Perhaps you have heard of Intuitive Eating recently and wondered what this actually means… So let's have a look. In its most basic sense, Intuitive Eating is trusting our bodies' messages and cues relating to hunger, satiety, and fullness. I apply this to exercise and movement as well, but we’ll get into that a little later!
Intuitive Eating is an evidence-based approach developed by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S, and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, CEDS-S, Fiaedp, FADA, FAND. Both women are dietitians. They developed this way of thinking back in the 1990s, when "diet foods" like margarine and Snackwell cookies were very popular. In my opinion, the 1990s were a real low point in our nutrition history, fraught with diet culture where how thin we were was directly correlated with our value. Foods were labeled “good” or “bad" based on their caloric content and their fat content. In the 1990s, the school of thought was that eating fat made a person fat. Enter Snackwell and 100-calorie prepackaged snacks! Ironically, this also ushered in a trend of disordered eating patterns. Thinness was associated with goodness, calories were earned with exercise, and any food that was actually tasty was a “cheat” meal, and one that comes with a side of guilt. It was a time where there was very little reward for asking people to trust their bodies. (https://www.intuitiveeating.org/about-us/)
In response to this, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch developed the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating to combat some of the loud messaging from diet culture.
Ten Principles of Intuitive Eating:
Reject the Diet Mentality
Honor Your Hunger
Make Peace with Food
Challenge the Food Police
Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Feel Your Fullness
Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness
Respect Your Body
Movement - Feel the Difference
Honor Your Health - Gentle Nutrition
One of the main goals of Intuitive Eating is to encourage people to listen to and trust their inner voice when it communicates hunger, fullness, desire, and enjoyment of food. This was a tough ask in the 1990s and a tough ask even today after all the years we have spent steeped in diet culture. We refer to this inner voice as interoception, which is understanding and feeling what is going on inside your body. It includes sensations related to comfort and temperature as well as body processes like knowing when it’s time to go to the restroom or recognizing hunger and thirst. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7780231/) We are born knowing how to eat intuitively. Typically developing babies and children show us examples of how they eat, drink, and move in response to their internal messages, they do so…intuitively.
There are many reasons why we might be shut off from our inner voice of interoception - trauma, stress, and learned disordered eating patterns due to diet culture and restriction. When we are told it is “bad” to be hungry and to have an appetite, tuning away from these sensations can allow people to stay on their diet for longer and possibly reach their weight loss goal, albeit usually temporarily, but it still creates some positive reinforcement. Of course, there might be times we have to tune out that voice - when we are driving or focusing and engrossed in a task, perhaps delivering a presentation and we have to ignore the voice that is telling us to eat right now. But, typically after the event is over, we can return to our bodies and use the restroom or get a much needed snack. However, when we are tuning out for very long periods of time, our body will create a new baseline where we are turning away from that messaging more often than we are tuning in. (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/aug/15/the-hidden-sense-shaping-your-wellbeing-interoception)
Intuitive Eating attempts to intercept these messages received through diet culture - that certain foods are “good” and certain foods are “bad.” There is room for all foods in our meals - even, and sometimes especially, those we may have previously called “bad” or “junk” or “empty calories.” The goal is to be aware of each food and make space for all of them. Having strong emotions attached to certain foods and even eating emotionally are both part of a healthy relationship with food.
Another main tenet of Intuitive Eating is enjoyment and pleasure. The research shows that enjoying the foods we eat actually improves digestion and absorption of nutrients. Isn’t this the best news! In clinical trials, pleasure has been shown to optimize metabolic power. When we eat the foods we like and crave, we release CCK, or cholecystokinin, a hormone that is fun to pronounce, prompts digestion, and stimulates pleasure in our cerebral cortex. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0002916523284348?via%3Dihub) This is another example of the mind-body connection at work and why food is so important to our well-being, identity, culture, and part of how we share our lives with others and prioritize nourishing ourselves.
Personally, one of my favorite parts of Intuitive Eating - and my job as a personal trainer for that matter - is curiosity. If you’ve spent any time with me, you know I ask a lot of questions. I like to really get to know my clients and I enjoy forming relationships and connections.
I believe being curious about my relationship with exercise, movement, and food has helped me grow and feel better in my own body. It also helps me to problem solve and offer solutions for my clients. People think Intuitive Eating is just eating what you want whenever you want. They picture someone sitting in bed surrounded by Oreo cookies and tubs of ice cream and saying, “well my body wanted cookies and ice cream so I listened to it.” This is where the curiosity comes in… let's say we did eat cookies and ice cream for dinner one night. Let's say we did it every night for a week… What might happen? We might get really tired of cookies and ice cream and we might realize that we didn’t sleep well or feel so great the next day. So, if we’re curious about cookies and ice cream we might discover on our own that we prefer to eat something different for dinner and change the frequency and portion of cookies and ice cream in our day - not because they are ”bad” foods but because we have learned the way that food makes us feel. (Of course there are certain medical conditions, such as diabetes or celiac disease, for which this would be an inappropriate experiment. Intuitive eating works to remove restrictions around food unless they are for medical reasons and food intolerances.)
What Does the Research Say?
It is interesting to note that Intuitive Eating reduces markers of cardiovascular disease. In this study, Intuitive Eating and Biomarkers Related to Cardiovascular Disease in Older Adults, (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35534099/) participants with greater intuitive eating experienced an improved LDL to HDL ratio and lower triglyceride levels, both of which reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. The research also shows that Intuitive Eating leads to healthier metabolic outcomes.
In this study, Intuitive Eating Behavior, Diet Quality and Metabolic Health in the Postpartum in Women with Gestational Diabetes (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9612041/) pregnant women with a gestational diabetes diagnosis were studied. One year postpartum it was found that the subjects had improved diet quality and lowered their risk of negative metabolic outcomes, which increase after a gestational diabetes diagnosis.
In studies where multiple markers of health were examined, it was found that improved psychological health is also correlated with Intuitive Eating. Bringing an awareness back to the body can bolster a sense of control and autonomy where food is no longer feared and health is honored. This leads to more life satisfaction, higher levels of self esteem, and lowered depressive symptoms and incidence of disordered eating patterns. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7392799/)
Intuitive Eating can bring joy back to your relationship with food and with your body. It is not a diet or plan. It is not a diet masquerading as a “lifestyle.” It is an exploration of your relationship with food and with your own body, meant to last a lifetime. No quick fixes here! But unlike diets, it is sustainable. One of my favorite quotes (and I have no idea who said it first) is, “this diet worked the first time…” Well, then it didn’t actually work! Intuitive Eating is learning the language of your own body and challenging the ways we all may be used to communicating with our bodies about food and hunger.
Want to Explore Intuitive Eating Yourself?
If any of this sounds helpful to you, I am now offering Nutrition Consults at FIT Carrboro. I decided in 2017 to work towards becoming a Registered Dietitian and earning my Master’s degree in Nutrition. I first had to complete the Didactic Program in Dietetics, from which I gained a second Bachelor’s degree. Then when Covid hit, the practical rotations required by the program were halted indefinitely, so I decided to flip the order and apply to my Master’s program first. I am almost finished! And ready to apply my knowledge during these one on one consults.
A typical session will include time for us to get curious about your eating habits, patterns, and schedule and your energy level. We will discuss your specific food preferences and craft an eating plan that works for your needs, budget, schedule, and activities. I want to help you develop a more inclusive mindset when it comes to eating and food, so my focus will not be on what to take away or restrict, but rather on what we can ADD to your meals to create more satiety, enjoyment, and pleasure. My philosophy is that food and movement should enrich your life, not increase your stress level.
Head to Our Services page to get started!