With the push-back against diet culture, non-diet approaches such as Intuitive Eating have begun to get more airtime across social media and blogs.
Intuitive Eating is a specific framework with 10 principles that underpin it.
You don’t need to work through these principles in a set order, and you may well find it helpful to revisit older principles as you go along. Weight loss is removed as the primary outcome in non-diet approaches. Intuitive Eaters have improved blood glucose control and report a better relationship with food and their bodies (2) than dieters.
Intuitive Eating doesn’t mean we encourage face-planting a box of doughnuts.
Sure, if you come to an Intuitive Eating session and tell us you’ve had a doughnut filled afternoon, we’re not going to make you feel guilty. But by removing the pedestal that treat foods are often put on, and instead of giving unconditional permission to eat all foods, we’re levelling the playing field. If you’ve restricted certain foods for a long time, it may well be that you initially eat more of these foods. The analogy of a pendulum can be helpful here: the more tightly you hold your dietary habits in one direction, the further you’ll swing the other way after letting go. Give it time, and you’ll find equilibrium in the middle. The research actually indicates that intuitive eaters consume a more diverse variety of foods (3), so whilst those doughnuts may feature, it is just one part of the dietary picture.
Intuitive Eating isn’t a hunger-fullness diet
One of the earliest principles of Intuitive Eating focuses on recognising and honouring hunger, with later principles exploring fullness, satiation and mindful eating. One of the key tools for understanding hunger and fullness is a simple 1-10 scale, where 1 has you at your most ravenous hunger, and 10 is full-to-burst, uncomfortable fullness like you get after a Christmas or holiday meal, plus dessert and all the nibbles. 5 is perfectly neutral. This tool can be helpful for understanding hunger and fullness, especially when these cues have been ignored. Many people won’t describe themselves as hungry until they’re around a 2 on the scale, which would really be over-hungry, and can lead to feelings of uncontrolled eating. However, this is only one tool in the Intuitive Eating toolbox. It ignores satiation, social meals and occasions, emotional eating, extra-delicious meals, grabbing a snack on the road, and all the other reasons we eat beyond simple hunger. In many ways, the aim is to work towards not needing the hunger-fullness scale as you become more innately in-tune with hunger and fullness, to the point you don’t have to categorise it. Sticking too rigidly to the hunger-fullness scale can lead to restriction.
Intuitive Eating can be applied to managing conditions
Gentle nutrition is one of the last principles and involves applying balanced eating and nutrition to the non-diet framework that Intuitive Eating has built. Often, clinicians won’t introduce clients to this principle until fairly late on in their sessions to avoid diet culture sneaking back in. For an otherwise healthy person, gentle nutrition may include choosing high-fibre foods to avoid bathroom discomfort and to support long-term cardiovascular health. It might mean aiming to eat an evening meal neither too early nor too late for a good night’s sleep. For someone with a health condition, gentle nutrition may include the management of this. For someone with type 1 or 2 diabetes, this will likely involve understanding the macronutrient balance and regularity of meals to support blood glucose levels. But by using the Intuitive Eating principles, the removal of weight as an outcome, and freedom of choice within the gentle nutrition guidelines allows for a healthy relationship with food and diet.
Who to speak to?
For Intuitive Eating consultations, look for a Registered Nutritionist or Dietitian who has done additional training in Intuitive Eating (such as the one from LCIE), or a certified Intuitive Eating counsellor.
- Bégin, 2018. doi: 10.1177/0890117118786326
- Camilleri, 2017. doi: 10.3945/jn.116.234088
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Elle is a MSc nutrition student (graduating autumn 2020) and yoga teacher with a special interest in a gentle and non-diet approach to working with women, and educating on sustainable nutrition. Her website provides free evidence-based articles and tips to help enliven your life.