What’s intuitive eating?
What’s intuitive eating and how is it different to eating mindfully?
Intuitive eating is the antithesis of dieting, calorie counting, food obsession and body shaming. The idea was first written about on a mainstream level about twenty years ago by Evelyn Tribole and Elise Resch. They wrote a book that among other things highlighted some basic principles in intuitive eating.1
The primary idea is to reject the merry-go-round of the dieting mentality, accept your body and tune in to its true needs.
Many of us have no idea what eating from hunger to satiation even feels like. And to further complicate things, what does eating what we crave look like, if what we crave isn’t healthy?
Intuitive eating listens to what your body really needs
Trendy diets and lifestyle changes that exclude foods or concepts of when to eat and when to remain hungry, change faster than the seasons. Intuitive dieting is the total opposite of this. The idea is that you listen to what your body is telling you about what it needs to be fed, as opposed to enforcing limits and guidelines on your consumption. Intuitive eating promotes the idea that our bodies know the way. We just have to be in tune with them, listen and follow that way.
Research has shown us that dieting doesn’t last long. On the occasion that a dieter does lose weight, the weight usually does not stay off.2 But we all continue to fall into the trap of diets that limit calories, carbohydrates, fat and sugar and require times when you can, can’t or shouldn’t (guilt!) eat.
The complexity of our relationship with food
Our relationship with food is a complex one—part natural, biological and evolved; part nurtured, taught and socialised. Aggressive food-marketing campaigns tempt us to eat and eat and eat. Emotions and stress of modern life trigger us to eat even when we aren’t truly hungry. Our families of origin or our cultural experiences have ideas of what food means in terms of quality and quantity.
It’s about trust—trust in ourselves and the dynamic between our bellies and our minds. It’s about getting in tune with your body and learning to trust it again.
Yes, this means cake, wine and burgers can be consumed from time to time, but intuitive eating is as much about knowing when your stomach is satisfied as it is about feeding your hunger.
Learning from the ultimate intuitive feeders – babies
If you’ve ever seen a new-born or infant drink milk from the breast or a slow-flow bottle nipple, you will see an example of perhaps the truest form of intuitive eating. The baby will drink when she or he is hungry, initially eating with vigour but eventually slowing down and taking pauses. Babies focus on the eating and the experience of eating—the sensations of being in their caregiver’s arms and the smell of the milk. And they usually come off the breast or bottle nipple when they are satiated. With the breast or a bottle nipple that has a similar flow speed, most babies will not overeat.
Another concept in intuitive eating is to rid yourself of guilt related to food and eat what you want. Make peace with food. Food has the ability to do so much more than just fuel us. It can bring us to satisfying heights of pleasure and experience. Or it can plague our conscience for days as we dwell on the decisions we make about what we put in our mouths and bellies. This guilty dance of good and bad is not only unhealthy, but unhelpful.
Intuitive eating vs mindful eating
A guiding principle is to start eating according to what your body is telling you. This means you have to create mindfulness around hunger, cravings and satiation. We often eat mindlessly. We look at that cookie on the breakroom table at work and shame ourselves for eating it as we shove it into our mouths. Within seconds it’s gone! But what did it even taste like? What was the texture? Did we even appreciate it, much less experience it? Intuitive eating heralds the pleasure factor of food and invites us to lean into that. Mindful eating encourages us to take in every aspect of the food we are putting into our mouths and truly experience it.
Mindful eating also invites us to pay attention to how we feel after eating certain foods and to use that feedback to adjust our diet accordingly. When people have been eating a highly processed and/or fast-food diet, their senses of taste and smell are often dulled and they don’t notice any relationship between what they eat and how they feel, which often is “not very good.” So the first step is to learn about and gradually switch to a diet of whole, preferably organically produced, foods. Most people, after a while, regain the ability to notice what smells and tastes of “real” food they are particularly attracted to, and subtle changes in how they feel after eating specific foods or groupings of foods. Once you gain this ability, you’re on your way with intuitive eating.
Keeping focused on intuitive eating
The challenge is that it takes a lot of emotional work to get into a good groove with both intuitive eating and mindful eating. Just as with any mindfulness practice, or even healthy lifestyle, we have to reset our mental compass, sometimes several times a day—or even several times a meal! But by simply asking ‘what’s intuitive eating?’ when we start to feel hungry, we change our relationship with food and start to experience the physical, as well as psychological, benefits. Once we do that, intuitive eating will become easier and more natural to get to grips with.
- Tribole, Evelyn, and Elyse Resch. Intuitive Eating: a Recovery Book for the Chronic Dieter: Rediscover the Pleasures of Eating and Rebuild Your Body Image. St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 1996.
- Lowe, Michael R., et al. “Dieting and Restrained Eating as Prospective Predictors of Weight Gain.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 4, June 2013, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00577.