Healthy Eating Tips

5 Myths About Intuitive Eating a Dietitian Is Sick of Hearing

Kells McPhillips

Kells McPhillipsSeptember 3, 2020

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Back in 1995, dietitians Evelyn Tribole, RDN, and Elyse Resch, RDN, disrupted diet culture with a simple, yet revolutionary idea for fueling your body: intuitive eating. The nutrition lifestyle—which recommends tuning into your instincts, emotions, and thoughts in order to decide what to eat—sparked a bestselling book, as well as workbooks for both teens and adults. The goal was to get people (particularly those recovering from eating disorders) to re-approach how they eat and live in a way that doesn’t focus on weight or body image.

The idea flies in the face of traditional “diets,” which typically encourage restriction of some kind (whether that’s eating less food, fewer carbs, or zero of a specific food group) and following specific, inalienable rules in order to lose weight and maintain health. As such, myths abound about intuitive eating even 25 years after its formal creation.

Intuitive eating-focused dietitian Taylor Wolfram, RDN, believes that the confusion around the lifestyle stems from people misunderstanding its very definition. “One really succinct way of describing it that the creators use—at least in how they present it to clinicians—is that intuitive eating is a dynamic interplay between instinct, emotion, and thought,” says Wolfram. But even that can feel very vague and confusing, especially when we as a society are used to having to follow rules and guidelines around nutrition.

To make this style of eating more concrete, Resch and Tribole created ten guiding principals to follow, including respect your hunger cues, exercising for the joy of it, and making peach with food in a world where diet culture isn’t monetarily investing in you doing so. Still, though, there’s a lot of room for confusion—especially when diet culture steps in.

When you find yourself questioning what this unconventional non-diet is and isn’t, Wolfram says it can help to return to that trinity of instinct, emotion, and thought again and again. Below, she names and myth-busts five of the most common misconceptions surrounding intuitive dieting that she hears way, way too often.

The 5 most pervasive myths about intuitive eating that need to die here and now

1. Myth: Intuitive eating can be used to achieve weight loss

According to Wolfram, some of the language of intuitive eating has been co-opted by diet culture—like “checking in with your hunger cues” to “curb mindless overeating.” These ideas of intentionality around eating are certainly part of intuitive eating, but some influencers and even dietitians often frame them as ways to help explicitly control one’s weight and hunger. (Blogilates founder Cassey Ho’s controversial “banana test” TikTok is an example of this in action.)

Wolfram says this co-opting is antithetical to the original purpose of intuitive eating. “If someone is saying, ‘Drop those leftover five pounds through intuitive eating,’ that’s a huge red flag and they don’t understand what intuitive eating is. If you read the book and read the research on it, it’s very clear that intuitive eating is absolutely anti-intentional weight loss,” says Wolfram—meaning that the active, intentional pursuit of weight loss is not a goal or a benefit of the philosophy.

Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, a certified intuitive eating counselor and owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness, previously told Well+Good: “If you don’t fully let go of diet culture or the intention to lose weight, you’ll likely struggle to find the true peace that comes with intuitive eating,” says Rumsey. This doesn’t happen overnight, of course—as Rumsey put it, intuitive eating is a “dynamic process” that comes with time and practice.

2. Myth: Intuitive eating is only about instinct

You might have heard the nebulous simplification that intuitive eating is just about “trusting your gut” when it comes to food—and that’s simply not true. “One misunderstanding that I see is that folks think that you’re only going on instinct with intuitive eating, and they don’t understand that emotion and thought come into play—which really just goes to show how complex intuitive eating is and how you know people really do need to do the deeper learning and practice of it to really grasp what it is,” explains Wolfram.

For example, if you find that your body wants dessert, but your mind—which has likely been deeply influenced by diet culture—starts shaming you for it, noting that tension is part of the work of intuitive eating. In fact, challenging why you feel certain ways around food is one of the ten pillars created by Tribole and Resch. That requires instinct, thought, and emotion—right?

3. Myth: Intuitive eating means you just eat pizza and donuts all the time

Detractors of intuitive eating often get stuck on its principles of eating when you’re hungry and eating to feel satisfied; the argument that this will translate into “just eating junk” is persistent in health spaces. But this is far from the truth, says Wolfram.

In fact, some research shows that when you’re exposed to a food often enough, you’ll actually desire it less because your brain won’t consider it to be a novelty. “People often find that they feel best eating a wide variety of foods, including the quote, unquote ‘healthy foods’ and the more refined or processed foods. Some people may call it junk food, but I like to call it fun food,” says Wolfram. By removing the arbitrary restrictions and shame out of food prevalent in diet culture, and letting people choose to eat what feels right to them in that moment, they’re better able to find a natural equilibrium right for their unique body and needs.

4. Myth: You can’t learn how to eat intuitively—you’re either born with skill or not

Let’s get one thing straight: “Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s intuitive eating” isn’t a thing.

“Diet culture has a lot to do with our parents, our caregivers, the house that we were raised in, how our food was handled and if it was restricted at all, if we were told we had to clean up plates or that we had to eat our broccoli before we could have dessert. A lot of our relationship with food is impacted by those really formative young years. Sometimes, things that we don’t even remember,” says Wolfram. In other words, no one (or okay, very few people) make it into their adulthood unscathed by diet culture. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to learn how to repair that relationship—and implying that some people aren’t capable of doing so is condescending and inaccurate.

Learning to eat intuitively may look different for everyone, but it will still be learning. Your intuitive eating journey will look different from mine, but one of ours won’t necessarily be more “natural” than the other—right?

5. Myth: Hunger and fullness are the guiding lights of intuitive eating

Learning to respect your hunger cues is one pillar of intuitive eating, but it’s just one pillar. It doesn’t tell the whole story of your instincts, emotions, and thoughts.

“Another one that I commonly folks say, ‘Oh, I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full—that’s intuitive eating.’ That’s not the case at all; that’s one small and important part of it,” she says. Is there a diet mentality behind what you perceive as fullness? Have you accepted your body shape? Are you running or swimming or dancing for the pure joy of it? Intuitive eating isn’t one thing—and the more you oversimplify it, the less you’ll benefit from it.

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