Non-diet nutrition

Pros and cons of Intuitive Eating

In this episode, Claire digs into some of the pros and cons of Intuitive Eating, the self-care eating framework that integrates instinct, emotion, and thought.

Show Notes
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Claire Siegel: You're listening to the Flourish podcast. I'm your host, Claire Siegel, founder of Flourish. We're on a mission to help women get healthy for good. Join me each week for a new episode that'll help you sustain healthy habits and nourish your body so you can Flourish in life.

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Claire Siegel: Hello, hello! Welcome back to the Flourish podcast. I am delighted to be here with you, albeit a bit tired. Last night was a rough night of sleep for whatever reason, so, uh, today I'm taking it easy on the caffeine, actually, because I know that, you know, for me, at least caffeine can lead to anxiety. Anxiety can lead to poor sleep. And so if you've followed me for any amount of time, you know, I have a very tenuous relationship with coffee.

I love it, but it does not always love me back. Um, so I have to be, be careful there. And every once in a while, I will just totally like pull back and do no caffeine. So that's today. Hopefully you don't hear the sleepiness in my voice. I'm going to try to bring the energy because today is an episode that I'm actually really excited about. And I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts and feedback, because I'm going to be exploring the pros and cons of Intuitive Eating.

Intuitive Eating has definitely grown in popularity, um, in the last couple of years. We're kind of seeing it be commandeered by diet culture, a la, uh, the Intuitive Fasting book that came out last year. I don't think that book did very well. I certainly didn't like see it for very long on like social media, and it definitely seemed like there's quite a bit of backlash.

So I think people are definitely... what's the word, you know, getting wise to the way that Intuitive Eating can kind of be used in ways in which it was not intended. Um, but with that, again, I want to, I want to talk about kind of pros and cons here.

What is Intuitive Eating?

Claire Siegel: Um, and we'll, we'll start with just an introduction of what Intuitive Eating is for that exact reason, because I think there's so much kind of misunderstanding about Intuitive Eating and really the intention behind the approach. Okay? So let's, let's start there and then we'll get into pros and cons. So according to its creators, Intuitive Eating is a quote, "self care eating framework," which integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought. Okay?

So it was developed back in 1995 by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Um, and if you want to get like the full scoop on Intuitive Eating, definitely recommend checking out their book, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-diet Approach, which outlines the ten guiding principles of the practice. Okay?

So Intuitive Eating—capital I, capital E—it has gained a ton of traction over the years, but I do think it's worth noting that the practice of simply eating intuitively or what I might call just eating is actually our default as human beings. Okay? At least until, you know, we kind of screwed things up with the advent of diets.

So with that, the ways in which we've sort of gone on astray from eating due to diets and, you know, what we do to our food system, things like that, it created a need for Intuitive Eating. So I like to think of Intuitive Eating—capital I, capital E here—as an unlearning of diet behaviors and a relearning of what it means to eat as humans should. Okay?

Now when I put it that way, it sounds quite simple, right? Well, yes and no. Um, which is why I want to spend some time with you today, digging into the pros and cons of Intuitive Eating. And that being said, from the top I do want to be clear that I'm a huge fan of Intuitive Eating, personally and also, of course, professionally as a registered dietitian. From a personal standpoint, you know, reading the Intuitive Eating book almost 10 years ago completely changed my approach to food.

And if I had to define my personal approach to eating, I, I guess I would call it intuitive. So with that though, I will say the cons that I'm going to share have less to do with the true essence and true meaning of Intuitive Eating, as laid out by Evelyn and Elyse, and more to do with how I see Intuitive Eating being interpreted and put to use as, as people embark upon their Intuitive Eating journeys or frankly comment about it on social media. Okay?

So let's go ahead and just start with, with the good stuff. And there's a lot of it. Okay?

Pro: Intutive Eating is an evidence-based model

Claire Siegel: So I would say the first pro is arguably the most important, and that's the fact that Intuitive Eating is an evidence-based model. Like, mic drop. I mean we could really end the podcast here. Okay? Um, it is an evidence-based model. And in the world that we're in full of pseudo-science and nutrition fads, the fact that Intuitive Eating not only has a validated assessment scale, but it also has over 200 studies, peer-reviewed studies. That is a big deal. I would ask that you try and find the same thing for celery juice. And you'd be hard pressed. Okay?

