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  • Tiffany McBride, LCPC

The Intuitive Eater

The Intuitive Eater


Intuitive eating is an approach to eating that encourages a connection between mind, body, and food. This flexible eating style focuses on trusting the body's subtle hunger and fullness cues (satiation and satiety) to guide when, what, and how much to eat. It is associated with positive outcomes physically and psychologically. (Dennett, 2018)

Satiation and satiety are the appetite control system within our bodies that helps us balance the absorption or disbursement of energy. The maintenance of energy balance is a critical part of human survival. (Benelam, 2009, p. 129) Satiation helps one to stop eating and satiety is the physical feeling of fullness after eating. The process of satiation and satiety begins when food or drink is absorbed into the mouth, processing into the GI tract, and then digested. When the food or drink is consumed and absorbed into the body, the nutrients in the food activate certain signals to the brain to help one to stop eating with a feeling of satisfaction and the physical sensation of fullness. (Benelam, 2009) This is our body’s wisdom or intuition.


Intuitive eating is getting back to the way one was born to eat. All humans are born as intuitive eaters. For example, reflect upon how a hungry baby will cry until fed and then turn their head when satiated. That is because babies and toddlers are listening to their own natural hunger and fullness cues to determine when and how much to eat. (Dennett, 2018)


Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, the connection to the body’s inner wisdom became interrupted. Many individuals tend to override the signals generated within their bodies, eating more or poorly. This interruption can lead to problematic eating and possibly, eventually to disordered eating.

Problematic Eating


“Problematic eating” is a relatively new term in the mental health/healthcare field. According to Alberts, Thewissen, and Raes' (2012) article, which provides a detailed perception of problematic eating: restrained, emotional, and external eating. (Alberts, Thewissen, and Raes, 2012). Restrained eating involves restriction of food intake or strict dieting. Dieting has been found to lead to eating disorders, "promote unhealthy cycles of weight loss and gain” and can be rooted from a cognition of judgement of one’s own weight or shape of body. (Alberts, Thewissen, and Raes, 2012) External eating is focused on eating due to external cues or stressors. External eaters tend to eat more when stressed and struggle with low self-worth. (Alberts, Thewissen, and Raes, 2012) Other research also recorded that low self-esteem may be a risk factor for developing eating disorders. (Courtney, Gamboz, Johnson, 2008) Emotional eating is a response to negative emotions, linked to aspects of binge eating, and a way to avoid coping with the negative emotions. (Alberts, Thewissen, and Raes, 2012)


Other problematic eating issues include body image concerns, negative perceptions of one's appearance, body checking and body avoidance, placing high value on appearance ideals that lead to body dissatisfaction. (Alberts, Thewissen, and Raes, 2012) Intense food cravings can also be considered problematic. There has been a connection to food cravings and the development of obesity and eating disorders. (Alberts, Thewissen, and Raes, 2012)


There is an issue of an increase in weight related problems and disorders. As of June 2013, the American Medical Association declared that obesity was a disease and was associated with health risks that include extreme weight gain. (Kaufman, 2015) Binge-eating disorder is the newest eating disorder that was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) in 2013. Binge-eating disorder is characterized as eating a larger amount of food in a small amount of time with a feeling of lack of control over the eating. (Kaufman, 2015) In the late 1960's, anorexia nervosa was prevalent as females were starving themselves. (Polivy & Herman, 2002) In the 1970's, the emergence of bulimia nervosa became popular when "young women alternated between self-starvation with bingeing, and then followed by purging." (Polivy & Herman, 2002)


According to research, there are many external factors that can influence these issues of maladaptive eating patterns. The factors can include family factors, sociocultural factors such as media and peer influences, individual risk factors such as trauma, low self-esteem and body dissatisfaction, cognitive and biological influence, and the lack of awareness. (Polivy & Herman, 2002)


Family and Social Influence


The family is one of the most important social factors among maladaptive eating patterns and the presence of eating disorders. (Kaufman, 2015) The family system is highly influential upon the development of values, behaviors, attitudes and eating habits. (Kluck, 2010) While most parents mean well and want to raise healthy children, they tend to take control of the child’s feeding.


Restrictive Eating

Parents who use controlling feeding practices are theorized to disrupt children's self-regulation of food intake, resulting in over or undereating. Studies demonstrate that restrictive feeding practices are related to increase the likelihood of eating in the absence of hunger. (Galloway, Farrow, & Martz, 2010) Restricting food or types of food, can lead to an increased longing to obtain and eat the "forbidden" foods, which results in extreme eating when food is accessible, eating even in the absence of hunger, and emotional eating. (Dennett, 2018)


Pressure Eating

Whereas pressuring children to eat, research predicts a decrease in desire for pressured food and inhibits the food intake process in children. The use of pressure to eat predicts restrained and emotional eating. (Galloway, Farrow, & Martz, 2010) Pressure eating may disrupt the ability for the child to stop eating when no longer hungry, which leads to low intuitive eating, disconnecting from internal hunger and satiety cues. (Dennett, 2018) According to an article by Ellis, Galloway, Rose, & Martz, (2016) pressure to eat aims at encouraging a child to eat more and is associated with picky eating and a number of other childhood eating concerns. (Ellis, Galloway, Rose, & Martz, 2016)


Family Opinions

Weight related attitudes and opinions are also transferred from parents to child. Studies show that critical negative comments about eating and weight were predictors of body image dissatisfaction, weight concerns, and disordered eating, leading to low self-esteem and depressive symptoms. (Francisco, Narciso, Alarcão, 2013) Parents often model dysfunctional eating attitudes or behaviors, such as being focused on cultural appearance, negative verbal comments and criticism on body size or appearance, encouragement towards dieting and losing weight, parental teasing, all which lead to problematic eating issues and body image dissatisfaction. . (Francisco, Narciso, Alarcão, 2013)

Emotional Eating

The emotional nature of eating could be a concern for maladaptive eating patterns. Eating can be rewarding, comforting, and distracting during stressful times. Eating is also very social, and meals are eaten together and utilized during celebrations and sad occasions. Families may offer food as a reward or pair it with a positive event, which will likely increase the craving for those sorts of foods during stressful times. (Alexander & Siegel, 2013)


Babies depend on their caregiver for food and warmth as well as emotional regulation. Caregivers soothe and comfort the infant, responding sensitively and consistently. The baby learns that they can get their needs met and they can trust their environment and the people in their lives and their internal cues for hunger. (Alexander & Siegel, 2013) However, if an infant had an inconsistent or neglectful caretaker it can result in an insecure attachment of either high levels of anxiety or avoidance. This can lead to lower self-esteem, depression, and people pleasing tendencies. It also influences and develops a lack of awareness and mistrust towards the infant’s internal signals for hunger. Attachment anxiety is associated to emotional eating and the possible misinterpretation of internal cues, where an individual perceives hunger when they desire attachment. (Alexander & Siegel, 2013)


People Pleasing

Social influences play a huge role in how people eat and how much they eat. Sociotropy involves people-pleasing and a heavy emphasis on maintaining harmonious relationships. Sometimes people eat in order to make another feel comfortable. If people grew up in an insecure or restrictive eating environment, they would eat according to social influences in order to please others, win approval, or maintain balanced and peaceful relationships. Sociotropy is associated with social approval and harmony, they will do what they can to fit in. (Exline, Zell, Bratslavsky, Hamilton, & Swenson, 2012) For example, people adjust their food intake based on the model of their eating companion, eating little when they eat little, or eating more when they eat more. (Spanos, Vartanian, Herman, & Polivy, 2015) Also Individuals who are influenced by social factors and are concerned with social harmony are likely to partake in food eating because they believe it is appropriate to follow social cues when eating with others. (Spanos, Vartanian, Herman, & Polivy, 2015) Sociotropy has been associated to bulimia, weight preoccupation, or other disordered eating patterns. (Exline, Zell, Bratslavsky, Hamilton, & Swenson, 2012)


Media Influence


Mass media (magazines, t.v., billboards, commercials, etc.) plays a huge role in the communication of cultural labels and the standards for body image. Media messages convey unrealistic images of female beauty and many women internalize these distorted thin ideals, which eventually lead to body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. However, according to this Social Media Effects on Young Women's Body Image Concerns: Theoretical Perspectives and an Agenda for Research study, (2014) it seems to be that the use of social networking is becoming worse than mass media outlets. (Perloff, 2014)


Social Media

The internet and an array of social media sites have become easily accessible through smartphone use. It allows for rapid sharing and instant communication at our fingertips within seconds, 24/7. Social media is filled with pictures of people, online friends, and a variety of thin idealized images. It uses gratification to satisfy needs and to fulfill intentions. One could turn to social media to validate their self-beliefs, please their own personal reassurance needs, and convince themselves that they measure up to the perfect body ideals. This sort of pressure could worsen body disturbance. Social comparison is also emphasized on social media. People compare themselves to their peers’ body and image which can lead body dissatisfaction and negative effects on self-worth. (Perloff, 2014)


Celebrity Media

Our society is also obsessed with celebrities. They are very influential role models that set the norm for ideals of beauty, body, and success over media. This leads to dissatisfaction in one's own body since they do not measure up to the thinness and success ideals. (Sherman, 2016) Many people try to stay up with the latest fashion based on their favorite celebrity.


Food Marketing

Food marketing is also another way that media has influenced people's lives. Marketing can be both honest and deceiving. Health labels may only be selling messages and not sincere descriptions of the product being presented. Sometimes, seeing an advertisement for food can influence a person's food choice for the day. Food marketing is a sneaky way that media influences your choices in foods. (The Junk Food Marketing to Kids: Health Food Marketing to Adults, 2017) A lot of people state that they 'can't help themselves' by wanting to eat when they are exposed to the food cues. In studies, the exposure to food cues increased hunger, the desire to eat, and salivation. In obese individuals their salivary response is greater and therefore there is an increased desire to "eat both the cued food and another non-cued food." (Ferriday and Brunstrom, 2011, p. 142)

Trauma Influence


Research suggests that those who struggle with eating disorders are likely to have experienced traumatic events. Those who have been traumatized may struggle with emotion regulation, maladaptive thoughts, low self-worth, and depression, which can lead to disordered eating. According to this 2018 study by Breland, Donalson, Dinh, & Maguen, research participants discussed how their disordered eating was a form of punishment for feelings of guilt or shame. (Breland, Donalson, Dinh, & Maguen, 2018) Most participants used disordered eating to regulate their emotions in response to avoiding the negative experience, to self soothe and increase positive affect. Some participants reported engaging in disordered eating to change their shape and weight to avoid attention that could lead to additional trauma. One focus group used food to replace intimacy after sexual trauma. (Breland, Donalson, Dinh, & Maguen, 2018) All of these maladaptive behaviors seem to trap participants in a spiraling cycle, giving "short term relief, but ultimately resulting in additional negative effects and maladaptive thoughts that perpetuated further disordered eating." (Breland, Donalson, Dinh, & Maguen, 2018, p. 9)


Healing the Intuitive Eater


While all these external factors have influenced maladaptive eating patterns, is there a possible way to heal from these patterns and recover the body’s intuition and if so, how can one return to intuitive eating?


Intuitive Eating

Intuitive Eating is an approach to health that focuses on listening to your body. It

consists of three core aspects: unconditional permission to eat; eating based on internal

hunger and fullness cues; and eating for physical, not emotional hunger. (Powers, 2010)

Some mental health and medical professionals believe that intuitive eating is a more balanced and realistic approach to health and weight. Research supports that intuitive eating is beneficial for physical and mental wellbeing. Physically it is associated with lower BMI, improved cardiovascular functioning, and weight maintenance or loss; and emotionally it improves emotion regulation, decreases body image inconsistency, and greater enjoyment and less anxiety while eating. (Richards, Crowton, Berrett, Smith & Passmore, 2017)


Some ways to incorporate intuitive eating back into one’s life is through mindfulness-based eating awareness training, intuitive eating education programs, and learning ways to consciously move energy to regulate hunger, food cravings and satiety.


