question mark on blackboard
Intuitive Eating

Q&A: Intuitive Eating and the Non-Diet Approach

Hi everyone! This week, I will be doing a Q&A about Intuitive Eating. You can subscribe here to get notified by email about new posts, and I always post about them on my Instagram. Posts should generally go up Tuesday evening, and I will send out notifications on Wednesday morning.

Because of some technical difficulties, if you subscribed last week or submitted something through the Contact Me page, it did not go through! Apologies and please submit again!

Why the Q&A?

When I first brainstormed content for this blog, I wanted to write original content. I didn’t just want to repeat what all the other non-diet bloggers were saying. So I jumped right in using some industry terms with which everyone might not be familiar.

However, (duh!) the people who are reading this right now are probably mostly my family and friends. Thank you! It means so much to me that you are taking time out of your days to read this. It makes sense if you’re a little bit confused about some of the terms I’ve been using, so I wanted to cover some basics.

Next week, I will cover Health at Every Size. I’ll be back with a normal post in two weeks.

I am not an expert, but I try to link out to people who are. If you’re interested, take a look. If not, that’s okay, too. I realize some of these aren’t actually questions, but they are common confusions about intuitive eating. If you have any further questions, please leave them in the comments or reach out to me!

What is Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive Eating was developed by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch over 20 years ago. It is based in ten principles, and honestly, each of them could be a full blog post (or 45 minute podcast episode)! In a nutshell, Intuitive Eating is about tuning into your body’s internal cues. I like this introductory post by Cara at Street Smart Nutrition.

The ten principles are as follows, but I really would at least read the little blurbs, because they won’t make sense without some description. (If you click one link in this whole post, let it be that one!)

Resultado de imagen de 10 principles intuitive eating

The theory with intuitive eating is that your body knows what it needs. If you’re listening, it will tell you (in most cases). The principles of intuitive eating teach us how to listen to our bodies and to filter out external things that control our eating, like diet rules. If you go on vacation and don’t eat many fruits and veggies, your body might start craving them. If you didn’t get enough carbs at lunch, you might be in the mood for pasta at dinner. No one meal is going to make a difference in your health over time.

Do you think intuitive eating is the only way to eat?

No. Theoretically, intuitive eating is the way we ate as small children, before all the “eat your broccoli or you can’t have your cookie” and such started to interfere. On the other hand, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch are just two humans. You know yourself best, and can find what works for you, and I am not here to tell you how to live your life.

Baby in chair being spoon-fed yogurt
Kids, the original intuitive eaters. (That’s my cousin, not me, because my aunt has Shutterfly and my parents are just not that organized.)

Even within the non-diet approach, there are other philosophies that can go alongside intuitive eating, like mindful eating and the Ellyn Satter approach. (I linked to a great resource for parents, but she also has a model for adults.)

Here’s what I do believe:

  • Eating and exercise should be enjoyable and flexible, not stressful or guilt-inducing.
  • Health is more than nutrition and exercise. It includes mental health, sleep quality, social life, and many other factors. As a society, we have zeroed on two trees of a much larger forest- probably because those two are what we most directly correlate with body size.
  • Diets, in the vast majority of cases, don’t work (and no, if you gain the weight back a year later, that did not work). This is a biological reality, not a function of you not have enough willpower.
  • Weight loss is not the key to health or happiness. Chronic dieting is a detriment to both of those things (we have quite a bit of evidence to show that yo-yo dieting contributes to higher mortality risk, not to mention negative psychological effects). Health providers who encourage weight loss often do more harm than good.
  • Diets and diet culture can breed eating disorders. Things that we would call eating disorders in thin people are praised in people in larger bodies.
  • Disordered eating behaviors are too prevalent in society.
  • The next generation is always watching.
  • Extreme ways of eating should be reserved for extreme health conditions. (For instance, if you have Type 1 diabetes and inject short-acting insulin, you probably need to count carbohydrates to calculate how much insulin to inject. This does not mean the general population should be counting carbohydrates.)
A girl in a pink dress and a boy in a blue shirt on a blue floor. Girl sticking her tongue out. Brown shake shack bag. Girl is eating fries with ketchup.
Normal eating sometimes is Shake Shack on an airport floor. (I probably could pretend this is me, but nope, my sister and my cousin.)

I like Ellyn Satter’s definition of normal eating. I think the principles of intuitive eating can be useful for people who  have trouble eating “normally” (of course, normal is relative and highly contextual). The majority of people have some sort of issue around food, whether that’s restrictive eating or an inability to leave food on your plate. But some people have very healthy relationships with food, so I think the principles are not so necessary in that case.

