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What is Intuitive Eating?

First, let’s talk about diets. If diets worked long-term, why are we constantly are hearing about new ways to eat or exercise? We often see the within our society of the message that diets help you to develop confidence and self-esteem. In reality, individuals who diet often develop: obsessions with thinness, body image issues, depression, anxiety around food, body comparison and so many other complications. Intuitive eating has proven to decrease disordered eating and increase body peace over time.

Being a therapist working with clients daily- I consistently hear the same thing. “If I were to intuitively eat, I would never stop eating!” Or “I would only eat food that would make me sick!” These are common misconceptions that actually continues the stigma of intuitive eating being “unhealthy” or a “free for all”. To understand intuitive eating, let’s take a look at the 10 different principles:

Principles of Intuitive Eating

1) Rejecting the Diet Mentality: One of the most important principles of intuitive eating is working to rid yourself of diet influences such as books, and social media, magazines or anything that gives ideas or hope of losing weight. Diet culture paints a picture of “weight loss equals happiness or confidence” and perpetuates issues of assigning worth and value with thinness.

2) Honoring Your Hunger: Often people physically or mentally restrict food by putting labels on food or making them off limits. This often makes it difficult for people to honor their actual hunger cues.

3) Peace with Food: One of the most important factors for people to consider is the mental drain and impact it can have on your relationship with food. Labeling foods as “healthy, unhealthy, good, or bad” can often assign worth with food and create disordered beliefs around food and your morality when you eat those things. Hence, creating a continued problem for individuals of feeling guilty and shameful when eating foods that feel off limits.

4) Challenge the Food Police: Scream no to the thoughts in your head which declare you are good or bad for the ways you eat! The food police make rules and assign titles such as hopeless feelings of guilt and shame based off of food.

5) Discover the Satisfaction Factor: Food is not meant to be fuel. It is actually one of the most important experiences to have with food for you to feel satisfied and excited surrounding meals, along with fueling your body. You should enjoy the experience of eating and invest in food that gives you satisfaction and content.

6) Feel Your Fullness: Individuals are often so blunted due to their fullness and hunger cues and history of chronic dieting that they do not know how to recognize their physical hunger cues. There are many physical signs of hunger and fullness, but so many people do not recognize them due to history of prolonged restriction. This can intensify feelings of “out of control eating” because they often struggle to know when they are hungry due to the chronic restriction.

7) Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness: Food restriction (physically & mentally) can largely trigger feelings of discomfort with body, anxiety, loneliness, or other difficult to process emotions. This principle is needed to remind people of the difficult emotions which can often trigger issues they have with food or with their bodies. Remembering to be kind to yourself during these difficult moments is crucial in healing your relationship with food and body.

8) Respect your Body: Respecting your body is genetically different from others. People often believe that their weight or the way their body shape is can be altered if they eat a certain way or exercise a certain way. Truthfully, most people have to go to extreme measures in order to get the body changes they want, and often they do not last after those behaviors discontinue. I challenge those of you out there who can relate to ask yourself WHY this particular ideal is important for you to achieve rather than HOW you can achieve it. Know that most people (95% from recent studies) regain all if not more of the weight they lose within diets. This number suggests that if you are working to change your genetic blueprint with altered ways of eating and exercise then it is not a sustainable.

9) Movement- Feel the Difference: Individuals struggle often with exercising in a manner that is related to joyful movement. This often creates an association with the individual of exercise being primarily for appearance of body changes, which can rob someone the enjoyment of movement.

10) Honor your Health-Gentle Nutrition: People often become “all or nothing” about food and nutrition. They believe if they do not eat perfectly or in a certain way, then they will have negative family effects. This gives a large perception that bodies are more rigid and that they cannot eat in a flexible manner. This actually largely intensifies perfectionism beliefs and continues a cycle for many individuals of self-blame and critical responses in relation to productivity.

There is an enormous amount of pressure for people to eat a certain way for: health, thinness, beauty, fitness, etc. Our culture has largely promoted that individuals cannot trust their intuition when it comes to food, therefore creating emotions such as disgust, fear, or anxiety surrounding trusting their bodies with food. Body image and food is largely connected in our society, and makes it largely difficult for individuals to not put a considerable number of pressures on themselves to look and eat a certain way. As a body image specialist, I have to talk about people’s relationship with food because our society has put so much of a connection on the way people eat with how they look.

Body image is typically deeply connected with a relationship with food, which means that I often find when people are feeling self-conscious, they immediately jump to the thoughts of doing a new diet, or changing the way they eat or exercise. Be mindful of how your relationship with food is impacting your perceptions of your body before starting any kind of focus on food. Focusing too much on what you eat can harbor rigid thinking and impact your long-term happiness and well-being. Next time you are tempted to start a new diet or workout regimen, ask yourself questions such as: will this actually change the way I feel about myself? Why am I doing these things?

Intuitive eating is far more complex than mindless eating. If individuals have tried intuitive eating before and notice “out of control” feelings with food- it is likely they have mentally or physically restricted for long enough that they are unable to pay attention to their body and their body cues of hunger, fullness and satiety. Generally, with the help of a HAES dietician and a mental health therapist someone can heal their relationship with food and body. Remember, if you have tried intuitive eating before and have struggled, be kind to yourself! Our society is built off of corporations that make a large profit off of convincing you to dislike your body.

Deanna Smith, LCSW

This blog is not meant as therapeutic advice, rather to provide education. If you or a loved one is struggling with disordered eating, or body image issues know that there are many educated qualified mental health therapists and dieticians who are well-versed in these complicated issues. Please seek therapeutic & nutritional support if disordered eating or body image concerns are impacting your life.


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