Intuitive Eating Explained by an RD
Updated: Apr 10
If You're Tired of the Never-Ending Cycle of Dieting, There Is a Solution!
You have tried every fad diet out there. You have experienced significant ups and downs in your weight for what seems like forever, and are stuck in the never-ending cycle of dieting. You have spent tons of money purchasing diet and health foods: weight loss shakes, cleanses, even diet pills. You feel hungry most of the time, and are familiar with restrictive dieting. You live by a large set of food rules, such as “I can’t eat anything after 8pm” and “I can only have that dessert on my cheat days”. You feel exhausted, unsatisfied, and untrusting of your body.
You feel out of control.
The good news is, you are not alone if you feel this way or have experienced any of the above. There is a way to stop dieting forever and create healthy, sustainable nutrition behaviors.
In this article, I will discuss Intuitive Eating, what it is, and how it can help you overcome the diet cycle and heal your relationship with food and your body!
What Is Intuitive Eating and How Does It Work?
Intuitive Eating. You may have heard the term before. It is an evidence-based, anti-diet approach to eating and health that was discovered in 1995 by Registered Dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Since it was discovered, there have been more than 200 studies done on Intuitive Eating, and it continues to be researched and adopted by many healthcare professionals in their practices today. Tribole and Resch developed step-by-step guidelines for Intuitive Eating, outlining ten important principles, including rejecting the diet mentality, honoring your hunger, and making peace with food.
Intuitive Eating is often referred to as the “non-diet” or "anti-diet" approach to eating. The focus of this approach is shifting your mindset from dieting and food restriction to listening to your body and relying on your body’s cues and signals to nourish your body with what it needs. It’s about giving yourself full permission to eat all foods, and no food is labeled “forbidden” or “off-limits".
A continuous habit of restrictive dieting followed by binge-eating can lead to a dangerous condition called weight-cycling. Otherwise known as yo-yo dieting, weight cycling is when you lose weight when crach dieting and then gain it back again after you quit the diet. When we deprive ourselves of calories and delicious food during a restrictive dieting phase, we often binge eat so much when we “give up” dieting that we gain back all of the weight we lost and more, since we were in a deprived state for so long. Eventually, we put ourselves on another diet again to lose that weight once more.
*Cue the diet cycle*
Research has shown that weight cycling increases our risk for chronic disease, even more so than when we just maintain our weight.
With an Intuitive Eating lifestyle, the goal is to feel satisfied and enjoy your food without restriction. You will let go of food as a coping mechanism and break free from the inner food police, or your food rules. People who adopt this lifestyle generally feel better, healthier, and overall happier when it comes to food choices and nutrition. They take the plunge and say goodbye to dieting forever!
Intuitive eating is not eating whatever you want, whenever you want. It isn’t an anti-diet in the sense of being a rebel and eating all of the unhealthy foods because that’s just what you feel like eating that day. Rather, it’s giving yourself full permission to eat all foods and enjoy your desserts without guilt, shame, or punishment. You won’t eat a slice of pizza and punish yourself to workout twice the next day. You no longer have “cheat days” because all different kinds of foods are incorporated into your diet each and every day. You won’t save your desserts for binge-eating on the weekends, and you won’t force yourself to eat restrictively all week to make up for it.
Intuitive Eating normalizes eating all types of foods with a variety of nutritional values.
At this point you’re probably thinking, how is this a healthy diet? I can give myself permission to eat dessert when I want? I can eat junk food when I want? How do I find the balance?
When certain “unhealthy” foods such as desserts stop being off-limits, they lose their “magic”. They are no longer seen as the forbidden fruit; exciting, thrilling, and rare. You start to look at food from a more neutral perspective; food is just food. We look at just the facts and take minimize our emotional ties to specific foods.
When we give ourselves permission to eat these “forbidden foods” and they lose their so-called magic, we crave them less over time. We no longer binge-eat them. We no longer put ourselves at risk of weight-cycling, because we are not binge-eating and reacting by consuming high amounts of excess calories from being deprived. The mind wants what you're telling it it can’t have, remember that!
Intuitive Eating as nourishment is a form of self-care. When you are practicing intuitive eating, not only will you be listening to body cues like hunger and satisfaction, but also how your body physically feels when you eat certain foods. You will become so in tune and aware of these feelings that you will understand that certain foods–although different for everyone–may make you feel bloated, lethargic, or even temporarily increase your heart rate. When you start to pay attention to your body, you may realize that your body also craves nourishing, nutrient-dense foods that contain vitamins and minerals, because that’s what makes us feel our best.
