Intuitive Eating: The Non-Diet Is the Best Diet
MPH Candidate, Nutritional Sciences
"To be healthy!" a 4-year-old exclaimed when I asked her, "Why do we eat fruits?" Health is on everyone's mind, whether you're 4 or 94. But how do we achieve health? How does weight status contribute to our health? How do physical, mental, and emotional health relate?
With an abundance of easily accessible information, many people are turning to diet fads for health and weight loss. Although participants of these diets may have good intentions, fad diets often cause yo-yo weight trends and can actually cause great harm to the individuals, both physically and psychologically1. Intuitive eating (IE), a non-diet, offers a sustainable solution to weight maintenance, and may even answer some of our questions about how to live a healthy life.
What Is Intuitive Eating?
The phrase "intuitive eating" was coined in 1995 and describes a non-diet lifestyle that encourages the participant to rely on their own internal body cues for hunger and fullness as opposed to external cues2.
My stomach growling is an example of an internal cue. I can note that I am feeling physically hungry. External cues, on the other hand, are the "should" thoughts. For example, when I was craving a piece of chocolate but told myself I should eat a piece of fruit instead.
External cues can also relate to timing. For example, eating dinner while watching TV may make it hard to pay attention to fullness cues, so you may continue to eat until the show is over without realizing that you are full.
IE centers on the idea that our bodies are intuitive and know what food they need, how much they need, and when they need it to maintain a healthy weight and a positive health status3.
Also, IE does not restrict the type of foods you can consume3, so chocolate and fruit are both OK.
Dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch developed the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating. Researchers have been able to break down all 10 principles into four main categories3:
- Unconditional permission to eat when hungry and to eat what sounds good3
- Eating for physical reasons, instead of emotional reasons3
- Reliance on internal hunger and fullness cues to determine eating behaviors3
- Honoring your health3
Why Is Intuitive Eating Beneficial?
The magic of intuitive eating—and I really do believe it is almost magic!—needs to be shared widely because of its power to radically change how we interact with food. IE allows us to listen to our bodies when it comes to food choices and frees us to fully enjoy our food without judgment. Research has demonstrated IE results in better health outcomes, both physically and psychologically, and has also shown improved behavioral outcomes1.
Research has shown IE can offer a range of outcomes, including physical, psychological, and behavioral.
- Physical outcomes include:
- Correlation with a lower weight status and BMI throughout the body2
- Association with significantly improved total, LDL, and HDL cholesterol— whereas weight-focused diet interventions do not demonstrate an association1,3
- Potential positive effect on blood pressure and inflammation markers—some studies show positive outcomes1, but more research is required
- Correlation with weight maintenance1—more research is needed to identify the effects of IE on weight loss long-term
Psychological outcomes include:
- Improved body satisfaction3
- A decreased prevalence of depression3
- Protection against overly-restrictive diet messages3
Behavioral outcomes include:
- Decreased eating disorder behaviors1
- More healthful nutrition choices2
So why does this matter? Well, if that 4-year-old wants to be healthy, I want to help her! If you are a current or future health practitioner, consider educating your clients or patients about intuitive eating. If you personally have the desire to live a healthy lifestyle, consider trying intuitive eating. So many people struggle to figure out how and what to eat, and helping them lean into their own hunger and fullness cues using intuitive eating could be the exact tool they need to start living a healthier lifestyle.
- Mensinger JL, Calogero RM, Stranges S, Tylka TL. A weight-neutral versus weight-loss approach for health promotion in women with high BMI : A randomized-controlled trial. Appetite. 2016;105:364-374. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2016.06.006.
- Bush HE, Rossy L, Mintz LB, Schopp L. Eat for Life : A Work Site Feasibility Study of a Novel Mindfulness-Based Intuitive Eating Intervention. 2014;28(6):380-389.
- Dyke N Van, Drinkwater EJ. Review Article Relationships between intuitive eating and health indicators : literature review. 2013;17(8):1757-1766. doi:10.1017/S1368980013002139.
About the Author
Emily Compton is a graduate student at the University of Michigan School of Public Health studying nutrition and dietetics. Compton has identified her passion for working with patients with eating disorders and hopes to be an eating disorder dietitian after her dietetic internship. Compton also has a passion for women's health and promoting a healthy relationship with food. Outside of her studies, Emily enjoys running, cooking, and photography.