Eating intuitively and honoring cravings could be the key to healthier eating habits—and while losing weight isn’t the point, it could still be a side effect. So what exactly is intuitive eating all about?
Diets Don’t Work
I’ve been a yo-yo dieter for over 20 years. I was on the Atkins diet by the time I was in the third grade (which absolutely makes me cringe now). Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem, South Beach, Whole30, the cabbage soup diet, the master cleanse, paleo—like I said, I’ve been stuck on this dieting treadmill for as long as I can remember.
That is, until just a couple years ago when I discovered “intuitive eating,” a nutritional ideology that encourages one to embrace his or her natural hunger cues and completely forego diet culture (because as many people, including experts, attest: diets don’t work).
I’m sure many of you probably just scoffed, snickered, and/or widened your eyes, because that’s what I did when I first heard of the principles of intuitive eating. Last year after another unsuccessful Weight Watchers run, I simultaneously began a podcast about working out, and my co-host, who is also a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, introduced me to the the book “Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight” by Dr. Linda Bacon. I’d seen references to this body positive methodology on Instagram posts accompanied by hashtags like #haes (health at every size) and #bopo. Still, I was skeptical and thought it sounded like it might be some kind of marketing ploy to repackage mindful eating, the practice of being present when sitting down to a meal.
Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, $8.29 on Amazon
Linda Bacon, PhD, explores the surprising truth about weight.
Eventually, what I learned is that while mindful eating plays into intuitive eating some, intuitive eating principles go beyond just paying attention to raising fork to mouth. It advocates a complete retooling of what you consider to be bad or good behaviors in terms of your health. There are ten principles in all, but at its core, intuitive eating asks you to virtually unlearn an entire life’s worth of diet knowledge by understanding that weight and health are not synonymous (i.e., you may be healthy, even at a weight deemed “unhealthy” by the BMI chart, which even some health professionals are deeming ineffective).
Intuitive Eating Guidelines
The main guidelines are these: Be mindful of your hunger (that includes not ignoring hunger signals); take the time to enjoy your food; prioritize nutrient-dense foods; listen to your body’s internal cues to know when you’re full (in technical terms, when you’ve achieved satiety); don’t label foods as good or bad or can’t have, but rather note how they make you feel; when it comes to exercise, find joy in movement as opposed to focusing on how many calories you’re burning.
If you want to binge on an abnormally large amount of spaghetti, ask yourself why. Is it because you feel sad? Or stressed? Or bored? If that’s the case, intuitive eating (as opposed to emotional eating, or “eating your feelings”) tells you your body probably doesn’t need whatever it is you think you want in that moment.
Believe me, I get that it sounds like a hippie regimen birthed in the ‘60s, but intuitive eating actually first came about in 1995, when two registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, published “Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works.” Now there are psychologists, disordered eating specialists, and even nutritionists who are proponents of the anti-diet plan. There are also studies that show intuitive eating may help people make long-term health and behavioral changes while more restrictive dieting does not.
So why is intuitive eating becoming a buzzword in health and wellness circles again? Probably as a response to the large pool of restrictive, quick-results-diets we’re swimming in as of late (keto much anyone?). Not to mention, the body-positive movement that’s infiltrated the culture at large (intuitive eating is big on body acceptance).
Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works, $7.99 on Amazon
The original intuitive eating book by a registered dietitian duo.
Intuitive Eating Benefits
Not everyone is on board though. Many nutritionists believe framing weight loss as a negative objective isn’t helpful for those who should try to lose weight for particular health issues. There’s also this study, led by an associate professor of nutrition and director of the dietetics program at Texas Southern University in Houston, which suggests people who focus on calories in calories out method lost weight compared to those who actually gained or maintained their weight on the intuitive eating plan, where counting calories is not the point. (It’s worth noting she decided to do the study after a number of her friends and clients began enrolling in intuitive eating programs).
Though the point of intuitive eating isn’t weight loss per se, I’ll admit at first, I didn’t really get it. I took “listening to your hunger cues” to mean eating whatever I felt like in the moment, which is the opposite of truly honoring my hunger, my health, or my emotions. For me, however, once I really started adhering to the principles of intuitive eating, the discoveries were astounding.
When I didn’t feel any guilt after eating that piece of cheesecake or those few Doritos, I didn’t feel an itch to have more. For me, wrapping my head around intuitive eating was very hard work, and just like a diet it’s a practice. But unlike a diet, it’s a practice that leads to a more balanced relationship with food.
In terms of intuitive eating tips, I can tell you what’s been the easiest part of the diet for me, which was realizing if you listen, your body really does tell you what choices it wants you to make. McDonald’s five times a week, no veggies and mounds of scallion cream cheese just doesn’t make me feel good, as it turns out.
Header image courtesy of Iryna Melnyk/Shutterstock.