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What is Intuitive Eating?

Written by Charlotte Green & reviewed by Talia Cecchele


what is intuitive eating

Intuitive eating is an approach to nutrition, health and eating, which aims to reject the pressures and rules of restrictive dieting.


Intuitive eating is a anti-diet approach focusing on re-connecting to hunger and fullness cues and to the body to determine when, what and how much to eat (1). There is a focus on eating nourishing foods for both physical and mental health rather than weight alone, with no foods being labelled as “good” or “bad” (1). However, eating intuitively can be difficult for many people. In our modern society there are so many pressures to disregard our intrinsic hunger cues, from food advertising to fad diets prescribing specific foods and quantities (2).



The Principles of Intuitive Eating (3)

The Intuitive Eating approach has gained traction over the last couple of decades, with the book Intuitive Eating, written by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch first being published in 1995, now being supported by almost 150 published studies showing benefits and recognising the benefits of the Intuitive Eating approach. The approach consists of 10 defining principles to help rediscover our inner Intuitive Eating wisdom.


1. Rejecting diet mentality

From an early age, especially given the recent rise of social media, we are constantly bombarded with the latest fad diets that encourage restriction, deprivation, and weight loss. This can lead to an accumulation of food rules, preventing food from being enjoyed. Addressing these food rules can be the first step to eating intuitively but remember that this can take time, so it is important to be compassionate with yourself.


2. Honour your hunger

Diets often require individuals to ignore their hunger cues, but hunger is a natural sign from the body letting you know that it is time to eat. There are lots of different types of hunger which we can learn to pick up on. Our bodies need a certain amount of energy to function, thrive and enjoy life, so you are allowed to feel hungry.


3. Make peace with food

Often when certain foods are restricted, it can lead to intense cravings and potentially binge eating due to feelings of deprivation. However, when you start to challenge your beliefs around food, you are able to give yourself unconditional permission to eat.


4. Challenge the food police

This principle can be quite difficult to achieve, especially with personal and societal food rules that have been ingrained from an early age. It involves challenging unhelpful thought patterns like not labelling any food as “good” or “bad”. Food is simply that, just food.


5. Discover the satisfaction factor

Food should be a source of pleasure. It can be a means to connect with others, show your love and appreciation, and be an integral part of celebrations. Remember that food is not just fuel for the physical body but is also important for mental health and culture.


6. Feel your fullness

So often we are too busy to put time aside to enjoy foods. Many meals are eaten on the go, at the desk or in front of the TV. This can create a disconnection from food, making it difficult to notice when you are full. If you eat mindfully and prioritise enjoying meals without distraction, you can become more in tune with your fullness cues to give your body just the right amount of food it needs.


7. Honour your feelings without using food

Although comfort eating may feel like it is helping your mood in the moment, it can become problematic if it is your only coping strategy. It can be helpful to tune into your emotions and recognise when you are feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or tired. Instead of turning straight to food, perhaps write a list of other things you could do to bring comfort. It might be getting some fresh air, reading a book, journalling, or talking to a loved one.


8. Respect your body

Everyone is an individual. We all have different body shapes and sizes so there should not be pressure to fit into an idealised body shape. Learning to respect your own body can help you reject diet mentality and feel better about who you are. Take a deep dive into 7 Ways to Improve Body Image here.


9. Movement - feel the difference

Like with food, movement should be something that is enjoyed. For people with eating disorders, it can be common to have an unhealthy relationship with exercise, but it is not simply a tool to “burn fat” or a form of punishment. There are so many ways to move your body from running to yoga, dancing, going for a walk or even gardening. Try new ways to get active and find something that brings you joy.


10. Honour your health with gentle nutrition

This involves combining both nutrition and pleasure. It is about recognising that no single meal or day of eating makes you healthy or unhealthy but what you do consistently over time that matters most.



The Benefits of Intuitive Eating

Although there have been concerns that certain aspects of intuitive eating, such as an unconditional permission to eat, could lead to overeating and poor diet quality, evidence has suggested that intuitive eating may in fact have the opposite effect. A study aiming to assess the relationship between intuitive eating and dietary intake found that participants who adhered to intuitive eating practices ate more fruits, vegetables, and wholegrains (4). This is likely due to the principle of gentle nutrition and honouring health. On the other hand, although unconditional permission to eat was associated with more frequent added sugar consumption, it was actually consumed in smaller amounts each time in response to an individual’s cues (4).


Furthermore, intuitive eating can have significant benefits for mental health, especially for those who have struggled with restrictive dieting. Intuitive eating has been associated with reduced concern with weight and eating restraint (5). Taking the pressure off food rules and a greater focus on health instead of weight may be responsible.


Additionally, intuitive eating may be beneficial beyond the removal of dieting behaviours. In a longitudinal study following adolescents into early adulthood, researchers found that those with a higher baseline level of intuitive eating or an improvement over time were less likely to experience depressive symptoms, low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction and binge eating (6).



What about Mindful Eating?

The terms intuitive eating and mindful eating are sometimes used interchangeably, which can be confusing considering they are subtly different. Mindful eating is largely focused on the eating process itself, placing an emphasis on being in the present moment whilst eating and appreciating the food in front of you. This can be achieved by slowing down when eating; avoiding distractions such as working or watching TV during mealtimes; and aiming to enjoy each mouthful. However, there may be some overlap with intuitive eating. Mindful eating still encourages individuals to reflect on their thoughts and feelings around food as well as listening to hunger cues, which can be easier when slowing down to eat (7).


