It is possible to prevent and treat eating disorders. New research suggests that Intuitive Eating may help. A recent study found that teens who eat intuitively have better mental health outcomes and eating habits as adults.
This is important, because most of our kids are not being raised with Intuitive Eating principles. As a culture, we largely embrace non-intuitive eating. Most people follow restrictive diets rather than our body’s intuition.
Study finds Intuitive Eating beneficial for health
Researchers with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health studied people who ate intuitively as teenagers. They found that teens who scored higher on an Intuitive Eating scale were less likely to experience depression and disordered eating as adults. Specifically, the study found that teens who used Intuitive Eating had:
- Fewer depressive symptoms
- Higher self-esteem
- Lower body dissatisfaction
- Fewer unhealthy weight control behaviors (e.g. fasting, skipping meals)
- Lower rates of extreme weight control behaviors (e.g. eating disorder behaviors)
- Less chance of binge eating (71%)
The data applied both to teens who scored higher in Intuitive Eating at the beginning of the study and those who became more intuitive over the course of the study.
The authors concluded that Intuitive Eating in adolescence predicts better psychological and behavioral health across a range of outcomes. They also suggest that Intuitive Eating may be a positive intervention for people who are at risk of or have eating disorders. This is based on the findings that teens who used Intuitive Eating were 74% less likely to develop Binge Eating Disorder.
Preventing and treating eating disorders
This is the latest in numerous scientific articles that have found value in using the principles of Intuitive Eating. The approach appears to help prevent and treat eating disorders. This is important, because eating disorders and disordered eating are both on the rise. And both can have lifelong mental and physical health impacts. If Intuitive Eating can prevent eating disorders, that’s a big deal.
Intuitive Eating is most likely effective because it counter-balances diet culture messages. These messages say that we can and should control our body weight. Diet culture has grown on the wings of the diet industry. The diet industry exploded from $10 billion in annual revenue in 1985 to almost $70 billion in 2012.
In that time, human body weights have not gone down, but eating disorders and disordered eating have increased. Sadly, diet company profit goals play a huge role in our lives. This is despite zero evidence that their programs are effective, safe, or improve health outcomes.
Intuitive Eating may prevent eating disorders because it actively works against the diet culture promoted by the diet industry. It specifically teaches people to recognize and reject diet culture. Diet culture marketing says we can lose weight fast and keep it off for life. But Intuitive Eating teaches us to listen to and trust our own bodies.
What is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive Eating was introduced by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S, and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S in 1995. Their bestselling book, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach is now in its fourth edition. Intuitive Eating is defined as rejecting restrictive diet patterns and instead eating according to feelings of hunger and fullness.
The authors define Intuitive Eating as following these 10 principles:
10 principles of Intuitive Eating
- Reject the diet mentality: stop using diet books, influencers and blog posts that offer you false hope. No matter what they say, there’s no evidence that you can lose weight quickly, easily, and permanently.
- Honor your hunger: hunger is a biological instinct, just like blinking, using the bathroom or feeling thirsty. We accept almost all biological instincts except hunger. When you honor your biological hunger drive, you can rebuild trust in yourself around food.
- Make peace with food: end foodphobia forever. Stop fearing fat, carbs, sugar, and any other foods. The fear of food keeps you locked in a battle with eating, which is both natural and necessary.
- Challenge the food police: parents, doctors, teachers, coaches, the media, influencers, and peers have all influenced us. They have built an inner dialogue of what we think of as “good” and “bad” food. Stop listening to the voices in your head and instead listen to your body’s natural drive for food.
- Discover the satisfaction factor: it’s become easy to forget that food and eating are supposed to be pleasurable. Instead of being afraid of eating, rediscover the satisfaction you get from food.
- Feel your fullness: Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. Now you can tune into your natural fullness, which often has been masked by rules and requirements of diet culture.
