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Intuitive eating: What it is and what it isn’t

Intuitive eating has become very popular in the last year or so — so much so that it is being misconstrued by dieting and wellness companies and influencers. To set the record straight, I’m here to explain what intuitive eating really is and why it isn’t another diet or trend.

What intuitive eating is

All humans were born intuitive eaters. We were able to listen to hunger and fullness cues, know that we need brownies along with our broccoli and we enjoyed eating for many reasons. But as we grew up in a society that gave us rules around food, our bodies, our plates and our self-image, our relationship with our bodily cues was severed and replaced instead with society’s food and body rules.

Intuitive eating is a non-diet, all foods fit approach to health. Intuitive eaters have a healthy and peaceful relationship with food because they listen to their body’s biological and emotional cues. It is a weight inclusive and evidence-based model backed by 100 plus clinical research studies to date. Intuitive eating was originally created in 1995 by eating disorder dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch as a way to help people repair their relationships with food.

Relationship with food? You may be thinking, “Oh I know my relationship with food is fine,” or “Humans have a relationship with food?” The answer is yes, and it’s important to know where your relationship with food stands.

Let’s describe what an unhealthy or disordered relationship with food looks like because it is more common than you think. Many of these habits or thoughts happen without you realizing, and some may even seem to be “healthy” — but going against your bodily cues is not healthy.

Disordered eating can look like…

  • Constant dieting or yo-yo dieting
  • Cutting out entire food groups
  • Feeling “out of control” with eating
  • Labeling foods as good or bad
  • Clean eating, organic and non-GMO or “dirty dozen” eating
  • Avoidance of certain foods or restaurants
  • Not keeping certain foods in the house
  • Constant thoughts about foods you can’t have
  • Feeling guilty after eating certain foods
  • Feeling stressed out about eating foods that you feel negatively impact your health or chronic condition management
  • Skipping meals on purpose
  • Eating “perfect” portions
  • Having food be your only coping mechanism
  • Forcing yourself to eat things you don’t like for “health”
  • Overexercising to compensate for eating foods you love
  • Having “cheat days”

Disordered eating habits can easily slip into eating disorder territory, which may look like…

“Explore."
  • Going multiple days without eating or barely eating
  • Large and frequent fluctuations in weight
  • Eating large amounts of foods suddenly
  • Evidence of purging behaviors, especially after a meal
  • Extremely restrictive rules and rituals surrounding food
  • Eating large amounts of foods to the point where you mentally blackout and/or feel extremely ill
  • Stealing or hoarding food
  • Body dysmorphia and extremely poor self-image/body image
  • Not bolusing insulin in order to lose weight

This is not a complete list of eating disorder signs. Eating disorders can occur in anyone regardless of shape, size, gender identity or age. If you feel like you are suffering from an eating disorder, please seek help or contact the NEDA hotline: 1-800-931-2237.

What intuitive eating is not

It is not a diet, weight loss tool, restrictive method, only focused on hunger and fullness, or a meal plan. It is also not the same as mindful eating, which has also been making its rounds online. Many people confuse mindful eating with intuitive eating because of the hunger and fullness focus.

Intuitive eating is not rigid and doesn’t have rules. For example, an intuitive eater knows that they might have to eat a meal when they aren’t hungry due to a time constraint. Like eating dinner before a five-hour flight because you know the airline won’t feed you. This is the difference between mindful eating, which would state that you only eat when hungry.

Intuitive eating is not the same for everyone. It’s nuanced and differs from person to person because it is individualized to fit your needs.

Curious to learn more about intuitive eating? Connect with a registered dietitian today to begin repairing your relationship with food.

About the author

Alessandra Stasnopolis, RDN, LDN
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Alessandra Stasnopolis, RDN, LDN, is a clinical dietitian and wellness coordinator in the Baylor Scott & White Health wellness department.

Intuitive eating: What it is and what it isn’t