So again, pro number one, and it's a big one. It's a big tally on the side of Intuitive Eating, a big check mark, is that it is evidence-based. Okay?

Pro: Intuitive Eating is health promoting

Claire Siegel: So pro number two, is that the evidence that we're talking about here shows that Intuitive Eating is indeed health promoting, so I'll share just a couple of studies.

There's one study from the American Journal of Health Education, um, and that found that Intuitive Eating was significantly correlated with lower body mass, with lower triglyceride levels, with higher levels of high density lipoproteins and improved cardiovascular risk. We love it.

There's another study from Public Health Nutrition that showed that Intuitive Eating led to improve psychological health and possibly improve physical health indicators other than BMI, um, including blood sugar, cholesterol levels, and dietary intake and/or eating behaviors. We love, love, love to see it. Okay?

Pro: Intuitive Eating is weight-inclusive vs weight-normative

Claire Siegel: Um, so with that, that brings me to pro number three, because an important aspect of what makes Intuitive Eating healthy is that it is weight-inclusive as opposed to being weight-normative, okay? Now these may be terms that you're not familiar with, and no worries I'm gonna break it down. So the following is an excerpt from an article in the Journal of Obesity.

So there are two methods of working within patient care and public health. There's the weight-normative approach, which places an emphasis on weight and weight loss when defining health and wellbeing. And then by contrast, there's the weight-inclusive approach which involves the emphasis being placed on viewing health and wellbeing as multifaceted, while directing efforts toward improving health access and reducing weight stigma.

Okay, I'm going to say that again. Weight-inclusive, which is what Intuitive Eating is, there's the emphasis that health and wellbeing is multifaceted. And there's also the focus on improving health access and also reducing weight stigma. Okay? Now, if you know my story, you'll probably understand like why this, why this resonates so deeply with me.

Um, I spent over 10 years thinking my health and my weight were one in the same. And that in order to improve my health, I needed to lose weight. And I put all my eggs in the "lose weight" basket, and would do anything just about to lose weight. I sacrificed my social life. I counted calories. I worked out incredibly intensely.

And all-in-all, it didn't actually make me any healthier. Certainly from a mental health standpoint, at that point, I was the least healthy I'd ever been. And also physically, you know, my metabolic rate slowed to that of like a post-menopausal woman, you know, a much older woman than, than I was at the time being, you know, young and in college and active and all of those things.

And, you know, your, your metabolism is an incredibly important aspect of your health. All right? So again, I think we can, no matter where your kind of desires are for your body or your weight, I would encourage you, I suppose, to look at your own history and just be curious of if the weight-normative approach, the, the focus and emphasis being placed on weight and weight loss... if that's worked for you or, or not.

Or if you're open to perhaps, um, something that feels more weight-inclusive, where you're looking at health more holistically, that it's not about the number on the scale necessarily, or certainly not only about the number on the scale, but it's also about, you know, your relationship with food. It's also about your nutrient intake and making sure that you're sufficiently nourished. It's about movement and creating consistency in your movement by doing movement that you love. It's about, um, healthy sleep patterns and sleep quality and quantity and managing your stress well. Right?

Again, health is absolutely multifaceted and the weight-normative approach does not appreciate that. And, and that's, I mean, one reason why, one of, one of many reasons why I started Flourish, because a lot of what we have on the market right now is purely weight-normative.

But here's the thing: it's not just nice to be weight-inclusive. It's not just nice to be weight-inclusive. The data actually shows that the weight-normative approach is not effective for most people because of high rates of weight regain and weight cycling from weight loss interventions. Okay?

And these weight loss interventions are linked to adverse health and wellbeing. Okay? In addition to that, the, the focus on weight loss also leads to stigma in healthcare and society. And the data shows that that weight stigma is also linked to adverse health and wellbeing.

Again, so it's not just nice to be weight-inclusive. The weight-normative approach does have long-term negative impacts on our health individually and culturally and in the healthcare system. Right?

