Can Our Diets Be Stress-Free? An Intuitive Eating Expert Weighs In

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Many healthcare professionals and consumers either don’t know or don’t fully understand what intuitive eating is, which makes sense because it’s still a relatively new concept. In case it’s your first time reading this series, here’s a recap: Intuitive eating is a style of eating that focuses on listening to your hunger cues, eating a variety of foods for fullness and satiety, respecting your body, and not labeling food as “good” or “bad.”

On the surface, this way of eating sounds like wishful thinking and admirable intentions wrapped up in a feel-good message. However, intuitive eating has been shown to be effective — it can help people who have been stuck in the restrict-binge-shame cycle (which has poor health implications) or others who constantly think about their next meal because the one they ate most recently was not satisfying. It’s complex because intuitive eating challenges us to figure out why we have so many subconscious rules and habits around food that may not be healthy or maintainable.

Our 2018 Food & Health Survey found that, despite not being very familiar with intuitive eating, people are interested to learn more. So let’s dive into a few important questions.

Is intuitive eating science-based?

Despite the name, intuitive eating isn’t something we know like the back of our hands — it’s the center of many recent research studies. More and more research is being done to examine the effects of non-restrictive eating in various populations. So far the results are promising: Despite not focusing on weight loss, intuitive eaters often have lower BMIs and better psychological health.

Who can you turn to for trusted information about food?

It’s no secret that fear-mongering headlines related to food are constantly circulating in the media. We spoke with Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN, EPC, an expert in intuitive eating, who offered suggestions for interpreting conflicting information about food to minimize unnecessary stress. She explains: “My advice to people with food anxiety is to have a reliable and trusted person, like their dietitian, who can help alleviate anxiety and make sense of the information. Unnecessary stress and worry can be worse for health than having eating patterns that are sustainable.”

Rebecca emphasizes the importance on relying on credentialed professionals to help with fears or concerns related to food because it’s possible that stress or anxiety can be worse for you than the food itself.

What is a big misconception about intuitive eating?

A common misconception among skeptics of intuitive eating is this: If you eat intuitively, you will eat only non-nutritious foods in large quantities. Rebecca elaborates on the mindset of chronic dieters: “Chronic dieters and other people who are restricting food and controlling their eating patterns, especially ignoring hunger, struggle with intuitive eating because they have been listening to external rules for permission to eat, rather than trusting body signals.”

When you rely solely on external cues to tell you when and what to eat, you are not trusting that your body is able to tell you what it’s hungry for. Ignoring one’s hunger can last only for so long before overeating ensues, followed by guilt and shame.

Interestingly enough, one of the principles of intuitive eating is to respect your fullness, which means there are times when you pass on a food, despite it looking or smelling good. Rebecca continues: “Respecting fullness is about being able to notice lack of hunger and, depending on your degree of fullness, potential discomfort if you continue to eat.”

Intuitive eating is not only about removing guilt when you eat less nutritious foods, but it’s also about learning to respect your body enough to know that you don’t have to say yes to every food offered to you. If you can learn to trust your hunger cues and honor your preferences for a wide range of foods, it’s likely that you’ll improve your relationship with food by making it more sustainable and balanced.

Intuitive eating is a great approach to food for anyone, especially those who have been prone to restriction in the past. It promotes a positive relationship with food, looks at food neutrally and advocates for a wide range of foods without associating any particular food with feelings of guilt or shame.

Stay tuned for our last installment of this series where we’ll dive into some practical steps you can take to incorporate intuitive eating into your life.

This blog post includes contributions from Kris Sollid, RD.