Intuitive Eating for Eating Disorder Recovery

Remember how you used to eat as a child? A cry would be a sign of hunger; a push of the plate meant you were full. Children are free from societal messages about body image and food – and have innate wisdom about eating. In fact, we’re all born as intuitive eaters.

For many, however, this intuition gets swallowed – lost in the shuffle of peddling the “thin ideal” from media messages, friends, and even health professionals. Getting back to intuitive eating can help you reconnect with your body, and effectively restore that inner wisdom.

Here’s a guide to intuitive eating, as well as how it can help those looking to overcome an eating disorder:

What is intuitive eating?

Intuitive eating is a flexible, non-diet approach to eating that focuses on learning to tune into body signals to heal your relationship with food. By focusing on internal cues like hunger and satiation — rather than external rules, restrictions, and diets — intuitive eating can help you normalize your relationship with food and your body.

For nutritionists and eating disorder therapists, intuitive eating is a 10-principle framework that helps them focus on treatment on lasting, behavioral changes, rather than rule-focused treatments. For example, in intuitive eating, calorie counting, making certain foods off-limits, or measuring out portions is discouraged.

What are the 10 principles of intuitive eating?

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. Feel your fullness
  6. Discover the satisfaction factor
  7. Cope with your emotions without using food
  8. Respect your body
  9. Exercise-feel the difference
  10. Honor your health with gentle nutrition

Instead of trying to adopt all of these principles at once, pick one at a time to gradually integrate each into your lifestyle.

What are the benefits of intuitive eating?

Once you become a truly intuitive eater, you will be able to naturally tune in and trust your inner needs to nurture your mind, body, and spirit. You will experience harmony around eating, movement, and your body.

Intuitive eaters are able to listen to their inner hunger and fullness signals and eat whatever they choose (unconditional permission to eat) without experiencing shame or regret. You honor your hunger, respect your fullness, and enjoy the pleasure of eating a wide variety of foods (yes to dessert!).

Physical reasons, rather than emotional reasons, guide your food choices and intake. (However, emotional eating is okay, as long as food is not your only coping mechanism.) Using mindfulness to tune into one’s inner needs and external demands allows intuitive eaters to peacefully enjoy foods without guilt or a desire to compensate after.

Intuitive eating is an accessible way to bring peace and freedom to your eating, body image – and, ultimately, your life.

How can intuitive eating help someone with an eating disorder?

Intuitive eating can help someone with an eating disorder regain self-trust in their body and needs.

Individuals who are coping with an eating disorder are, essentially, the opposite of intuitive eaters. In the midst of an eating disorder, one’s ability to hear biological hunger and fullness signals is dampened. Ingesting even the smallest amount of food can instill a false sense of fullness, leading to a neglect of hunger signals. Intuitive eating can reconnect the individual with their body’s true, deeper signals to understand their holistic needs.

What are some risks of intuitive eating for individuals with eating disorders?

Some individuals may try to continue losing weight at the same time they’re learning to eat intuitively. Unfortunately, this is common – yet ineffective. The drive for weight loss must be rejected, because the desire to change your body will interfere with your ability to make choices based on your intuitive cues.

With a multidisciplinary treatment team, a client will be guided towards a flexible and individual way to eat. Eventually, their eating choices will be motivated by their inner needs; intuitive eating will become one’s own way of eating.

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Intuitive eating vs. dieting: What’s the difference?

Dieting expects a linear progress. Intuitive eating, on the other hand, has no expectations – except for feeling grateful for and learning from this long-term, imperfect progress.

In fact, intuitive eating helps you move past a diet mindset, because you will learn that dieting damages your physical, emotional, and social well-being. Instead, self-compassion will become the root of your lifestyle choices. An example of a non-diet mentality might sound like this: “I trust my body weight will normalize when I am tuning in to my inner eating cues. My weight is not my primary goal or a sign of my worth.”

“I trust my body weight will normalize when I am tuning in to my inner eating cues. My weight is not my primary goal or a sign of my worth.

Chronic dieters tend to become frustrated when they do not follow a prescribed diet perfectly. Many chronic dieters “break” a strict diet rule; criticize themselves for that mistake; “cheat” their diet by bingeing – and eventually, jump back on the diet in hopes to feel better for their slip-up. This prison of deprivation and bingeing is known as the “binge-restrict cycle.”

The first principle of intuitive eating (reject the diet mentality) can help release you from this downward spiral. Letting go of rigidity around food might be nerve-wracking for a chronic dieter, due to a common fear of having no control with food once you stop dieting.

The truth is, dieting is often the trigger for overeating because of the associated deprivation. Overeating is a biological response to malnourishment, but once you allow your body to learn and trust your inner cues, the intense drive to endlessly eat will diminish. Feeling out of control around food is common in dieters. Control is not an issue for intuitive eaters since you learn to rely on, honor and fulfill your individual needs.

I have a history of disordered eating. How can I incorporate intuitive eating into my life?

Learn more about the 10 principles of intuitive eating, and apply them to your lifestyle one by one.

Start applying “gentle nutrition” into your eating. This is a way of eating that takes into account your unique food preferences as well as nutrition. Some days, pizza will leave you feeling satisfied while other days, more vegetables may sound good. In this way, you are working on taking care of yourself, discovering new ways to cope without food, and saying “goodbye” to diets. Food becomes neutral to you -- it both fuels, satisfies, and pleasures you.

Above all else, remember: No one is perfect. Progress is not perfect. Recovery is not perfect. Have patience with yourself through this experience and know you are doing exactly what is needed to allow your body the time and space to heal.

References: Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2012). Intuitive eating: A revolutionary program that works. New York: St. Martins Griffin.