What is Intuitive Eating?

Delicious spread of salads
Photo by Ella Olsson on Pexels.com

An Introduction

Chances are good you have at least heard of the phrase intuitive eating. It gets thrown around on social media, news outlets, and other mediums in such a conflicting manner that it can be hard to decipher what intuitive eating actually means. That feels so defeating, as intuitive eating is supposed to be about keeping things simple.

Squidward from Spongebob laying on the ground in defeat
How I feel when people make eating complicated or tout intuitive eating as a weight loss method

I have advocated for intuitive eating since the beginning of this blog and with each successive post, but I have yet to step back and break down what it is and how to incorporate it into our lives. That changes now!

Today’s post will focus on with intuitive eating is, some of its benefits, who can do it, and a few tips about how to start eating a bit more intuitively. Next week, we will do a deeper dive into incorporating intuitive eating into your life, and how to deal with people when they get judgey about it- because people will be judgey about other’s ways of eating no matter what. Ugh.

man dressed up as a judge saying "wow"
No matter how you eat, there will be someone who feels the need to judge.

In Short, Intuitive Eating is a Way of Life

You know how fitness influencers say things like, “it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle?” Whenever I hear this phrase in my mind, it’s always in a whiny, uppity, condescending tone. This phrase basically exists because adhering to fitness gurus’ certain food rules and exercise regimens take over their entire calendar, so yes, I guess whatever they are pushing is a lifestyle. Not a lifestyle that I want to be a part of, though. Diet culture is still at work here, even if fitness influencers claim it’s “not a diet, it’s a lifestyle.”

Intuitive eating is absolutely not a diet, as there are no restrictions on what or how much you can eat. It’s also not focused on making your body look a certain way through weight loss or “muscle tone”, which is vasty different than the other “lifestyle changes” that disguise regular fad diets. Instead, intuitive eating is about healing your relationship with food, so you can eat with freedom and without anxiety and guilt.

Image that says "it's a lifestyle"

This intuitive eating lifestyle is preferable to the former because it doesn’t overtake a person’s life and infiltrate their mind, hobbies, relationships, and everything else. Instead, it gives you more freedom with food and life than many could ever imagine is possible.

Intuitive eating is also about learning to accept your body, and maybe even forging a positive relationship with it. So many of us have spent years trying to shrink our bodies, leading us further and further away from intuitive eating and closer and closer to dieting and restriction. In other words, intuitive eating is weight-neutral and inclusive, and there is no morality tied with it like other diets.

Man saying "better call saul"
Saul Goodman: sometimes immoral. Eating bread or candy: never immoral.

Morality with food and diets is messed up, and I’m sure you have seen it before. It’s where the influencers or diets make us feel like dirty garbage if we can only afford conventional foods or the Instagram accounts that tell us eating even one slice of cheese or a single m&m will cause huge spikes of disease-causing inflammation to course through our veins.

I’d be willing to bet that at some point in our lives, we have been made to feel inferior because of our food choices or our body’s appearance. There is none of that BS in true intuitive eating. So yes, intuitive eating may not be a diet, and it is in fact a lifestyle, but it advocates for the exact opposite of everything that phrase is normally related to.

Man saying "this is going to be the opposite of that"
Everything you have learned from diet culture? Take the opposite and you have intuitive eating.

What are the Benefits of Intuitive Eating?

In my eyes, there are limitless benefits to intuitive eating, and very few, if any, drawbacks. The most important benefits to me personally include food freedom and flexibility, there is a mountain of evidence that show it can have mental and physical benefits, it’s completely free to implement, and it’s entirely customizable for each and every body.

Adhering to a rigid diet for “health” reasons felt like I had a super tight iron grip on my life, and I just couldn’t let go no matter how hard I tried. Intuitive eating, in contrast, feels like sitting in a relaxing hot spring and letting out an audible “ahhhh” with comfort. It feels laidback, tolerant, spontaneous, and flexible, and that emotional state is now where I prefer to be at all times, regarding food and everything else in life.

