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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Pustilnik

What is Intuitive Eating?

I snuck away from the husband and kids on Saturday morning to get some much needed weed-pulling time in at my community garden plot. It was a good two hours of digging in the dirt and shucking monster weeds into compost bags, covered in bugs and blaring the Rolling Stones on my headphones. Happily working in the plot next to me was a charming woman I’ve chatted with several times about small talk stuff- the weather, my kids’ ages, why I have so many weeds and she doesn’t…But today, we connected as she helped me drag my weed bags to the curb and I offered her some odd-shaped zucchini.

We also connected over both being plant-based. She shared that her cholesterol had dropped 50 points over the last 6 months and she felt amazing on her vegan diet (she had been vegetarian for years prior), and I shared that I am an intuitive plant-based eater and have been for 16(ish) years. What she said next was surprising.

“What is Intuitive Eating?” she asked.

When you are a virtual dietitian who spends every day talking with folks in online sessions about the food relationship, sometimes I forget that Intuitive Eating is not universally known and understood! Something else notable was that she found it to be bizarre that I considered myself plant-based while also having flexibility- something I call Plant-Based Intuitive Eating. She identifies as vegan and didn’t get how I cared about the environment and animals but wasn’t eschewing all animal protein, all the time. I can see why she would feel like this as flexibility is not often considered as an important part of “healthy eating” in colloquial conversations.

But the reality is the food relationship is complex and personal, and as we chatted, I realized that I should write more about the basics of what I sometimes forget isn’t common knowledge. As Intuitive Eating is- let’s be honest, guys- just badass. It is transformative in SO many ways for anyone who has struggled with body image, dieting, confusion around the “right diet”, disordered eating, or just generally being disconnected from their body.

So what is Intuitive Eating (IE)?

For those who are new to this space, it can seem a bit foreign to try to grapple with this new way of viewing food and the IE principles through a non-diet lens. Often we are so saturated with the diet mentality in our day to day lives, and have been for our whole life, that learning about a new framework such as IE is approached as if it is a diet- much like the way we might think about keto, paleo, or other diet trends- rules to be followed not matter what.

But IE is not a diet- far from it! It is a dynamic framework of awareness, thinking, feeling, evaluating your beliefs, reconnecting with your body sensations, and evaluating desires and goals. I use it daily in my work to help clients heal their relationship with food and reject rigidity.

IE was first created by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, in the 1990s who decided they could no longer work with clients the way they had been - trying to help them count calories, lose weight through restriction, or other eat this, not that methods. As dietitians we are initially taught about the “3500 kcal per lb” rule where we calculate your needs from an equation and use a calculator to determine how much food to tell you to eat in your “meal plan”.

When you step back, doesn’t it seem silly to have someone else determine what you should eat with a calculator? What does a calculator tell us about our unique bodies?

So Evelyn and Elyse, who are amazing/awesome/superstars, came to realize this too, and they decided to create a framework that consisted of 10 guiding principles and was anti-diet, anti-restriction, pro-body attunement, and not meant to be followed chronologically- in other words, you don’t need to work sequentially from 1 principle to the next as you never know what might come up for someone from day to day.

So they changed how they counseled clients, and for the first time, as they tell it, they started to see real, genuine healing.

Diets are made up of rules and designed to change your body. IE is made up of ideas and is meant to change how you connect, think about, and live in your body. It reconnects you to the body wisdom we all had as children- eat when you are hungry, stop when you are full, eat what sounds good and feels good in your body, include some fun foods…Revolutionary, right?

And there is now enough research behind IE to support that it has some pretty astonishing benefits outside of just making you feel peaceful with food and at home in your body.

Check this out. IE research shows it:

  • Helps decrease binge eating and cravings

  • can lower blood glucose and blood pressure

  • helps with weight stability and can help us find our natural weight

  • Decreases the risk of eating disorders

  • Improves connection to hunger and fullness

  • Is associated with lower BMI and higher well being

  • Is correlated with less cardiovascular risk (lower triglycerides and higher HDL/good cholesterol)

  • Is associated with higher diet quality

  • Is protective against internalized weight stigma and is supportive of a positive body image

  • Is positively associated with high self esteem

The 10 principles of Intuitive Eating are:

  1. Reject the Diet Mentality

  2. Honor your Hunger

  3. Make Peace with Food

  4. Challenge the Food Police

  5. Discover the Satisfaction Factor

  6. Feel your Fullness

  7. Cope with Emotions with Kindness

  8. Respect your Body

  9. Movement- Feel the Difference

  10. Honor your Health- Gentle Nutrition

I’ll have more about the principles in other deep-dive posts, but what my garden mate took away from our conversation is this- there is a way to both connect with and honor your body signals AND gently still consider health concerns while eating in a way that is delicious, doesn’t feel restrictive, and promotes overall well being and a positive body image. And this can absolutely be plant-based if it is aligned with your values and desires.

Interested in learning more? Let’s connect!

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