By Alice Schluger, CWP
Do you trust your intuition or gut feelings to avoid unhealthy situations and make decisions? This instinctual response pertains to physical body sensations related to specific experiences. Our thoughts and emotions, however, often get in the way. Learning to tap into our pure intuition takes time to develop, but it’s an invaluable tool. We can incorporate this innate resource to improve our health and well-being, including our daily eating habits.
What is your relationship with food? Chances are it’s not a healthy one. We have guilt and anxiety about what we should eat to stay healthy, and try to stave off cravings for foods we consider to be bad for us. If you’ve ever tried dieting, you know that most diets don’t sustain weight loss in the long run. Preoccupations with food are a constant struggle compounded by additional challenges brought on by quarantine conditions during the pandemic. Is there a way to reconcile our food and dieting obsessions?
What is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating (IE) is a novel approach that was developed by two registered dieticians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Ten science-based principles discard the notions of dieting, willpower, and control overeating. The emphasis is on getting in touch with innate body signals associated with hunger, fullness, and satiety. This is in contrast to dieting which ignores signals of hunger and fullness in order to adhere to a stringent set of rules. Counting calories, measuring portions and food restrictions are dismissed in favor of focusing on internal, rather than external cues. Consequently, body weight issues are secondary to physical and psychological health, granting permission to eat when and what we want (Barraclough, C. Hay-Smith, Boucher, Tylka & Horwath, 2019).
The results of numerous studies to date are promising regarding the effectiveness of IE principles and its non-diet foundation. Quantitative research has shown benefits in behavioral outcomes and overall well-being using the IE method (Barraclough et al., 2019). A recent qualitative study revealed similar results in a cohort of middle-aged women (Barraclough et al., 2019). An investigation of a large sample of young adults reported a high prevalence of trust in their bodies for both quantity of food consumed and feelings of fullness with the IE approach (Denny, Loth, Eisenberg, & Neumark-Sztainer, 2013). According to Denny et al., 2013, intuitive eating may also help reduce disordered eating behaviors. On the whole, the psychological effects of increased self-esteem and coping skills have been demonstrated in both males and females, along with improvements in physical health.
Intuitive vs. Mindful Eating
How does intuitive eating differ from mindful eating? There is some degree of overlap, so eliciting the expertise of Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor Maria Scrimenti clarified the main similarities and differences. According to Scrimenti, both intuitive eating and mindful eating aim to transform the way we nourish our bodies and form a positive relationship with food. Unlike mindful eating, however, intuitive eating is a specific model. Scrimenti states that “intuitive eating speaks to how deeply problematic dieting is for your physical and psychological well-being and takes a firm stand against toxic diet culture, weight stigma and weight discrimination.” She also points out that “you can be a mindful eater without being an intuitive eater but you cannot be an intuitive eater without also being a mindful eater.”
Intuitive eating is more inclusive than mindful eating because it encompasses other areas besides food. While you still observe body senses and how food makes you feel, it’s also about increasing enjoyment at mealtimes. Your body is meant to be nourished. Your mind should be on the process of eating as you savor the food and notice the appearance, taste, smell and texture. There shouldn’t be any emotional labeling attached to eating which detracts from the experience and how we feel about ourselves. In other words, judgment, guilt and shame are replaced by pleasurable thoughts and sensations about food and eating (Tribole & Resch, 2020).
How Does Intuitive Eating Work?
You’re probably wondering about self-control and how to avoid binge eating with the IE model. On the contrary, it is strict dieting that often leads to binge eating as a visceral reaction to hunger and starvation. It’s uncertain whether there is such a thing as a “food addiction,” so don’t assume you’re genetically predisposed to fail at intuitive eating. Fear of getting fat has been ingrained in us by societal standards and social media pressures. This is a difficult process to undo, considering the rigid rules that we have followed pertaining to our eating habits. It literally feeds into our perception of food as scary, albeit exciting and forbidden. The “forbidden fruit” is all the more tempting unless we give ourselves permission to have it.
Once the so-called “magic” wears off, habituation will eventually set in. Habituation in this context refers to getting tired of eating the same food even if it is your favorite food. The act of giving yourself permission negates the need for self-control. There are no self-imposed restrictions about dieting or calories because you are responding to your body signals (Tribole & Resch, 2020).
The Benefits of “Minding Your Body”
The idea of adopting a judgment-free lifestyle is appealing on many levels. It enables us to embrace the mind-body connection and foster acceptance of our individual body types. This coincides with the principles of health psychology in its emphasis on the unified relationship between the mind and the body. One cannot function without the other, as they indistinguishably function as one system.
Intuitive eating leads to greater satisfaction towards eating, as well as promoting overall wellness. Travis’ Twelve Dimensional Model of Wellness places an emphasis on eating, breathing, and sensing (Arloski, 2014). Wellness coaches can incorporate the IE principles with clients in an exploration of the role of eating and how this improves meaning and purpose in their lives. This shifts the focus from dieting to a broader understanding of eating behavior in a more conscious way.
Improvements in self-confidence and self-respect are also cultivated within a holistic framework. In wellness coaching, the use of this multidimensional application with clients fosters self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-responsibility, as well as an exploration of the role of eating. Somewhere along the line, we have stopped trusting our bodies and ignoring our internal cues. Learning to follow our hunger and fullness cues takes time to understand, but ultimately builds greater satisfaction towards eating. Maria Scrimenti maintains that “intuitive eating has been life-changing for me and my clients. It frees us from the shackles of dieting, dieting culture and the endless pursuit of weight loss.” Although our intuition may not always be 100% right, tuning into our internal body cues is a gut reaction worthy of our time and attention.
Arloski, M. (2014). Wellness Coaching for Lasting Lifestyle Change. (2nd ed.). Whole Person Associates, Inc.
Barraclough, E.L., C. Hay-Smith, E.J., Boucher, S.E., Tylka, T.L, and Horwath, C.C. (2019). Learning to eat intuitively: A qualitative exploration of the experience of mid-age women. Health Psychology Open,6(1).
Retrieved from https://doi: 10.1177/2055102918824064
Denny, K.N., Loth, K., Eisenberg, M.E., and Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2013). Intuitive eating in young adults: Who is doing it, and how is it related to disordered eating behaviors? Appetite, 60(1), 13-19. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2012.09.029
Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2020). Intuitive eating: A revolutionary anti-diet approach. (4th ed.). St. Martin’s Essentials.