Have you ever watched a toddler eat? Often, they will stop eating before they finish their plate, no matter how much they enjoy the food. And they probably don’t separate foods into “fattening” and “acceptable” foods. They eat what they enjoy, which might include rice, broccoli, and cookies.
The proponents of a practice called intuitive eating say that’s because we’re all born with an eating instinct. Just like our bodies let us know when it’s time to sleep or use the bathroom, it also lets us know when and what to eat.
Here’s some good information about intuitive eating, and how it relates to you if you live with an eating disorder.
What is intuitive eating?
In short, intuitive eating is the practice of trusting yourself and your food choices. It is not a diet, and it is certainly not meant to be used as a weight-loss tool. Rather, it’s a way to find peace in your relationship with food and to escape from the ever-present diet culture.
Intuitive eating is based on the principle that our bodies know when it’s time to eat — and when it’s time to stop. It’s not an invitation to simply eat ice cream day and night; this, proponents say, is the type of thinking and cravings that are the result of being indoctrinated into diet culture from an early age. Since we tend to consider ice cream a “forbidden” food, we think we’ll want it all the time if we’re “allowed” to have it.
But if you really listened to your body’s cues, and allowed yourself unconditional permission to eat foods that make you feel good, then you’d probably realize that eating ice cream day and night would only make you feel sick.
This, in a very basic sense, is what intuitive eating is all about.
What are the 10 principles of intuitive eating?
The original creators of intuitive eating have listed 10 principles of intuitive eating that anyone following this practice should be aware of. They are:
1. Reject the diet mentality
The first principle of intuitive eating is that intuitive eating is not a diet. Although many people have lost weight using intuitive eating practices, the purpose behind intuitive eating isn’t to help people lose weight.
Intuitive eating proponents emphasize the level to which diet culture has influenced our body images and eating habits as a society — especially for women. Intuitive eating encourages people to get rid of the mentality that, if you just find the “right” diet, then you’ll be able to lose weight. They say we need to walk away from these diets altogether.
Considering intuitive eating as “just another fad diet” is likely to get in the way of healing your eating habits, especially if you live with an eating disorder.
2. Honor your hunger
So many fasts and cleanses instruct you not to eat, even when you feel hungry. Intuitive eating teaches the opposite — that you should eat when you’re actually hungry. Intuitive eating teachers say that you should honor your hunger because it’s your body’s way of letting you know it needs sustenance.
This is especially important because if you become too hungry, then rational thinking goes out the window. This may set you up for other unhealthy eating habits like overeating or binge eating.
3. Make peace with food
Especially for people with an eating disorder, the relationship with food can be riddled with conflict. Intuitive eating experts invite you to call a “truce” with food; to no longer be at war with it. This means giving yourself unconditional permission to eat instead of dividing foods into what you’re “allowed” to eat and what you’re not.
Many people with eating disorders fall into this cycle because they deprive themselves of “forbidden” foods. These forbidden foods are usually ones the person enjoys, but thinks are fattening or “unhealthy.” This deprivation is a central part of eating disorders like binge-eating disorders or bulimia nervosa.
By giving yourself permission to eat, you create a more peaceful relationship with food. You don’t feel such intense urges to overeat foods that you’ve deprived yourself.
4. Challenge the food police
The “food police” is what the creators of intuitive eating have named those voices inside your head that label certain foods as “good” and others as “bad.” This may be based on caloric count for people who have anorexia nervosa or other eating disorders, but it could also be based on how organic or otherwise “healthy” a food is.
Intuitive eating invites people to stop labeling foods in this way. When you’re enjoying food and you hear the voice inside of you labeling the food as “bad,” challenge this thought. Remember ,food is meant to nourish us, and it’s the culture of dieting that has divided food into these categories.
5. Discover the satisfaction factor
Remember that food is meant to be savored and enjoyed. The creators of intuitive eating describe food and the eating experience as “one of the most basic gifts of existence.” When we make this experience about dieting or losing weight, they say, we deny ourselves this wonderful gift.