- Cope with your emotions with kindness: food can be a comfort. But food shouldn’t be the only way you respond to uncomfortable emotions. Learn to be mindful and comfort yourself through uncomfortable emotions.
- Respect your body: understand that your body has a blueprint. This is genetically based on the same factors as your shoe size. It’s also influenced by past efforts to intentionally lose weight. Trust that your body will find the weight that it wants to be (not that you want it to be).
- Movement – feel the difference: diet culture pushes an aggressive fitness regimen that can leave us feeling depleted and depressed. Focus on enjoying exercise and movement and honoring rest when you need it.
- Honor your health – gentle nutrition: remember that your health is not dependent on any single meal or day. You can trust that your body will naturally seek good nutrition if you are following these principles.
What it’s not
The rise of Intuitive Eating and the many studies showing the health impacts of Intuitive Eating have led to many people claiming their diet is Intuitive Eating even when it clearly is not. Here are some common ways that Intuitive Eating is being used to sell and promote dieting:
Claim: Intuitive Eating will help you lose weight
Truth: weight loss is never the goal of Intuitive Eating. Anything or anyone that promotes Intuitive Eating as a weight loss method is definitively not actually using Intuitive Eating.
Claim: Intuitive Eating just means eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full and you won’t gain weight
Truth: Intuitive Eating is more complex than this. And there is never a goal of controlling weight or avoiding weight gain. That’s diet mentality and therefore not Intuitive Eating.
Claim: Intuitive Eating means you never eat when you aren’t hungry
Truth: many times you will need to feed yourself mindfully before you get hungry to accommodate your schedule. This doesn’t go against Intuitive Eating framework, but is commonly incorrectly presented as the reason why Intuitive Eating is not a realistic lifestyle.
Claim: Intuitive Eating is about eating whatever you want, so it’s not healthy
Truth: Intuitive Eating has been shown to result in better health across many dimensions because it removes food rules and lets the body drive eating patterns. Contrary to popular belief (i.e. diet culture), a body will naturally select a wide range of foods to fit its nutritional needs.
There are many false claims about Intuitive Eating. The best thing is to read the book or find a trained dietitian to make sure you get the correct approach rather than one of the many false approaches.
Diet culture is bad for health
Diet culture has worked hard to convince us that we can’t trust our bodies. Every diet message preaches that our bodies need to be controlled, and our urges for food, rest, and pleasure, need to be eliminated. This is the opposite of Intuitive Eating, and it may be why it can help prevent eating disorders.
Diets restrict food and pleasure, and they all promise that it’s easy and fun to take weight off and keep it off for life. But the data consistently shows that lasting intentional weight loss is virtually impossible for 90-95% of people.
Today’s diets intentionally avoid focusing on how the body looks, saying instead that the main goal of dieting is increased health. But the data don’t support the idea that diets are good for our health. In fact, diets are proven to increase cortisol and decrease metabolism. They have not demonstrated any health improvements. Finally, the most common outcome of intentional weight loss is weight cycling, which is recognized as bad for our health.
In other words, there is no evidence that diets are effective at anything other than reducing our health.
How parents can teach their kids healthy eating
Parents who want healthy kids now have even more evidence that Intuitive Eating is a solid approach to food and eating. Rather than try to control our bodies and force a particular diet, we should follow our intuition and trust our bodies.
Parents can help their kids learn Intuitive Eating by:
- Stop dieting
- Don’t allow kids to diet
- Learn Intuitive Eating for yourself
- Talk about the Intuitive Eating principles as a family
- Recognize diet culture and talk about its impact as a family
- Encourage your child(ren) to listen to their bodies, honor their hunger and fullness, and avoid food restrictions not based on allergies or serious medical conditions (“obesity” doesn’t count)
- Learn emotional literacy and work with your child(ren) to talk about feelings freely
- Move together in ways that feel good and make you all happy
Parents can make a huge impact on kids’ lifelong health. When we teach our kids Intuitive Eating, we can help prevent eating disorders and other mental health conditions.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.