What I certainly do NOT believe is that intuitive eating is for people in smaller bodies and intentional weight loss is for people in larger bodies. Intuitive eating is for anyone and everyone, and I believe in a Health at Every Size approach to health care (more on that next week)!

Is Intuitive Eating for eating disorder recovery?

Intuitive Eating is not appropriate for people in earlier stages of recovery. Some principles may be useful, like “Challenge the Food Police” and “Respect Your Body,” but principles concerning hunger and fullness should not be incorporated until later stages of recovery. This is because disordered eating distorts natural hunger and fullness signals and what we see as adequate portion sizes. (Dieting, skipping meals because you’re too busy, or anything else that disconnects you from your natural cues, can do the same.)

Will Intuitive Eating help me lose weight?

Intuitive eating is not and cannot be a weight loss tool. That is not the point of intuitive eating. You may lose weight, gain weight, or maintain your weight. You are never going to be able to truly incorporate the principles of intuitive eating properly if your goal is weight loss. When you eat intuitively, your body will eventually settle at whatever weight it is meant to be- at your set point.

Me on the left with a tired expression. A brunette next to be, smiling.
My face when health professionals or companies try to turn intuitive eating into a diet. (Featuring my wonderful, patient, and significantly more cheerful childhood best friend.)

I can’t eat intuitively because I would only eat brownies and ice cream.

I don’t believe you. Most people I know like a wide variety of foods. They like lasagna and roasted potatoes and watermelon and yogurt and croissants. If you ate brownies and ice cream (or pasta) for every meal, you would get bored of them.

a fruit stand
Really? No fruit or meat or fish  or BREAKFAST FOOD ever again? Just brownies and ice cream? (This is the Mercado de la Boquería in Barcelona).

During the first stages of intuitive eating, there often is a period where we eat highly palatable foods that we limited in the past, but it balances out over time once your body realizes that it can have those foods whenever it wants. You many crave brownies and ice cream all the time right now either because a) you don’t let yourself have them, b) you restrict how much of them or how often you can have them, or c) when you eat them, you do so with guilt.

Five kids and an adult huddled around a birthday cake.
It’s normal to like, crave, and eat sweets. You are not “addicted to sugar” because you crave cake. (I look awfully excited here for someone who isn’t even the birthday girl.)

Also, intuitive eating also takes into account how you feel physically when you eat something. If eating only chocolate bars for breakfast makes you feel crappy physically, you can realize that and perhaps add something to that chocolate to make it more substantial, like having it on top of yogurt or in pancakes.

In a more extreme case, if you have Celiac’s Disease, avoiding gluten because it will give you symptoms is an act of self-care, not restriction. You have the right to eat something with gluten (I think this is an important distinction!) if you want, but you will probably not feel so good.

A victoria sponge cake slice in the foreground and a teacup in the background
If you’re allergic to gluten or strawberries, this piece of Victoria Sponge Cake might not be a great idea. But for most people? It can be enjoyable part of a nourishing diet. All foods can fit. (This was what my friend had for breakfast at Queen of Tarts in Dublin, where I ordered the delicious scone featured in last week’s post.)

Also, the last principle of intuitive eating is “honor your health with gentle nutrition.” This should not be attempted until you have worked your way through the other nine principles. For me, gentle nutrition may look like choosing whole wheat toast over white toast because I like them both and they are equally satisfying to me, but that may not be true for you. If white toast is what you want today, have white toast! You can get those nutrients elsewhere. Gentle nutrition also looks like eating a variety of foods, which humans naturally want to do anyway.

I can’t eat intuitively because without portion control, I will overeat.

Relying on external factors to decide how much you will eat is unreliable and teaches you to tune out of your natural cues. Some days X amount of rice might be the right portion for you as part of a meal, but other days it might not be enough and other days it might be too much. Only your body can know that. You are not meant to eat the exact same amount of food every single day, nor are you meant to eat the same foods every single day. Plus, this leads to problems when people eat out of the home and are faced with larger portions.

a serving dish of meatballs with a big spoon
Sometimes we don’t have our meals “perfectly” weighed out for us- like at dinner parties. To use a phrase of Ellyn Satter, we can learn to be “competent eaters” around large portions of foods.

