Changing Your Relationship With Food and Body Image Through Intuitive Eating
Written by: Katherine Lawliss
What is intuitive eating? Dr. Tracy Tylka describes it as the unconditional permission to eat when hungry and to eat what foods are desired, eating for physical rather than emotional reasons, and reliance on internal hunger cues and satiety cues to determine when and how much to eat. Intuitive eating has many benefits including higher self-esteem, well-being, optimism, body appreciation and acceptance, as well as psychological hardiness, life satisfaction, and many more.
Oftentimes, when someone first learns of Intuitive Eating and hears “eat what you want, when you want” their gut reaction is worry about weight gain and poor health. Embracing intuitive eating will require you to challenge these thoughts and beliefs, or at least acknowledge their existence and be willing to experience discomfort while trying something new.
In the United States, we are surrounded by diet culture everywhere we look. Can you remember the first time you noticed the societal pressure to eat and look a certain way? Maybe it was hearing a parent step on a scale and judge the number they saw, perhaps it was a comment about needing to work out to “earn” a slice of pizza later that evening, or maybe it was government programs aimed at “fighting obesity”. We are constantly getting messages that all have the same underlined and bolded idea, “fat is bad, thin is good.”
This message is so ingrained in our culture that our health system practices outdated science which reinforces fatphobia, the negative beliefs and ideas we have about fat people and fat bodies. BMI (body mass index) was never intended to be used in healthcare. BMI was constructed by Adolph Quetelet in the 1830’s intending to find the “perfect human.” It was based on French and Scottish men, but then adopted by healthcare professionals as the “best” tool to assess health not for its accuracy, but for its ease of use in medicine and research. The BMI does not consider health behaviors or body composition. Therefore, it does not give an accurate picture of health. In your intuitive eating journey, you will learn to challenge these beliefs, which in turn is better for your health.
The principles of intuitive eating include honoring hunger, discovering the satisfaction factor, respecting fullness, making peace with food and gentle nutrition, challenging the Food Police, coping with your feelings with kindness, respecting your body, and joyful movement.
It may seem simple but two crucial principles of intuitive eating include honoring your hunger and respecting fullness. Unfortunately, most messages we have heard related to hunger and fullness include things like “don’t eat past 7 PM”, “drink a glass of water to feel more full so you do not eat more”, etc. This “advice” has made us less in touch with our biological feelings of hunger and fullness. Because of this, we need to relearn what hunger and fullness truly feel like. These feel differently for everyone and there are different levels of being hungry and full. The scale below shows the Hunger and Fullness Scale (image from Lauren Cadillac):
The goal is to eat when you are in the hungry sweet spot, before getting to the too hungry end of the spectrum, and to finish eating when you are in the sweet spot of fullness, rather than the too full end of the spectrum when you feel ill. This requires practicing mindfulness within your body. By honoring your hunger and fullness, you are taking care of your body by giving it the energy it needs.
The other principles like making peace with food, challenging the “food police”, and coping with emotions with kindness all help with honoring hunger and fullness. This is because there are a lot of reasons why we may not be in touch with our hunger/fullness cues and many reasons why we may not listen to these cues when we are aware of them.
Below are some ways that can help you be aware of your cues:
1. You can pay attention to what foods are appealing to you and notice if you “allow” yourself to eat these foods or not. “Allowing” yourself means that you eat without guilt, shame, restriction on the amount you are eating and without a plan to “exercise it off” later.
2. Give yourself permission to eat what is appealing to you. Notice if it is as satisfying as you imagined and begin to be mindful of what satisfies you while permitting yourself to eat those things.
3. Be present while eating and notice how you talk to yourself during your meal. Step away from distractions and notice each bite and the thoughts that you have while you eat. This can give you a clearer picture of what Food Police thoughts you need to challenge and the areas that you can attend to with self-compassion (see our blog from May 16, 2023, for more about self-compassion).
This is a very different way of eating than you are likely used to!
Intuitive eating is a journey. The benefits are well worth it and it can be uncomfortable along the way. It is important to remember there is no version of perfect in your pursuit of eating intuitively and to practice self-compassion as you try to unlearn messages you have received your whole life.
You can dive more into the practice of intuitive eating by reading Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, following social media accounts like @feelgooddietitian (Lauren Cadillac) on Instagram, or finding a therapist who has an understanding of intuitive eating and can help guide you through the principles and process the experience in therapy sessions.
School of Public Health. Addressing weight stigma and fatphobia in public health | School of Public Health | University of Illinois Chicago. (n.d.). https://publichealth.uic.edu/community-engagement/collaboratory-for-health-justice/addressing-weight-stigma-and-fatphobia-in-public-health/
Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2020). Intuitive eating: A revolutionary anti-diet approach. St. Martin’s Essentials.