The central premise of the intuitive eating program is that people’s bodies possess innate biological wisdom that already knows what foods and eating habits are best for them, beyond all the different dietary recommendations that flood the market and create confusion among consumers. Intuitive eating steers away from scientific explanations and rigid dietary requirements and values the psychological component of eating as an important factor in nutrition. The task for practitioners of intuitive eating is to recover the innate wisdom of the body, and the program offers practices to facilitate this process.
Intuitive eating has been developed by two California-based nutritionists, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Their book, Intuitive Dieting: A Revolutionary Program That Works, was published in 1995 and updated and reprinted in 2003.
The originators of the intuitive eating program state that they developed it in response to indications that conventional diet programs are not working, and from the observations of so many failed dieting experiences. For instance, even while Americans were dieting more than ever in the 1990s, and new diet programs and information were proliferating, Americans were still witnessing increasing obesity rates. In addition to this contradiction, the founders of intuitive eating also take note of what they call the “diet backlash,” the observation that dieting can lead to eating disorders and unhealthy behaviors such as compulsions, guilt, self-loathing, binging, and the consumption of unhealthy foods. As evidence of these phenomena surrounding dieting, the intuitive eating program cites a 1991 study in the New England Journal of Medicine by Dr. Leann Birch that examined the eating habits of children. The study concluded that children are naturally able to regulate their eating habits in a healthy manner. The study noted that parental control over their eating habits was counterproductive. Other studies have implied that children may develop eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, as a result of parents putting pressure on them about dietary behaviors or due to negative self-images. Thus, children may have an innate dietary wisdom that can be obscured by social pressure and expectations. The originators of intuitive eating believe that adults can recover this wisdom that first gets lost in childhood.
The authors of Intuitive Eating note that all diets, no matter how well conceived and intentioned, are still programs of short-term starvation. The intuitive eating program draws upon insights from the anti-diet movement that shuns dieting and encourages people to accept their bodies and improve their self-image instead. The intuitive eating program also draws upon the work of the health movement, that recognizes that obesity and poor dietary habits lead to increased risks of illness and disease. Integrating both these schools, intuitive eating stresses the role that psychological patterns play in eating habits, while recognizing the need to encourage healthy eating habits into people’s lifestyles.
Anorexia —Also called anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by extreme weight loss, distorted body image, and fear of gaining weight.
Bulimia —Also called bulimia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by binges, or eating much food in little time, followed by purging behaviors, such as throwing up or taking laxatives.
Although the intuitive eating program provides generalized recommendations, its goal is a highly personalized diet, because each person has different needs and preferences. The program stresses the value of moving away from struggles involving willpower toward the freedom of self-empowerment, from forced behaviors to ones that arise naturally. The intuitive diet is notably influenced by the fields of self-help and behavioral therapy. The founders stress that the program is process-oriented rather than results-oriented, which means that practitioners’ programs will be full of both mistakes and successes that should be welcomed, accepted, and learned from.
Borrowing from the language of therapy, the intuitive eating program playfully asks people to become aware of their eating habits by identifying and naming their dominant 7l “eating personality.” Common eating personalities that lead to problems are the Careful Eater, the Professional Dieter, and the Unconscious Eater. These personalities might be overly obsessive or guilty about food, or always on some kind of restrictive and difficult diet, or simply unaware about why one is making bad food choices.
By identifying and naming their eating personalities, people can then begin to learn what has caused the Intuitive Eater inside themselves to become lost or overshadowed. This is the part of the mind that knows how to eat, without guilt or compulsion, in order to provide the body with its nutritional needs. Awakening the intuitive eater happens in stages. First, people often hit the “diet rock bottom,” realizing that dieting does not work and is fueled by guilt and poor body images. Next comes the “exploration” stage, where people are asked to become very aware of all the emotions, cravings, and behaviors that they exhibit around eating. This stage also entails releasing guilt over all foods (“making peace with foods”), sorting out which foods are liked and disliked, and learning to recognize the feelings of hunger and fullness, distinguishing between emotional and biological signals around eating. The next stage is “crystallization,” in which principles of intuitive eating begin to be practiced regularly. In the next stage, the “intuitive eater awakens,” in which intuitive eating patterns are internalized and become natural habits. When this happens, the final stage is entered, where people are enabled to “treasure the pleasure” of eating in a way that is emotionally and physically gratifying.
