As we’re constantly inundated with advice — from literally everyone, professionally qualified or not — on how to be healthy, it can be difficult to find the right balance of diet and exercise that benefits our respective goals.
It can also be confusing when it comes to separating dangerous concepts masquerading as “tips and tricks” with regards to physical health and wellness. While there are many, many quote-unquote “hacks” for eating and feeling better, intuitive eating is an individual-led practice backed by science for eating with sincerity, awareness, and personal objectives in mind. Eating intuitively does take practice, but here’s what you need to know to get started on your journey.
What Is Intuitive Eating?
The principles of intuitive eating have more or less always existed individually, but they weren’t really collectively termed “intuitive eating” until registered dietician and eating disorder specialist Evelyn Tribole decided to research and write her guide Intuitive Eating for Every Day 25 years ago.
Tribole, who is widely regarded as the figurehead for expertise on intuitive eating, says that the basic definition of the practice is “a compassionate self-care eating framework that's rooted in dignity and respect for all bodies, aimed to self-connect the mind and body while encouraging a healthy relationship with food.” The intuitive eating approach is pretty unprecedented in the overwhelming world of diet trends because it puts the individual’s body, whatever that may look like, first and foremost, and encourages that individual to build a better relationship between their mind and their eating habits.
Intuitive eating encourages you to build a better relationship between your mind and eating habits.
Tribole’s guide to intuitive eating is founded on 10 key principles. Number one: “Reject the diet mentality.” In Tribole’s eyes, the first step to honoring your hunger and making peace with food (steps two and three) is realizing that “diet culture isn’t the boss of you.” This ties in to step number four, challenging the food police, or the influences in your life or voices in your head that dictate what you can and can’t eat.
This is followed by discovering food satisfaction, and what that may look like to you. If you’re satisfied with X number of calories, would you be more satisfied with a handful of Oreos, or the same caloric amount of fruits and nuts that’s conducive to productive appetite and metabolism? Discovering our satisfaction cues also enables us to reach step number six, or recognizing our fullness. Although fullness is often demonized in diet culture and “clean” eating, feeling full is a great indicator that our body is fueled and our appetite is at rest.
Feeling full is a great indicator that our body is fueled and our appetite is at rest.
Because eating, especially disordered eating, can often be an emotional experience, Tribole advises that when those feelings inevitably rise to treat those emotions with kindness and understanding, especially if we eat to fill a void or eat in tune with negative or bad emotions.
Intuitive Eating and Weight Loss
Intuitive eating can be criticized in that many might believe that it’s all about honoring food, appetite, satisfaction, fullness, and hunger, with little to no mention of balancing those crucial themes with exercise.
But Tribole’s last two steps are solely focused on exercise and balance, and this is what makes intuitive eating really different from other diets and eating practices. Instead of exercise and the negative connotations that word can sometimes produce, intuitive eating emphasizes a marriage between eating to honor your body and fuel its productivity and movement instead of exercise. Moving, whether it’s taking a walk, riding a bike, a high intensity workout, or a Zumba class, is based on choosing what feels good to our body. For example, when we’re on our periods, we probably don’t want to engage in a high impact workout if we’re feeling sluggish and fatigued. But gentle yoga or guided meditation can be a great option for those days of our cycle. Other days when we have more energy might be the days to run a few miles or really go after a high calorie burn workout.
Intuitive eating emphasizes movement instead of exercise.
Tribole also encourages the relationship between movement and honoring our health with gentle nutrition. This means taking the power out of foods we might view as “bad” foods and taking the novelty out of junk food or other treats. Intuitive eating recognizes that while our diet shouldn’t be rich in junk food, it’s perfectly natural to enjoy what feels good to us, especially if it means having dessert after a meal or getting rid of “cheat days” which can often lead to overeating or toxic relationships with food.
Common diet mentalities push us to punish ourselves for “slipping up” or working out just to cancel out the fast food we had earlier in the day. Not only does this give food more power over our brain than it actually has, it can also create a toxic mindset when it comes to exercise, wherein we feel we have to punish ourselves for the food we eat. With intuitive eating, eating and moving according to what feels good to us is the key to putting that power back in our hands.
Is Eating Intuitively the Key to Disordered Eating Recovery?
Unhealthy disordered eating habits — whether it’s binging or restricting food — takes all the choice away from us and gives it over to food and to exercise. This allows us to become trapped by under-eating or over-exercising. But with intuitive eating, no food is off limits, leading many to think that intuitive eating can be the right path to recovery for disordered eaters.
Research has shown that intuitive eating has a positive effect on mental health. And contrary to what many may think, it’s possible to lose weight and be healthy while eating intuitively. A study from New Zealand found that intuitive eating didn’t result in higher BMIs of participants, and participants didn’t necessarily choose food with high sugar or fat content when they were encouraged to eat whatever they wanted.
With intuitive eating, no food is off limits.
Intuitive eating also enables disordered eaters to learn more about their bodies and to actually listen to them. It’s all about engaging our decision-making with what feels good. Most of us probably know that sitting in front of the TV and binging junk food won’t really satisfy us. But most of us are probably aware that exercise can help with our mood and sleep cycles, and eating nutrient-dense meals to satiate both our wants and needs is crucial to a good balance between the two. Because intuitive eating is individualized, that mixture will look different to each person.
It’s common and even easy to become trapped by diet culture mindsets. These mindsets tell us we have to skip meals, we can’t have snacks, and we have to work out for a certain amount of time every day, and we have to burn a certain number of calories.
This attitude enslaves our minds and our bodies to a strict regime and takes all the agency away from our diets. Where’s the fun in going out for a nice meal but being extremely limited to what we can eat? Intuitive eating puts all the decision-making back in our hands and, through practice, encourages us to make healthy choices for our individual needs and respective bodies.
It also helps us notice our metabolism, hunger cues, satisfaction cues, and enables us to better enjoy meals and engage in daily movement for the sake of movement, not just for exercise. Can your diet do that?