Intuitive eating is a program based on the premise that the human body possesses innate knowledge of the best foods to eat and the most appropriate eating habits. Intuitive eating rejects the multitude of diets and dietary recommendations that flood the marketplace and create confusion among consumers. Rather than scientific explanations and rigid dietary requirements, intuitive eating emphasizes the psychological components of eating habits as important nutritional factors. Thus, the goal of an intuitive eating program is to rediscover and reconnect with the inherent wisdom of one's own body, using practices that facilitate this process.
The concept of intuitive eating was first developed in the 1990s by two California-based registered dietitians (RDs), Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Their book, Intuitive Eating: A Recovery Book for the Chronic Dieter; Rediscover the Pleasures of Eating and Rebuild Your Body Image, was first published in 1996. An updated edition, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works, came out in 2003. The third edition, published in 2012, was extensively updated and expanded and included two new chapters: “Raising an Intuitive Eater: What Works with Kids and Teens,” and a chapter on the science behind intuitive eating, including more than 25 scientific studies. Tribole and Resch have also produced an audio CD, Intuitive Eating: A Practical Guide to Make Peace with Food, Free Yourselffrom Chronic Dieting, Reach Your Natural Weight (2009).
Resch is a nutritional therapist who specializes in eating disorders, in addition to intuitive eating. She is a certified child and adolescent obesity expert and a fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Tribole and Resch have promoted their intuitive eating philosophy and ideas through workshops, seminars, teleseminars, support groups, blogs, and an online community. They also train and certify intuitive eating counselors. As a result, intuitive eating programs have proliferated, and other dietitians have developed their own versions. Intuitive eating has come to be accepted by a range of nutrition and obesity experts.
All diets, no matter how well-designed and well-intentioned, are based, to at least some degree, on short-term or long-term food deprivation. In contrast, intuitive eating programs draw on anti-diet movements that shun dieting and instead encourage people to accept their bodies as they are, rather than trying to change them, and to concentrate on improving self-image. However, intuitive eating programs also recognize that poor dietary habits, overweight, and obesity are major causes of chronic illness and disease. By integrating these two realities and recognizing the need to encourage the incorporation of healthy eating habits into daily lifestyles, intuitive eating emphasizes the roles that psychological patterns play in eating habits.
Although intuitive eating programs provide general recommendations, the focus is on a highly personalized approach, recognizing that people have a wide variety of dietary needs and preferences. Tribole and Resch have stressed the value of moving away from struggling with willpower and moving toward the freedom of self-empowerment, away from forced behaviors and toward behaviors that arise naturally from within.
Intuitive eating programs draw heavily from behavioral therapy and self-help movements. Intuitive eating trains people to distinguish between emotional cravings, which can lead to destructive eating habits, and physical cravings, which are valid nutritional needs. Learning to distinguish between authentic feelings of hunger and emotional cravings is a cornerstone of intuitive eating and helps people avoid overeating and bingeing.
Tribole and Resch have also stressed that their intuitive eating program is process-oriented rather than results-oriented. This means that both successes and setbacks are welcomed, accepted, and used as learning experiences. Borrowing from the language of behavioral therapy, their program focuses on becoming aware of one's eating habits by identifying and naming one's dominant “eating personalities.” Common eating personalities that lead to problems include “the carefuleater,”“the professional dieter,”“the distracted eater,” and “the unconscious eater.” People with these person alities may be obsessive or guilt-ridden with regard to food and eating. They may constantly be on some form of restrictive or difficult diet, without being aware of the reasons that they keep making poor food choices. Unconscious and distracted eaters may be unaware of what they just ate and how much, sometimes because they engage in other activities, such as watching television or reading, while they eat. By identifying and naming their eating personalities, people can begin to develop an awareness of how and why their natural and innate intuitive eating habits became lost or overshadowed. This allows people to reconnect with the part of their mind that knows how to eat, without guilt or compulsion, in order to fulfill the body's nutritional requirements.
Reawakening the intuitive eater happens in stages. First, many people hit “diet rock bottom,” realizing that dieting does not work for them and that their attempts to diet are fueled by guilt and poor body image. Next comes the “exploration” stage, in which people become increasingly aware of the emotions, cravings, and behaviors that they experience around food. This stage also entails releasing guilt feelings about foods or “making peace with foods,” sorting out food likes and dislikes, learning to recognize feelings of hunger and fullness, and distinguishing between emotional and biological eating signals. The next stage is “crystallization,” in which the principles of intuitive eating come to be practiced regularly. In the final stage, the “intuitive eater awakens,” and intuitive eating patterns are internalized and become natural habits. At this point, people are able to “treasure the pleasure” of eating in a way that is emotionally and physically gratifying.
Tribole and Resch detail ten fundamental principles for establishing healthy and natural eating habits, and they recommend steps and practices for incorporating each principle into daily life.
The limitations and failures of conventional weight-loss programs are well known. Despite the proliferation of diet plans and the many millions of people around the world following one plan or another, most dieters fail to lose weight and often continue to gain weight. More than one-third of adult Americans are obese, compared with only 15% in 1980. Approximately two-thirds of American adults are either overweight or obese. Furthermore, about 17% of American children and adolescents are obese, three times the prevalence in 1980. One-third are either overweight or obese, including almost 40% of African American and Hispanic children. Furthermore, many dieters experience what Tribole and Resch call the “diet backlash”—frequent dieting sometimes leads to eating disorders and unhealthy behaviors, including consumption of unhealthy foods, compulsive eating, bingeing, guilt, and self-loathing.
As evidence of unhealthy phenomena that can accompany dieting, Tribole and Resch cite 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, and that parental control over children's eating habits can be counterproductive. Other studies have indicated that children can develop eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, as a result of parental pressure around dietary behaviors or negative self-image. Thus, children may possess innate dietary wisdom that can become obscured by social pressure and expectations. The philosophy behind intuitive eating holds that adults can recover this innate wisdom that may have become lost during childhood.
An intuitive eating program is recommended as an adjunct treatment for individuals with eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, that have their origins in psychological issues. Patients with eating disorders should first seek treatment from a qualified medical practitioner, counselor, or psychologist in conjunction with programs such as intuitive eating.
Numerous studies have reported that the majority of long-term dieters either do not lose weight or do not successfully maintain their weight loss. Frequently, the weight lost by dieting is not only regained, additional weight is gained. Thus, there is ample evidence that most traditional diets do not work and that weight loss and weight maintenance require permanent changes in eating habits. A 2006 study published in the American Journal of Health Education concluded that intuitive eaters had lower obesity rates, increased pleasure in eating, and fewer dieting behaviors and food anxieties. A study published in 2011 in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association surveyed nutrition faculty members at American universities about their attitudes toward diet- and nondiet-based weight management strategies for overall health and well-being. The top three methods among the options presented were exercise (54%), eating competence (46%), and intuitive eating (39%). Eating competence is similar to intuitive eating in that competent eaters have positive attitudes toward food and eating, enjoy their food, and trust their bodies to signal hunger and satiety.
See also Binge eating ; Body image ; Cravings .
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Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 120 South Riverside Plaza, Ste. 2000, Chicago, IL, 60606-6995, (312) 899-0040, (800) 877-1600, http://www.eatright.org .
Intuitive Eating, 1100 Quail, Ste. 111, Newport Beach, CA, 92660, (949) 478-5016, Etribole@gmail.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.intuitiveeating.org .
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa & Associated Disorders, Inc., 800 East Diehl Road #160, Naperville, IL, 60563, (630) 577-1330, email@example.com, http://www.anad.org .
Douglas Dupler, MA
Revised by Margaret Alic, PhD