If you feel you have a problem with overeating (I mean to the point of physical discomfort, not eating more than you theoretically think you should) or with “food addiction,” consider the following:

  • Do you restrict foods during the day and then overeat at night? Or restrict for a month and then stuff yourself? Or overeat in preparation for a diet?
  • Do you use food as your only coping mechanism to deal with your emotions (loneliness, boredom, while procrastinating…)? Do you eat to numb out your problems?
  • Do you pay attention to your meals and eat mindfully, or do you eat in front of the television, the computer, or your phone? Do you eat really fast? Do you feel forced to eat everything on your plate, or do you tune into your hunger and fullness cues?
  • Do you choose foods that will satisfy you, or do you choose what you think is healthier or lower in calories? (Or, for that matter, do you eat stale pretzels for lunch because you’re too “busy” to make/buy yourself a sandwich?) By the way, I know “satisfy you” might sound like mumbo-jumbo at the moment. In a nutshell, feeling satisfied after eating is the state where you don’t want to eat more. This is different from feeling full. This is a whole chapter in Intuitive Eating on how to choose satisfying foods. You don’t need to figure out everything at once. This is a process.
  • Do you eat in a pleasant setting, or in secret/in the middle of chaos? Does your family argue around the dinner table? Do you present food nicely, or plop food on the plate? Do you set the table? Do you take the time to heat up your food properly? So many different things can lead to a satisfying or unsatisfying eating experience!
Dinner plate with half white rice, half chicken with bell pepper slices
Eating regular meals and snacks is critical to provide your body with the fuel it needs. If you don’t eat enough during the day, your body is going to fight to get the energy it needs, leading you to a chaotic eating experience and/or strong cravings at night.

Sometimes people fill out of control around certain foods. Say you feel out of control around cookies. Why don’t you add a cookie or two to your meals and/or snacks for a few weeks, or as long as you still want them? For example, you could have some Oreos with your lunch every day.

DInner plate with two sandwiches and a pile of chips
If you feel out of control around potato chips, pair some with your lunch (or in this case, dinner!) every day for a week or two. The goal is to normalize previously forbidden foods.

Keeping structure around “trigger foods” is especially important for those with a history of binge eating. If pizza is a binge food for you, ordering a pizza when you are alone, really hungry, and in an emotionally vulnerable state is probably not the best way to start incorporating it. (I recommend working with with Health at Every Size-informed professionals while in recovery from any eating disorder.)

I also recommend this post from Sarah at Bucket List Tummy on why you might feel out of control around food.

Finally, please remember that occasional overeating is a normal part of life. There is nothing wrong with doing this sometimes, because something is really good or because we overshot fullness. It is a normal part of the human experience.

How does exercise fit into this?

Principle #9 of intuitive eating says “9. Exercise–Feel the Difference Forget militant exercise. Just get active and feel the difference. Shift your focus to how it feels to move your body, rather than the calorie burning effect of exercise. If you focus on how you feel from working out, such as energized, it can make the difference between rolling out of bed for a brisk morning walk or hitting the snooze alarm. If when you wake up, your only goal is to lose weight, it’s usually not a motivating factor in that moment of time.” (I would add that if your only goal is to prevent osteoporosis and heart disease 50 years from now, that is not a motivating factor, either.)

My legs and feet, in blue camo leggings and sneakers. Gym floor.
Yes, I did take this picture precisely for this purpose. And yes, I did feel silly doing so. (This was pre-Zumba. Such great energy in that class! I just wish the instructor didn’t talk about burning calories every week.)

This principle was one of the hardest ones for me to incorporate, and was one of the last ones I addressed. It is also hard to articulate, and I don’t think the book does the greatest job given the current climate of #strongnotskinny; that is to say, people who are not pursuing weight loss but rather “health” may still have unhealthy relationships with exercise.

I will definitely write a blog post about this soon, but in short, I was a kid who hated sports and an uncoordinated teenager that hated exercise. In college, I had a strict (although not in itself excessive) exercise routine about which I was quite obsessive. On the other hand, I did start enjoying things like yoga, Pilates, Zumba, and barre. This year, I am much more relaxed about exercise and have switched to a movement perspective.

Find joyful movement

Basically, the idea is to move in a way that makes you feel good, whether that’s walking, restorative yoga, or something more intense. If you hate running, please stop running. If you hate yoga, stop doing yoga. Trying new things could be a good idea if you are in the position to do so! Hiking, kayaking, bike riding, a ballroom dance class…

My sister on an indoor rock climbing wall
Ooh, or rock climbing! That’s my sister, not me, but doesn’t she look cool?

It’s also to listen to your body and mind. If you’re feeling sick, exercise probably isn’t a great idea. On the other hand, if you’ve been sitting at the computer for a while and your back starts to hurt, that’s probably a sign that your body needs to move around for a while or stretch a little. If you’re feeling very stressed, some yoga might be a good idea. (I think movement can be good stress relief, but not if you’re trying to outrun your problems or if you are doing it in an obsessive way.)

I like this post from Rachael Hartley, RD on how to find intuitive movement. This so individualized and also can change over time. In college, my mom was on the swim team. Twenty-five years ago, she trained for the NYC marathon. Ten years ago, she was really into Pilates.  Some days/weeks/years you might be into weight lifting and others you might clean the house or go roller skating with your kids instead. Still others you might do nothing, and indeed a break from exercise might be just what you need when recovering from obsessive exercise.

