Intuitive Eating 101
Intuitive Eating (IE) is still a relatively new trend and it continues to grow in popularity, currently sitting at over 1.9 million hashtags!
But what is intuitive eating? And more importantly, is there evidence behind this new style of eating? So here I am as a registered dietitian ready to explain all!
SO, WHAT DOES IE INVOLVE?
IE is an eating style that promotes a healthy attitude toward food and body image. It includes 10 flexible principles with a non-diet approach to eating. Individuals are encouraged to tune into themselves for the answers on what, how and when to eat. Non-diet means promoting sustainable behaviours, better body image, and a healthier relationship with food. The focus is not on the scales.
We are all born intuitive eaters. Think of babies, who cry when they need food, stop when they’re full, then cry when they need to eat again. There’s no defined schedule, they may eat more one day and less the next, but it all balances out.
WHY DOESN’T EVERYONE EAT THIS WAY?
As we grow up, we’re introduced to diet culture and diet rules (sometimes without even realising it!). We’re forced to clean the plate even if we’re full, or push it away when we’re still hungry. We are told that certain foods are "bad" or "off-limits" and if we give in to this temptation it is solely down to a lack of willpower. We are led to believe that certain bodies are more valued than others, which puts us under pressure to look a certain way.
Ultimately, unknown to us, we move away from responding to the direct messages of the body (e.g. hunger and fullness signals) to guide us on how to eat. Instead, we start listening to external cues (fitness apps, meal-plans, diet rules) about what, how much, and when we should be eating. This can set off a cascade of unwanted food behaviours including dieting, restricting, binging, emotional eating and obsessing about food. IE is a counter to this. It teaches you how to get back to eating the way you were born to.
WHAT DOES THE SCIENCE SAY?
Today the research on IE is robust, with over 130 published studies showing intuitive eaters to have:
● Better body image
● More satisfaction with life
● Lower rates of disordered eating & eating disorders
● Lower rates of emotional eating
● Lower BMIs
● Lower frequency of weight cycling
We can clearly see that IE has benefits to both physical and mental health. We often talk about nutrition and health in a very clinical way, forgetting that the people behind the eating have complex thoughts and emotions. Mental health is health too, and any dietary change that negatively affects mental health is unlikely to make you any healthier overall.
THE 10 PRINCIPLES OF INTUITIVE EATING
(Remember these are simply guidelines, not new diet rules)
1. REJECT THE DIET MENTALITY
Reject the system of dieting. Throw out the diet books. Remove the dieting apps. Declutter your Instagram feed from anything that offers you the false hope of losing weight quickly, easily and permanently. Reject diet culture and the lies that have led you on a spiral of dieting, restricting, binging, and then starting all over again on Monday. If you allow even one small hope to linger that a new more effective diet might be lurking around the corner, it will prevent you from being free to rediscover IE.
2. HONOUR YOUR HUNGER
Give yourself permission to respond to your body’s biological need for food. Ignoring your hunger for too long can lead to a primal drive to over-eat, overriding all the very best of intentions.
3. MAKE PEACE WITH FOOD
End the war you have with food. If you tell yourself that a certain food is “off-limits” or “forbidden” it can lead to intense feelings of deprivation. This can lead to uncontrollable cravings and often bingeing. People are often most scared about this principle, but you’ll be amazed how much power food loses over you when nothing is restricted.
4. CHALLENGE THE FOOD POLICE
The food police are the thoughts in your own head, your own inner critic. They tell you you’re “good” for skipping breakfast or a “failure” for eating ice-cream. There are diet rules and regulations that have been entirely created by diet culture and are now held deep in our psyche. Learning to recognise these voices and move away from these thoughts will help you to view food more neutrally.
5. DISCOVER THE SATISFACTION FACTOR
Allow yourself to enjoy food again. When we view food solely as a source of energy or even as the enemy in our pursuit of weight loss, we can lose the joy of eating. When you eat what you really want in an environment that is inviting, the pleasure you derive will be a powerful force in helping you feel satisfied and content.
6. FEEL YOUR FULLNESS
In order to honour your fullness, you need to trust that you will give yourself the foods that you desire. Observe the signs that show that you are comfortably full. Take time to pause in the middle of eating to ask yourself how the food tastes and what your current hunger level is.
7. COPE WITH YOUR EMOTIONS WITH KINDNESS
Anxiety, loneliness, boredom and anger are emotions we all experience throughout life. Food won’t fix any of these feelings. It may comfort them in the short term and sometimes that’s ok. But food will not solve the problem. Finding ways to cope with difficult emotions without using food is important.
8. RESPECT YOUR BODY
All bodies deserve respect. We need to work on accepting our bodies just as they are, regardless of shape or size. We don’t need to feel body positive 100% of the time but respect your body so you can feel better about who you are. It is hard to reject the diet mentality if you are unrealistic and critical of your body size or shape.
9. MOVEMENT – FEEL THE DIFFERENCE
Embrace the joys of moving your body without trying to change your physical appearance or earn your food. If you hate the gym, then it might be time to quit and that’s OK. There are so many other ways to include movement in your life that will feel fun and exciting to you. Everyone is unique in this respect, keep looking until you find what makes you happy. If you focus on how you feel from working out (e.g. energized), it can make the difference between rolling out of bed for a brisk walk in the morning or hitting the snooze button.
10. HONOUR YOUR HEALTH WITH GENTLE NUTRITION
Make food choices that honour your health and taste buds. Gentle nutrition teaches us that a healthy diet is varied, balanced and realistic. It does not exclude certain foods unless medical, ethical, or religious reasons need to be prioritized. Remember that there is no such thing as the “perfect” diet. You will not suddenly become unhealthy or get a nutrient deficiency from one small snack, meal or day of eating. Gentle nutrition is about the bigger picture of what you eat most of the time.
Finally, and funnily enough, intuitive eating doesn’t always come intuitively. It takes time, patience and the motivation to make a change. For some, this will come easily and for others, professional support may help. Follow the path that works for you. Even then, IE may not be for everyone, but the principles can hold some meaning for all of us.
Maria Lucey is a Registered Dietitian and Clinical Nutritionist who is passionate about supporting others to lead healthier and happier lives. She provides online consultations across Ireland, corporate wellness services and dietetic services to different facilities across Dublin and Cork. Visit the Services page to learn more.