So, in contrast, the data supports a weight-inclusive approach for improving physical health such as blood pressure, behavioral health such as binge-eating, and psychological health such as, you know, depression and anxiety. So again, big checkmark for Intuitive Eating and the fact that it is weight-inclusive, as opposed to being weight-normative.

And again, if you're listening to this and you're like, "Oh, I don't know. That sounds a little bit scary." I hear you. I totally hear you. If you had explained that difference to me back in my early twenties, when I was still like deep in my dieting phase, I would have said absolutely not.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Like, no, I'm not doing this cute little weight-inclusive thing. I need to lose weight. And that's a normal reaction. We live in a very weight-normative world. And that's why, again, I'm going to encourage you to feel that feeling of, of whatever it is. Maybe it's a pang of anxiety in your chest.

Maybe you're feeling a little stressed. Maybe you're feeling confused. Maybe you're just feeling like you want to stop this podcast right now. I get it. I get it. Feel that feeling, hold it. And also, ask yourself those questions. Right? Be curious. Ask yourself, "Okay, well, is the weight-normative way of approaching things where my health and my weight are one in the same? Has that really worked for me? And has it worked for me long term? And then decide, decide where where you want to go. Okay?

So those are three huge pros and there are many, many, many more, but, you know, we, we like to keep these episodes to 20 or 30 minutes or so, okay?

So again, from the top, Intuitive Eating is an evidence-based model. Number two, the evidence shows that Intuitive Eating is indeed health promoting, psychologically and physically. And number three, Intuitive Eating is weight-inclusive as opposed to being weight-normative. We love to see it. We love that. We love that for us. Okay? Pretty, pretty awesome. Like I said, I am a supporter of Intuitive Eating both personally and professionally.

Con: Intuitive Eating is often misinterpreted

Claire Siegel: So as we get into the cons, I do, I just want to reiterate, I want to make it so clear that these cons are really about how I see Intuitive Eating interpreted, not how it was actually intended. Okay? And so with that, the overarching con here is that in a world of diets and food rules, Intuitive Eating is often misinterpreted, okay?

So this is maybe gonna feel counterintuitive, but stick with me here. A lot of us are attracted to diets because of the associated rules. Nutrition and health... they can feel really complicated at times, and we already live very complicated and sometimes overwhelming lives. So it's really a relief when someone says, just do this: Eat at this time and don't eat after this time. Eat this much of this thing, but don't eat that thing at all.

Right? When you see it on paper or in your meal plan or what have you, it sounds super straightforward and simple. And that feels like relief. The problem is that it is total hell to try and implement because the, the, while the rigidity and the black and white nature of these rules is so attractive, your life is not rigid. Your life is not black and white. Your life ebbs and flows.

And yes, sometimes you're going to eat a grilled chicken salad for lunch, and sometimes it's going to be your best friend's birthday and you want to take her out. So what Intuitive Eating really calls for you to do is to quiet that outside noise in order to tune into what your mind and body are telling you.

And I'll, I'll just repeat what I, what I shared at the top of the episode about kind of the definition of Intuitive Eating. It is a self care eating framework, which integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought. It is about tuning inward to what you need and what your body is asking for and what your mind is asking for.

And also rational thought. Right? Okay, well right now my body and mind want a cupcake. But I have a workout coming up in 30 minutes, so probably not the best time. Right? And, and I don't think that that level of like nuance is often understood when you are scrolling through Instagram or scrolling through TikTok, you know, learning about Intuitive Eating. Okay?

So that's kind of the, again, overarching con here, is that just because of the way that we are programmed right now, Intuitive Eating is often misinterpreted.

Con: When black-and-white thinking gets applied to Intuitive Eating

Claire Siegel: So, as I said before, the Intuitive Eating framework is expressed through ten principles, which are presented in a very deliberate order in the book... because it's a book and that's how books work, but I will say that that actually brings us to the next con.

I've seen time and time again the way that Intuitive Eating can basically be turned into a diet by applying black and white thinking to the principles. Okay?

