What is Intuitive Eating?

In this post, I explore the question ‘What is Intuitive Eating?’ from the perspective of a trained Intuitive Eating Counsellor and Registered Nutritionist. We take a wild ride through the 10 principles and the five stages, briefly discuss what IE is not and then chat about how to get started.

The Basics of Intuitive Eating: An Overview

If you discovered Intuitive Eating via social media then you may think it’s about thin women eating pink donuts while staying thin. It’s perplexing, and weirdly frothy. Is this Intuitive Eating? Let’s dig in!

So firstly, Intuitive Eating (IE) isn’t just eating donuts and giving dieting the middle finger, although it’s not not that. ‘Intuitive Eating’ refers to a specific intervention framework designed to resolve food fears and obsessions and recover a healthy relationship with food and one’s body. Those are my words. The authors of the book ‘Intuitive Eating’ describe it like this:

Intuitive Eating is an evidenced-based, mind-body health approach, comprised of 10 Principles and created by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995. It is a weight-neutral model with a validated assessment scale and over 90 studies to date (Tribole 2017).

Evelyn Tribole

The idea is that we are born with an innate sense of what to eat and how much. Throughout life we are bombarded with external messaging about how we are supposed to eat and look. We may develop dysfunctions and use food inappropriately to cope. We become disconnected from our hunger, fullness and satisfaction and experience stress around food. Through a structured process, IE aims to put you back in touch with your body and restore autonomy to the eating process. The outcome may be donuts while others eat salad, but it could equally be you eating moderately at Christmas while others nosh to the point of discomfort.

A Quick Circle Back for Context

It’s worth understanding that while the term ‘Intuitive Eating’ became famous with Evelyn and Elyse’s book, the concept of ‘eating intuitively’ had been around for a while. I was there! As an 80’s teen with binge eating issues, I ploughed through the heaving ‘mindful eating’ shelf in the library. Geneen Roth was the queen of antidiet, and James Ferguson’s ‘Habits not Diets’ was of the moment. Even Elizabeth Taylor had ditched diets, embraced cravings and written about it. The message was clear: diets don’t work, you just end up hungrier and ultimately fatter. Food is not good or bad, in fact it isn’t about the food at all, but your approach to it! Do naturally skinny people obsess over pastries? No. See?

‘Intuitive Eating’ came along in 1995, with these and other concepts well packaged for use as both self-help and in clinical practice. By then I was in a solid recovery phase and thumbed through it, wishing I’d had this book when at my worst. Fast forward 25 years and I was reading the third revision and getting trained as a Certified IE Counsellor.

Enough biography, let’s get into some details. You’ve probably heard of the 10 Principles, but did you know there are also five stages?

The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating (and the Five Stages).

This part is important.

Ten principles of equal importance make up the Intuitive Eating framework. This is crucial to comprehend because most mainstream commentary isolates just three of them: hunger, fullness and making peace with food (‘unconditional permission to eat’).

The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating

  1. Reject the Diet Mentality: If diets worked, they would have already. And yet, here we are.
  2. Honour your Hunger: You have hunger cues for a reason. Getting to know them will help restore balance to your eating pattern.
  3. Make Peace with Food: Stop the Food Fight! Food is not the enemy. Restricting or forbidding certain foods has only made them more attractive, let’s undo that.
  4. Challenge the Food Police: The Food Police live in your head, commenting and judging. Learning cognitive skills to challenge and silence them restores some much-needed peace.
  5. Discover the Satisfaction Factor: Satisfaction is not just about how much you eat. What about atmosphere, texture, flavour, the emotions around food. All of these things matter to feeling like you’ve ‘eaten enough’.
  6. Feel your Fullness: This one can be tricky if all you usually feel is very hungry or very full. Over time, eating just enough is a skill you can learn.
  7. Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness (Previously ‘Cope with Your Emotions Without Using Food’): This principle focuses on learning to identify your emotions and cope with them appropriately.
  8. Respect your Body: You may not love, or even like, your body, but nearly everyone can learn to respect what the body does for us. It’s bloody marvelous.
  9. Movement – Feel the Difference (Previously ‘Exercise – Feel the Difference’): As a child, did you love to run and play just for the fun of it? When did movement become a chore linked to weight loss? Ugh.
  10. Honour Your Health – Gentle Nutrition: Finally! Yes, nutrition still matters. This principle is last for a reason though. In diet culture, nutrition has been pushed to the forefront and stripped of context. Nothing else matters. IE doesn’t downgrade nutrition, so much as re-establish it as a slice of the pie, not the whole pie. Nutritional adequacy takes it’s place within the rich context of life and food, rather than being reduced to numbers and analysis. Most people coming to IE are encyclopedias of nutrition. It is simply not necessary to emphasise it further.

