The Intuition Inquiry
What is intuitive eating? How does it work? And why is it all over my Instagram feed?
By Dani Molloy
Content Warning: This article loosely discusses diet culture and eating behaviours. If this may be a trigger for you we recommend not reading this piece.
Author’s Note: This article provides a general overview of intuitive eating and some of my experiences incorporating its principles into my eating habits. If you are considering making any drastic, long-term changes to your health and diet, you should first consider consulting a medical professional.
You may have come across the term “intuitive eating” on the page of your favourite Instagram influencer as they smear 10% more hummus on a wafer-thin cracker than they usually would. Or maybe you’ve seen fitness vloggers posting their “top tips for losing weight with intuitive eating” on YouTube. However, despite what these bubbly bloggers portray, the ideology of intuitive eating goes far beyond its recent online notoriety.
The phenomenon of intuitive eating was first introduced in a 1995 self-book by two registered dietitians, Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole. Resch and Tribole’s seminal piece, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Process that Works, aimed to work as a “recovery book for chronic dieters.” The idea of intuitive eating is to eat when you are hungry, and to stop eating when you are full. Instead of letting dieting “experts” dictate when, what and how you eat, readers of Resch and Tribole’s book are encouraged to regain control of their own personal eating habits.
When practicing intuitive eating, there is also a large focus on the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger. Food can often serve as an emotional crutch used to combat negative emotions. An important part of eating intuitively is recognising when you are eating to fill one of your emotional needs, rather than a physical one. You can then recognise this emotional need, acknowledge its validity, and treat it separately to your physical hunger.
Intuitive eating also encourages eating food that is satisfying and fulfilling, instead of food that society deems as “low-calorie” and “healthy.” We have been conditioned to identify “good” and “bad” food to such an extent that if we want something sugary and sweet, we feel compelled to broadcast to everyone that it’s our “cheat day” or that the treat is, “just a treat!” Intuitive eating recognises that the body naturally craves sweetness and that this is not the sin that fitness gurus make it out to be.
In the principles outlined on Resch and Tribole’s website, they recommend making food choices that honour your health as well as your tastebuds, and make you feel good. They apply this same approach to movement, encouraging intuitive eating participants to move in a way that feels good for their body, rather than exercising with the sole focus of losing weight.
Many influencers will preach about intuitive eating while still eating foods that are low in calories and that match societal standards of “healthy eating.” Many of these influencers are also practicing intuitive eating alongside other restrictive diet methods such as being plant-based, paleo or gluten-free.
Obviously, if you do have dietary requirements and allergies, these should be considered when eating intuitively; however, you shouldn’t be self-inflicting further restrictions into your eating habits when eating intuitively. Although it can be argued that these “low-calorie”, “healthy” foods could be what the influencers are craving, their curated portrayal of intuitive eating is still ignoring the psychological elements of this lifestyle. Influencers are instead depicting intuitive eating as the latest dieting fad.
Intuitive eating is different from dieting because the focus of intuitive eating has never been to lose weight, but rather to help you maintain a healthy weight instead of fluctuating between your “dieting” and “post-dieting” weight. Intuitive eating can also help you to combat the overwhelming surplus of information on what is “healthy” and “acceptable” food to consume.
In my first year of university, my eating habits were appalling. I was signed up for the one-meal-per-day catering option at the Massey University halls with the expectation being that I would make the rest of the meals myself despite there being no oven and very limited space in the cooking hubs. This system – along with my own fear of gaining the “fresher five” – meant that I usually only ate one full meal per day at dinnertime. But if I didn’t like what was being served at the cafeteria, I’d only eat half a meal.
I learned to recognise my hunger cues with the same clarity that I used to recognise that I was horny for the skater boy on the first floor of halls .
This meant that most nights, I would also find myself headed to McDonald's for a late-night snack with friends which I’d justify as being “a treat” after a couple of hours of studying. But honestly, my seventeen-year-old body was probably starving, and McDonald's was the only way I knew how to feed it.
Living out of home for the first time, I found I didn’t know how to make a decent meal plan for myself or ensure that I was eating enough. I decided that it was easier to skip meals to stay my “ideal size”, than plan healthy ones. When I tried to eat healthy, I was exhausted by the myriad of dieting and exercise tips I could find online and would just give up and make spaghetti on toast.
I found intuitive eating difficult at first as I was used to ignoring my hunger signals or using the clock to tell me when it was an acceptable time to go to dinner. Once I realised that arbitrary mealtimes don’t have to tell me when to eat, I was able to eat a meal when I was hungry and, if I was hungry later on in the day, I could just eat again!
Through eating intuitively, I was able to understand my body in a way I hadn’t been able to before. I learned to recognise my hunger cues with the same clarity that I used to recognise that I was horny for the skater boy on the first floor of halls. Influencers hopping aboard the intuitive eating trend raises concerns that the benefits of the mentality may be lost behind pictures of kale salads and thinly veiled juice cleanses. What these influencers are neglecting to tell you, is that intuitive eating is just as much about your mentality as it is about the actual food you’re actually consuming.
And at the end of the day, if you don’t take anything else from intuitive eating then remember this: don’t have the donut because it’s a “cheat day” – have it because you bloody want it!