So in Flourish, we see this manifest in a couple of ways. People may turn Intuitive Eating into the hunger and fullness diet, where it's like... basically eat when I'm hungry, stop when I'm full or bust, similar to the all-on, all-off diet cycle.

Right? All-on looks like I'm eating when I'm hungry and I'm stopping when I'm full, and should I ever violate any one of those, you know, practices will then, um, it's all over. Right? Then I'm just gonna eat the whole house or what have you. Okay? So that's what happens when you take the principles of Intuitive Eating and apply that black and white diet way of thinking.

And that that doesn't work. That's not, that's not the true intention and essence of the practice of Intuitive Eating. Okay? So that's one really common way I see the black-and-white thinking being applied to Intuitive Eating.

The other way I see it happening is this over-simplification of Intuitive Eating as a practice.

And this often happens with people who have never read the book, and I've never really understood what Intuitive Eating is, or they've never worked with a coach or a dietitian who specializes in Intuitive Eating. So they oversimplify intuitive Eating to mean I eat what I want when I want, period. So that cupcake example I shared earlier would always result in eating the cupcake, right? It's really missing that rational thought aspect of Intuitive Eating.

And what this does, is it, it never allows the, the person in question here to get out of the honeymoon phase of Intuitive Eating. And when you're in that place where you're simply eating what you want, when you want without bringing in the rational thought aspect of the practice, you're probably not going to feel great. Right?

Eating cupcakes 20 minutes before a work out, you're not going to have a great workout. You might skip the workout in all likelihood. And if you keep rinsing and repeating that, yeah you're not going to feel your best. And then you're going to say Intuitive Eating doesn't work. And then you're going to get back on the diet cycle.

And I see this happening time and time and time again. And that's why I think, I mean, again, I think the Intuitive Eating book is brilliant and beautiful, and I think a book can only get you so far. Can only get some people so far, right? I know, I know many people who have had great success from reading the book, but I've also worked personally with many, many women who need a little bit more support, right?

Who need a little bit more, um, individualization who need a little bit more nuance. Because also like, yes, there's the process and the framework and all that, but there's also the emotional stuff that comes up. The fear, the concern, the "Wait is this how this is supposed to go? Is this working? Like, wait, should I eat the cupcake 20 minutes before my workout? If I don't have the cupcake 20 minutes before my workout, when I want it does not mean I'm dieting?"

Like it can get a little complicated. And that's where I think having the personalized support is incredibly helpful. Okay? That's why we bring in these elements of the principles and we coach through an Intuitive Eating lens.

In fact, Elizabeth, our nutrition coach, she's a certified Intuitive Eating counselor and just an absolute like library when it comes to all of the health benefits. Like that girl, I swear, she has just like a nutrition journal, an academic journal in her head. So our framework brings in elements of the Intuitive Eating principles and we are weight-inclusive and we do have a multifaceted approach to health, but the benefit of that coaching interaction is that it makes room for personalization and nuance beyond what, what any book can provide.

So I hope that this episode was helpful. I hope it kind of got your wheels turning about your own experience and, and also about kind of what you're seeing, especially online and on social media about not only Intuitive Eating, but other health practices.

And you get to start asking yourself like, what, what has worked for me in the past? What hasn't worked for me in the past? Is this evidence-based or is this like totally bogus? And, and that's the beauty of the work that you're doing and being curious and being an active participant in your own mental and physical health is that you get to make the decisions. And that in and of itself is like a beautiful way to start getting back in touch with your own intuition.

Like I said, um, at the beginning of the episode, I am so eager to hear your thoughts and feedback, and I will see you next week. Bye y'all.

Claire Siegel:

Thank you so much for joining me for today's episode of the Flourish podcast. If you enjoyed it, please take a second to leave us a five-star review or better yet, share it with a friend. And if you're ready to start your own journey to get healthy for good with accountability from expert coaches and the support of an incredible community, head to the show notes to get started on your Flourish journey.

I'll see you in the next episode.

Headshot of Claire Siegel
Claire Siegel
Co-founder, CEO
Claire Siegel is the founder and CEO of Flourish. Claire has made it her life’s mission to help women create a sustainable approach to their physical and mental well-being.

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