Of course, we also have to acknowledge that we all have different ability levels. To say that everyone needs to be doing X minutes of cardiovascular exercise per week not only teaches us to ignore what our bodies are telling us, but also leaves out the reality that not everyone is able to do so.

You’ve always been thin. You can’t possibly understand why I need to lose weight.

You’re absolutely right. I cannot understand what it’s like to live in a larger body, just like I can’t understand what it’s like to go through life in America as a person of color or as a person with a disability or a non-English speaking person. I have many privileges in life that I did not earn.

What I can do is direct you to activists who live in larger bodies who advocate for fat positivity/body positivity and a Health at Every Size approach. Here are some resources and blogs I’ve collected:

I can also ask this: has the pursuit of weight loss and the manipulation of your body improved your life? Has it made you happier? (I mean overall, not just when you are temporarily at a lower weight.) Improved your self-esteem? Has it actually resulted in a consistently lower weight?

Lastly, keep in mind that anti-diet activists are not saying that you are “bad” for wanting to lose weight. Unfortunately, there is a lot of stigma and discrimination that comes with living in a larger body, so that desire makes perfect sense and is totally valid. Rather, they are saying that diet culture is a problem for telling us that thinner = better. They are also saying that diets don’t work and that there is a kinder way to live your life.

This sounds like something for rich people

Yeah, you’re kind of right. That is a massive, massive problem in the nutrition field in general (which lacks diversity in so many ways: race, gender, body size, ability…). The class issues tied up in this are complicated and addressing them in a paragraph is impossible, but here are a few things I will say to that:

Nutrition and Poverty

A lot of nutritional advice is for rich people. If you scroll down Instagram, you can find “nutritionists” and registered dietitians alike recommending kombucha, spirulina, and protein bars that cost more than a full meal as the aliments that will save us from…I don’t even know. Premature death? Kit-kats?

Image of a green powder in a bowl
Confession of an RD2Be (registered dietitian to be): I just had to google spirulina. The “superfood” model of nutrition turns “health” into a commodity, into something you can buy (and it doesn’t come cheap!)

Intuitive eating and Health at Every Size cannot fix the fact that fresh fruits and vegetables are expensive and inaccesible and processed foods are cheap and available. They can’t fix the fact that you may have to work two or three jobs and have no time to cook, or that you may live in a homeless shelter and have no kitchen equipment.

These problems go far beyond the scope of the nutrition field, and need to be addressed. Non-diet dietitians are some of the few health professionals I’ve heard defend poor people choosing high-calorie foods as a rational (rather than irresponsible) choice for their situation. Ellyn Satter’s Hierarchy of Food Needs may be appropriate here:food-hierarchy-graphic-rainbow-300-pixNote that instrumental food (this means an eating pattern with the specific goal of “health”) is only a need that can be met after the others have been.

The conventional approach to nutrition tends to blame individuals for health outcomes, asserting that if lower-class individuals just would lose weight/drink less soda/bike to work/go vegan/build a chicken coop and plant their own organic vegetable gardens, they would have better health outcomes. In contrast, Health at Every Size acknowledges the socioeconomic and racial disparities that attribute to health discrepancies.

Intuitive eating is flexible

Putting aside for the moment the very real issues of food insecurity and extreme poverty, Intuitive Eating can be adapted to your lifestyle and budget to make it work for you. It is flexible and does not require juices or protein powders or pre-portioned microwave meals. It discourages black and white thinking and the idea that if you can’t be perfect, you might as well not try.

You may not be able to eat exactly what you are craving 100% of the time. That’s okay. You can still eat intuitively. You can still find intuitive movement even if you can’t afford to go indoor rock climbing and don’t have a lot of time.

We definitely could use more resources on eating intuitively while living on a very limited budget, but check the next section for some starting points.

Intuitive eating and your food budget

If you are comfortable economically and just have a food budget (and limited time), there are plenty of resources on how to eat intuitively while meal planning. You can adjust these to reflect your personal budget. Some starting points:

A piggy bank with coins

Questions?

Okay, that’s all for right now! Again, if you have any more questions, please ask them. I only skimmed the surface of intuitive eating in this post, so it makes sense to still be a little confused or skeptical. I’m not trying to impose my nutrition philosophy on you, but rather to present an alternative view of health and nutrition.

Check back next Tuesday to learn more about Health at Every Size and the Weight-Neutral approach to health care. (Or subscribe and be notified by email.) If you’ve heard of it and have specific questions, feel free to ask them, and I will include them in next week’s post.

As always, I am not a health care professional and this is just general advice that is not meant to replace personalized information from your dietitian, health care provider, or mental health professional.