Eating disorder treatment includes learning a variety of new skills and mindsets in order to begin the recovery process. Adopting a new eating style is an important part of recovery and life after an eating disorder. A promising new approach is “intuitive eating,” coined by two registered dietitian nutritionists, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, in the first edition of their book, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works. Since the book’s release in 1995, intuitive eating has gained increasing popularity, especially in the Health At Every Size, body positivity, and eating disorder recovery communities. Research studies on intuitive eating demonstrate that it is associated with a myriad of positive effects, especially those related to mental health, body image, eating behaviors, and wellness.
As defined by Tribole & Resch, “Intuitive eating is a dynamic process – integrating attunement of mind, body and food.” Intuitive eating is learning how to dial into internal body wisdom for the information necessary to eat, combined with self-acceptance practices and ways to cope with emotions. The authors outline 10 intuitive eating principles in their book:
- Reject the Diet Mentality – focuses on putting weight loss as the primary goal on the back burner while eliminating all of the dieting tools to break free from the diet-binge cycle.
- Honor Your Hunger – teaches how to tune back into the body’s natural wisdom about when and how we need to eat in order to repair the trust of the body’s signals and to avoid restriction that triggers the primal drive to overeat.
- Make Peace with Food – this principle teaches unconditional permission to eat where there are no “bad” and “good” foods.
- Challenge the Food Police – challenges the unhelpful food rules that dieting or an eating disorder shouts in the mind in order to become aware of the internal wisdom, rather than the rules that promote disordered eating and negative self-talk.
- Feel Your Fullness – this principle goes hand-in-hand with principle 2, as it teaches to listen to fullness at a meal and making the decision to stop eating when fullness is achieved, mindful eating is an important practice for this principle.
- Discover the Satisfaction Factor – a reminder that food is not only fuel, but it also brings us pleasure that we should enjoy and feel satisfied from by eating what we really want which helps decrease feelings of deprivation.
- Cope with Your Emotions without Using Food – coping with emotions by using food does not fix the feelings long-term, therefore this principle stresses the importance of learning your emotions and choosing new coping methods for them instead of always choosing food.
- Respect Your Body – this principle aligns directly with the Health At Every Size movement because it teaches body respect that may lead to body acceptance.
- Exercise – Feel the Difference – takes the focus off of exercising to burn calories and emphasizes finding body movement that feels great for the individual.
- Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition – purposefully the last principle, this principle adds in nutrition in order to honor health while still being satisfied with food choices, reminding the intuitive eater it is about progress, not perfection.
Not only is dieting an ineffective method for long-term weight control, it is also a strong risk factor for eating disorders, promotes disordered eating behaviors, and perpetuates the diet-binge cycle. Intuitive eating is an anti-diet approach, which can cause a lot of anxiety for anyone living in our diet-obsessed culture. Intuitive eating teaches you to listen to your body for information about hunger, fullness, and satisfaction. Rather than allowing external diet rules to determine how and what you eat, these cues come from within.
All foods are placed back on the menu with this approach so that food is not divided into black and white categories of “good” or “bad.” This inclusive approach decreases the all-or-nothing thinking that is common in dieting and disordered eating. Rather than determining food choices based on restrictions, intuitive eating supports learning to eat a wide variety of foods that satisfy a well-rounded quality of life.
For individuals recovering from an eating disorder, concepts like trusting internal cues for eating can be challenging. However, there are many ways in which the principles of intuitive eating can still be applied to treatment and recovery from an eating disorder. These principles are best taught and practiced with the help of a treatment team, and special considerations are addressed directly by Tribole and Resch (1995).
What Does the Research Say About the Positive Outcomes of Intuitive Eating?
For research purposes, a 23-item revised scale called the Intuitive Eating Scale is used to measure intuitive eating. Intuitive eating is based on (1) making food choices that improve how the body works, (2) level of dependence on internal hunger and fullness cues for eating choices, (3) allowing ones self to eat unconditionally, and (4) eating motivated by physical hunger cues rather than emotional states.
Intuitive eaters are more likely to score high on measures of positive mental health, body trust, emotional awareness, self-esteem, self-compassion, kindness to self, life satisfaction, optimism, and perceived social support. Intuitive eaters are less likely to endorse dieting, disordered eating symptoms, psychological distress, food preoccupation, and unhealthy weight control strategies. Intuitive eaters also endorse higher appreciation of their bodies, and are more likely to be concerned about the wellness of their bodies than their external appearance.
Studies evaluating intuitive eating program outcomes have also shown promising results. One study found participants who had undergone an intuitive eating program were less likely to try to eat in a controlled, rigid way to manage their weight after completing the program. Another study found that participants who took part in an intuitive eating program were 3.5 times more likely to not have disordered eating symptoms compared to the group that received another program that did not include intuitive eating education.
Overall, intuitive eating is a promising approach for anyone looking for a healthful style of eating that is not a part of the toxic diet culture that is so pervasive today. It has been associated with many positive mental and physical health outcomes and appears to be one of the best methods of maintaining a positive relationship with food, mind, and body. While many people are likely to be able to implement the intuitive eating strategies on their own with the help of Tribole and Resch’s book, clients with eating disorders may benefit from working with a knowledgeable eating disorder treatment professional to incorporate the principles of intuitive eating from the beginning of treatment through recovery.
Questions Often Asked By Intuitive Eating Newcomers
Vacationing With An Eating Disorder
Coping with Dieting Family and Friends During Recovery
Vegetarianism, Veganism, and Eating Disorders
Reducing Mealtime Stress
Using Challenge and Fear Foods in Eating Disorder Recovery
Challenging Diet Rules
The Urge To Diet After an Eating Disorder
About The Author:
Lauren Cash, MA, MS, RDN considers herself to be a nutrition therapist as she infuses her MA in psychology into her work with her clients. Lauren is a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor and has been in ongoing group supervision with Elyse Reach for the last 3 years. Lauren has been working and involved in the field of eating disorders for the last 6 years, currently working at a local eating disorder treatment center and in private practice seeing clients both in person and virtually. She is committed to helping people find freedom from food-body issues so that they can live full, intentional lives.
Written – 2016