This short essay introduces the concept of Intuitive Eating, and how it helps get people back to a normal healthy attitude to food. Also I discuss why I see it as being a great gateway into developing mind-body attunement and trust. I recently qualified as an Intuitive Eating counselor and I am incorporating these ideas into my practice.
- First, what is normal eating?
Here’s some food :
What happens when you think about eating these foods. How do you see them and what thoughts come into your head?
Here’s some typical things I’ve noticed in my head or heard other people saying :
“Kale. KALE…. This has to be the most virtuous food out there… It’s so full of vitamins and goodness I should eat it no matter what, even if I don’t like it…. Maybe blend it into a smoothie so I can’t taste it? If I eat this, I’m a better person.”
“A potato… is this a even a vegetable? Or Is it just bad carbs? It has a high GI, so a sweet potato would be better…. It’s some kind of toxic nightshade and I shouldn’t eat it..although apparently cold potatoes provide good resistant starch? Hmmm I’d like some fries tonight, but those are bad…. How many calories are in a potato this size? Have I run out of points today? Can I eat the whole thing or should I cut it in half?”
“Cake../ mmmmm cake..oh god I want to eat this so badly, look at that chocolate…It’s such a sinful food… I’ll get fat instantly if I eat it… I’d feel so guilty. Is today a cheat day? If I eat some of it I might as well eat the whole thing. I wonder if it’s gluten free?”
Notice – a lot of rules, judgements, moral codes even. Deep beliefs.
However, some people are able to look at these things without judgement, and a potato is just a potato. They might feel how their body is right now. Are they hungry for it? Do they want to eat it? They might trust their body and take a few mindful bites, noticing how it affects them, whether it feels nourishing and satisfying. When they’ve had enough, which may be just one bite, they stop.
This is, perhaps, how an animal or baby approaches food – without the overwhelming information, judgements or rules. They are tapped into their instinctive, intuitive wisdom and respond accordingly. They know when, what and how much to eat.
A lot of people have become disconnected from that wisdom, which leads to a real experience of conflict with foods, or life consuming ‘food worry’. People go on diets to change how they look, or they can create strict rules about “forbidden foods” in order to be healthy. People also use foods as rewards, and to numb out from emotions. A lot of people are simply too busy and distracted to pay attention to what their body says and would prefer to follow a meal plan or mindlessly grab whatever is easiest.
Enjoyment and satisfaction in the eating experience go out the window.
Being an intuitive eater is part of having good mind-body attunement and self trust. It is a way out from dysfunctional behaviors around food, such as binge eating or emotional eating – or chronic diet mentality. It is making peace with food, regaining deeper satisfaction and enjoyment with the whole eating experience.
- What is Intuitive Eating? Is it the same as mindful eating?
Mindful eating is a process of paying attention (on purpose), to your actual eating experience,without judgment. While this sounds straightforward, the process can be quite complex, especially for those inclined to multi-tasking.
Intuitive Eating is an approach developed by two Dieticians (Evelyn Tribole, and Elyse Resch) that teaches you how to create a healthy relationship with your food, mind, and body–where you ultimately become the expert of your own body.
Intuitive Eating a broader philosophy than just mindful eating. It includes physical activity for the sake of feeling good, rejecting the dieting mentality, using nutrition information without judgment, and respecting your body, regardless of how you feel about its shape. There are 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating, but they can be boiled down to these three core characteristics, which were validated by the research of Tracy Tylka:
● Eat for Physical Rather than Emotional Reasons
● Rely on Internal Hunger and Satiety Cues
● Unconditional Permission to Eat
- Unconditional Permission to eat? Isn’t that crazy?
Like many people, when I first imagined giving myself unconditional permission to eat, I felt a rising panic. If I do that, truly, then won’t I end up eating loads of junk food and ballooning out weight wise or get some horrible health issue?
It’s definitely a challenging concept. A key point to clarify is this is not the same as mindless binges. This is getting rid of all the food “rules” given by some external authority (or “food police”), and instead eat with attunement, really paying attention to what happens for you and what you REALLY find satisfying. It’s a path that requires self-responsibility and awareness, which is hard but also allows more presence and guilt free enjoyment with your eating.
People often confuse this concept with just ‘giving up’ on caring about what you eat. Claiming freedom from food judgements and rules does not mean freedom from caring. Becoming an Intuitive Eater requires us to replace those rules with self-awareness, responsibility, and paying a lot more attention, at least initially. The idea is eventually you will effortlessly be able to eat the right amount and type of food for your body. You eat not to change the shape of your body but to nourish yourself. You get real satisfaction from food without over indulging.
- It sounds too good to be true – it can’t really be healthy? Can it?
Since the Intuitive Eating book was published in 1995, there have been over 30 peer reviewed studies investigating it (something the academic in me finds very encouraging). A simple but scientifically validated test provides an Intuitive Eating scale which gives as clear score system, which then allows for robust research.
Research shows that people who score high as Intuitive eaters have:
– lower : BMI, triglycerides,thin idealisation, disordered eating.
– higher : HDL levels, food variety, body appreciation, trust, enjoys eating, body cue awareness, interoceptive awareness, self esteem, well being, proactive coping, optimism
In contrast, the research base on Diets demonstrate that chronic diet behavior PREDICTS higher BMI, weight gain over time and an increase in disordered eating.(such binge eating and emotional eating)
- What’s going on here? Why are diets bad?
Firstly, the Diet industry is worth $61 Billion dollars, and is perhaps the only industry that first sells a consumer a faulty product and then blames them for it not working. AND THE CONSUMER BELIEVES THEM. How many times do you hear people talk about not having the “will power” to stick with a diet? And how often are those people high achievers in many other parts of their life, demonstrating the capacity for tremendous will power. Something doesn’t add up.
The failure of diets is not about willpower.
Diet rules and systems come from external authorities who apparently know better than you do about what to eat. Actually most people live in a world that is very externally driven. We are bombarded with information from the beauty and diet industries, and now the health authorities who are terrified of the obesity epidemic. We have massive amounts of knowledge and opinion around us. Without a strong connection to self it is easy to become full of worry, doubt, disconnect from your own feelings and knowing. When you live in a world full of rules and thoughts, it is easy to loose attunement with the messages from your body. Brain scan studies on people with anorexia have shown that they essentially are ‘living in their heads’, actively suppressing or ignoring their body sensations and instead focusing on control. This is just an extreme example.
Even if you are not “on a diet”, many people categorise foods in some way into “good” or “bad”, “virtuous” or “sinful”. These moral judgements cause havoc in attempts to eat well. What happens when someone eats a bit of cheat/sinful/diet-fail food? A typical pattern is they decide they have “failed the diet” so they might as well indulge and then start again the next day or week. The inevitable cycle of restriction and starvation then binging/indulging and then starting the diet again. On top of this, eating “sinful” foods can generate feelings of stress and guilt, and people eat more food to numb out those uncomfortable feelings – another vicious cycle.
Wouldn’t it be simpler if we could just eat what we needed and then stop? Eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full sounds deceptively simple – but the reality for most people is there is so much more going on with their relationship to food. People eat for many other reasons than just satisfying hunger. They eat socially, eat when they are bored, eat when they are stressed, eat as a reward or substitute for love. We have inherited all kinds of rules and beliefs (like – finish everything on your plate!) that need to be unearthed and examined for us to truly be free. It’s a journey, and a process, learning how to live based on inner guidance, reclaiming your own authority. It is something I love to support, as I see people return to a state of freedom and enjoyment. This is one reason why I wanted to go more in-depth into the intuitive eating process and how to counsel people in it – because it aligns well with that goal of self-responsibility and freedom.
The other big reason I am excited about this area is because of the cross over between intuitive eating and body awareness. My own journey has been one of going from a very disconnected mind-person to one who is much more embodied and enjoying it! I believe body awareness and connection is an important key but it’s quite abstract and hard for people who haven’t experienced it to understand the value unless something has gone wrong or become a crisis.
- Intuitive Eating and Interoceptive awareness
So, one of the studies that got me excited was showing that people who score high on the IE scale ALSO have high levels of Interoceptive awareness. What is Interoceptive awareness? It is a new area of study, and essentially is the person’s capacity to feel body sensations. One example is feeling when your bladder is full so you know it’s time to pee.
Other examples are the sensations of hunger and satiety, and also emotions. Scientists have started mapping out the sensation correlates to our emotions, finding that they all have physical sensations that are perceived in different areas of the body.
Interoceptive awareness – tuning into these sensations – is a primarily Right brain activity. In contrast, the analytical approach of many diets and rule systems comes from the left brain. The 10 principles of Intuitive eating all have an affect on improving someone’s interoceptive or body awareness – either directly, like practicing attuning to hunger/satiety, on indirectly by tackling the blocks and obstacles from the left brain that make is so hard to ‘hear’ those messages from the right.
To me, what this means is that not only is Intuitive eating a good idea in terms of normalising our relationship with food, but it also turns every eating occasion into an opportunity to develop our body awareness. It also suggests to me that other activities or modalities (like body work or emotional release) that help develop body awareness will have a syngeristic effect with Intuitive eating, making the process easier. This is what I’ll be doing with interested people here in Victoria, in 1 on 1 sessions and also some small group work or workshops.
A final word about Nutrition – principle number 10 is “Honoring your body with Gentle Nutrition”. It is an important part of helping people make the food choices which are right from them. However, people are so used to following rules instead of trusting themselves that it is very easy for them to interpret well-meant nutrition advice as the next new diet. This can happen regardless of the intent of the practitioner and I believe we have to take this into consideration. I’m very keen to link up with a Nutritionist or Dietitian who resonates with the Intuitive Eating approach, so I can refer to them for the nutrition advice – please get in touch if this is you.
Want more information?
I highly recommend checking out a copy of the book “Intuitive Eating”. It is an in-depth, considered book, that covers the concepts in detail with excellent references.
This essay was in part adapted from the first part of an excellent presentation by Evelyn on making peace with food – it is worth an hour of your time to hear her explain in more detail the benefits and science of the intuitive eating approach: