“Intuitive eating” is a dietary pattern that’s gaining a lot of momentum. The idea behind it is to get people off diets and into a healthier way of thinking about food as a part of an overall lifestyle choice. Intuitive eating advocates say it will make you more balanced in your approach to food rather than an all-or-nothing dieting mindset with "good" or "bad" foods. It’s all about mindfulness. Listening to and appreciating your body, and focusing on an overall food balance so you don’t beat yourself up for that occasional pizza slice. I decided to try this out to see if I ate and felt healthier, or if I end up using it as a pass to eat foods I know are bad for me, while hiding behind the guise of “balance.” Here’s what I learned.
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There’s a lot of mixed information swirling about on social media regarding the new healthy trend, “intuitive eating”. The nutritionists and dietitians promoting it seem very happy, healthy, and peaceful, as if their body literally tells them what foods it needs. As someone who has studied nutrition to increase health for myself and others, I thought this was a great way to give my body what it wants while eliminating the inevitable guilt that comes with “slipping up.”
What is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating was created by dieticians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995. They started the trend with their book, “Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works.” However, it wasn’t something completely new. In 1978, Susie Orbach published, “Fat is a Feminist Issue,” which focused on emotional eating—a substantial component of intuitive eating. Intuitive Eating is gaining popularity now because of social media.
Intuitive eating generally focuses on self-care, rather than a strict regimen. It combines instinct, emotion, and rational thought into one practice. According to Evelyn Tribole, “intuitive eating is a personal process to honor our health by listening and responding to the direct messages of the body in order to meet your physical and psychological needs.” But how can this work, when the U.S. suffers from a 42.4% obesity rate and a 12.3% malnutrition rate?
The founding principles to successfully practice intuitive eating are as follows:
My Experience with Intuitive Eating
I’ve seen KFC’s Nashville Hot Tenders all over TikTok. I don’t normally crave fast food (except the occasional Chick-fil-A, of course!), but they looked so good, and I love chicken tenders, so I decided to “listen to my body” and try some.
They tasted delicious, but almost immediately afterward I felt sluggish. I was tired, lethargic and surprisingly, very thirsty. I thought, if only I had listened to the way my body felt after eating the tenders before I ate them, I probably wouldn’t have had any.
As Jack Bobo described in his new book, Why Smart People Make Bad Food Choices, our minds are influenced by outside narratives. In my case, TikTok’s KFC videos. We are confronted with compelling reasons to eat certain things, and our brain retains that and seeks it out despite our better judgment. Why?
The decision was easy. Easy? Yes. Our brain did not have to find another food or research something else to eat – it already knows this food is delicious — so our tired minds make the easy decision.
But per my experience, easy is not always best.
That we are influenced by the media and advertising is a no-brainer. But what is not so simple, is that our brain plays the biggest role in helping us stay healthy and lose weight. Eating intuitively could actually increase your cravings and make you gain weight.
Is There Any Science Behind This?
The National Institute of Health (NIH) makes it clear preliminary studies show that the more you stop yourself from eating food you are craving, the more that craving diminishes. NIH researchers are bullish on these findings while still noting more research is warranted.
Studies found that intuitive eating practices are associated with better weight stability than those who followed rigid diets. Furthermore, intuitive eating has shown to improve psychological and behavioral health, including reducing binge-eating.
But if you read carefully, it is weight stability and not weight loss or gain. As with every diet, there are challenges associated with intuitive eating. Researchers found that women who participated in intuitive eating experienced many social and environmental barriers that limited success, including their own varied emotions and support from family and friends. Also, many women found that the “unconditional permission to eat” was the most challenging part of the diet.
This demonstrates a need for self-control and self-discipline to find success with intuitive eating. It is no surprise that research shows that resisting those cravings will help you lose weight. Resisting cravings is easier when you think about how your body feels after eating certain foods more than how they crave the foods before.
Studies also show that our gut microbiome craves what we feed it. So, if your diet consists of chocolate, candy, and junk food, managing your cravings while practicing intuitive eating will be more difficult – if not practically impossible. Remember, your brain lights up when it even thinks about sugar. A diet consisting of sugar will only make you crave more. If your base diet is already healthy, full of fruits and vegetables, then intuitive eating will be much easier because your body will crave healthy food.
From what I learned in both my experience and research, intuitive eating is most helpful for those who suffer from disordered eating or binge-eating.
By welcoming all foods with kindness, you limit the chance of binge eating “restricted” foods, such as chocolate and chips, because you’ve incorporated them into your diet in a limited, healthy way.
I’ve never been one to try out fad diets, so my experience with intuitive eating was very similar to my eating on a normal basis. I still made sure to eat my servings of fruits and veggies every day, but I also did not limit myself. I am under no false impression that every person is cognizant of their intake of fruits and vegetables. Without the foundation of knowing what I needed before I let myself enjoy the occasional food I wanted, I probably would not have fared as well. Maybe I would have skipped the fruits and vegetables altogether.
So for me, an educated eater, if I felt my sweet tooth coming, I indulge in a piece of dark chocolate. If I really was not feeling the salad I had planned on having for lunch, I make myself something else, like a wrap. One night, we decided to have a bonfire and I made myself a s’more because they’re my favorite. I didn’t allow myself to feel guilty or ashamed after, but I also didn’t allow myself to have three or four. I listened to the need but quickly recalled how sluggish I felt after the KFC experience, so I moderated my snack.
As far as exercise goes, I always listen to my body to avoid injuries. I have my weekly workout schedule that typically remains the same. But, if one day I really don’t feel like running and want to jump rope or lift weights instead, I do that. What I don’t do is let myself go days in a row without moving. Again, it’s all about moderation. If I’m halfway through my run and my ankles hurt, I stop and walk.
However, exercise is critical for maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which is why it’s one of the main tenets of intuitive eating.
It’s easy to sometimes feel ashamed after eating foods that “aren’t good for us.” I know I have been there. But just remember, one decision does not have to impact your next. If you grant yourself permission to have a piece of dark chocolate after dinner and end up eating the whole bar, don’t let that decision ruin your week. Restart your intentions with your next snack or meal.
My Big Takeaways
Here’s my advice if you want to give “intuitive eating” a try:
- Be kind to yourself, but have discipline. Remember that your end goal is to be healthier overall.
- Stay active. Even if you don’t feel like running, do something else. I rotate between running, walking, boxing, HIIT, and strength training.
- Find fun and creative ways to eat your fruits and vegetables. I love having fruit in the morning and adding veggies to my lunches and dinners. I eat veggies in pasta, rice, salads, and other dishes.
- Always make sure your food tastes GOOD. If you force yourself to eat something just because it’s healthy but you don’t like the taste, you’re not going to want to eat it again. Even with veggies, make them taste good. Add your favorite seasonings and dressings.
- Stay focused on your goals. My goal is to be as healthy as I can, while also enjoying life and food. I eat pizza. I eat sushi. I eat burgers. But, I also love broccoli, brussels sprouts, and strawberries. Eat all your food in moderation and always keep moving toward your goals.
- Be mindful. Intuitive eating requires you to stay mindful of your health, nutrition, and body.
The Bottom Line
Intuitive eating can be a great way to maintain a healthy lifestyle while avoiding fads and restrictive diets. However, it’s important to remember the 10 principles, to keep working toward your goals, and to maintain a healthy lifestyle overall. Intuitive eating is not an excuse to eat junk and sugar. It’s about connecting the body and mind to achieve the healthiest version of you. But if you do not already maintain a healthy diet and workout regime, intuitive eating may be more difficult to put into practice.