The Pros & Cons of Intuitive Eating

If you’re not yet familiar with the term, it’s likely you’ve at least heard of intuitive eating (IE). IE is a non-diet approach toward food choices based on internal cues, whether they are physical, emotional, or other influencers. The basis is to recognize and respond to signs of hunger and fullness. Because the practice is based on an individual’s needs at one moment in time, it doesn’t focus on specific foods, a calorie level to reach, or even eating at certain times. It’s the antithesis of restrained eating that demands rigid control, a formula most commercial diets teach. Although IE has been used for weight loss as well as a treatment strategy for disordered eating patterns, in my opinion it’s much more than that.

IE is the most fundamental pathway to achieving peace with your body. When you practice IE, you lay aside reading the calories on a package or trying to create the perfect balanced plate. Instead you draw inward, slow down your thoughts, and just be for a few minutes. This quietness allows you to sense what your body needs at that moment. The complex interplay of hormones that rise and fall throughout the day means that your energy levels, mood and appetite are constantly changing. If we practice IE, we can nourish our bodies to match those transitions. If we release the food rules echoing incessantly in our head and practice IE in its purest form, yes there are moments we may eat a grilled cheese for breakfast or grab a handful of potato chips with a piece of chocolate before dinner, but there will also be times we only want a plateful of fresh greens or a bowl of brown rice and beans. We may leave food on the plate, or we may reach for another helping. Although these practices may seem unhealthy and unbalanced according to our diet culture, the sum of these practices over time will mostly likely lead to balance.

Balance is the goal, but imbalance can sneak into IE practices. Below are examples I caution my patients to be aware of when following an IE practice.

  1. Many factors can hijack your eating intentions. There are reasons we eat even when not physically hungry: experiencing sights and smells of delicious meals from mukbang or cooking shows, food advertisements, or walking past a food truck; emotions like loneliness, stress and boredom; and social events in which sharing a meal is an integral part of acceptance such as going for after-hours drinks and apps with your coworkers or attending the weekly Sunday family buffet. It’s absolutely fine to eat for any of these reasons, but just be aware that you are eating emotionally/socially and not from a physiological need. It’s the lack of distinction and awareness that can lead you off track.
  2. Biochemical changes in appetite. Ghrelin, leptin, insulin, cortisol, neuropeptide Y, cholecystokinin and glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) are appetite hormones and neurotransmitters that signal hunger or satisfaction. These fluctuate in a 24-hour period based on what we eat, sleep quality, physical activity, stress levels and, if you are a woman, your menstrual cycle. This is where I think IE has great value because it tunes us into what our bodies need that day based on these hormone fluctuations.
  3. IE still involves some meal planning, intention and discipline. IE may be interpreted as having no rules and restrictions and just relying on intuition. But let’s face it, achieving a healthy lifestyle requires some intention and planning. Imagine entering a grocery store without a list and just relying on what feels right at the moment. The sights and smells as noted in #1 would likely overpower our best judgment.
  4. IE can lead to lack of structure. IE is flexible without restrictions on types of food, portion sizes, or specific times to eat. This is intended to allow freedom in choosing foods and amounts your body needs at the moment. However, because of the other factors explained above, sometimes freedom can lead to constant eating/grazing. An IE thought may say “I’m really craving this right now so I will have it.” Unfortunately a hyperpalatable ultraprocessed food (meaning a very unusually great-tasting food) can hijack our appetite and tell us we’re hungry or to keep eating more of that food even when our bodies may be signaling us to stop. The enjoyment of the sweet/salty/fatty flavor, the crispy or creamy texture, or the pleasurable hormone changes from a sugar rush are more likely what we’re craving than a physiological need. So we keep eating, since IE doesn’t have restrictions.

So now that you’re aware of potential pitfalls, here are 3 tips to use IE successfully:

  1. Use intuition combined with common sense. IE is a powerful tool that may not only improve your relationship with food, but holistically will help you gain understanding and appreciation of other aspects of your being. But also understand our present food environment that promotes excess consumption. Be informed about good nutrition and eating practices that support our environment. And paying attention to portion sizes or choosing to forego snacking (because fasting between meals can be a good thing) is not anti-IE! There’s a lot of nutrition information out there but choose a source that feels intuitively right for your needs, and tune out every other piece of advice thrown your way.
  2. Gradually learn to trust your body. This can be the greatest barrier for some, especially if you have a history of disordered eating in which you do not trust your body and feel it has betrayed you. But this is how IE can become part of a healing journey. It entails taking small leaps of faith to listen to your body’s needs and act on it, one at a time until trust is rebuilt.
  3. It will take some trial and error. Don’t give up on IE if you feel it isn’t helping at first. It’s a lifelong journey of learning that likely fights against our ingrained thoughts about needing rigid control of our eating behaviors. IE may resurface stubborn beliefs about what our weight should/needs to be, which will interfere with listening to our body’s needs. It may help initially to talk through a practice like this with a trained expert, such as a registered dietitian or health coach, at least until you can start coasting on your own!

Have you tried intuitive eating and if so what are your thoughts about it?

5 thoughts on “The Pros & Cons of Intuitive Eating

  1. Milena Alien says:

    It’s a hit or a miss, I mean, sometimes it really works but getting older your body starts changing and so should your diet. My mind says I am going to stay forever young but unfortunately it’s not true

    Liked by 1 person

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