But you will still enjoy that cookie sometimes, and that’s perfectly okay! It’s all about balance.
Let’s simplify the idea:
Think of your nutrition as a balance scale.
When you restrict your food and calories to extreme levels and force yourself to eat only the typical “healthy foods” all week, the scale tips to one side significantly. The other side of the scale is empty and deprived.
*Cue the obsessive food thoughts and sweet cravings*
On your cheat day(s) or on the weekends, the scale tips all the way to the other side as you binge-eat high calorie, high fat and/or sugary foods. Again, the other side is empty, and deprived of nourishing, healthy foods. You probably feel depleted of energy, tired, and bloated.
What would happen to the balance scale if you ate the nourishing food, but also gave yourself permission to eat desserts and foods from the “other side” at the same time? The balance scale would look, well, more balanced!
What Are the Benefits to Adopting an Intuitive Eating Lifestyle?
The number one benefit of the intuitive eating lifestyle is that you will return to feeling like the best version of yourself. For some, it may be a place you have not been in awhile. Other notable benefits include a higher self-esteem, healing your body image, and being comfortable in your own skin. Many clients of mine have reported increased energy, lower cholesterol, and better sleep when adopting this lifestyle.
You will feel in control of your food and find enjoyment and satisfaction in eating. You no longer spend your time counting calories, examining packages and ingredients, or obsessively tracking your macronutrients. Many people find that they have a lot more time on their hands to actually do the things they enjoy!
When you abolish food rules, you make more room to enjoy social gatherings, holidays, birthday parties, and vacations. Maybe you will find that you have more time to spend with the people that you love, making memories that you have missed out on from worrying about food or your body image. Maybe it means you can finally go out to dinner with your friends without feeling anxious about your food choices.
Food is all around us, and when we stop fighting it, we start truly living.
And you’re no longer giving your hard-earned money to the diet industry, that is worth billions (yes, billions) of dollars. Win!
A Few Tips On How to Get Started with Intuitive Eating
We are born intuitive eaters. From a very young age, we instinctively eat when we are hungry and stop when we are full. However, Intuitive Eating can be a very difficult concept to tackle on your own, especially when you have no idea where to start!
Below are a few tips I provide to those looking to start exploring intuitive eating:
Don’t panic! There are ten principles to intuitive eating, and it seems like an overwhelming amount of information at first. It’s important to remember that you will not be able to understand and apply all of these principles in a few days or a single counseling session. Behavior change and learning these principles takes time!
It’s going to be challenging. It’s best to accept this fact in the beginning, and know it will take practice to adapt the ten intuitive eating principles as a lifestyle. It’s important to remember that progress is not linear; you will experience both ups and downs in this journey. However, what may seem like five steps backwards is just a growth point in the spiral up to success. It can be hard to let go of the diet cycle when dieting is what you know and feels like your comfort zone. But I can promise you, diet culture is not your friend. The diet industry is not on your side. Trust me, you can do this!
Find the right support. It’s so important to work with a Registered Dietitian who specializes in Intuitive Eating Counseling or eating disorders so that they can guide you and make sure that you are receiving the proper care that you need. I offer private counseling programs for clients with disordered eating that can provide you with the support you need to heal!
Simply put: make time for it. Prioritize yourself. Understand that this new journey of intuitive eating means you are going to have to put yourself first. You will have to be okay with setting boundaries. It’s time to focus on improving your health!
The foundation of intuitive eating is interoceptive awareness. This is the ability to perceive physical sensations that arise within your body. When was the last time you paid attention to your basic body states? Ask yourself: what do you feel in certain areas of your body when you are hungry? Maybe you have a headache, your stomach is growling, or you feel a bit of a brain fog. How about when you have to use the bathroom, or when you are really thirsty?
Start by paying close attention to how you feel in different body states or with certain body cues.
The more awareness you have, the easier intuitive eating will be, because you will be able to hear and understand what your body is trying to tell you!
It takes time to get to know your body again and establish the mind-body connection, but this is a great place to start. When you relearn your body cues, you develop the habit of trusting your body with food. This leads to feeling more in control of your food choices, and being able to determine when you are full and satisfied, or when you are hungry.
Can I Become an Intuitive Eater Quickly?
There isn’t really a time limit on intuitive eating. This journey is different for everyone! For most, this is a lifelong journey. We are constantly learning things about our body when we are mindful, and being observant of the changes with our bodies over time.