Therefore, for those new to intuitive eating, it may be helpful to also incorporate some of these mindful eating habits.



Is Intuitive Eating appropriate during Eating Disorder Recovery?

Research has shown that individuals who follow intuitive eating practices, such as paying attention to their fullness cues to stop eating, experience less frequent chronic dieting and disordered eating behaviours such as binge eating (8). Furthermore, an 8-year study of women with a history of eating disorders found that those in recovery showed higher levels of 'eating for physical rather than emotional reasons', an important aspect of intuitive eating.


However, it may not be appropriate in the early stages of recovery when hunger cues have not yet normalised. Thus, intuitive eating may be more important to maintain recovery, as women at the end of the 8 year follow-up who had maintained a stable recovery had higher levels of intuitive eating (9).



Our approach to intuitive eating at TC Nutrition

The approach that we use at the TCN clinic to return to normal eating and intuitive eating is the RAVES Approach. We speak about it more in our blog on What is Normal Eating? There is a time and place for intuitive eating as part of recovery from an eating disorder or disordered eating, but you have to progress through the right steps to get there. You can't expect to eat intuitively if you are still working on overcoming fear foods or eating enough in your diet.


There is a common fear that intuitive eating will lead to "overeating," gaining too much weight or eating "too many" ultra processed foods, however, this isn't true. Intuitive eating is about finding an approach to nutrition that is non restrictive, but also eating intuitively means intuitively knowing what foods will nourish your body through a balanced approach. It is knowing that eating ultra processed foods all day, every day isn't going to be the healthiest way of looking after your body, and also eating a super clean diet won't be healthy either as this can be restrictive and trigger disordered eating thoughts and behaviours.



Key Takeaways

  • Intuitive eating involves reconnecting with your hunger and fullness cues, eating to nourish both your physical and mental health, and rejecting food rules.

  • Intuitive eating can lead to improvements in diet quality, due to a focus on gentle nutrition.

  • Intuitive eating is especially beneficial for mental health, leading to reduced concerns about weight, higher self-esteem, and body satisfaction.

  • Intuitive eating may be helpful in the later stages of eating disorder recovery to reduce the risk of relapse, but it should be combined with other interventions as part of a comprehensive treatment plan with a health professional.



Eating intuitively, and re-connecting with the needs of your body is a great approach to take which allows your body weight to settle at a place that it is meant to be. If you have any concerns that this approach might not work for you, or would like guidance in reconnecting with your innate hunger and fullness cues, we can support you in the TCN clinic so please get in touch.


At TCN our specialist eating disorder dietitians can offer online consultations to support your health journey and return to normal eating! Book a free 15 minute discovery call here with one of our dietitians.


Charlotte Green


Charlotte Green

Charlotte Green is a postgraduate Dietetics student at the University of Chester, after graduating with a degree in Biological Sciences from Durham University. She is passionate about the role of nutrition in health and longevity, the gut microbiome and the link between food and mood. Charlotte looks forward to supporting others live a healthier life in her future role as a registered Dietitian.


 

REFERENCES:

  1. Tylka TL, Kroon Van Diest AM. The Intuitive Eating Scale-2: item refinement and psychometric evaluation with college women and men. J Couns Psychol [Internet]. 2013 Jan [cited 2023 Jan 23];60(1):137–53. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23356469/

  2. Van Dyke N, Drinkwater EJ. Relationships between intuitive eating and health indicators: literature review. Public Health Nutr [Internet]. 2014 [cited 2023 Jan 21];17(8):1757–66. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23962472/

  3. Tribole E, Resch E. Intuitive Eating, 4th Edition: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach. 4th ed. Macmillan; 2020.

  4. Jackson A, Sano Y, Parker L, Cox AE, Lanigan J. Intuitive eating and dietary intake. Eat Behav. 2022 Apr 1;45:101606.

  5. Gödde JU, Yuan TY, Kakinami L, Cohen TR. Intuitive eating and its association with psychosocial health in adults: A cross-sectional study in a representative Canadian sample. Appetite. 2022 Jan 1;168:105782.

  6. Hazzard VM, Telke SE, Simone M, Anderson LM, Larson NI, Neumark-Sztainer D. Intuitive eating longitudinally predicts better psychological health and lower use of disordered eating behaviors: findings from EAT 2010-2018. Eat Weight Disord [Internet]. 2021 Feb 1 [cited 2023 Feb 15];26(1):287–94. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32006391/

  7. Nelson JB. Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat. Diabetes Spectr [Internet]. 2017 Aug 1 [cited 2023 Feb 15];30(3):171. Available from: /pmc/articles/PMC5556586/

  8. Denny KN, Loth K, Eisenberg ME, Neumark-Sztainer D. Intuitive eating in young adults. Who is doing it, and how is it related to disordered eating behaviors? Appetite [Internet]. 2013 Jan 1 [cited 2023 Feb 18];60(1):13–9. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23063606/

  9. Koller KA, Thompson KA, Miller AJ, Walsh EC, Bardone-Cone AM. Body appreciation and intuitive eating in eating disorder recovery. Int J Eat Disord [Internet]. 2020 Aug 1 [cited 2023 Jan 21];53(8):1261–9. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32020677/

 

Talia Cecchele Nutrition is a team of registered dietitians that specialise in eating disorders, disordered eating, digestive issues and sports nutrition. We aim to bring balance back to nutrition, help you to break free from food rules and find food freedom. We offer virtual consultations and group programs so whether you are based in London, the United Kingdom or around the world we would love to support you. To enquire about a private consultation please fill out a contact form.

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