Intuitive eating encourages the pure enjoyment of food. This includes choosing to eat foods you really want to eat, but it also means eating in places and in the company of people you enjoy. Truly enjoying your eating experience helps you feel more satisfied after eating just enough, instead of wanting more and more.
6. Feel your fullness
This is the other side of the coin to “honoring your hunger.” It’s important to notice the signals your body sends — including when it sends you the signal that it’s full. Listen for these signals while you’re eating. When your body is satisfied, stop eating.
This involves a certain level of mindfulness and trust in your body. Pause while you’re eating to ask yourself, how am I feeling? Am I still hungry? How is the food tasting to me now?
7. Cope with your emotions with kindness
This principle may be especially helpful for those who struggle with emotional eating. Try to cope with difficult emotions with kindness and self-compassion, instead of with food. Try new coping skills like reaching out to a friend, or journaling. Address the emotions directly instead of using food as a way to try to escape from them.
Although food may feel like a comfort in the short term, it actually isn’t a long-term solution. And overeating isn’t kind, because overindulgence or emotional eating episodes are often followed by periods of shame or guilt. In this way, you may get locked into a cycle of overeating, and even develop an eating disorder like binge-eating disorder.
8. Respect your body
Intuitive eating practitioners warn against placing unrealistic and harmful expectations on your body. It emphasizes that much of your body size and shape has to do with your genetics. Just like you can’t change your shoe size, you may not be able to change your body shape.
Wishing to be like the models you see in the media isn’t respectful towards your own body. By respecting your body and everything it does for you, you can start feeling better about yourself.
9. Movement — feel the difference
Instead of exercising solely for the purpose of losing weight, intuitive eating proponents encourage you to exercise your body in a way that feels good. They say this can keep you motivated to work out for the right reasons. Focus on how you feel after working out, rather than the effects of exercise on your body.
10. Honor your health — gentle nutrition
Lastly, intuitive eating doesn’t mean you should simply eat cookies for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day simply because that’s what you want.
As a final principle, intuitive eating teaches you to make food choices that are good for both your health and your taste buds. While it’s important you nourish your body with nutritious foods, remember that you don’t need to be perfect to be healthy. It’s more important to pay attention to overall habits that you keep consistently over time, rather than whether you have a cookie here and there.
As the creators say, “Progress, not perfection, is what counts.”
Benefits of intuitive eating
We need more research to be able to say for sure what the physical and mental health benefits of intuitive eating are. But based on the studies conducted so far,  intuitive eating boasts the following benefits:
- Lower incidence of disordered eating habits
- Positive body image
- Decreased depression
- Decreased anxiety
- Higher self-esteem
- Better well-being
Intuitive eating and eating disorders
So can you use intuitive eating if you live with an eating disorder? The research still isn’t clear. We do know that people with eating disorders, like anorexia, have disrupted hunger and fullness cues.
This means that, especially while you’re in the early stages of recovery, intuitive eating may not be a realistic goal. Your eating disorder may cause you to deny your body’s hunger cues. It could also mute satiety cues — for example, if you’re in the middle of a binge-eating episode.
Especially in early recovery, as you start to build back a trusting relationship with your body, it’s critical that you follow your doctor or dietician’s eating plans. This will make sure you’re eating enough food and reaching an appropriate weight.
But later on in recovery, when you’re more likely to be able to trust your body’s cues, you may be able to incorporate intuitive eating to build a healthy long-term relationship with food.
Certain exceptions could include people with disorders like ARFID (Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder), which may require you to always follow an eating plan to make sure you’re getting the nutrients you need.
Get Help for Eating Disorders at The Center • A Place of HOPE
Building a relationship of kindness and trust with your body is an honorable goal if you live with an eating disorder. At The Center: A Place of HOPE, we can help you get there.
If you’re ready to start healing your relationship with food and your body, our team at The Center is waiting to hear from you. We have over three decades of experience helping people like you recover from disordered eating, and our team truly cares about helping you heal your relationship with food.
There are specialized programs for women, men, and teens at our program. All of our programs are whole-person based, which means that we see you as a complete human being, not just an eating disorder patient.
To learn more about our admissions process and how you can start your treatment journey with us, get in touch with us today.