5 Things to Know About Intuitive Eating

By Sarah Berneche

 While so many of us have heard that diets don’t work, most of us aren’t sure how we’d make food choices without one.

Good news: a framework exists for helping people break up with the dieting cycle. What if you could honour your health by tapping into your internal wisdom rather than following a rigid set of rules? What if there was a way of eating that would allow you to eat whatever you wanted, when you wanted, and in the amount that you wanted without guilt or shame? Enter Intuitive Eating, where you can learn how to make peace with food.

Intuitive eating has been around since the 90s

Unlike popular diets, “lifestyle changes,” and health fads, Intuitive Eating isn’t a new concept (the book was first printed in 1995.) It was developed by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole, two Registered Dietitians and eating disorder specialists out of the United States, to bridge the anti-diet movement with the health community.

Instead of prescribing what, when, and how much to eat, the modality is comprised of 10 principles guiding people toward identifying and honouring natural hunger and fullness cues, pleasurable movement, respect for their unique body size, and peace with all foods — even seemingly “forbidden foods” like ice cream, potato chips, and cookies.  

Intuitive eating is never to be used for intentional weight loss or weight maintenance

Intuitive eating counsellors aren’t opposed to weight loss that happens naturally when behaviours are modified. But given what we know about the science of weight loss, it is virtually impossible to alter our set point. Attempting to lose weight, particularly below our natural range, has been linked to disordered eating and eating disorder symptoms such as bingeing.

Also? Weight loss is just not a result a practitioner can ethically promise. Intuitive eating will only “work” if the individual can shelve their hopes and expectations for weight loss. While this may seem impossible at first — how can someone stop wanting to change their body given our cultural pressures? — weight loss is almost always pursued as a means to an end and not merely an end in and of itself.

This mindset work is critical if the goal is to stop dieting and to enjoy the freedom of normal eating. Having expectations for what your body should look like, judging your food choices, eating in secret, compensating through food deals (like skipping meals or exercising to “make up” for the calories), and placing other restrictions on your relationship with food will result in continued chronic overeating, feeling “out of control”, binge eating, or other disordered behaviours.

By giving yourself unconditional permission to eat with attunement, your weight will eventually stabilize. Criticizing our culture’s very narrow beauty ideals and acknowledging natural body diversity is essential for enhancing body image and permanently breaking the dieting cycle.  

Intuitive eating isn’t just for those with eating disorders

It is often used in the final phase of eating disorder recovery to help individuals move away from a meal plan and toward “normal eating” as many people struggle to eat normally after a history of chronic dieting, unsure of what, when, and how to eat. In fact, many often speak about being in “donut land” after long stints in diet land. Intuitive eating can be a wonderful tool for helping folks to move away from the scale, fitness and calorie trackers, and other extrinsic devices and toward more intrinsic ways of honouring their health.  

Intuitive eaters eat more than pizza, cupcakes, and candy

In fact, studies have shown intuitive eaters actually enjoy more variety than their dieting counterparts. While many believe they’d never stop eating macaroni and cheese (for example) if they gave themselves unconditional permission to eat whatever they wanted, this is in direct response to a restrictive mindset. Habituation theory suggests we eventually tire of eating the same thing all the time — particularly if we believe we’re allowed to have it and can have it again whenever we want it. Intuitive eating, or a non-diet approach, doesn’t mean you’ll never have a vegetable again, or can’t have a salad if you’re genuinely craving one. It just means that you value satisfaction and pleasure in your relationship with food, rather than adhering to a Puritanical approach to eating.

Intuitive eating has a validated assessment scale and 90+ studies demonstrating its efficacy

The modality isn’t just a nice idea; it actually works in practice. According to the studies, intuitive eaters experience higher self-esteem, well-being, optimism, body appreciation and acceptance, higher HDL (“good” cholesterol”), interoceptive awareness, pleasure from eating, proactive coping, psychological hardiness, and unconditional self-regard. They have lower triglycerides, disordered eating, emotional eating, and self-silencing (suppressing one’s thoughts, feelings, and needs).

Sarah Berneche, M.A, R.H.N., is a Toronto-based Registered Holistic Nutritionist, Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor, and writer who uses the power of eating psychology to help creative, intuitive women ditch the black and white world of dieting and embrace a vibrant, balanced relationship with food. Find out more at sarahberneche.com.

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