What is Intuitive Eating?

What is Intuitive Eating?

Today, we are going to analyze a well-intentioned movement that has become quite relevant in the last few years: Intuitive Eating.

When was Intuitive Eating born?

Said movement, current or “nutritional approach” was created by two nutritionists, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, around 1995. So it is not as recent as you may have thought at first.

“Intuitive eating” (IE) was a strong response against the dogma of the time (although it is still present):

“…if you want to lose weight, you have to go on a diet…”

Being “on a diet” means that we have to give up calorie dense food in order to produce a chronic energy deficiency that will result in weight loss. However, this will heavily rely on the willpower of the individual.

Problems of Being on a Diet

The physiological consequences of this state are serious and I would not wish that even to my worst enemy.

In previous articles we have discussed how a chronic calorie restriction can trigger physiological changes. These changes compensate for the weight loss but they also make it easier to gain weight once again (read post about the yo-yo effect).

A voluntary and permanent restriction only causes a feeling of guilt when we transgress the diet. In addition, it will affect our self-esteem if we do not reach the objective.

Restrictive Diets

The consequences of being on a diet will also have notorious effects at a psychological level.

In fact, it is hard to reach our objective in the first place: neither our physiology nor our environment are ready for us to follow a diet permanently

What are the principles of Intuitive Eating?

Let’s list the pillars of this movement, making a brief critical review of each one of them.

Avoiding one or several products can just have the opposite effect: eating more and compulsively

I completely agree with this one.

When I was little and my dad did not want me to see a film or play with a toy, I fought to get it at all cost. Something similar happens when we are on a diet. The more we try to refuse a specific product, the more we want it.

In addition, if we see that the people around us eat it quite often (parties, dinners, events), we will want it even more.

Fast food and binging

Giving up certain products tend to be followed by binge eating. Let’s continue…

It is essential to listen to your body and do what it says

This is good and bad.

Let me explain. It is true that our orexygen-anorexygen mechanisms have evolved to give us more or less precise inputs in order to asses our “energy state”. Therefore, we should be able to know when we should stop eating.

None of our ancestors counted calories. They did not have to.

The problem is that, in the last decades, we have destroyed that millenary mechanisms and they have become less precise:

  • Hyperpalatable foods.
  • Chronic Stress.
  • Chronodisruption and endocrine disruptors.

All these factors have made those “internal signals” less reliable overall.

Counting calories

This becomes more difficult as we move away from being healthy.

An obese person cannot rely on their “internal signals” because there are physiopathological alterations in terms of the hypothalamus peptides, incretins and adipokines. Consequently, these signals are biased and the “satiety” input does not occur when it has to.

In other words: the alteration of these “internal signals” is what leads this person to listen to them. In the end, they eat more energy than what they need, which ends up in the adipocytes.

Get rid of the “noise” that does not let us listen to these signals

By this, they mean that we should identify those emotions and feelings that cause “noise” and mask the “signal”:

  • The signal would be the clear feeling of hunger or satiety.
  • Meanwhile, the noise would be the obstacle that distort the signal (solitude, sadness, boredom, rage, etc).

Personally, I do not think it is a bad choice because it encourages an exploratory and introspective journey. In fact, it is quite close to “mindfulness” or other behavioral cognitive approaches.

All that makes you understand why you are doing something will help you change that habit or conduct.

Do not be hard on yourself or feel guilty for eating one thing or another

I absolutely agree with this point.

One of the “side effects” of being permanently on a diet is that, when we sin (because we always do), we inevitably feel extremely guilty. This may seem unimportant and harmless in the short term, but it can leave deep scars after a while.

Frustration

Above all, this will result in a feeling “failure” and guilt and the fact that we will be angry with ourselves.

All those feelings slowly destroy the trust and self-esteem of the person. All this is bound to end in disaster.

Do not think about “going on a diet”

I think this can also be helpful.

Forbidding and restricting certain products will affect our quality of life.

When a patient goes to the doctor after losing 3kg there are two possible scenarios:
  1. “Doctor, this is great, I lost 3kg”. “I am so happy!”
  2. “Doctor, I barely eat anything and I just lost 3kg”. “I am desperate!”

Unfortunately, the second one is the most frequent scenario and it is due to this mentality of “being caged in a diet”.

“…Losing freedom over what we want to eat has a price…”

And even if we manage to achieve our objective, we end up not feeling satisfied because the price to pay is higher than the results.

But this is only the beginning, since after the diet we will probably gain all the weight that we lost, causing even more frustration.

Do not focus on “burning calories” while we exercise and focus on its positive effects

Perhaps, this is one of the most important points from intuitive eating.

I always say this: exercise is not a way of “burning calories”:

  • The fact that we see it like this is one of the reasons why people do not enjoy doing physical exercise.
  • Physical exercise is something we have to do to be healthy.

Healthy habits

Therefore, it is great to see a movement that moves away from the view of physical exercise as a “fat burner”.

In fact, focusing on the positive effects of exercise (more vitality and energy) will increase the adherence and avoid compensatory behaviors, which are not good at all.

Conclusions: pros and cons

All in all, intuitive eating is an excellent approach that focuses on avoiding the psychological consequences of “being on a diet”.
  • If done properly, IE can improve the quality of life.
  • Let’s be less perfectionists and more flexible.
  • Listen to your the physiological feeling of “hunger and satiety.
  • Do not live thinking about “what you can eat” and “what you should not eat”.

All this is great, it can work perfectly specially for a healthy person

However, it will not be the same if we weigh 120 or 140kg. In fact, it has not worked and it has led this person to make bad decisions chronically, which has only worsened their health.

It is great to encourage habits such as increasing the introspection, being more present when we eat, not judging and being more flexible. But thinking that obesity is going to be fixed by intuitive eating or “listening to our body” is far from being realistic.

Why? Because we have to take into account the hormone system, metabolism, social, political and even work environment. All these are potential obstacles that can distort this “intuition”, which will only make us eat more and worse.

Listen to your body, it is smarter than you

If this environment does not change, all this will be pointless…

See you in the next article!

But before I go, here you have some interesting articles about Intuitive Eating 🙂

Bibliography

  1. Herbert BM, Blechert J, Hautzinger M, Matthias E, Herbert C. Intuitive eating is associated with interoceptive sensitivity. Effects on body mass index. Appetite. 2013;
  2. Anderson LM, Reilly EE, Schaumberg K, Dmochowski S, Anderson DA. Contributions of mindful eating, intuitive eating, and restraint to BMI, disordered eating, and meal consumption in college students. Eat Weight Disord. 2016;
  3. Van Dyke N, Drinkwater EJ. Review Article Relationships between intuitive eating and health indicators: Literature review. Public Health Nutrition. 2014.
  4. Warren JM, Smith N, Ashwell M. A structured literature review on the role of mindfulness, mindful eating and intuitive eating in changing eating behaviours: Effectiveness and associated potential mechanisms. Nutrition Research Reviews. 2017.

Related Entries

  • If you want to find out the keys to avoid the yo-yo effect, click here.
  • Have you ever wondered if all diets are healthy? Find out the answer by clicking here.
  • We have talked about how Diet and Exercise are essential factors for our health. We suggest reading this article about one of our experts. Read now.
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