Developing Intuitive Awareness Mindfully

Mindfulness and mindful eating interventions appear to be most successful in the reduction of binge eating, emotional eating, and eating in response to external cues. Mindfulness/mindful eating resulted in a positive shift in food habits and amount food consumed. (Warren, Smith, & Ashwell, 2017)


According to the Vago & Silbersweig (2012) article, mindfulness helps one to notice their internal and external experiences by observing what is going on without judgment or reactivity and being able to label it or describe what the internal experience is whether that is a feeling, thought, or image. This brings awareness of the self (self-awareness). After one is able to identify what the experience is and notice that it is either a past trauma or future anxiety, they can bring their awareness back to the present by allowing the feelings and images to surface and compassionately let it go. If one is aware of their selves and their internal experiences, then they can release distortion and judgments of their selves and others which is self-regulation. This begins the process of self-transcendence which helps one to focus on internal needs and to increase skills and neurocognitive qualities. As someone utilizes mindfulness certain neurocognitive mechanisms begin to strengthen and integrate in order to help with the self-processing and reduce judgment. These mechanisms include intention and motivation, attention and emotion regulation, extinction and re-consolidation, prosociality, non-attachment, and de-centering. (Vago & Silbersweig, 2012)


Utilizing mindfulness while eating is called mindful eating. This involves full awareness of one’s eating, observing the taste and texture of the food, and slowly pacing one’s food intake. Mindful eating encourages to remove all distractions, external factors, and refrain from multi-tasking while eating. Mindful Eating includes all the components of Intuitive Eating but added with meditation and mindfulness. (Dyke & Drinkwater, 2012)

In a study, researchers evaluated mindfulness-based eating awareness training with problematic eating patients. (Richards, Crowton, Berrett, Smith & Passmore, 2017) The mindfulness approach incorporated the same techniques as intuitive eating, namely, separating emotional hunger from physical hunger, consciously selecting food, and developing emotional awareness. The researchers concluded that the mindfulness program was associated with decreases in emotional eating and increased self-control among patients (Richards, Crowton, Berrett, Smith & Passmore, 2017)


Intuitive Eating Programs

There are intuitive eating education programs and have demonstrated success in encouraging healthy eating attitudes. In 2011, a researcher examined an intuitive eating program for binge eating disorder. The program spanned 8 weeks and was based on the book Intuitive Eating (Tribole & Resch, 2003). After the program participants reported fewer binging episodes and 80% no longer qualified for Binge eating disorder. (Richards, Crowton, Berrett, Smith & Passmore, 2017)


In one example, a program aimed to educate high school freshman students on Intuitive Eating. The principles encouraged healthier relationship with food, providing skills and hands on experience practicing the principles, and creating ways to connect with mind body and food which led to self-esteem and self-trust. Within the curriculum the topics included 10 principles of Intuitive Eating: (2010) (1) reject the diet mentality by highlighting the harmful physical and emotional side effects of dieting; (2) honoring hunger by encouraging eating when biologically hungry; (3) make peace with food by teaching how to view food neutrally and equally; (4) challenge the food police by combating negative food and body talk; (5) respecting fullness which encourages one to stop eating when full; (6) discover the satisfaction factor which emphasizes the importance of enjoying food and eating mindfully; (7) honoring feelings without using food which teaches methods of dealing with feelings other than eating; (8) respecting the body and encouraging body acceptance; (9) exercise, feel the difference and discuss enjoyable body movement; and (10) honoring health by incorporating gentle nutrition with balance, variety and moderation. The 10 lessons are based on these core principles, mindful eating concepts, and the need to address poor body image. (Powers, 2010, p. 25)