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Intuitive Eating

Intuitive Eating is a weight-inclusive, non-diet approach to food and eating, determined by two US-based dietitians in the late 90s. They found traditional weight-loss methods to be unsustainable and damaging to their clients and started to look at the body and mind as one, as an approach to whole-body wellness. 

Here we’re going to look at the Intuitive Eating approach in-depth and how it can be helpful to adopt its framework for a healthier relationship with food, more positive mental health and improved physical health.

What is Intuitive Eating?

In 1995, dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch were working with clients to help them lose weight, but it soon became apparent that no matter how hard their clients tried, almost 95% would return to the clinic having regained weight. It was time to think differently, and so Intuitive Eating was born.

Intuitive Eating is a mind-body health approach to food and eating that embraces individuality and encourages you to tune into your body’s signals when it comes to what, how much and when you should eat.

Learning to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger, the science-backed approach rejects diet culture by eradicating any obstacles in body awareness and deconstructing learnt diet mentality and behaviour patterns, in order to thoroughly nourish your body. It's about the connection to your true, authentic self.

Intuitive Eating is an empowerment tool - it’s time to unleash it and liberate yourself from the prison of diet culture and weight obsession.

- Evelyn Tribole, dietitian and co-founder of Intuitive Eating.

Adopting the practices of Intuitive Eating means working through the 10 key principles which are fundamental to addressing the relationship you have with food - the rationale behind Intuitive Eating. This approach is a lifestyle change, a personal process that encourages you to honour your body’s signals and respond consciously with kindness and health to meet your body’s physical and psychological needs. 

Eating intuitively can be incredibly freeing and revolutionary, placing the mind-body connection and whole-body well-being at the centre of its practice. 

10 principles of Intuitive Eating

Let's explore the 10 principles that define Intuitive Eating. 

1. Reject the diet mentality 

Diet culture encompasses anything that promotes unsustainable weight loss through dietary restrictions, a belief system that values weight, size and shape over health and well-being. Diet culture is built on misleading statements that feed off an individual’s disappointment when they ‘fail’ to see another diet through. It’s time to tune out of diet culture.

2. Honour your hunger

Recognise the feelings of hunger and respond by feeding your body with good quality, nourishing foods that provide energy and sustenance alongside feelings of pleasure. Honouring the first rumblings of hunger rebuilds trust between your body and your mind and prevents an urge to overeat. It’s about eating when you are hungry, and stopping when you recognise fullness.

3. Make peace with food 

End the constant battle you have with food that often leads you through a cycle of intense feelings of deprivation, uncontrollable cravings, indulgence and then guilt. Give yourself full unconditional permission to eat and enjoy the experience.

Two hands with a heart shape

4. Challenge the ‘food police’

The 'food police' is that constant negative voice in your head that labels food as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and can lead to damaging thought and behavioural patterns, if that voice is allowed to get louder. The 'food police' lives by a set of rules fed by diet culture, that have often been ingrained for many years. An essential step in Intuitive Eating, turn down the volume and listen with authenticity. 

It’s getting away from those external influences on what you should or shouldn’t eat, and instead making food decisions and choices based on internal cues – hunger and fullness, satiety, but also pleasure, and how food makes you feel. 

- Laura Thomas, nutritionist specialising in Intuitive Eating, health at every size and non-diet nutrition

5. Discover the satisfaction factor

Allow yourself to experience and indulge in each pleasure of the eating experience: the food itself, a welcoming environment and the joy of choice. Here you can practice mindful eating; concentrate on the food you’re eating, it’s taste, texture, temperature and fully immerse yourself in it. 

6. Feel your fullness

Tune into your body’s signals as you eat and recognise when you feel satisfied and full. Even if that means not completing a meal, understanding your signals is an important part of mastering Intuitive Eating.

7. Cope with your emotions with kindness

When we feel difficult emotions, it can be easy to reach for food as a comfort. Whilst this may offer short-term comfort, it won’t solve the problem. Learn to recognise the source of your specific emotion, and practise different coping techniques to express and manage your emotions, without using food.

8. Respect your body

All bodies are different. If we all followed the same diet choices and exercised for the same amount of time, we’d still be different. Even if you can’t love your body, you can strive towards body neutrality, accepting your body for its shape and size and letting go of unrealistic body image expectations.

9. Exercise and feel the difference 

Instead of hitting the gym to burn calories, switch your mindset to how moving your body makes you feel. If you hate running but begrudgingly put yourself through it to lose a few pounds, it’s time to quit. Experiment with different opportunities to move and focus on the feeling.

10. Honour your health through gentle nutrition

This is all about ‘progress not perfection’. You don’t have to eat perfectly all the time to be healthy, one unhealthy snack or meal won’t throw out all of your healthy choices. But it is about consistency over time, creating habits from making conscious food choices with your health and desires in mind, all whilst making you feel good.

The benefits of eating intuitively  

The concept of Intuitive Eating has been scientifically proven to provide a variety of both physical and mental benefits to those that practise it, and is encouraged as a popular method for individuals who struggle with their relationship with food. The science-backed benefits of this framework include:

  • positive mental health
  • higher feelings of self-worth 
  • positive body image
  • increased feelings of gratitude 
  • decreased rates of disordered eating habits
  • increased metabolism 
  • increased satisfaction in life
  • decreased stress levels
  • sustainable weight loss

Woman holding basket of strawberries

Research has shown that practising the Intuitive Eating principles can be an effective method in eating disorder recovery treatment. A 2012 study of nearly 3,000 young adults found that participants who reported trusting their body when it came to how much to eat, reported lower odds of demonstrating disordered eating behaviours when compared to participants who weren’t able to trust themselves. 

Female participants who stopped eating when they felt full had lower odds of chronic dieting and eating disorder behaviours such as binge eating, than those who did not stop when full.

How can a nutrition professional help me eat intuitively?

Practising Intuitive Eating has a number of benefits, by no means is it easy but the benefits can help to reframe any negative thought and behaviour patterns that have been affecting not just your relationship to food, but your whole-body wellbeing. 

A nutrition professional can guide you through the 10 principles and their importance, as you move towards Intuitive Eating and support you to embrace a healthy, fulfilling relationship with food.

It’s important to note that we are all unique, and our experiences with diet culture in the media, celebrity endorsements, our own social circles and our genes have played a big part in shaping the relationship we have with food.  Addressing the route of an unhealthy relationship with food can be emotionally tough, so it can help to gain support from a professional counsellor or therapist alongside a nutrition professional.

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