Intuitive eating is an evidence-based approach to make decisions around food and health that acknowledge the way food and eating interact with our whole life.
This philosophy is based around the balance of internal biological cues, interceptive awareness, and self-care (This includes eating for pleasure). Intuitive eating establishes a relationship with food that supports both your mental and physical health by pursuing joy and pleasure in food rather than deprivation and restriction (Harrison, 2019). This framework allows people to break the dangerous cyclic pattern of dieting.
This approach was created by two registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, in 1995 and has been continuously updated and supported by scholarly research. Alyssa Rumsey, author of Unapologetic Eating: Make Peace with Food and Transform Your Life states, “intuitive eating is a framework that helps us keep nutrition interventions behavior-focused instead of restrictive or rule-focused” (Rumsey, 2019).
While I was studying nutrition and dietetics in college, I felt the curriculum was missing an integral component: our individual relationship to food. Your relationship to food is your conscious or unconscious connection to your plate. This affects your whole life (physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and economic) prompting feelings and emotions that ultimately guide decision-making.
At school, we had one course dissect popular diets. The goal of the course, nutritional biochemistry, was to present information clearly and scientifically, without bias. It was taught by a biochemist who did not have a background in the orthorexic* behavior, which many of my peers (including myself) and many nutritionists tend to have. However, the intention of that course was not to challenge the dieting mindset or change one’s perspective surrounding food (The dieting mindset includes restricting food to be healthier and change how your body looks. This process typically leads to a quantitative relationship to food, which includes tracking the amount of food we put into our body and categorizing different nutrients (think macros).
In that course, we learned the physiology and the biochemical processes that occur when you are on a diet. We reviewed various popular diets (Atkins, Keto, South Beach, WW, etc.) and learned the history of how and why they were founded. For example, before the ketogenic diet reached mainstream popularity and became a multibillion-dollar weight loss business, it was used to treat childhood epilepsy and seizures dating all the way back to the time of Hippocrates (Huisjen, 2000).
In examining each popular diet, we learned that these mainstream diets were initially developed for a small subset of the population, a rare individual and when applied to someone outside that subset they are not effective and can do more harm than good. The holy idea of thinness through the pursuit of weight loss is so strong that many people forgo their own sense of wisdom and knowledge and ignore the research, which states that sustainable weight loss is only effective in 5% of people (Harrison, 2019).
The solution we were provided in school is similar to what the government prescribes, healthy eating, which categorizes foods as either “healthy” or “unhealthy”, essentially good or bad, cain and abel… By defining foods with an absolutist lens (think publications titled Eat This, Not That, which has sold more than 8 million copies), we demonize and elevate certain foods and create a value-based system around food (think if you eat your veggies, then you can have dessert; now what becomes most alluring?)
This Americanized idea perpetuates a stigma that foods have a control over how we feel and not our innate body cues. For example, the difference of feeling bloated after eating, which is a biological cue vs. having the thought that eating a certain food made you “fat”.
When foods are characterized through that lens, they are solely framed around the idea of supporting external physical health (what you look like on the outside). It is this mindset, this obsession, these misguided thought patterns that lead to disordered eating and strain your mental health, which in turn does the same for your physical health.
The problem with healthy eating, beside the fact that defining the word “healthy” is open to grand subjectivity, is that it compromises your personal relationship with food and challenges your internal body cues. Intuitive eating is an approach to food that does not involve stigma and instead values your body by tuning in. We have natural body cues to detect hunger and fullness. When we restrict food and do not listen to our hunger signals, our body responds biologically by releasing more of the hunger hormone ghrelin and decreasing the fullness hormone leptin because our body wants to be fed, its craving nourishment, this is not a means of willpower to overcome (Ochner et al, 2013).
By overcoming what is called “willpower” you are silencing the internal communication and relying on external signals for how to feel.
Interested in diving deeper into intuitive eating, check out https://www.intuitiveeating.org/10-principles-of-intuitive-eating/
If you feel you could benefit from speaking with a non-diet dietitian, schedule your complimentary discovery call!
This blog is for informational and educational purposes only, it is not a substitute for individual medical or mental health advice, and do not constitute a provider-patient relationship.