You can keep a list of these in your wallet or have a note on your phone to pull out when you need them. 

I feel like my mental health and eating habits are very interconnected and I would like support – would it be best to see a counsellor, nutritionist or both?

Mental and physical health are intricately connected and it’s brilliant that more research is being conducted in this area, particularly in the field of nutritional psychiatry. 

With regard to which professional it may be best to see, this would be impossible to answer without doing a thorough assessment to consider your personal needs and preferences. In an ideal world, both would be the optimal scenario, a psychologist to help with emotional resilience and psychological skills, and a nutrition professional to work with diet and relationship to food, although there would definitely be overlap. 

It’s fantastic that we’re seeing lots more professionals undertake training in both areas. My advice to someone would be to start with a professional that feels like a good fit for you personally. It is likely they will then be able to recommend other professionals and discuss with you the pros and cons of a multi-disciplinary approach that considers a variety of health care professionals, as well as practicalities like budgets and time constraints. In my clinic, I typically always work with a psychologist, as well as the GP. 

Can you share your top three tips for anyone looking to start their intuitive eating journey?

1. As a first point of call, I recommend reading what intuitive eating is really about as there are a lot of myths and misconceptions. The 4th edition of the original “Intuitive Eating” book is an excellent place to start. There is also a workbook full of self-paced exercises to support this. Laura Thomas’ book “Just Eat it” and workbook “How to just eat it” are also great places to start.

2. There is no right or wrong way to do Intuitive eating – essentially you can’t fail. The only caveat is that intuitive eating doesn’t work if you’re actively pursuing intentional weight loss. Intuitive eating is full of nuance and my advice is always to go slowly and hold space and compassion for yourself. 

I often see individuals putting a lot of pressure on themselves in an attempt to do it “perfectly”. This sets up the same impossible standards as diet culture. Take a deep breath and acknowledge you are exactly where you’re meant to be right now.

3. What would you really like to eat? This is the fun part. I’d love to invite you to consider what you’d like to eat right now. Are you in the mood for something sweet, savoury, sour, rich or buttery? Crunchy, creamy, chewy, cold and refreshing or warm and comforting? What aromas sound good, the smell of brewing coffee, tones of vanilla or sizzling bacon? What’s going to hit the spot right now and what’s going to meet your hunger and fullness levels? 

This is the fun part of intuitive eating – listening in, getting curious and exploring. It doesn’t have to be a fancy Michelin star dish. In fact, sometimes beans on soft white bread with a mound of cheddar cheese is exactly what cuts the mustard. But ultimately you get to explore all of these sensory aspects of food and eating and get creative and curious about what feels good for you. 

Isa Robinson is registered associate nutritionist (ANutr), Nutritional Therapist (mBANT) and certified intuitive eating counsellor with a special interest in eating disorders, disordered eating and nutrition for mental health.

This article was originally published in Happiful Magazine (January 2021). You can order print copies online, or read the e-magazine for free on the Happiful app

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Written by Kat Nicholls
Kat is a Content Producer for Memiah and writer for Nutritionist Resource and Happiful magazine.
Written by Kat Nicholls
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