The intuitive eating program explains in detail its ten main principles that can bring about healthy and natural eating habits. It also recommends steps and practices that people can use to incorporate each principle into their lives. The first of these principles is to “reject the diet mentality.” This means that all diets should be given up, as well as habits related to them such as calorie counting. Other people’s advice and judgments are also limited. Next comes the “honor your hunger” principle, which emphasizes playing close attention to biological hunger signals and reacting to them by eating without guilt. Principle three is to “make peace with food,” which means giving oneself permission to eat whatever one really likes. After this comes the principle to “challenge the food police,” which means paying close attention to how one internally judges and talks about food. Principle five is to “feel your fullness,” or learning how to detect when enough has been eaten, to avoid overeating. Then practitioners are then asked to “discover the satisfaction factor,” or to learn to take pleasure in eating and to savor the experience. Principle seven asks the eater to “cope with your emotions without using food,” in order to stop confusing biological with emotional signals. By asking practitioners to “respect your body,” principle eight helps people overcome the habits caused by negative self-image. Principle nine, “exercise and feel the difference,” suggests that people adopt exercise programs that are easy and fun, and to enjoy the feelings of well-being that result from exercise. Finally, principle ten asks people to “honor your health by gentle nutrition.” This means making food choices that are nutritious and pleasurable and that help the body to feel and function well. This principle also notes that healthy food choices evolve over time, and that occasional missteps are a natural part of the process.
The founders of the intuitive eating program believe that their system represents a paradigm shift around eating. People are asked to perceive life and eating in a different way, moving away from guilt and negative self-images into mindsets that value acceptance and emotional awareness. The end result of this program is that it reminds people of their fundamental relationship to food: that eating can be a source of pleasure and satisfaction in daily life, instead of a source of obsession and stress. The intuitive eating plan trains its advocates to distinguish between emotional cravings, which may lead to destructive eating habits, and physical cravings, which are the body’s means of communicating its valid nutritional needs. The program also teaches that people can easily learn to detect authentic feelings of hunger and fullness, to avoid binging and overeating.
The intuitive eating program is recommended by its authors as an adjunct treatment for eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, that have their origins in psychological issues. Those with eating disorders should first seek treatment by qualified medical practitioners, counselors, or psychologists in conjunction with programs such as intuitive eating.
In April 2007, researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles published a report in the journal American Psychologist that studied the long-term results of dieting. This study concluded that about two-thirds of the dieters had not lost weight after five years of dieting, and in frequent cases had actually gained weight. Statistics such as these reinforce the idea among intuitive eaters that conventional diets do not work as planned. In addition, a 2006 study in the American Journal of Health Education concluded that intuitive eaters had lower obesity rates, increased pleasure around eating, and fewer dieting behaviors and food anxieties.
Schwartz, Bob. Diets Don’t Work: Stop Dieting, Become Naturally Thin, Live a Diet-Free Life. Rochester, NY: Breakthru Press, 2002.
Tribole, Evelyn and Elyse Resch. Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works. New York: St. Martin’s, 2003.
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD). P.O. Box 7, Highland Park, IL 60035. Crisis Hotline: (847) 831-3438. Website: http://www.ANAD.org
National Eating Disorders Association. 603 Steward Street, Suite 803, Seattle, WA 98101. Hotline: (800) 931-2237. Website: http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
Goldsmith, Belinda, “Dieters Put On Weight in the Long Run: Study.” Reuters Online, http://www.reuters.com, April 2, 2007.
Intuitive Eating Homepage, http://www.intuitiveeating.org
Smith, TeriSue and Steven R. Hawks, “Intuitive Eating, Diet Composition, and the Meaning of Food in Healthy Weight Promotion.” American Journal of Health Education, May/June 2006, Vol. 37, No. 3.
Douglas Dupler, MA.