When I first heard of intuitive eating, I dismissed it as some hippie-dippie excuse to indulge a lack of willpower. When I bypassed my inner judge and listened to what dietitians had to say, I have gotten more curious. The more I see, the more I think that this could be a new chapter in my fitness journey.
This post will explain what is “intuitive eating” and the resources you can access to explore it on your own.
What is “intuitive eating?” (and what it is not)
Intuitive eating is characterized by eating in response to physiological hunger and satiety cues rather than emotional cues and not considering certain foods to be forbidden. The concept was popularized by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in their 1995 book, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works. You can learn more about their work on their website, intuitiveeating.org, including their “10 Principles of Intuitive Eating.”
Intuitive eating is NOT related to what you may have heard of recently as “intuitive fasting” – which is the diet culture’s hijacking of the term to create yet another fad. If you want to find out more about that, head over to my updated intermittent fasting post.
Also, it’s not code for “eat whatever whenever diet.” Like what you see in the movies when someone goes to heaven and the first rule is you can eat 10 pizzas and not gain weight. Not about unlimited eating, and not about weight loss.
Is intuitive eating for everyone?
Not necessarily. And not all of the principles are “one size fits all” for every person every stage of life.
The concept of “wellness culture”
In the last few years, the “wellness culture” has penetrated our zeitgeist. It seems a catch-all term for anything trendy having remotely to do with the business of bettering ourselves, or another layer in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for the privileged. As the New York Times observed in an article perhaps of the founder of wellness culture, Gwenyth Paltrow and her company Goop:
Before we knew it, the wellness point of view had invaded everything in our lives: Summer-solstice sales are wellness. Yoga in the park is wellness. Yoga at work is wellness. Yoga in Times Square is peak wellness. When people give you namaste hands and bow as a way of saying thank you. The organic produce section of Whole Foods. Whole Foods. Hemp. Oprah. CBD. “Body work.” Reiki. So is: SoulCycle, açaí, antioxidants, the phrase “mind-body,” meditation, the mindfulness jar my son brought home from school, kombucha, chai, juice bars, oat milk, almond milk, all the milks from substances that can’t technically be milked, clean anything. “Living your best life.” “Living your truth.” Crystals.How Goop’s Haters Made Gywneth Paltorw’s Company Worth $250 million, New York Times Feature, July 2018.
But this is so much broader than one celebrity. This particular one is just a popular scapegoat, but you can’t walk into a Target without encountering “wellness” products. There are countless wellness podcasts and other media. It’s a movement, not a moment. We are officially in the era of wellness.
Diet culture as a subcategory of wellness culture
The focus on self-care and self-imporvement is hardly a crime. Meditation, acupuncture, aromatherapy, wholesome and nourishing foods, and yoga can help us all live happier, healthy lives. Where it gets muddled is when “wellness” is code for another fad diet peddled by a famous doctor or celebrity that is designed to “detox”, “reset metabolism,” “fight insulin resistance,” “help your organs rest and recover,” or be anti-aging, anti-inflammatory, anti-whatever. This is where the lines get blurred. . A notable resource is from this viral New York Times Op-Ed, Smash the Wellness Industry, which summarizes the dilemmas of the “diet culture” as this:
The wellness industry is the diet industry, and the diet industry is a function of the patriarchal beauty standard under which women either punish themselves to become smaller or are punished for failing to comply, and the stress of this hurts our health too. I am a thin white woman, and the shame and derision I have experienced for failing to be even thinner is nothing compared with what women in less compliant bodies bear. Wellness is a largely white, privileged enterprise catering to largely white, privileged, already thin and able-bodied women, promoting exercise only they have the time to do and Tuscan kale only they have the resources to buy.Jessica Knoll, Smash the Wellness industry: Why are so many smart women falling for its pseudoscientific claims?, New York Times, 2019
How Intuitive Eating has been fighting back against diet and wellness culture
Intuitive Eating has been fighting diet culture long before the wellness revolution took over. From the Intuitive Eating Lens,, “Diet culture” or “wellness culture” is generally used to describe the world we are conditioned to accept – that certain foods are bad because they will “make you fat”. According to the book, diet culture “worships thinness and equates it to moral virtue” and “demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others.” One of the key principles of Intuitive Eating is banishing the “Food Police,” which has an entire chapter devoted to it in the book (Chapter 9). This is one of the “inner voices” that riddles the chronic dieter into guilt based on how they eat by labeling certain foods as “bad” or “illegal.” That’s a common theme of all these wellness diets – that sugar, fats, gluten, grains and dairy are “toxic” or guaranteed to cause you to store fat immediately.
This is definitely an uphill battle. One key theme of the approach is not necessarily attacking the claims of the diets per se scientifically. In fact, many of them didn’t exist when the original book was written. Rather, it seizes upon the common themese and underlying principles and exposes the circular, frustrating hell that we go through trying and failing to follow the yellow brick road.
The Dieter’s Dilemma
As professionals, especially lawyers, we want to identify the “problem” or the issue. The Intuitive Eating approach seizes upon chronic dieting and all of its culture as creating this vicious cycle of yo-yo dieting, inevitable (or very likely) failure, and shame.
The Intuitive Eating approach explains the diet dilemmas as follows:
I think we can all relate to those concepts. Haven’t you noticed that when you lose noticeable weight, you are showered with compliments? And don’t we always hear that “sugar is evil”, “stay away from fried food,” and “eat lean clean and green?”And how many times have you gained or seen people regain weight they lost back?
Is “Intuitive Eating” anti-weight loss?
