Intuitive Eating: Can You Be Healthy and Eat Anything?
How do you honor your health when you have permission to eat anything? How can french fries or a candy bar, for example, be considered adequate choices? These questions are a source of confusion for many of my patients, their families, and even practitioners. My message to them is that healthy eating includes having a positive relationship with food of all kinds. This means that meals are not a moral dilemma resulting in feelings of guilt and shame, but rather a place to practice tuning into one’s inner needs and fulfilling those needs in a healthy, nurturing way. In my work, I call this practice, intuitive eating.
While there are many ways of incorporating this process, there are three core characteristics:
- Unconditional permission to eat.
- Reliance on internal hunger and satiety cues.
- Eating for physical, rather than emotional reasons.
Although most chronic dieters and disordered eaters have lost touch with these skills, the good news is that they can be relearned through attunement—a process of listening and responding to your body cues, rather than focusing on rigid food rules. This means making decisions about eating based on what your body is experiencing. For example, upon experiencing a grumbling stomach (one of many hunger cues), you might respond by eating a snack, rather than withholding food because of a rigid rule stating, “It’s not okay to eat between meals.”
Being able to eat intuitively takes practice. How long depends on many factors, such the length of time you have been at war with food and your body, and your motivation to change. Ultimately, recovery from an eating disorder means learning how to eat normally, which includes the ability to eat a variety of foods, including “fear foods,” which are perceived as fattening and/or unhealthy. It’s important to work with your treatment team to determine when and how to implement intuitive eating.
Intuitive Eating Research
Many people fear that intuitive eating is synonymous with a junk food diet and poor health. On the contrary, studies show that trusting and satisfying one’s physical hunger causes an increase in well-being, both physically and mentally. For example, Brigham Young University researchers looked at the relationship between intuitive eating and the quality of the diet in 343 college students. Their results did not indicate poor nutritional choices. Rather, these students had a greater diversity in eating, more satisfaction, and healthier body weights.
Intuitive eaters were more optimistic,
had better self-esteem, and were less
likely to internalize our culture’s
unrealistic thin ideal.
In 2006, a larger study on nearly 1,300 college women by Tracy Tylka from Ohio State University, demonstrated similar findings. Intuitive eaters were found to be more optimistic, had better self-esteem, a lower body mass index (BMI), and were less likely to internalize our culture’s unrealistic thin ideal.
While these results may seem surprising, it is something that the French are well known for—they regularly consume foods considered “fattening” or “unhealthy” by American standards. Ironically, the French also have some of the lowest rates of obesity and heart disease.
In 1999, Paul Rozin from the University of Pennsylvania explored how food functions in the minds and lives of people from four countries: USA, Japan, Belgium, and France (Japan was chosen because the Japanese have the longest life expectancy). Rozin found that Americans have the greatest concern about health and the most dissatisfaction with eating. They worry the most about fattening effects of food and associate it most with health and least with pleasure. But the French were found to be the most pleasure-oriented and least health-oriented (hence the popular term French Paradox). These attitudes may be an important, yet overlooked contributor to overall happiness.
Rozin concluded that worries and obsessions regarding diet might be counterproductive. Several studies have also demonstrated that anxiety increases stress chemicals in the blood, which has a wide-range of negative effects on the body, from inflammation to depression.
Applying Intuitive Eating to Your Life
So, how do you balance creating a positive relationship with food, while also considering nutrition? Several factors come to mind:
- Getting in touch with your internal satiety cues of hunger and fullness.
- Discovering satisfaction in eating.
- Using nutrition information without judgment.
Many times, “healthy eating” or “better nutrition” is code for dieting. Consequently, if you focus solely on these factors, without considering your internal body cues of what would best satisfy hunger, you can easily feel deprived. This in turn may increase cravings and thoughts of food, overeating, dieting, and heighten anxiety around snacks and meals. Try to answer these questions when considering what to eat: If I eat this food or meal now, will it satisfy and sustain me? Is my body meal-hungry or snack-hungry? How do I want to feel physically afterwards? What have my past experiences shown me?
Answers to these questions will guide you on making the best food choices based on your body’s needs. Whatever you decide to eat, take note if it met your expectations, which helps to create a meaningful learning experience. For example, if you were meal-hungry and choose to drink a smoothie—did it sustain you until your next meal? Given the same circumstances and what you learned, would you make a similar choice? Paying attention to these experiences will also help you build trust with your body.
When you are attuned to your body, as well as armed with the knowledge that you can truly give it what it needs, you will possess the clarity to make effective choices. You will be able to ask yourself: If I am meal-hungry, would bags of potato chips truly satisfy and feel good physically? If I am ravenous, would only a salad meet my body’s needs? If I have a sweet tooth, would raspberries really curb my craving?
When you can enjoy food with unconditional permission, the process of eating becomes emotionally neutral—and you do not feel good or bad based on what you eat. You also understand that one meal will not make or break your health, or your weight. All too often, there is a negative perception regarding eating certain foods, resulting in guilt. But when judgment (and guilt) is removed, if you’ve eaten the wrong thing or too much, it is not a catastrophe from which to recover and/or perform nutritional penance. You are no longer caught up in these thoughts. Ultimately, intuitive eating feels good, which is self-reinforcing. Remember, when you can truly eat intuitively, it doesn’t take much chocolate to satisfy a sweet tooth.
By Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Winter 2009 Volume 7, Number 1
©2009 Gürze Books
About the Author
Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, is co-author of Intuitive Eating 2nd ed (2003) and the new audio companion with added material and guided practices: Intuitive Eating: A Practical Guide,released in January 2009.
Hawks, ST et al. The relationship between intuitive eating and health indicators among college women. Am. J. Health Educ. 2006;26:322-324.
Rozin, P. et al. Attitudes to Food and the role of food in the life in the USA, Japan, Flemish Belgium and France: Possible Implications for the Diet-Health debate. Appetite, 1999 (33):163-180.
Tylka, TL. Development and psychometric evaluation of a measure of intuitive eating. J Counseling Psych, 2006; 53(2):226.
Dr. Gnap website editor eatingdisordersrecoverytoday.com. Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago. Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance.