What is Intuitive Eating? My Thoughts & Gripes
Intuitive Eating vs. A Mindful Approach to Health
What is Intuitive Eating + What I Like & Don’t Like About It
Many people have commented and emailed me during this series to ask: Is what you’re talking about “Intuitive Eating?” And, the short answer is: no. So, what is intuitive eating anyway? And is it in line with this mindfulness approach that I’m suggesting healed my own relationship with food?
You may have heard of intuitive eating as an alternative approach to dieting. Or, maybe you’ve heard of people learning how to eat intuitively by getting in touch with their hunger and fullness cues. I know, all of this soundsvery similar to the concepts throughout the Food Freedom course. And there’s plenty about intuitive eating that I really do like and appreciate!
But, I also have a few gripes about the intuitive eating approach… And, most of all, I want to make the distinction between what is intuitive eating vs a mindfulness approach to our eating habits and health. We’re diving into all of it in today’s video.
What is Intuitive Eating & How Does it Work?
Intuitive Eating is a “self-care framework, which integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought.”
Essentially, it’s a philosophy of eating that opposes traditional diets and our culture of dieting. Instead, it encourages you to get to know your body, and it does not impose guidelines about what to eat or what to avoid. And, intuitive eating also requires that you do not focus on weight loss as a goal at all.
Much of this sounds similar to what I’ve been speaking to this month, and some of it is! But even in the intuitive eating book, Evelyn Tribole (the founder) notes that intuitive eating is not mindful eating. While many aspects of intuitive eating are certainly encouraged to be approached mindfully, I would argue this is still not really following the mindfulness framework that we’ve been discussing it in this course.
Intuitive eating follows and promotes 10 guiding principles. At a glance, it doesn’t seem I’d be opposed to any of these—and I’m not opposed. These are wonderful principles! But, there are a few details that I’d like to touch on, as well as reasons that I don’t personally follow the framework as it’s written. So, what is intuitive eating advocating that I like, and what don’t I like?
The Intuitive Eating Outcast: Outer Wisdom
As you can see, 9 of the intuitive eating principles focus on what I’ve been calling “inner wisdom.”As in, tuning into your body and its cues, developing emotional intelligence, and generally getting in touch with what is right for you as an individual.
The 10th principle, “honor your health with gentle nutrition,” nods to outer wisdom—as in, external knowledge and tools, like nutrition information or diets. But really, intuitive eating advocates that nutrition doesn’t need to be a part of the journey to weight loss or health. And this is one of my gripes.
Clearly, I believe inner wisdom is foundational. I believe that we each must have an attunement to ourselves before we can benefit from outer wisdom and external knowledge. However, I also think that outer wisdom is important and valuable as well.
I think it’s fantastic that intuitive eating encourages us to spend time getting to know ourselves deeply and understand our physiological cues. But, this framework almost sets us up to think that’s all we need and that anything else is not valuable. In my opinion, this is another extreme—a pendulum swing in the complete opposite direction of dieting. Instead, I prefer an approach that is more of a “middle way.”
Are Diets the Devil?
The first principle of intuitive rating is to “reject the diet mentality.” And yes, I totally agree that we need to reject diet culture. But, I also believe that dieting (a.k.a. a particular way of eating, not necessarily involving restriction) is simply a tool. The problem is, dieting is often misused and abused from an over-dependence on outer wisdom. We mistakenly expect one way of eating or one set amount of calories to work for all of us all of the time.
When we have a solid foundation of inner wisdom first, we can make wise and skillful use of outer wisdom expertise—without getting lost in the chaos. Remember, research studies have shown that people with lower emotional intelligence have higher BMIs—even with lots of nutrition knowledge. In contrast, people with higher emotional intelligence—alongside their nutrition knowledge—had lower BMIs. This points to the importance of inner wisdom, but I don’t think it negates the value of outer wisdom.
The truth is, some people may need to “diet” (adjust their eating in particular ways) in some way, at some point, to achieve physical health. And again, a ‘diet’ doesn’t necessarily involve restriction or specific calorie benchmarks. As we’ve explored this month, there are many factors and components—including our mental and emotional health—which impact our physical health. But, some of us may also need to get really intentional with our nutrition and food intake, and outer wisdom can help with this.
I suggest, similar to intuitive eating, that yes—it’s a good idea to put dieting on hold while cultivating that inner wisdom, interoceptive awareness, and getting in touch with your bodily cues. But, once inner wisdom is dependable and trusted, we can revisit outer wisdom, approaching it with patience, pragmatism, and self-compassion.
Judgment & Seeing Clearly
So, what is intuitive eating doing by promoting that we “reject” dieting in all forms? On the one hand, this is an encouragement to let go of restrictive food habits. But, on the other hand, this “rejection” of dieting can really stir up judgment—which, you know by now, cannot exist with mindfulness.
If, right now, you want to lose weight and want to diet, you feel what you feel. Someone telling you to NOT want it, or that you SHOULDN’T want it, doesn’t change the reality of what you feel right now in this moment.
Think about it: if someone’s hungry, and you tell them “don’t be hungry, just be full!” Are they suddenly full? Of course not. You feel what you feel, and it’s not going to change because someone says you shouldn’t feel that way. Instead, being told that we shouldn’t feel how we’re feeling is a recipe for self-judgment.