This subject has been explored by this Shape article, but the book makes it clear that the pursuit of weight loss as a sole means to an end is what will intefere with the body’s signals to process hunger and fullness signals by thrusting it back into a “diet mentality”. That’s really the concept the book and the related culture of Intuitive Eating eschews. The premise is that diet culture is a setup for a cycle of damaging and discouraging side effects, some of which you may have experienced:
- Increased binge eating
- Decreased metabolism
- Increased preoccupation with food
- Increased feeling of deprivation
- Increased sense of failure
- Decreased sense of willpower
In the book, the authors summarize studies showing that chronic dieting is a consistent predictor of weight gain. 31 long-term studies on dieting concluded that dieting is a consistent predictor of weight gain. This is because diets wreak havoc on your metabolism. Despite some claims, there is no diet that can actually “reset” your metabolism.
In fact, there is evidence that Intuitive Eating can actually DECREASE BMI. The more you trust yourself with food, the less it will seem shiny and ignite a scarcity or “feast or famine” that can create a cycle of self-will and then ultimate powerlessness over your body. The main purpose of Intuitive Eating isn’t weight loss, even if that’s an outcome. It is “weight-neutral”. The focus is on the relationship with food, not fixation on body image.
The principles of Intuitive Eatihg
Intuitive Eating has several core principles:
- Reject the diet mentality;
- Honor your hunger.
- Make peace with food
- Challenge the food police
- Discover the satisfaction factor
- Respect your fullness
- Cope with your emotions with kindness
- Respect your body
- Joyful movement
- Honor your health with gentle nutrition.
There is a chapter in the book devoted to each concept, so I will just tease out some of the most important tools the book has for transitioning out of dieting to intuitive Eating.
The first important tool is identifying what kind of eater you are – this is actually a fun game to play with friends even! I use this one in some of the workshops I will be doing.
The second tool is using the hunger scale – which I mentioned in my article on the DAO of Cardio but I will review again here.
What kind of eater are you?
The first step to understanding where you fall on the spectrum is categorizing your kind of eating. The Intuitive Eating approach identifies the following 4 types of eaters (I have put my own spin on the definition, because as you know, I see diets like relationships):
The Professional Dieter: Mr. or Mrs. Always on a Diet. If this were a relationship, this eater would be a serial monogamist.
The Careful Eater: While not officially on a “diet”, careful eaters are fixated on body image, overanalyze their food choices and put good and bad labels on things like sugar, salt, and fat. If this were a relationship, this eater would not leave the house until they looked perfect.
The Unconscious Eater: This eater eats on autopilot. They can be a chaotic eater, meaning they multitask eating or delay it until XYZ gets done. They can be a refuse-not or waste-not eater, who will eat solely because food is there or it’s available in unlimited qualities (especially for free). Finally, the emotional unconscious eater is typically a “stress eater,” turning to food for a quick fix of whatever discomfort they may feel at the time. If this was a relationship, this person would the one who you see start to type in a text but then stop because they get distracted. That or totally codependent.
The Intuitive Eater: Intuitive eaters rely on their internal cues to make food choices based on what they feel their bodies need. If an intuitive eater is hungry, they eat. They make choices based on their liking of the food and the way it makes them feel. Intuitive eaters make food choices based on satisfaction, hunger, and fullness and they do so without “food policing”. They do not rely on meal plans, points, or calorie restrictions to tell them what their bodies need. Isn’t part of dieting the EXCITEMENT?
Sourced from: Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach, by Evelyn Treboole and Elyse Resch, 4th Edition
The Hunger Scale
The “Hunger Scale” is designed to help identify different levels of hunger and fullness. It is a tool designed to help identify actual (versus emotional) hunger and fullness. With this tool, one can train themselves to start or stop eating when the time is right until eventually it becomes more natural. The hunger and fullness scale can serve as a guide to help you mindfully connect to your body about when to eat. It can also help you avoid extremes in your hunger and fullness, help sustain your energy, and help you feel your best
The hunger scale is structured on a scale of 1-10. Generally, the chart looks like this (there are lots of variations, which I will link below, but they all derive from the book so it’s essentially the same concept). Here is my slightly cheeky adapted version:
The Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale
|1||Starving – you would eat a ketchup packet if that was all you had|
|2||“Hangry” or very irritable level of hunger often accompanied by weakness or dizziness|
|3||Definitely need food ASAP, hungry to point of distraction and unforced errors|
|4||You could eat, and are starting to feel hungry, but could wait a bit|
|5||Neutral – not hungry, nor full|
|6||Starting to feel full, but you could take another bite or two|
|8||Uncomfortably full, bloated|
|9||Super full, stomach discomfort, have to loosen belt|
|10||Sick / overeaten / need to lie down|
Generally, the guidance is to try to stay from a 3-7. This will help you avoid extremes in hunger and fullness (0-10).
If you start eating when you are lightly moderately hungry, you are more likely to stop eating when you are lightly to moderately full Conversely, if you start eating when you would just about eat your own arm you likely will overeat.
The bottom line
This part of my journey is new and evolving. I would recommend reading the book for yourself and seeing if it resonates with you. The lawyer in me still thinks its possible to reconcile Intuitive Eating with general awareness of energy intake and a passion for exercise and fitness – which I have endeavored to do so here. I am not the only one wrestling with the concept – the Shape article and others are also doing the same. I don’t have an answer. And I am comfortable not knowing.
- Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach, by Evelyn Treboole and Elyse Resch, 4th Edition
- What kind of eater are you?
- Hunger scale
- Another version of the hunger scale with link to IE journal
- Hunger exercise – A “how you should feel” timeline for the hunger scale
- Opinion: Smash the wellness industry (New York times)So You Want to Try Intuitive Eating, but If You’re Being Honest, You Still Want to Watch Your Weight. What to Do? (Shape)
*The content in this article may be triggering to someone experiencing disordered eating behaviors. If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, please contact the National Eating Disorder helpline.