If you’d like to stop dieting and start enjoy all foods without guilt, Intuitive Eating is a non-diet approach that can help you.
I wrote a shorter version of this post for WebMD. Find me over there on the Food & Fitness Blog, where I post regularly.
Diets always sound doable on paper. But then come the rules. And the lists of off-limits foods. And the hunger pangs. And of course the internal struggle between wanting to perfectly stick to your plan and wanting to order dessert.
Go on enough diets, and food can eventually feel like the enemy. Wouldn’t it be nice to finally call a truce?
You can. In fact, a lot of people are. They’re rejecting traditional diets and making peace with food through an approach called Intuitive Eating. The approach was created more than 20 years ago by dietitians Eveyln Tribole and Elyse Resch, authors of Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach. But it’s having a resurgence in popularity right now, and as a dietitian, I couldn’t be happier about that.
I respect people’s choices around food and their weight (read: Let’s Talk About Weight), and I’m by no means an expert on Intuitive Eating. Heck, making peace with food and my body is still firmly in the #goals category for me.
But Intuitive Eating promises a freedom–from punishing diets, from feelings of guilt around eating–that I wish for myself and for others. So when readers come to me with stories of endless dieting, I often point them to this approach.
What is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating is the practice of eating when you’re hungry, stopping when you’re full, and eating what you want.
Sounds simple enough, right? But if you’ve been dieting for most of your adult life (and possibly longer), you know that sounds downright radical – and incredibly freeing.
At the core of Intuitive Eating is trusting yourself to know what to eat and pay attention to your body, specifically, signals that you’re hungry and full.
It also requires a rejection of the diet mentality. No more thinking about foods as good and bad, no more avoiding foods you love because they’re “fattening”, and no more judging yourself for what (or how much) you eat.
Can you have whatever you want with Intuitive Eating?
Actually, yes. That’s the whole point: to eat what (and how much) your body wants.
But it’s not designed to be an unhealthy free-for-all. The practice encourages “gentle nutrition”, which involves making food choices that help your body feel good, while still allowing for foods that simply give you pleasure.
Do you lose weight with Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive Eating is NOT a weight loss plan. Everyone’s experiences are different, so it’s possible some people could lose weight. It’s also possible you may eat more at first when you finally allow yourself to have previously-banned foods.
But ultimately it’s meant to help you make peace with food and actually enjoy eating again without baggage.
In a study from Brigham Young University, people who scored high on an Intuitive Eating scale had less anxiety about food and got more enjoyment from eating (and interestingly, had lower BMIs) than those who scored lower.
Can kids do Intuitive Eating?
Kids are actually the original Intuitive Eaters! Think of a baby with a seemingly random feeding schedule, the toddler who plows through his breakfast one morning and picks at it the next, or the kid who begs for another cookie only to take one bite and declare that he’s done. That’s all Intuitive Eating.
But as parents, we interfere with this process when we require a certain number of bites, withhold dessert as a punishment, or pressure them to eat more.
Letting your kids eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full (without interference) can help foster a healthy relationship with food that can last a lifetime.
It’s never too late to steer the ship back toward Intuitive Eating. Here are a few things to do:
- Let your child decide how much they’re going to eat. No more “three more bites of chicken before you can leave the table”.
- Avoid bribing, rewarding, or punishing with food.
- Don’t label foods as “good” or “bad”. Kids can feel like they’re bad if they want “bad” foods.
I’m intrigued. Now what?
If you want to know more, I highly recommend the book Intuitive Eating by dietitians Eveyln Tribole and Elyse Resch (they also wrote a workbook, The Intuitive Eating Workbook). They’re the co-creators of Intuitive Eating and the authorities in this approach.
Looking for one-on-one help with Intuitive Eating? You can find dietitians who have a focus in Intuitive Eating or are certified in Intuitive Eating. Here are some to follow online:
You can also go deeper with an online course called How to Eat. It’s a 7-module e-course from dietitian Kylie Mitchell. I’ve gone through this course myself and it’s incredibly helpful at reframing your thoughts around food and your body.
How to eat intuitively
Here are a few ways to get started with eating more intuitively:
Pay attention to your hunger and fullness. Intuitive Eating uses a “hunger discovery scale” of 1-10 (1 is empty, 10 is overstuffed to the point of feeling sick, and 5 is neither hungry nor full).
- Are you feeling pangs of hunger? Is your stomach rumbling? Give yourself permission to eat.
- Are you higher on the scale and simply bored, sad, or angry? Look for a way to cope with that emotion, like calling a friend.
Enjoy your food. Put down the phone and focus on your food (and ideally, eat in a nice environment, not at a cluttered desk or in front of the TV). Does your food look, smell, and taste good? Allow yourself to really savor something delicious. Then occasionally pause to check in: Are you still hungry? If so, keep eating. If not, stop before you’re uncomfortably full.
Stop diet talk. Check yourself when you start thinking of certain foods as “good” and “bad” or “allowed” and “prohibited”. If there’s a food you’ve banned because of fat or calories, allow yourself to have it without judgement. That can feel uncomfortable at first, but it’s possible that your fixation of that food as “forbidden” is what’s made it so appealing. (read more about this: How to Legalize Food And Fire the Food Police). Knowing you can have the food whenever you want just might weaken that pull.
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