How Can Intuitive Eating Help My Eating Disorder?

Have you ever watched a young child eating a delicious snack like a cupcake, and he then walks away from it before finishing it? Many adults who have been restricted by diets find it hard to imagine walking away before cleaning their plates. But this child likely has trust with his body and his caretakers so that he eats intuitively.

If you have repeatedly tried dieting and find that every time you start binge eating and feeling out of control again, you may want to try an alternative to dieting. Intuitive eating is an anti-diet eating philosophy based on the work of registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.

Intuitive Eating respects that we were all born with the innate wisdom and cues in our bodies to eat intuitively. Your body is infinitely wise. It tells you just what you need if you only listen. Just like our bodies know when we are thirsty or when it is time to urinate, defecate, or to sleep, our bodies tell us when and what to eat.

Principles of Intuitive Eating

Many of us are inducted into diet culture by the time we are teens. Diet culture dictates external rules about eating that cut us off from our own internal body cues. Diet culture instructs us to restrict our eating to certain times of day, limit the amounts of food we eat, ignore hunger, and avoid certain foods altogether.

In turn, this leads us to not trust our bodies. We become dysregulated; we may also start to binge eat and eat past fullness because of deprivation. Intuitive eating means getting back in touch with our own internal cues of hunger and fullness and food preferences.

Reject Diet Mentality

This goes way past stopping dieting to an entire changing of your mindset. Many of us have been so indoctrinated by diet culture that we are not even aware of how ingrained it is. We have to move away from dieting entirely in order to start to recognize our own internal cues.

Many forms of dieting can be subtle—you may not even be aware of how much the diet mentality influences your eating patterns.

In order to move past harmful dieting habits, you need to stop counting calories, stop eating only at certain times of day, and stop avoiding foods you believe are unhealthy.

Honor Your Hunger

Dieting reinforces and encourages starvation. Eating adequately and listening to your hunger cues are critical to intuitive eating. If you allow yourself to get too hungry, you are more likely to binge eat.

In order to break a cycle of binge eating your body has to be able to trust that it will have consistent access to food. Learning to respect this biological cue allows for the building of a better relationship with food.

Make Peace with Food

Give yourself true permission to eat what you really want. This means no more rules about good and bad foods: all foods are allowed and are morally equivalent. Telling yourself that you can’t or shouldn’t have a particular food may lead to emotional and physical deprivation and binge eating.

When you inevitably break your food rule and consume a "forbidden food," you are more likely to eat unusually large portions of this food out of guilt.

Challenge the Food Police

The food police are the diet monitors that live in your head and enforce the unreasonable rules that diet culture has created. Standing up to these rules and thoughts is critical in intuitive eating.

Discover the Satisfaction Factor

Diet culture teaches us that food is merely fuel. But it is so much more than that. Food is supposed to be pleasurable. Allowing yourself to have pleasure in eating can be an entirely different experience.

When you eat what you really want in a relaxed way you can truly enjoy food and feel satisfied in a way that you can’t when you are depriving yourself. This, in turn, allows you to truly eat what your body needs.

Feel Your Fullness

Just as your body tells you when it is time to eat, it tells you when you have had enough. In order to honor your fullness, you have to trust that you are allowed to have the foods you want in adequate quantities.

Once you establish this trust, you can listen for the body signals that you are full. By mindfully observing your level of fullness without judgment, you will know just when to stop eating.

Experience Your Emotions With Kindness

It is normal for people to experience all kinds of emotions, including the ones we associate as negative. It’s important to accept this and approach any emotional experience with kindness and curiosity rather than judgment. It’s important to also accept that eating can be soothing and that sometimes eating in response to emotion is not necessarily a problem.

Food is our earliest comfort and humans are designed to find food rewarding. However, if eating is your only coping skill then it can be beneficial to learn some other strategies for managing negative emotions to give you a broader range of alternatives

Respect Your Body

It is important to understand that body size is largely genetically determined—bodies naturally come in all sizes and shapes. Focus on accepting your body as it is now rather than trying to change it. Treat your body with respect; body shame and criticism only make one feel worse.

Move and Feel the Difference.

Take the focus off of punitive exercise for the purpose of offsetting eating or losing weight—instead, think about movement more broadly. It doesn’t have to be intense.

Engage in movement that feels good to your body and is joyful. Don’t focus on metrics or calories burned.

Focus on the feeling of moving your body and the broader health benefits movement yields, such as flexibility, strength, and balance.

Honor Your Health With Gentle Nutrition

This principle is listed last because focusing too much on nutrition can derail one from eating intuitively. However, it is important to try to include a range of foods that you both enjoy and that meet your body’s nutritional needs.

With intuitive eating, this is done “gently,” which is what distinguishes it from diets. Not every meal needs to be balanced; your health reflects the average of your eating over large periods of time.

Becoming an Intuitive Eater

If you have been riding the diet roller-coaster or engaging in disordered eating, the process of becoming an intuitive eater can be a leap of faith. When going from a prescribed diet to following your own intuition, the guard rails disappear. Some people may find themselves having larger quantities of foods they previously avoided. This phase can be scary!

Tribole and Resch emphasize that this is an important part of the process and that: “You must let yourself go through this stage for as long as you need. Remember, you are making up for years of deprivation, negative self-talk, and guilt. You are rebuilding positive food experiences, like a strand of pearls. Each food experience, like each pearl, may seem insignificant, but collectively they make a difference."

A Word on Eating Disorders

Eating disorders including anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa can disconnect people from their own hunger and fullness signals and taste preferences. Because of this, intuitive eating is usually introduced at a later stage of eating disorder recovery.

Eating more than feels intuitive is a critical part of the recovery process for patients who need to restore body weight, regardless of what body size they are in. Intuitive eating becomes a long term goal.

In the interim, dietitians (or in the case of FBT, parents) will help the person with the eating disorder to eat enough. At a later point in treatment—when weight is restored and the person is no longer restricting, bingeing or purging—the cues for hunger and fullness may be more reliable. At this point, intuitive eating can be introduced.

It is important to note that for some people with longstanding eating disorders or low interest-type ARFID, full intuitive eating may not be a reasonable goal. Some people may need to continue to make sure they eat enough and follow a meal schedule, with appropriate allowances for food preferences.

Research on Intuitive Eating

Approximately 100 different studies have been conducted on intuitive eating. The research has shown that intuitive eating is associated with numerous psychological health benefits, including increased self-esteem, greater life satisfaction, positive body image, and decreased depression and anxiety.

Intuitive eating is associated with lower use of unhealthy weight control behaviors and disordered eating (fasting, skipping meals, taking diet pills, vomiting, and binge eating).

It also appears to be associated with physical health benefits such as decreased weight cycling and lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

There is also some research on intuitive eating that has clearly missed the point. Some studies found it less successful at yielding short-term weight loss than calorie-restrictive dieting. This is hardly surprising—intuitive eating is not meant to produce weight loss or to produce short-term measurable outcomes.

Intuitive eating is meant to be a long-term sustainable lifestyle change with better long-term results for both health and happiness.

A Word From Verywell

In some cases, health practitioners may promise people that intuitive eating will lead to weight loss. This is not accurate. We have no way of knowing what a person’s body will do when they turn to intuitive eating. Some may lose weight and some may gain weight.

What intuitive eating offers is different than a diet—peace with food. Developing a healthier relationship with food is solving the underlying problem of many issues associated with food, so it's the best place to start regardless of your weight goals.

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