Have you ever heard of Intuitive Eating? You can probably deduce from the name that it’s about eating based on instinct, but the concept still seems confusing to many people. We can thank diet culture and social media for co-opting a lot of IE language as a way to promote yet another weight loss scam. Since many mistakenly perceive IE to be all about eating pizza and doughnuts all day, we’re here to help clarify, ‘What is intuitive eating and how can I get started?’
What IE Is
‘Intuitive Eating is a self-care eating framework which integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought; a dynamic integration between mind and body.’
-The Original Intuitive Eating Pros
IE aligns with Health at Every Size® which promotes that all bodies deserve dignity and respect. It acknowledges that healthy habits can be pursued at any body size. Many studies show evidence that those who practice Intuitive Eating experience:
Created by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995, IE is a process based on 10 principles that help release the rules, beliefs and thoughts that disrupt one’s ability to attune to their biological and psychological needs via bodily sensations.
1. Reject the Diet Mentality
Dieting promises confidence, social acceptance, and a sense of control. But it only serves those purposes until it doesn’t anymore. Did you know that every time you intentionally lose weight your body perceives a famine and consequently raises its set point weight to higher than before in preparation for the next one? In other words, the number one way to guarantee weight gain is to diet.
2. Honor Your Hunger
‘If you think you’re hungry you’re probably just thirsty/need a walk/should eat an apple.’ Have you ever heard this advice? What if you were actually hungry without a doubt? Gauging your caloric needs based on anything other than your body’s cues - a gurgling/growing stomach, lightheadedness, difficulty concentrating, irritability, headache - is bound to result in a biological drive to eat past comfort.
3. Make Peace with Food
‘I just can’t have ___ in the house’, ‘I have no self-control when it comes to ___’. Whatever food you believe has an irresistible power over you is entirely created by your good vs. bad thoughts, healthy vs. unhealthy about it. The morality you’ve attached to eating keeps you stuck in a cycle of mental and/or physical deprivation, followed by overeating or a binge, followed by all-consuming guilt. The fastest way to break that pattern is to ‘habituate’ yourself, or give yourself unconditional permission to eat the forbidden food.
4. Challenge the Food Police
There’s a LOT of interference that has influenced your ability to have a peaceful relationship with food. You were born an intuitive eater, but over time your mom, grandmothers, aunts, teachers, tv, friends, doctors, and social media have infused guilt, shame, and confusion into your food choices. Start building awareness of those diet culture perspectives and question whether they’re exaggerated, extreme, or flat-out unhelpful noise.
5. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Have you ever wanted to have full-fat ice cream but instead you made frozen banana ‘nice’ cream that didn’t quite hit the spot? So you later snacked on some carrot sticks, a handful of almonds, a few spoonfuls of peanut butter, and THEN finally ate the full-fat ice cream in a frantic, guilt-ridden state? This principle pairs well with mindful eating and is all about prioritizing pleasure. When you eat what you really want in a pleasant environment it makes it easier to sense when enough is enough.
6. Feel Your Fullness
This takes some practice after years, possibly decades of ignoring your body’s subtle cues. If you’re consistently eating past comfort it could be a sign there’s some mental restriction or lingering diet mentality going on. You have to let the restriction pendulum swing to the other side before it eventually settles in the middle. If the process feels messy that probably means you’re doing it right!
7. Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness
Dieters are experts at living from the neck up since they’ve learned that their body is not a ‘safe’ place to be. As a result, they’re very disconnected from their body’s physical cues of not only hunger and fullness, but also the spectrum of human emotions. The first sign of discomfort sends a dieter straight to the refrigerator because food is a quick and effective, although temporary solution to uncomfortable feelings like loneliness or shame. Intuitive Eaters expand their capacity for uncomfortable emotions because their willingness to sit with them proves they’re nothing more than energy moving through the body.
8. Respect Your Body
When our primary concern is weight loss, we view our body through a hyper-critical lens. We inspect it for perceived flaws and feel disappointed when it doesn’t live up to our standards. Intuitive Eaters, on the other hand, have a completely different relationship with their bodies. They view them as the vehicle through which they experience their rich, fulfilling lives. Because they don’t let the way their body looks inhibit them from participating in activities that bring them joy, they spend less time in self-objectification and more time in embodiment.
9. Movement - Feel the Difference
If you knew your current exercise routine wouldn’t change the aesthetic of your body, would you still do it? Or maybe you don’t have a current exercise routine because you associate it with pain and punishment. In the middle of these two extremes is a happy medium where joyful movement lives. Diet culture promotes that exercise has to look a certain way to ‘count’. The easiest way to debunk that misconception is to ask yourself, ‘How did I play when I was a kid?’. It removes all the pressure that goes with counting calories, steps, and reps so you can have FUN.
10. Honor Your Health - Gentle Nutrition
Portion sizes, calorie counting, macro-tracking, are not necessary elements to healthy eating. Optimal health is not a static place we arrive and stay at. Our bodies are in constant fluctuation. One snack, meal, day, or even week of food choices won’t result in a nutrient deficiency. What matters is that in the grand scheme you’re eating what tastes good and makes you feel good.
What IE Is Not
The diet mentality is all about black and white thinking. You’re either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’. Intuitive Eating asks us to embrace living in the gray. There are no concrete rules which means no more ‘falling off the wagon’. Seeing as it’s a personal journey and self-discovery process, you are the ultimate expert of your own body. No one knows your hunger, fullness, and satisfaction better than you. Intuitive Eating is all about empowering you to reclaim your authority over your thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
IE is absolutely not a weight loss protocol. The truth is, some bodies gain weight once adopting Intuitive Eating, some stay the same, and some lose weight. If you’re new to considering IE and you’re hoping to be in the latter category, that is completely normal. After all, we live in a culture that:
How Can I Get Started?
Right about now the perfectionist fantasies are probably rushing dopamine throughout your system. It might feel similar to when you used to envision your post-diet, future, flawless self. Before you rush into mastering all 10 principles by tomorrow, take a purposeful pause to breathe. Extend self-compassion toward yourself for everything that has brought you to this moment. Then ask yourself, ‘What is the smallest thing I can do to take a step toward becoming an Intuitive Eater?’. It might be committing to take one mindful bite a day, or maybe it’s reaching out for professional guidance in your process. Whatever your decision, trust that you are exactly where you are supposed to be in your journey.
This blog is co-authored by Synergy's team of Registered Dietitian Nutritionists, Licensed Massage Therapists, and Diabetes Educators practicing in Bend, Oregon. As providers following Health at Every Size® (HAES) and Body Trust® philosophies, they strive to help EVERY BODY thrive.