A mindfulness approach makes it possible to meet yourself where you’re at right now—without judgment. Whatever you feel is fine and allowed and true. Without judgment as a block, we can finally see ourselves clearly and figure out the next steps forward. If we try to skip that step and judge ourselves into feeling differently (spoiler: not possible), then we are going to stay stuck and unsatisfied.
Yes, intuitive eating has worked for many people and helped them along on their journeys! But, based on online search volume, many people are also searching for “why intuitive eating doesn’t work.” And, in my opinion, this is because when you tell people they have to stop feeling what they’re feeling, it just doesn’t work.
Gripes with the Intuitive Eating Scale
The other piece of intuitive eating that I don’t agree with is their hunger/fullness scale. This is big—because the whole framework is dependent on the idea that we should eat when we’re hungry and stop when we’re full.
However, the intuitive eating scale puts hunger and fullness on opposite ends of the same spectrum. As I discussed last week, physiologically, hunger and fullness are very different experiences and sensations, and they need two separate scales. This is what we learn and teach in the MB-EAT® program that I became certified in last year.
Hunger is not merely “empty” or the opposite of “full.” We can actually be both hungry and feel physically “full” in our stomachs at the same time. If you chug a big bottle of water on an empty stomach, you’ll see what I mean. Your stomach expands, but your hunger is not satisfied because you haven’t provided the body with any nutrients. I discuss the MB-EAT® scales in depth on the course day where I dive into binge eating.
Instead, the intuitive eating framework teaches people to view these two experiences as simply opposite sides of the same coin, which may cause more confusion. If you think about diets—which, at times, encourage we drink water when hungry instead of eating—this approach to hunger can confuse the body and lead to dysregulation.
I think it’s extremely important that people learn to determine, in their own experience, the difference between hunger and fullness. Not only how hunger and fullness feel, but also recognizing that these two signals are not the same.
Permission… To Eat Your Feelings?
Learning to give myself “permission” to enjoy any food has been huge and essential to my growth, and to shifting my relationship with food. However, I’ve seen many people get pushed over the edge after dieting for so long. Then, when they hear about intuitive eating or the idea of “permission,” they use this as a justification for eating their feelings—which is clearly not productive.
Permission is meant to be a framework of mindful self-compassion. And, as we discussed earlier in the course, the problem is not the food. It’s the stress and emotions. So, if the stress is the root cause, we need to address that—and this often has nothing to do with the food.
In some ways, intuitive eating focuses more on food and physiological cues than I think is necessary. (Or helpful—of course, it depends on each individual.) So much of our physical healing will come from addressing the overlooked mental and emotional aspects of the triangle of health.
I want you to be able to give yourself permission to eat whatever you want—but not as an excuse to numb your feelings, or to escape pain, judgment, or anxiety. I want you to give yourself that permission out of love and compassion, while feeling light, peaceful, and easy. Self-compassion and permission are not an excuse to turn to maladaptive coping mechanisms.
This does not mean you cannot celebrate with food, or even reward yourself with food! But, pay close attention to the difference of the feeling in your heart, mind, and body. When you give yourself permission because you feel scarcity and judgment and a desire to escape, you may notice a contracted feeling. When you give yourself permission out of kindness and nonjudgment, there is an openness that is free from anxiety.
The Goal of Intuitive Eating
Ultimately, I actually like what intuitive eating is getting at, and I think the end goal of intuitive eating isn’t particularly different from my own. We want freedom from food rules, and food anxiety, and feeling controlled by food! I just think the intuitive eating framework to get people from A to Z is very different than my approach. Like everything, it will work for some and not others.
The only way to know if intuitive eating is right for you is to meet yourself where you are right now and see. You may find that intuitive eating is a path that allows you to develop your inner wisdom. Or, if your inner wisdom is strong, you may find that it has less to offer you. Remember, where we’re at can change from day to day, so we have to continue checking back in.
Perhaps building up inner wisdom through the intuitive eating framework is helpful for you right now, and then later you’ll shift in new directions. Or, maybe you foster inner wisdom with your own emotional and mental tools right now, while also dabbling in some of the intuitive eating exercises to see what they’re all about. There’s no one right or wrong way, and there’s certainly no linear path.
At the end of the day, we’re still after the same end goal: peace with food.
Intuitive Eating Workbook Exercise
I do think the Intuitive Eating Workbook has some helpful exercises to explore your relationship with food. Personally, I found the workbook useful in my own life!
Here, I’ve included one page from the workbook. Please note that I do not own this content, and I encourage you to purchase the book if you want to explore the exercises and materials more deeply!
Today’s Journal Prompt:
Get honest and meet yourself where you’re at. We live in a culture obsessed with appearance, weight, and food, and these cultural influences have an impact on us all. Take a moment to tune in to yourself and reflect:
- How would you describe where you are currently on your health journey? Where would you like to go?
- What is your relationship with food like now? In what ways would you like for it to shift?
- How would you describe your body image? Are there things you’d like to change about how you view your body? What do you appreciate about your body?
Resources about Intuitive Eating:
- Intuitive Eating website
- Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach by Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch
- The Intuitive Eating Workbook by Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch
- The F*ck It Diet: Eating Should Be Easy by Caroline Dooner
- Evelyn Tribole Instagram account (founder of Intuitive Eating