The Five Stages of Becoming an Intuitive Eater

The five stages describe the psychological process that is common to any major behavioural change. As with other behaviours, change starts with hitting the wall. You are over diets. You’re done.

Step 1: Readiness – Hitting Diet Bottom. My experience with clients interested in Intuitive Eating is that they’ve been hanging at Diet Bottom for a while. It’s not a fun place, and certainly not worth the money. Features of Diet Bottom include feeling crap about your body, spending excessive time planning diets, having ‘last supper’ binges before the diet starts, guilt about food and scale-based mood swings. Fun times!

Step 2: Exploration – Conscious Learning and Pursuit of Pleasure. This is the ‘learning to drive’ phase of Intuitive Eating. It can feel like hard work! This is the stage where people experience ‘diet backlash’ and may eat a lot of previously forbidden foods. You may experience ‘hyperconsciouness’ around hunger, fullness, satisfaction and emotions. You’re used to eating being either controlled by a diet, or completely uncontrolled. This new phase of learning interoceptive awareness (internally directed control) can feel damn weird.

Step 3: Crystallisation. In the crystallisation phase, things finally begin to feel ‘intuitive’. The most common feedback I get from clients about this phase is ‘I don’t think about food anymore’. Once you’ve reached this step, decisions around food are easier. You’ve learned to differentiate biological from emotional hunger, and previous ‘trigger’ foods are now just food. Nutrition often becomes more balanced.

Step 4: The Intuitive Eater Awakens – I would describe this phase as characterised by relaxation around body, food, movement and eating. Having been through the Intuitive Eating process myself, this phase was full of amusement. I kept finding unopened bags of crisps or half-nibbled chocolate bars. My thoughts turned to increasing nutrition without ‘dieting’. I could dine out sans anxiety around the menu. Exercise became interesting again, rather than an exhausting burden.

Step 5: The Final Stage – Treasure the Pleasure. Eating is supposed to be enjoyable. In this final stage of Intuitive Eating, you can eat without the shadow of guilt, without running numbers in your head, and with an easy connection to your hunger and fullness cues. You’ve probably become quite good at challenging the internal and external diet police too. I’ve heard this phase described as ‘seeing dead people’ (from the move ‘The Sixth Sense’), but instead of dead people, it’s diet culture.

What Intuitive Eating is Not: Concerns and Misconceptions

I wish this section wasn’t necessary, but in the aforementioned sea of instagram misinformation, it’s caveat emptor. Intuitive Eating is not:

  • Throwing nutrition science and your brain out the window
  • Ignoring medically prescribed diets
  • The ‘hunger and fullness’ weight loss diet
  • Unconditional permission to binge
  • ‘Eating wholefoods to train your intuition to eat less’
  • A way to lose weight
  • The Panacea

A huge red flag is co-opting of the ‘Intuitive Eating’ title to promote diets, because…

Intuitive Eating is Not About Weight Loss

This can be a hard concept to grasp. Intuitive Eating does not have weight loss as a goal, or measurable outcome. Likewise, it is not designed to make you ‘automatically eat less’. I have seen social media posts and articles titled ‘why Intuitive Eating doesn’t work’, and they always mean that it doesn’t necessarily cause weight loss.

Saying Intuitive Eating doesn’t work for weight loss is like saying the cast on your broken arm doesn’t work for changing your hair colour.

In this way, IE is probably unique. I can’t think of another food-related health intervention that does not centre weight-loss. Can you?

