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Intuitive eating: Debunking 5 common myths

Last Modified: 2/05/2020

intuitive eating

This post was written by Brittany Swygart, RDN, LD, Parkview Health.  

When it comes to intuitive eating (IE), there’s a lot of great information out there, but just as many misconceptions. Let’s take a look at some of the more common myths associated with this approach to meal time.

Myth: “If I eat what I want, won’t I just eat junk food all day? Does IE mean you listen to all your cravings?”

One of the principles of IE is “making peace with food”, which means giving yourself permission to eat all foods. A common concern I hear from people is that they will feel “out of control” or “eat junk food all day” if they allow themselves to eat whatever they want. It can be helpful to reframe this thought in that cravings aren’t the problem. The rules we use to control the cravings are. The irony is that the rule someone uses to “control” their cravings can actually make the cravings worse. If you have a rule that you cannot eat desserts during the week, you will likely think about desserts all the time. Then, when it’s finally the weekend, you will feel out of control around them after feeling deprived during the week. The authors of the book “Intuitive Eating” write:

“Guilt is what tends to make people eat uncontrollably. Intuitive Eating means having no guilt in your eating. When you first begin the healing process, you may find that you’re eating more of the foods that you had previously restricted. This restriction has led to deprivation, and you may end up eating more of these foods for a while. Once the deprivation has healed, these foods will take a balanced place in your eating life.”

Myth: “I’m addicted to sugar.”

Similar to someone saying they feel out of control around a certain food, some individuals might feel they are addicted to sugar (or insert “unhealthy” food here). The literature and research on food/sugar addiction is fascinating. The evidence shows there is little evidence to support that sugar addiction occurs in humans. There have been studies done in mice, and the addiction-life behaviors (such as bingeing) only occur in the context of intermittent access to sugar. As in, the mice were deprived of sugar and then given free access to it. If you give yourself the physical and mental/emotional permission to eat all foods, you will very likely not feel “addicted” to any one food.

Myth: “IE is another diet to lose weight.”

This thought is very against everything the authors and advocates of IE stand for. If you read the book “Intuitive Eating”, you will learn that there are three things that can happen as you begin the IE process: 1) you will lose weight, 2) you will gain weight, or 3) you will stay the same weight. The focus of IE is not weight loss; but rather, focusing on your behaviors and relationship with food. Weight loss isn’t a behavior, it’s an outcome. If you have been eating without attention to your body’s signals and haven’t been following the principles of IE, you are likely not currently at your body’s natural, set-point weight (whether that’s over or underweight).

In fact, the first principle of IE is “reject the diet mentality”. Many people may think, “Oh, I’ve never been on a diet.” However, the authors of IE state many people have “pseudo-dieting” behaviors that often are commonly encouraged or praised in the wellness community. Examples include counting calories, tracking macros, only eating at certain times of the day, second-guessing or judging what/how much you deserve to eat, etc. All of these examples rely on external factors versus internal cues (see the 10 Intuitive Eating principles for more on this) on what and how much to eat.

Myth: “There’s no structure or focus on nutrition with Intuitive Eating.”

One of the principles of intuitive eating is “honoring your health through gentle nutrition”. This is strategically the very last principle, as if you focus too much on nutrition early in the process of becoming an intuitive eater you will likely not fully be giving yourself permission to eat all foods, etc. Gentle nutrition combines having a healthy balance of foods with having a healthy relationship with foods. The authors of the book “Intuitive Eating” state that intuitive eating is “a dynamic attunement process of your mind, body, and food.” Gentle nutrition is the integration of your inner attunement (such as your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, hunger and satiety cues, etc.) with external health guidelines (usually a consensus from experts, based on a body of research).

The authors explain, “Critics express concern that encouraging people to eat what they want will lead them to eat with abandon, resulting in poor nutrition and weight gain. The underlying belief is that self-monitoring is essential for keeping appetite under control. It is thought that without this vigilance, people would make nutritionally poor choices, including eating to excess. Yet, several studies show that eating restraint is associated with weight gain. Instead, intuitive eating is associated with improved nutrient intake, eating a wider variety of food, reduced eating disorder symptomatology, and lower body mass.”

Myth: “IE just means eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full.”

While two of the principles are honoring your hunger and respecting your fullness, IE also focuses on so much more! Intuitive eating also means giving yourself permission to eat all foods, discovering the satisfaction factor, challenging the “food police”, honoring your feelings without using food, exercising mindfully, and honoring your health through gentle nutrition.

Read more about how to get started with intuitive eating.

 

Sources

Camilleri, G., C. Méjea, F. Bellisle, V. Andreeva, E. Kesse-Guyot, S. Hercberg, S. Péneau. 2017. Intuitive Eating Dimensions Were Differently Associated with Food Intake in the General Population-Based NutriNet-Santé Study. Journal of Nutrition. Jan;147(1):61-69. doi: 10.3945/jn.116.234088.

Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2012). Intuitive eating: A revolutionary program that works (3rd ed.). New York: St. Martins Griffin.

Westwater, M. L., Fletcher, P. C., & Ziauddeen, H. (2016). Sugar addiction: the state of the science. European journal of nutrition, 55(Suppl 2), 55–69. doi:10.1007/s00394-016-1229-6

 

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