It’s important not to put pressure on yourself to learn and adopt this new lifestyle in a short amount of time. You can begin your intuitive eating journey out on the right foot by practicing self-compassion and giving yourself grace. You’ll get there if you put in the effort, but you don’t need the pressure of a time constraint!
Shifting Your Focus Away From the Scale
Although many people are usually on a diet to lose weight, they are very surprised to hear that dieting actually increases your risk for gaining more weight in the long run. People get caught the a dieting cycle: unsustainable diet (food restriction), extreme hunger (deprivation), cheat days (guilt and shame), and finally giving up altogether (often leads to binge eating, as I described earlier).
The fact of the matter is, cycling like this over time leads to weight gain, and then weight-cycling. The more you restrict your calories, the more likely your body is to go into “survival mode” and slow down your metabolism to keep up with your eating (or lack thereof) habits. After adopting an intuitive eating lifestyle, some find that as they also adopt healthier eating habits, and they do lose some weight.
However, the scale is not the focus, and weight loss is not the goal.
You can absolutely make healthier choices and change nutrition-related behaviors as you adopt an intuitive eating lifestyle.
Yes, I said you can do both.
As you become more mindful of how you feel when you eat certain foods, oftentimes my clients also start to become more mindful of the foods that they buy and eat. It’s OKAY to make healthier choices and still be an intuitive eater. However, with Intuitive Eating, you are no longer counting calories, obsessively logging your food with apps, or stepping on the scale every single day to track your weight. Remember: Intuitive Eating is not dieting or restricting, it is changing your lifestyle!
What If I Gain Weight When I Start Intuitive Eating?
It’s very important to remember that your body may take some time to adjust, depending on how your eating habits were before. If you have been on a restrictive diet for quite some time, it is completely normal to gain a little bit when you start intuitive eating habits. This should not cause you to worry! Your body is adjusting to your new eating behaviors.
When you begin to trust your body and listen to your body cues, you will truly be giving your body what it needs for nourishment, and what it is asking for. Your body will tell you when it’s had enough. You will hear it, and finally be able to listen instead of ignoring these signals!
Are There Any Negative Effects to Eating Intuitively?
Absolutely not! The benefits of intuitive eating are incredible. To say that there are disadvantages would really be false. Many times when people realize they need to adopt the intuitive eating lifestyle, they are coming from rock bottom.
Dieting rock bottom. This is a difficult place to be. I like to think of this journey as a continuous spiral up; a journey of learning and growth to finally reach the point of food freedom and happiness.
It doesn’t seem like there’s much of a disadvantage to that.
Who Can Try Intuitive Eating?
Anyone! You don’t even have to struggle with dieting or your weight to try this lifestyle. It can be beneficial for many different types of bodies.
When determining if you’re already an intuitive eater or if you currently struggle with disordered eating, it’s helpful to reflect briefly on your dieting history. Have you tried unsuccessful dieting in the past? How many times have you set a new year’s resolution to “lose weight” or “eat healthier” and that resulted in restricting your calories and cutting out all of your favorite desserts?
Ask yourself: do I trust myself around food? Do I enjoy eating? Do I know what it feels like to be satisfied from food? If you feel like your food choices control your life, you have lost touch with your body, or you are constantly hungry, it may be time to look into exploring intuitive eating.
Advice from an RD: if you want to make healthy and sustainable changes to your nutrition without giving up the foods you love, try the Intuitive Eating lifestyle.
It’s important to remember that every individual is different. Different bodies have different needs, and no two will have the exact same experience with eating. Your health journey looks different from your friend’s, your neighbor’s, and your coworker’s. Only you know what’s best for yourself! If you believe you may be at risk for disordered eating or an eating disorder, it is recommended that you seek help from a health professional such as a Registered Dietitian that can help you determine the best plan for care.
Beginning Your Journey: Intuitive Eating In a Nutshell
Ultimately, Intuitive Eating is a form of self-care. It’s about re-establishing the mind-body connection and becoming more mindful. It’s prioritizing yourself; nourishing your body, meeting your basic needs, and having a neutral perspective when it comes to body image and food choices. It’s a solution to the exhausting weight-cycling, diet-cycling, and binge-eating habits.
Healing your relationship with food is truly a game-changer with your health.
When you start to take care of yourself and pay attention to what your body wants and what it is telling you, you will be able to live your life to the fullest, focus on what really matters, say goodbye to dieting forever, and find food freedom!
An MM Wellness Original Blog Post