Dog and cat relaxing in hotter
How relaxing life can be in the absence of food anxiety and rigid diets

Intuitive eating is also evidence-based… more evidence based than popular fad diets that come and go. As of 2017, there were over 90 studies that showed promising results for intuitive eating with a variety of people.1

Since then, more studies have been conducted and released, and the evidence in favor of intuitive eating just keeps building. This is likely due to the fact that chronic dieting and food restriction are are associated with body dissatisfaction and weight gain. If you want to read some of these studies, head over to intuitiveeating.org’s resource page.

Aside from providing food and life freedom and being evidence based, another reason why I have stuck to intuitive eating and consistently promote it is because it doesn’t cost anything to add it to your life. You can get a copy of the book from your local library for free, and it doesn’t push expensive supplements or superfoods that aren’t accessible to everyone.

Woman saying "it's for free, and I said sure"
Intuitive eating is for free, and you should say “sure”

That’s a major contrast from businesses within the diet culture industry that sell you an expensive exercise booklet and nasty meal replacement shakes, or mystery powders and supplements that “rev your metabolism”.

Additionally, intuitive eating makes no promises on weight loss, and it doesn’t boast that you’ll see results within 14 days. Proponents of intuitive eating fully acknowledge that it takes time, and that you weight may fluctuate during the process. But changes in weight aren’t the point- changes in perspective and your relationship with food and your body are.

I also advocate for intuitive eating because it acknowledges that each individual is the expert of their own body. With this approach, nobody is going to tell you what to eat, when to eat, or how much to eat. You’ll learn to listen to your body, which is great because it’s super smart. It can tell you exactly what it needs, as long as you’re willing to listen.

Promotion for the diabolical dietitian's online merch store.
The Diabolical Dietitian now has an anti-diet merch store. Click the image above to check it out!

People confuse intuitive eating with a hedonistic lens that praises hardcore binges, but intuitive eating doesn’t encourage eating way past fullness all the time. Instead, it’s about eating what makes your body feel good, and speaking from personal experience, binges do not make one’s body feel good.

Binging tends to be more about overcoming past restrictions or dealing with emotional stuff that food can’t fix, but can perhaps provide temporary relief in the moment. This isn’t intuitive eating, but it is a sign that a person should seek help and give intuitive eating a try.

Who Can Do Intuitive Eating?

I firmly believe that everyone can practice intuitive eating and discover the joy that comes with food freedom. Even people who have certain conditions, like diabetes, heart disease, celiac disease, and others can practice intuitive eating, though it may take a different form anyone else’s. That’s the point anyway- everyone’s intuitive eating practice looks different because we are all different.

A man saying "same, but different, but still same"
IE may be a similar set of beliefs regarding food, but everyone’s practice of it will look different

Commercial diets exclaim that everyone would be healthier if they ate this and avoided that, but that doesn’t account for the variation we all experience in life. Socioeconomic status, cultural factors, age, food preferences, monthly grocery budget, food access, and many, many more things come together to help people decide what to eat. Fad diets don’t leave much wiggle room, if any.

Intuitive Eating, on the other hand, allows our bodies and our livelihoods to determine what foods are best for us. Everyone’s journey looks different, and that only makes sense, right?

As we discussed earlier, intuitive eating isn’t just about eating when we’re hungry and stopping when we’re full, and it’s definitely not about eating only ground beef or only desserts. Intuitive eating also focuses on how foods make us feel. When we pay more attention to our bodies during and after a meal, we can learn what foods make us genuinely feel good and satisfied, and what foods make us feel like garbage- physically, mentally, and spiritually.

A man slowly saying the word "trash"
How my body feels when I eat a lot more cheese than it asks for

With a diagnosis like diabetes, the focus might shift from never, ever eating carb-y foods to trying out different foods and combinations and seeing which ones make an individual feel good. This will likely include lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein, but it doesn’t mean any foods are banned forever. Desserts in certain portions truly can make us feel fantastic and satisfied, but desserts in other portion sizes can make us feel sluggish and bloated. It varies from person to person, day to day, and minute to minute.

For those that have to check their blood sugars, keep in mind that what you eat is not the only factor that determines the number on the meter. Even eating the same foods at the same times each day won’t necessarily give you the same numbers, so do your best not to stress if they read a little higher than you’re aiming for. A bit of intuitive movement can have a positive impact on blood sugars too.

