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Intuitive Eating is more than Hunger and Fullness

Updated: Aug 16, 2019

PSA: Don't let Intuitive Eating get reduced to the Hunger / Fullness Diet. 

Intuitive Eating is a dynamic, evidence-based framework to help a person reconnect with the needs of their bodies. It relies on living in the gray and actively noticing and rejecting all or nothing thinking. Often, intuitive eating is oversimplified, and portrayed as simply relying on hunger and fullness to help you determine proper amounts of food to eat. This incomplete understanding often leads people to reject intuitive eating, feeling as if it's too diety. It's important to note that this false version of intuitive eating - the version you can 'fail' for doing it 'wrong,' and you must ALWAYS perfectly listen to your hunger and fullness cues - really IS too diety.

There's also a common narrative that intuitive eating must be avoided until one is very far along in recovery, as it doesn't encourage structured eating. I want to stress that this also isn't a completely correct understanding of intuitive eating - intuitive eating can and does utilize structured eating when it's appropriate, and it's often appropriate for most people who are aiming to relearn how to become intuitive eaters. If you're curious as to how intuitive eating fits with eating disorder recovery, I highly recommend this article written by Evelyn Tribole, one of the authors of Intuitive Eating. Take this conversation to your treatment team - there are components of intuitive eating that are accessible to you where you currently are in treatment.

Here's the nuance: the practice of intuitive eating does include a reconnection to hunger and fullness cues, but there's also so much more to the framework than those two principles alone. There are ten principles, focusing on thoughts, feelings and physical experiences within the body. Each person will find the principles resonate differently, but they're all valuable and they're all important. From rejecting the diet mentality, to honoring satisfaction, to challenging the food police, to respecting your body, to gentle nutrition (and more!), intuitive eating is a near constant exploration of nuance.

How all these principles interact with one another is another highly individualized component of intuitive eating that may always be evolving based on individual experience. Sometimes our cues aren't as reliable as we might like - they may be quiet for many different reasons - and, body trust is something you must build by consistently respecting the needs of your body anyway. Just because your cues are quiet doesn't mean your body doesn't need food. Focusing on nourishment as a form of self care is still part of intuitive eating.

If you're new to intuitive eating and have a past experience with dieting or disordered eating (or any chaotic eating, in fact), it's likely unrealistic to expect that your cues are strong enough to trust right away. Relying on your hunger cues when your hunger cues are out of practice (or blunted) might mean that you end up eating less than your body needs. You might need some mind-knowledge to help support your eating to assure you aren't underfueling your body. Your registered dietitian can help you determine what this looks like for you. As the authors of Intuitive Eating say, you might need a cast while you heal.

Eventually, you may notice the wisdom from your body's experience mimics some of the mind-knowledge you have. Your cues may become reliable, and you can move away from that cast. You may also notice that sometimes, you need to rely heavily on that mind-knowledge. For example, anxiety is notorious for blunting hunger cues, or high levels of exercise often leave a person with a reduced appetite. Struggling with disordered thoughts or recovering from diet culture might also make it hard to honor your cues with enough food.

If you need a bit more support to normalize your eating behaviors, know that there are many ways to explore intuitive eating beyond just an emphasis on hunger/fullness cues. Intuitive eating is comprised of 10 principles, and it's entirely possible to begin to explore some of the other principles while dipping your toe into what it is like to relearn to honor your hunger by eating consistently. You may use your "cast" while working to challenge beliefs around food rules, explore what it means to respect your here-and-now body, increase satisfaction in your eating, and begin to consider meals and snacks that offer a variety of food groups, all while breaking down fat-phobia and the diet mentality. Following your structured plan will ultimately help you reconnect to your hunger and fullness cues, but it's important to consider these aren't the only elements of intuitive eating.

When people aim for perfection with their eating, they're also likely to misinterpret intuitive eating as the hunger and fullness diet. If the expectation is that you'll always eat ONLY when you're hungry, or you'll ALWAYS stop when you're perfectly satiated and satisfied, it's worth reconsidering the arbitrary rules present. How can you invite curiosity and nuance in? There's no such thing as perfection, especially in our eating.  

If you're curious about this as a provider, I've learned so much from supervision (both peer and professional!) and/or additional training. I highly recommend both Certified Intuitive Eating Training and Marci Evan's training. There are also great groups like EDRDpro and WellSeek. If you're wondering about this as a person interested in adopting intuitive eating, I'd recommend finding someone who can help guide you through this. Don't let intuitive eating become the hunger and fullness diet - it is so much more than that. I would love to hear your thoughts! 

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