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Intuitive Eating: What is it?

There’s all this hype around this relatively new approach to eating, and that approach is intuitive eating. 

But, what exactly is intuitive eating?

Eating intuitively means eating entirely based on your internal hunger and satiety cues. In other words, intuitive eating involves eating when you feel hungry and stopping when you feel full. 

Simple as that. 

No, it doesn’t involve being a glutton and eating as much food as humanly possible, nor is it an excuse to binge on all your favorite foods in one sitting. 

It instead involves trusting your body; recognizing what, when, and how much food your body needs to function optimally and for you to live up to your full potential. 

There are also some other features that characterize intuitive eating. These include:

  • Recognizing that all foods serve a variety of purposes (e.g., taste, stamina, energy, performance).
  • Not categorizing foods as “good” or “bad”
  • Trusting your body’s ability to know when and what food is needed
  • Not being preoccupied with food, eating, or dieting

Now that we are aware of the central features of intuitive eating, let’s dig a little deeper into the topic. 

Are there any Benefits to Eating Intuitively?

There are a whole host of benefits associated with intuitive eating. 

Numerous studies have reported consistent connections between intuitive eating and a range of different psychological, social, and physiological outcomes. In short, intuitive eating has been linked with:

  • Lower eating pathology
  • Fewer body image concerns
  • Improved self-esteem 
  • Better quality of life
  • Enhanced sleep quality
  • Improvements in cholesterol levels
  • Reduced hypertension 

Importantly, there’s also causal evidence in favor of intuitive eating’s benefits. It’s not all cross-sectional! For example, well-conducted randomized controlled trials of interventions designed to enhance intuitive eating have resulted in short- and long-term improvements in these key outcomes. 

Although this literature is still in its infancy, there’s pretty solid evidence highlighting the benefits of intuitive eating. It will be interesting to see what else we discover in the coming years!

Intuitive Eating Versus Eating Restraint: Same Same or Different?

One of the things I get asked about the most is whether intuitive eating and eating restraint (i.e., intentionally restricting food intake for weight regulation) are different. The answer is yes, yes they are different.

They’re different both conceptually and empirically. 

Conceptually, intuitive eating differs from eating restraint because eating in the former is based on internal cues (e.g., what the body is telling you) while eating in the latter is based on external cues (e.g., how many calories have already been consumed, time of day, types of food already eaten etc.). Conceptually speaking, then, the two are completely incompatible with each other. 

There’s also good evidence to suggest that intuitive eating and eating restraint differ empirically.For example, research I’ve conductedhas shown that intuitive eating is uncorrelated with flexible dietary restraint (i.e., a more relaxed approach to dieting) and negatively correlated with rigid dietary restraint, and that intuitive eating accounts for the most amount of variance in positive health outcomes (e.g., eating disorder symptoms, psychological distress etc.). 

These findings have been replicated in several other studies, and, collectively, they provide important evidence to suggest that intuitive eating is in fact distinct from all forms of eating restraint. 

Should Everyone Be Eating Intuitively?

Given the known health benefits of intuitive eating, shouldn’t it mean that everyone should be striving to eat this way? 

Not necessarily. 

As someone who specializes in eating disorders, I certainly wouldn’t be prescribing intuitive eating to this clinical population. People with eating disorders have chaotic eating habits, regularly cycling through periods of dieting, bingeing, and purging. Imagine telling someone with such chaotic eating habits to “just eat what you feel like”?

The problem is that people with eating disorders have severely disrupted their biological hunger and fullness cues. They struggle to know when they’re hungry and what fullness even feels like. After all, people who binge eat can eat 5000 calories in one sitting and still feel an urge to keep eating!

Providing a couple of exercises and trying to get people with an eating disorder to eat intuitively is a recipe for disaster.

It’s not until they’ve stabilized their eating, gained some control back, and have gotten some momentum with healthy eating patterns (e.g., eating regular meals and snacks without losing control) will I then encourage, teach, and nurture intuitive eating. 

Athletes are also a special population that might not entirely benefit from intuitive eating principles. For example, some athletes need to achieve a specific body weight in a short period of time in order to compete in their respective sport. Although intuitive eating is not associated with weight gain, being able to stay at or below a certain weight cannot be guaranteed via intuitive eating, and is more likely to be achieved through some level of eating restraint. 

We know that the long-term success rates of diets are poor. However, short-term weight loss from diets is common, and this is exactly what athletes or competitive sports people need. In this way, intuitive eating may not be the best approach for athletic populations. Instead, safe, supervised, and flexible eating restraint may be appropriate for those with specific weight- or performance-related goals.

Transitioning to an Intuitive Eater? 

In most instances, I would recommend learning how to eat intuitively. As I already touched on, it’s an excellent style of eating connected to a range of beneficial outcomes. 

Everyone can learn intuitive eating. There’s a solid body of experimental evidence showing that intuitive eating can be learnt by people who span the entire weight spectrum, including normal, overweight, and obese men and women. 

Interestingly, it’s also possible to transition from rigid dietary restraint to intuitive eating through brief intervention. For example, in one randomized controlled trial, researchers recruited women with a history of chronic dieting and assigned them to either a non-diet, intuitive eating intervention or a weight loss intervention. Those assigned to non-diet intervention showed significant reductions in eating restraint, significant improvements in intuitive eating, and significant improvements in a range of psychological variables. 

Of course, we must recognize the limitations of these findings, such that these outcomes were based on participant self-report, so how can we truly know whether these people switched from restraint mode to intuitive eating mode? Unfortunately, this is the nature of this line of research, but it’s a good starting point to know that intuitive eating could possibly be learnt in even those with a terrible history of yo-yo dieting. 

It’s not easy to be an intuitive eater. It takes practice. A lot of it. Although it’s beyond the scope of this article to go into absolute detail around how to learn intuitive eating, I will bullet point a few exercises that can help you get started or at least point you in the right direction.

  • Self-monitoring of hunger and satiety cues after eating
  • Psychoeducation about dieting success rates 
  • Basic nutritional education (e.g., no food in isolation is fattening)
  • Mindful eating exercises
  • Chewing food slowly 
  • Taking a breather after every 3 mouthfuls 

Wrapping Up

Now that we know a bit more about intuitive eating, it’s up to you to make the call on whether you want to give it a go and learn it.

There are tons of books that help teach the principles of intuitive eating. But, it’s important to remember that it’s not for everyone. Some people may find it too hard to eat in accordance with their hunger and satiety signals. 

And that’s OK. 

You just need to find what works for you, but don’t fall under the misconception that intuitive eating is ticket for indulgence. It’s not, and if it’s done properly, then there is no evidence to suggest that eating intuitively is associated with weight gain. In fact, the research suggests that it’s most strongly associated with weight stability.

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