Woman in cowboy hat dancing to the song Cotton Eye Joe
Dancing to Cotton Eye Joe is a perfectly legitimate method for getting some physical activity

Stress is one thing that definitely can negatively affect those blood sugars, so work to reduce stress and get enough sleep.2,3 Those factors may ultimately play a bigger role in keeping your blood sugar under control than any individual foods ever could. And intuitive eating is all about taking stress out of food choices and going with the flow a heck of a lot more.

Diabetes is just one of many conditions that may make intuitive eating seem out of reach, but it’s truly for everyone. We don’t have to spend our days worrying about each little calorie or pound, even though diet culture makes us think otherwise.

Some Quick Intuitive Eating Tips

Now that we have talked more about what intuitive eating actually is (reminder, not a way to lose weight), here are a few tips to implement more of it into your daily life. Let’s be clear: these tips are quick in that they don’t take long to start doing. However, implementing genuine intuitive eating into your life can take quite a bit of time.

Old time drive-in movie theatre with the words "and now, it's show time"
An now it’s time to get started on intuitive eating!

Most of us have spent years being at war with our bodies, and we won’t be able to undo all of those thought patterns and habits in a day. Some people will be able to dive headfirst into intuitive eating and never look back, but a lot of us will need to tackle it slowly but surely, getting 1% better each week.

Here are three tips for you to play with this week that will help you integrate more intuitive eating into your life.

  1. Give Yourself Permission to let Go

A lot of us carry almost religious food rules with us that are based on our own accord, or from something we heard from a coworker or on the news years ago. I always love a good journaling session, as I think it can help us discover why we do the things that we do, so I recommend trying some of the journal prompts from Spreading Ourselves Thin. I also have 30 Intuitive Eating Journal Prompts and a 7-Day Food Anxiety Work Book in my free stuff tab if you are interested!

Man saying "I'm letting you go"
You to your rigid food rules

Once you get to the root of why you hold onto certain food rules, you can work on relaxing your stance and letting them go.

This step can be one of the hardest because you must constantly give yourself permission, at every eating opportunity. It isn’t the type of permission where you allow yourself a dessert because it’s the weekend or because you’re starting your diet tomorrow. No, this is full-on, unconditional permission to let go in the long term.

I fully acknowledge that this is a scary notion for people who have been on diets for years or decades. People often ask how they can do intuitive eating while still losing weight or maintaining their weight, because their main fear when it comes to letting go of their iron grip on food rules is weight gain.

2. Practice Curiosity, Not Blame

This goes right along with giving yourself permission to let go. Be curious about anything and everything when it comes to what foods you reach for when you feel particular emotions and how certain foods make your body and mind feel.

Dog cocking its head to the side with curiosity
You looking at your food choices with genuine curiosity

Most of us have spent so much time listening to external cues about what to eat and when to eat, and it will take plenty of time to learn how to listen to our bodies and internal cues instead. The best way to get there is to be curious and to avoid blame.

Here’s an example: let’s say you just finished your dinner, and you decide to have a bowl of ice cream for dessert. After you enjoy the heck out of your bowl of ice cream, you feel tempted to eat some more. You add a few more scoops and continue eating ice cream.

Eventually you feel full and bloated, and you feel your instinct to punish yourself and blame your lack of willpower for returning to the pint of ice cream. This is a normal reaction for anyone who has been steeped in diet culture for any amount of time, but this is what we must work on eliminating.

No, a lack of willpower is not the reason you accidentally overeat. It’s your body’s natural reaction to restriction.

Instead of blame, be curious about why you wanted the second helping of ice cream. Were you still hungry, or did you feel sad and empty and it felt like having more ice cream could help? Did you enjoy the second helping as much as the first, or did it start to lose its appeal as you continued to eat it? Were you eating it quickly or slowly, and why?

You can’t work on your relationship with food if you aren’t aware of where you’re starting, and being genuinely curious about your eating habits is the best way to do this.