As weight is often a concern though, the approach in the framework is to ‘put weight on the backburner’. We’re not ignoring it, but it’s not the priority right now. Personally, and with clients, I’d say this is 100% necessary. When learning IE, the focus is on the work, and it is work. My experience is that it’s common to gain weight in the early phases of IE. This is the ‘diet backlash’ where brain and body adjust to the novel idea that we are not on a diet any more. Focusing on weight at this point can trigger a quantum leap back onto the diet hamster wheel. It can be tough. Sorry, I wish there were an easy ride out of diet culture.

So if we’re not measuring weight, how is IE beneficial? A quick search on Pubmed shows numerous impacts on health including: reduced unhealthy eating patterns (e.g. dieting, binge eating, emotional eating), improved fruit and vegetable intake, better glycemic control in type II diabetes, improved body image, reduced depressive symptoms and lower BMI when compared to non-intuitive eaters. It is worth noting that very few of these studies are actual interventions. For example, while IE is associated with lower BMI, this is observational. That is, women with lower BMI are more likely to be intuitive eaters, rather than intuitive eating causing lower BMI. There’s still a lot to be discovered in the IE research space.

Intuitive Eating is Not for Everyone

This may be controversial, but the IE framework is not for everyone. For example, I now work in public health, with a focus on ensuring nutritious food is available and accessible. It’s worlds away from stocking your house with hot button foods. Even in private practice, IE is not the most suitable intervention for everyone. It does assume a level of privilege, access and ‘me time’ that not everyone has. Additionally, some people just don’t need it. They’re already intuitive eaters, they just need tweaks to get their cholesterol down. I’ve also come across super busy people that have nil interest in doing anything mindful or intuitive, and others that are in recovery from an ED and couldn’t perceive a hunger signal yet if it whacked them between the eyes. They need structure.

Where IE works spectacularly well is for the exhausted dieter. The ones stuck in the diet cycle, and truly sick of it. They often come with binge eating issues, poor body image, have fear foods, food rules and obsessions and feel out of control. Some are still having purge or starve cycles, and symptoms of a dysregulated system like irregular periods and insomnia. Time and time again I’ve seen binge eating resolve using the IE principles, food obsessions fade away. I particularly enjoy those cute messages like ‘just found a half-eaten chocolate bar in my car’ or ‘actually enjoyed vegetables, LOL’.

Another group that IE works well for is the ED recovered person who is still ‘weird about food’. This is sometimes referred to as ‘pseudorecovery’. Learning the principles can help finally edge out those stubborn disordered thoughts and behaviours.

How to Get Started: Tips for Beginners

It can be tempting to look at the 10 principles and start working through them, checklist style. This isn’t usually the best approach, as starting points vary. If you’re working with a certified counsellor, they’ll run you through the IE-2 Assessment Scale. You can also get the Intuitive Eating companion workbook and assess yourself.

If you are DIY’ing it with the book, a common trap is jumping straight to the principles that are most diet-like: honouring hunger/fullness and gentle nutrition. Everyone wants to do that! In reality though, years of dieting can make perceiving hunger and (especially) fullness quite difficult. Beginners may find ‘stopping when full’ makes them miserable and rebel by overeating. Not a great staring point. Later it will be easier.

As a suggestion, a fun place to start is the satisfaction factor (principle 5). Get to know the hub of satisfaction, and think about where your current strengths and weaknesses are. The ‘Discover Satisfaction’ section of the satisfaction hub is a handy starting point. This principle brings satisfaction back to the table, where dieting has banished it. As mentioned in the ’10 Principles of IE’ section, satisfaction is those parts of eating that go beyond feeling full and being technically nourished. For example, your eating environment, the food’s appearance and the sensory attributes: would you prefer more crunch? more chewiness? less salt? smaller or larger bites? That sort of thing. It’s not the only place to begin your IE journey, but if you’re unsure, it’s a good, non-triggering place to start.

From wherever you start, the main point is that your journey with IE is your own. Unlike diets, you can’t fail at IE. If you’ve hit diet bottom, it’s really worth a try. As I’ve often said to nervous undieters, ‘diets will always be there’. There’s no harm in trying something else, and perhaps Intuitive Eating can set you back on the path to food freedom and sanity. Wouldn’t that feel better?

Any questions? HMU in the comments.

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