Intuitive eating is a nutrition philosophy that is rooted in the idea that one must become more in touch with the body’s natural signals in order to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. While the “non-diet approach” and learning to feel empowered about the choices you make around food is something I believe in wholeheartedly, I can not fully stand behind the intuitive eating approach as being complete in giving people enough of the foundations of what they need to understand how and what they should eat because I believe that each person is so individual that we fail right off the bat if we try to fit any one person into a pre-carved out ideology. The same is true for students and curriculum that is geared towards teaching to the masses for the purpose of standardized testing for data driven instruction. A student and the way that they learn is as unique as their fingerprint and the same holds true for an individual’s physiological and psychological response to foods. Intuitive Eating (as an approach) was the focus of the book of the same name written by registered dieticians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. The book was first published in 1995 and revised and then re-released in 2012 hence, the more recent notable use of the term among dieters, nutritionists, and health and fitness enthusiasts. The book aims to aid people in breaking free of the diet cycle and finally foster a healthy relationship with food by first helping one to recognize their own eating personality and then begin to nourish their body through listening to the body’s signals. The subtitle on the cover of the book reads; “A Revolutionary Program That Works.” But does it really work? Can this work for everyone?
While I advocate listening to your body’s biofeedback as far as hunger and cravings to navigate your food choices and learn more about how the foods you eat affects your individual physiology, I think that people need a great deal of introspection and research on their own body chemistry when it comes to making choices that best serve their health. I think that it is far more complex than simply learning how to eat the foods you enjoy or crave and to only eat when hungry and to only eat to satiety. If people could simply make positive food choices by listening to their body’s natural cues then everyone would be doing it.
IDEAS BEHIND INTUITIVE EATING
The book interestingly addresses different “non-intuitive eating styles” which most of us can relate to and have probably been one or more of these types of eaters at different times in our lives. It discusses careful eaters, professional dieters, unconscious eaters, chaotic eaters, waste not want not eaters, and emotional eaters. ‘Careful eaters’ are considered to be those who are not technically on diets but can still restrict themselves from eating certain foods. I would fall into this category. Examples of this type of eater would be someone who restricts or does not eat gluten or dairy. Quite possibly many people might currently be a “careful eater,” as the book classifies, for good reasons as current research has us being more scientific in our food choices and we are eating more of some foods while avoiding other foods because of what we know about how the food is affecting our bodies. (more on that later) The ‘professional dieter’ is the person who is constantly buying into and trying out the latest fad diet. I think we have all done this at one point in our lives. The ‘unconscious eater’ is someone who eats while distracted without paying attention to hunger or satiety. The ‘chaotic eater,’ eats around their busy lifestyle and changing schedule as if they are the “man without a plan” who ignores signs of hunger and eats when convenient. The refuse not, or ‘waste not want not’ eaters are those who can’t bring themselves to turn down or throw away food, and the ‘emotional eater’ uses food to soothe their anxiety, worry, sadness, loneliness, and/or boredom. I’ve definitely done that too! While I find these different categories of eaters to be interesting and useful as far as ways of looking at different rationales behind habits people form around eating, I still then ask, ok, so now what? What else can we do with this information?
The Intuitive eating philosophy encourages one to focus on eating from true hunger and eating to satiety versus turning towards food out of boredom or loneliness or eating while in a state of anxiety. This type of mindfulness is a necessary practice that most people need to engage in and is especially crucial for people who have disordered eating habits. This ideology is nothing new and has been part of the process used by psychologists and other treatment options like Overeaters Anonymous for decades.
In addition, Intuitive eating also encourages people to re-explore previously “forbidden foods” while exercising mindfulness with a focus on fullness and satiety. This is the area where people are fearful of the doctrine and I can totally see why. People fear that they will not be able to eat certain foods and not over indulge. They also fear that subsequently, they will gain weight and feel badly about themselves and continue the cycle. I totally get that, however I still think it is possible to break free from those cycles. It is a practice and it takes time and is very specific to the individual. It won’t happen super quickly and it won’t happen just by reading a book but it can certainly be attained.
Finally, the aim of Intuitive Eating is to move through various phases to reach a final “nirvana” type place where one can find it easy to eat only when hungry and stop eating when satisfied while seeing no food as a challenge or “off limits.” The claim is that reaching this final phase of Intuitive Eating can become like an awakening where it feels easy and natural to eat only according to body signals. Again, I agree that this is possible, but I think there are other things that also need to be considered and addressed.
What one must take into account is the actual “food science” that is now proving that certain foods and their structures and combinations of ingredients trigger a dopamine response in the brain while also failing to signal certain hormones that signal satiety. i.e.-high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners. Also, there is enough research now to prove that certain foods need to be eaten in combinations with others and at certain times (totally specific to the individual) in order to balance hormones that signal fullness and satiety. So, while eating intuitively sounds great, it is not the only missing piece to the puzzle. Additionally, people who are lacking in hormonal balance are or lacking in the uptake of specific neurotransmitters in the brain are going to have food cravings or tendencies (weaknesses) around specific foods. Some will crave sugar, some will crave salty, greasy, fatty foods, others crave caffeine, others alcohol, or a combination of several.
So, while exercising mindfulness around food and naming a philosophy or movement “intuitive eating” are certainly helpful in educating people to become more conscious or observant of their own psychological and physiological tendencies around food, it is a misleading at worst and a misrepresentation at best to call it a “Revolutionary Program That Works.” I think it has its’ place in being a “part” of a more well rounded education on foods and how our minds develop patterns around the way we think about the foods that we eat, but it is only a step up from the basic understandings of first level science food education that begins with calories and macronutrients, vitamins and minerals. While both are necessary and should be part of the general population’s basic knowledge about food and nutrition, there is still so much more to it and involves going a little deeper into food science and understanding our individual brain chemistry and hormonal responses to certain foods. Nevertheless we are currently in a fast growing, and ever changing, exciting time in the health and nutrition world.