What Is Intuitive Eating?

by | Nov 29, 2021 | Thoughts | 0 comments

Our 4-month-old daughter, Wren, eats all day long. She eats around 8 times a day, either breast feeding or from a bottle. Sometimes she eats a little – just for a few minutes – then seems done. Sometimes she eats a lot – a full bottle or for 30+ minutes.

When we first started feeding Wren, this was so confusing. How could we know when she was done eating? But, as we learned, babies are very good intuitive eaters. If they’re breast feeding, or being fed a bottle properly, they will stop eating when they’re full. How cool is that?

The truth is that we all have this capability. It’s just harder to foster as an adult, when we’re surrounded by all kinds of foods that aren’t breast milk, and – most importantly – all kinds of messages about those foods and our bodies.

Like most women I know, I’ve struggled with body image and my own relationship to food. Learning about and then practicing intuitive eating has been a longterm project with lots of stops and starts, but I’ve kept coming back. Over the last few years, I’ve been able to rewrite my negative thought patterns and create a really loving relationship with my body and the food I eat.

Curious about intuitive eating? Here’s a little overview and some more resources if you’re interested…

What is intuitive eating?

It’s easier to say what intuitive eating is not.

Intuitive eating is not a diet. It’s not something you do for 4-6 weeks. It’s a complete rewriting of your relationship to body and food.

Intuitive eating is not a weight loss regimen. There are three potential physical outcomes of intuitive eating. You might lose weight. You might stay the same weight. You might gain weight. You might do any of these things in the short term, then go the opposite way in the long term.

Intuitive eating is not designed for weight loss. It’s designed to leave behind consuming and negative thought patterns, and the disordered eating behaviors that result: binge eating, restricted eating, orthorexia, and more.

The creators of the original Intuitive Eating framework, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, call intuitive eating “a self-care eating framework.” They argue that eating is not just biological – it’s psychological. In order to care for our bodies and minds and get their needs met, we need to tune in to what they are saying – and to do that successfully, we need to tune out the rules, beliefs and thoughts that surround us.

How do I start intuitive eating?

Tribole and Resch define 10 key principles of intuitive eating. Here they are, with my commentary.

1 – Reject the Diet Mentality
The “diet mentality” manifested for me in the form of a constant little parrot on my shoulder. It piped up whenever it came time to make a meal: telling me to choose the option that might best optimize for weight loss (or at least away from weight gain.) Of course, this parrot’s voice was usually base on whatever pop-science diet rules were circulating at the time. Each day that I didn’t lose weight was like a ruling on my lack of discipline. Is there a quicker way to make food unsatisfying?

2 – Honor Your Hunger
Glennon Doyle tells a memorable story in her book, Untamed. She describes her daughter and son having concurrent sleepovers. She asks each group if they are hungry. The boys all call out at once, “YES!” The girls immediately look at each other, before a silently elected spokeswoman says, “No, thank you.”

Intuitive eating means looking within for hunger cues. It doesn’t matter what time it is, or who else is or isn’t hungry. If your body knows that when she is hungry, she will always be fed, you can start to rebuild trust in yourself and in food.

3+4 – Make Peace with Food & Challenge the Food Police
You’ve agreed to feed yourself when you are hungry. Now give yourself permission to eat any food, at any amount that you want. There are no “good” or “bad” foods. You don’t earn your food. You deserve to eat what you want to eat, whenever you are hungry.

This is where a lot of folks balk at the idea of intuitive eating: “I’ll just eat a whole package of Oreos for lunch!” Sure, maybe you will… the first day, week, or even month you start intuitive eating. And maybe you’ll follow it with a tub of ice cream and six burritos! But Tribole and Resch assert that if you give yourself full permission to always eat when you become hungry, and to eat the amount that helps you feel full, you’ll naturally notice patterns about what foods make you feel better or worse physically – rather than letting “good” and “bad” foods be defined for you by your pre-existing judgements.

We’ve all been there: we make a “bad” food choice and consider the day ruined. We restrict ourselves as long as we can hold out, then we eat one Oreo, and since we’ve been “bad,” we might as well finish the pack. If we know that at any point in the day, we could eat an Oreo if we wanted, the appeal begins to diminish – or at least the urge to binge goes away after we allow ourselves to eat the Oreo that we actually want.

