How is Intuitive Eating different from dieting?

Over recent years there has been a growing awareness of intuitive eating as an alternative to dieting. 

It has become particularly popular in the realms of social media. So what on earth is intuitive eating? Today I am taking a deep dive into this very topic. We'll explore what Intuitive eating is, how it differs from dieting and how it can benefit you. We'll also look at the Intuitive eating principles and what each of them entails. 

*NOTE - a diet is any way of eating where the goal is manipulating your body shape or size. These are often called 'lifestyle changes' or wellness programs these days. 

So what is Intuitive Eating?

According to Evelyn Tribole, one of the dietitians who developed intuitive eating, it is a "compassionate self-care eating framework rooted in dignity and respect for all bodies". It is a semi-structured process that enables people to integrate logic, emotion and physical sensations to eat in a way that feels good, instead of relying on black-and-white rules. 

Intuitive eating is a weight-neutral approach to supporting well-being, health and even sporting performance. This means that the goal and desired outcome of using this approach is not weight loss or even changing body composition. Why? Weight is not a behaviour and we cannot control it. For anyone who might be thinking, 'but I want to improve my health', it is important to know that we can improve health without losing weight. 

Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch published the first edition of Intuitive Eating back in 1995. At the time of publishing, this post is supported by 175 research articles!

How will Intuitive Eating help?

Intuitive eating has been proven to be beneficial for both physical and mental health and unlike diets or restrictive eating patterns, it is possible to eat intuitively for the rest of your life.

Recognised benefits of Intuitive Eating include:
- Reduced binge eating
- Eating a wider variety of foods
- Eating more fruit and vegetables
- Improved body appreciation and trust
- Enjoying eating
- Being more in tune with your body 
- Improved self-esteem and wellbeing
- Improved blood fat (cholesterol) profile
- Improved blood sugar (glycemic) control
- Coping with difficulties in a more proactive way
- Being more optimistic

How is Intuitive Eating different from dieting?

A diet generally includes rules on one or more of the following:
- How much we can eat 
- When we can eat 
- What we can eat 

In essence, diets teach us to ignore the signals of hunger and fullness from our body, which over time can cause these to become blunted or go "offline" and instead micromanage what we eat through external rules. There is often a reliance on willpower to adhere to these restrictive rules. When our willpower runs out/biology and hunger kicks in (which will inevitably happen if we restrict what we eat), there is a likelihood of us eating all of the previously restricted foods to the point where we become physically uncomfortable. At this point, shame and guilt are likely to set in. To deal with the guilt and shame people often resolve to start their diet again. 

In contrast, Intuitive Eating has no rules and does not require willpower - because you can eat whatever you want. It teaches us to relate to all foods free of mortality (ie the good vs bad food dichotomy) and reconnect with our body's inner wisdom. 

People new to intuitive eating often worry that if they were to give up control and allow themselves to eat whatever sounds good they would only ever eat fun foods (lollies, chocolates and fast food). And while this may be the case in the early stages, particularly if you have restricted these foods previously, an equilibrium will eventually be achieved. After all, if you are tuning in to the food you are eating, you are likely to eventually get sick of brownies/ice cream etc. You would also start to notice that when eaten frequently and in large quantities these foods don't make you feel the best. 

Unlike a diet where eating past comfortable fullness (which we would usually think of as "eating too much") would trigger blame and guilt when we are eating intuitively, we use this as information and learning to guide future eating decisions. For instance, if I was held up in a meeting and was starving by the time I went to eat lunch, and then ate my lunch very quickly, what could I do differently next time?

What does Intuitive Eating involve?

There are 10 principles of Intuitive Eating and while they are presented in the following order with the books and workbooks, when I use them with clients we don't necessarily have to follow this order. We start the work based on the needs of each client. 

Here is a quick rundown of the 10 principles of Intuitive Eating 

  1. Reject the diet mentality - This focuses on helping people understand the harms of pursing weight loss. It also makes clear that weight loss does not last in the long term for the vast majority of people. 
  2. Honour your hunger - Is all about helping you tune in to signs that you are hungry, even the more subtle ones. We also explore what happens when you wait until you are overly hungry to eat. 
  3. Make peace with food - Diet culture teaches us to moralise foods and think of them as being either good or bad, but this is a gross simplification. The heart of this principle is about allowing all foods and learning how to relate to all foods in an equal way so that no one food is perceived as being morally superior to another. This helps us to make decisions about what to eat based on what sounds good and what will help us to feel good. 
  4. Challenge the food police - It's not uncommon for us to have food policing thoughts, "eat this, but not too much", "don't eat that", "that food is bad for you". In this principle, we learn to turn down the volume on these unhelpful thoughts and increase thoughts that do help us. 
  5. Discover the satisfaction factor - Sick of steamed veggies and grilled skinless chicken breast that never quite hits the spot? In this principle, you'll learn to identify foods that truly satisfy you. This includes factors like what sounds good to you and what will make you feel good. 
  6. Feel your fullness - This principle is not about stopping the moment you get "perfectly full" (that's just the hunger-fullness diet). Instead, this principle is about tuning in to your body when you are eating to recognise when you are becoming full. It also considers what happens if you start eating when you are already full. 
  7. Cope with your emotions with kindness - Eating is by its very nature emotional, as such we do not need to eliminate "emotional eating". Think about what happens when a baby cries. One of the first few things that an attentive caregiver will do is offer the child food. Or think about how we celebrate birthdays or a promotion at work! This principle is about developing a wide variety of tools to cope with difficult emotions.
  8. Respect your body - It's hard to take care of something if you don't respect it. While body love can feel like an unattainable goal for many, this principle is about learning to appreciate and respect what your body does for you. From things as simple as breathing to things as complex as participating in your favourite sporting event. 
  9. Joyful movement feels the difference - Moving has so many benefits for us, but it has been co-opted by diet culture as purely a weight control mechanism. This does such a disservice to movement. Within these principles we work on exploring different types of movement to find one/s that you enjoy or at least which are tolerable and feel benefits ie through improved sleep, managing stress better and so on. 
  10. Honour your health with gentle nutrition - This is the last principle for a reason. Bringing in nutrition too early in the process can feel like more restriction, so it is generally saved until the end. It is often helpful to start by thinking about what nutritious foods can be added in, rather than trying to take away foods.

A concept that is central to Intuitive Eating is that of interoceptive awareness, the ability to perceive sensations arising from our body. Interoceptive awareness is how we know when we need to go to the toilet, or when we need to put on or take off layers due to the cold/heat. It is also what enables us to sense hunger and fullness. Each of the above principles either works to reduce barriers to interoceptive awareness or increase interoceptive awareness itself. 

In summary

Intuitive eating is a weight-neutral self-care framework that teaches people to reconnect with their bodies and support their health and performance. It has numerous benefits which have been proven in a growing body of research. Working through the principles of intuitive eating helps people to relate to food, and their body and exercise in a less emotionally charged manner so that you can eat the foods you want to and which will make you feel good without guilt or shame.

By Dietitian Andrea Parker

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