Intuitive Eating is becoming more and more part of the cultural zeitgeist. In many ways this is a wonderful thing – an increase in visibility and accessibility of the non-diet approach– yet this relatively newfound popularity also lends itself to potential pitfalls.
For example, it’s common to see intuitive eating co-opted in the service of weight loss, or practitioners with a rudimentary understanding of the model use it as a buzzword without really understanding what they are talking about.
Intuitive eating can also feel somewhat overwhelming for those who first encounter the book. Ten principles can feel like a lot to work through, especially when you consider that principle one is “reject the diet mentality” – in and of itself a tall order for someone recovering from decades of dieting or eating disorders.
I have found that introducing intuitive eating using the three core components derived from Tracy Tylka’s 2006 Intuitive Eating Scale is a helpful frame to simplify the model, while at the same time highlighting the complex interplay between different elements of intuitive eating.
THE 3 CORE COMPONENTS
ONE: Reliance on Hunger and Satiety Cues
Many people who are recovering from chronic dieting have become disconnected from their bodies, and this makes sensing hunger and fullness cues incredibly challenging. I have observed a significant trend for folks new to intuitive eating to assume that they should be able to simply start listening to their bodies right off the bat. But often what is needed is engagement and support in the process of reconnection, and it can take some time! Length and type of dieting history, history of trauma, sensory processing issues, and other factors will all affect the process.
I like to tell people that the work of the intuitive eating journey is not necessarily listening to your hunger and fullness cues, but learning to hear them in the first place. It’s also so important to note that having that embodied connection to our physical needs is an important part of making eating decisions, but not the whole picture. Sometimes our hungers are not physical, and we are allowed to satisfy them (using food!) all the same. Which brings us to the second core component…
TWO: Eating for Physical Rather than Emotional Reasons
I actually have a lot of issues with this statement, but I mention it here because I think it highlights the way intuitive eating has grown and evolved since its inception over 20 years ago.
When I discuss the relationship between eating and emotions with clients, I like to point out that eating is actually intimately connected to emotion, and always has been. Consider (if we are lucky) our very first experience when we come into the world – being comforted and held while also being offered nourishment. Food and emotion are inextricably linked. We see examples of the connection between food and emotion all over our culture. Cake on special occasions. Casseroles during hard times. Recipes handed down generation to generation as a way of staying connected to those that we love and our sense of identity. For all these reasons, I argue that divorcing the eating experience from emotion is actually incredibly disordered. We can recognize that we are not hungry and still decide to eat in a way that is very congruent with intuitive eating. We need to talk about the connection between eating and emotion in a much more nuanced way, especially in the context of recovery and healing one’s relationship with food (topic for a whole other post!).
Where I do think this concept can be applied is when people start to rely on food as a primary coping strategy or as an avoidance technique. For example, let’s say you are having a conflict with your boss, and every time your boss pisses you off you escape to the break room for a snack. There is nothing wrong with the part of this scenario where you use food as a way to self soothe – it can be quite an effective tool for that. But what is problematic is that food has become a substitution for what you actually need, which is to resolve the conflict. When using food to cope with emotion interferes with getting other important needs met, it’s helpful to find additional ways to problem solve. That doesn’t mean removing food from your toolbox of coping skills! It might just mean adding others and cultivating more of a sense of agency around when you use each one.
THREE: Unconditional Permission to Eat
Clients often come in seeking help with their bingeing problem, and what we discover is that at the root is restriction. Only when restriction is removed and the body trusts it won’t be deprived (or shamed for eating a “forbidden food”) is there space to ask the questions, “What do I need? What do I want? What will satisfy me?”
The process of letting go of food rules can feel terrifying – diet culture convinces us our bodies are not to be trusted, and that without rules our eating will be chaotic, out of control, and/or harmful to us. In my many years of working with people, I have never seen that happen! Ultimately, we can trust our bodies to guide us in self care.
The Second Breakfast Approach
Whether it’s the 10 Principles or Tylka’s 3 Core Concepts, The Second Breakfast approach to intuitive eating is one that always stays curious about whether our approach is effective, compassionate, and aligned with our values. By thinking about teaching intuitive eating in new ways, we can find a way that works best for you.
Citation: Development and Psychometric Evaluation of a Measure of Intuitive Eating Tracy L. Tylka Ohio State University Journal of Counseling Psychology Copyright 2006 by the American Psychological Association 2006, Vol. 53, No. 2