What the Hell is Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive eating has become a bit of a buzzword lately in the health community on Instagram, but very few people take the time to explain this approach to eating. Mindful eating is another reference to the type of eating, but the specific practices differ.

What is It?

Simply put, intuitive eating is eating whenever one is hungry and eating (or stopping eating) based on the body’s satiety and hunger without emotional reasons for eating. This concept isn’t new.

Dieticians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch coined the term in 1995 in the uptick of an anti-diet movement, but is discussed within the topic of mindfulness in Sandra Aamodt’s book Why Diets Make Us Fat. Aamodt differentiated intuitive eating from mindful eating based on the practices behind them.

Tribole and Resch utilized ten practices to build intuitive eating: give up dieting, listen to hunger, give yourself permission to eat, don’t instill morals into food, respond to body’s fullness, pay attention to the pleasure of eating, respond to emotions without food, find peace with your body as is, exercise however is best, and be realistically healthy.

Aamodt utilizes several of the same concepts to explain mindful eating—including scientific research that supports the benefits of this practice, but the overall concept is the same: responding to the body’s cues for when to eat and when to stop.

How Does That Work?

Mindful (or intuitive) eating relies on the body’s biological function for energy-balance which utilizes internal hormones to alert the body of the need for food or not.

The control center for energy-balance in the body is the hypothalamus in the brain. This system regulates hunger in response to the calories available in the body and what nutrients are on hand.

In a simplified way, when the body requires food, the gut releases a hormone called ghrelin which is often called the “hunger hormone” because it signals hunger. When we’ve eaten enough, the gut releases satiety signals that tells someone to stop eating and foods eaten are less rewarding (to the brain). Another hormone, leptin, tells the body how much fat we have stored, which helps the body maintain the set point body weight.

For many people, these signals are a minor part of why and when they eat, if a part of it at all. So many people eat based on habit, emotions, or social situations. Instead, mindful eating asks one to respond to the body’s fullness and hunger and to respond to declining pleasure and satiety when eating to know when to stop.

Why do It?

Mindful (intuitive) eating is beneficial, and increasingly popular, because it leaves diets behind and provides a way to eat that won’t (for most) lead to weight gain over time. Since the body defends a certain weight range as our set body weight, when eating based on the body’s cues, the body typically stays within that range.

Without the stress of managing diet cognitively, people are able to eat without negative emotions (guilt, shame, or stress; for example) and actually enjoy the food they are eating more.

How, then?

A large part of mindful (intuitive) eating is meditation. In order to be aware of how hungry the body is (or how full), we need to learn how to listen to the body instead of the brain. One of the key differences with mindful eating and intuitive eating is that mindful eating doesn’t “disallow” emotional eating, but asks the practitioner to realize they are eating for comfort (or another emotion) and be aware, which can lead to a smaller amount of the comfort food being satisfying.

To start, Aamodt recommends a few key things.

  1. Start meals (or snacking) when you’re moderately hungry, before you feel starved. Those who are very hungry tend to eat faster and don’t notice when they are full.

  2. Try to eat slower and without distractions so your attention is on the taste and enjoyment from the food. This will make it easier to notice when the food is less satisfying and the body is sated.

Over time, the awareness will become habitual and start to require less and less active thought which can, eventually, lead to a life where you’re not constantly thinking about your eating - and enjoying the process instead.