3. Eat What Sounds Good, and Suspend Your Judgements

When I first started eating intuitively, all I wanted was grain-based salty things, like bread, bagels, and pretzels. My sister only wanted waffles and pancakes. This can feel weird, and it’s easy to lose trust in your body at this stage, since fruits and veggies usually don’t sound great at first. Keep in mind that most of our bodies are used to going through periods of restraint and semi-starvation, so our bodies want quick sources of energy.

If the only thing that sounds good during the day is cereal and bread, eat them. If you want to eat nothing but cherries, eat them. If chips and cookies sound good, eat those too. You don’t have to stick to MyPlate guidelines, and you don’t have to force yourself to drink a green smoothie or eat vegetables if they sound terrible. Giving yourself permission to eat what you want when you want rids your life of the “forbidden fruit effect” where you want what you “can’t” have.

After your body learns that it can trust you to not restrict its intake again, it will begin to ask for foods like fruits, veggies, and whole grains if it hasn’t already. Back when I was restricting, I forced myself to eat salads because I wanted to get enough veggies, but they never sounded good. Now there are plenty of days throughout the week where a salad sounds like a perfect choice.

Similar to tip #2 with staying curious, it’s critical that you suspend your judgements, both on yourself and with others. We are often our own harshest critic, and those of us talking about intuitive eating usually have a history of being critical on ourselves about food choices.

We can thank diet culture for making our inner critic tell us this stuff on the daily.

Do your best to avoid judging your food and exercise choices, especially if you haven’t allowed yourself to eat “bad’ foods or take rest days in a long time. Your body needs and wants those, so let them have them with compassion, patience, and understanding. It will take time, but trust the process.

In Conclusion

Intuitive eating goes against the traditional advice regarding willpower, restraint, and determination when it comes to diet and exercise, and I think it’s time many of us make the shift toward it. I see no problem with taking a few steps back to work on healing one’s relationship with their body and reducing food anxiety, and I believe that genuine intuitive eating is the best way to get there.

How it feels to try to make food choices when you have a rigid set of food rules

Do we all really want to spend our entire lives so focused on our diets and exercise that we don’t focus on anything else? I sure don’t. Instead, I want everyone to experience the feeling of pure freedom I have gained by implementing intuitive eating into my life.

Next week, we will be going even more in depth about how to become a intuitive eater. Good luck with the three tips above, and I will see you then!

The Diabolical Dietitian now has an anti-diet merch store. Click the image above to check it out!

As Always, A Book Recommendation

I have recommended Intuitive Eating in the past, as I just feel that it is truly the best base anyone can find for explaining IE. I mean, Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribiole are the OG IE ladies, so who better to explain the principles and protocols?

I have read the 1st edition, originally published in the 1990’s a few years ago, and I got my copy of the 4th edition in the mail just a few weeks ago. It’s incredible to see how far the versions have come and how the practice of intuitive eating has stayed relevant and true to itself over decades, despite the changing times.

This book lives on my bookshelf, and I refer to it often when talking about food anxiety and diet culture with friends, family, and colleagues. I think it’s a small investment for such a helpful, comprehensive guide that you can review any time you might feel yourself straying from intuitive eating principles.

Of course I would love for you to purchase this book through my affiliate link, but I understand that it isn’t a doable ask for many people. If you can’t afford to purchase the book, see if you can get a copy of any version from your local library.

You can also get the third edition of Intuitive Eating (or any other available audiobooks) for FREE if you sign up for a free 30-day trial of Audible! This book’s message is so important, I wanted everyone to have the opportunity to get it, whether or not they can pay for it. If you already have Amazon Prime, you get TWO FREE audiobooks with this offer.

Also, if you don’t yet have it, here is a free 30-day trial of Amazon Prime that will allow you to get FREE 2-day shipping and the ability to borrow Kindle books! What’s not to love?

As an Amazon Associate, I earn a small percent off qualifying purchases from products linked on my website. It costs you nothing, but it helps keep my website running. I only recommend things I genuinely love.

Resources:

  1. Intuitive Eating Studies
  2. Blood Sugar & Stress: Diabetes Education Online
  3. Sleep Duration and Diabetes Risk: Population Trends and Potential Mechanisms

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