Withholding food just doesn’t work the way we want it to. In a 2006 research study, kids who were told, “Finish your soup!” before dessert, ate less soup, liked it less, and wanted dessert more than kids left to eat at their own pace. Labeling foods as good or bad is counterproductive – and unnecessary.

5 + 6 – Feel Your Fullness & Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Wren the baby stops eating when she’s done. She knows that there will be more food later, whenever she cries out for it. If you know that you can eat again when you get hungry – not just at the next “acceptable” meal time – it’s a lot easier to call a meal complete when you feel full.

Remember too that food is not just biological. It’s psychological! We don’t just eat for “calories” or “protein”. We eat to feel satisfied! In order to feel full, we need to feel satisfied – if you were really craving avocado toast, and you gave yourself a hard boiled egg instead (there’s that “good” vs “bad” food police) you may be technically full but totally unsatisfied.

7 – Honor Your Feelings without Using Food
We often turn to food as a way to cope with our feelings, but intuitive eating asks that we stop, notice our emotions, and separate those emotions from the biological hunger we might seek to resolve with food. That’s hard!

It’s hard because it’s a complete shift in how we care for ourselves. It requires doing something that’s really hard in our culture: observing difficult emotions, and then trusting ourselves to honor those feelings without food. A journey into intuitive eating is well paired with therapy, a focus on sleep, a journaling practice, or anything that helps make space for you to process your feelings and emotions in a healthy way.

8 – Respect Your Body
I wear a size 10 shoe. I don’t walk around, staring at other people’s feet, thinking about ways to make my feet smaller so I can wear a size 8 shoe. I’ve accepted that my feet are the size they are. I don’t expect that to change, nor do I put a value judgement on it. The goal is to achieve that mental space for the rest of our body so we can make decisions based on how we feel, not how we look.

To this end, I have personally found it helpful to ensure my social media feeds contain a diversity of body shapes and sizes. If your feed is all one body type, you’ll feel out of place. (May I recommend the impressive Katie Sturino as a great Instagram follow? Come for the body positivity, stay for her hilarious persona.)

9 – Exercise—Feel the Difference
In the intuitive eating framework, movement is for movement’s sake. As we say here at Todayland, “It feels good to feel good!”

Eliminate phrases like, “Wow, 10,000 steps! We earned these bagels!” from your vocabulary. You do not need to burn calories to earn calories. Eating and enjoying food is your birthright. Focusing on how you feel before and after movement is a lot more motivating than a sense of fear that if you don’t move you won’t be fed.

10 – Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition
Another big fear from those just learning about intuitive eating: “I won’t be healthy if I eat intuitively.” As a culture, we’ve tied the idea of “health” to weight loss so closely, that we lose sight of what it means to be healthy, physically and mentally. Intuitive eating is a long term game plan – it’s not about what you eat in any one hour, day, or week. It’s the ability to calmly check in, learn what feels good for your body, and recalibrate your choices accordingly.

If you’re still struggling here, ask yourself: has diet culture been successful in making me healthier? How much time do I spend thinking about food, or my body? Are these thought patterns making me more or less healthy? What habits or fears do I have around food? How could eliminating these patterns make me healthier? What judgements do I have around my current body? If I loved my body at its current size, would it be easier to make healthy choices?

How do I know if intuitive eating is working?

Intuitive eating is not a diet – so you can’t measure its success with a scale. As you approach your intuitive eating journey, set some goals about how you’d like to feel. Maybe you’d like to spend less time thinking about food. Maybe you’d like to enjoy cooking more. Maybe you want to go out to dinner with friends and order what you’d really like on the menu. Maybe you’d like to free yourself from your restrictive eating or exercise habits. Maybe you’d like have more energy during the day, or sleep better.

Remember that part of intuitive eating is releasing the idea of perfection. You will not be a “perfect” intuitive eater. There is no such thing. In fact, the more comfortable you get with being imperfect, the more intuitive eating might be “working.”

More resources to learn about intuitive eating…

There is so much to say about intuitive eating. If you’re curious to learn more, here are a few resources that I’ve enjoyed:

Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch (Book) – The book that started it all.
10% Happier with Evelyn Tribole (Podcast Episode) – A great intro to IE!
Intuitive Bites Podcast (Podcast) – An ongoing exploration of intuitive living.
Burnt Toast Newsletter (Newsletter) – A great newsletter for those of us “unlearning” messed up weight or body ideologies

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