Repair your client’s relationship with food with intuitive eating

In today’s day and age, it is almost impossible to not be surrounded by diet culture. Many clients battle with their own bodies for years and think that it is their own fault that fad diets don’t work. Keep reading to learn how using intuitive eating in your practice can repair your client’s relationship with food.

Even if one tries to distance himself from fad diets, it is almost impossible to remain completely unaware of the trends that keep coming up. In today’s world, we are constantly surrounded by social media, celebrities, and other influencers who promote unhealthy body images and eating habits. Unfortunately, this leads to many people struggling with poor body image, which therefore affects their relationship with food.

As a dietitian, you may have clients approach you for nutritional support after they have repetitively tried different fad diets without experiencing long-term results. In fact, these fad diets and unhealthy habits only leave the client feeling less healthy, having a poor body image, and struggling in their relationship with food. That’s where intuitive eating comes in, as this is a great tool that nutrition professionals can use to help clients improve their relationship with food, body image, and overall health.

Before exploring how you (as a nutrition professional) can improve your client’s relationship with food through intuitive eating, let’s discuss what intuitive eating is and how it can benefit your client.

What is intuitive eating?

Intuitive eating is a self-care eating framework, which integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought [1]. This concept was created by Registered Dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resche within their first book (titled Intuitive Eating) originally published in 1995. However, in recent years the concept of intuitive eating has gained attention both in the world of dietetics and on social media.

The purpose of intuitive eating is not for a person to eat whatever they want, whenever they want, but to work with the brain and eat in a way that both satisfies and nourishes the person. It’s important to note that intuitive eating is not another weight loss fad diet. In fact, the purpose of intuitive eating is not weight loss at all, as it is meant to be a bridge between the anti-diet movement and the health community [2]. Intuitive eating is based on science; in fact, there are over 125 research studies showing the proven benefits of intuitive eating [2].

According to research, intuitive eaters have lower levels of:

  • disordered eating;
  • binge eating;
  • emotional eating;
  • triglycerides;
  • blood pressure.

It is also proven that intuitive eaters have higher levels of:

  • variety of food in diet;
  • HDL (good cholesterol);
  • pleasure from eating;
  • body appreciation and acceptance;
  • interoceptive awareness.

Who is intuitive eating for?

Intuitive eating can be great for almost any client who wants to improve their relationship with food. However, it may be most beneficial for those who have struggled with disordered eating, yo-yo dieting, eating disorders, and weight fluctuation.

10 principles of intuitive eating

The intuitive eating framework follows 10 guiding principles [2]:

  1. Reject the diet mentality;
  2. Honor your hunger;
  3. Make peace with food;
  4. Challenge the food police;
  5. Discover the satisfaction factor;
  6. Feel your fullness;
  7. Cope with your emotions with kindness;
  8. Respect your body;
  9. Movement – feel the difference;
  10. Honor your health – gentle Nutrition.

Tribole’s and Resch’s book, Intuitive eating, outlines each step in detail and provides insight about how to counsel your client through each one.

Hunger-fullness scale

Used as an effective tool in intuitive eating, the hunger fullness scale helps your clients better understand different levels of hunger and fullness, as well as how to appropriately respond to those levels. It's measured on a scale of 0-10, and each number correlates with a different level of hunger or fullness.

When working with clients to use the hunger fullness scale, keep in mind that the goal isn’t to have them perfectly identify with only one number. Instead, the scale should be a tool used for clients to get in touch with their hunger and fullness cues.

Learn more about how this dietitian uses the hunger-fullness scale with her clients here.

Benefits of intuitive eating

In the end, the goal of intuitive eating is to provide an individual with a deeper understanding of their body’s wants and needs, to allow for greater body autonomy. Studies have found that women who can recognize their body’s cues and stop eating when full have lower odds of chronic dieting and binge eating [3].

Furthermore, adults who allow themselves to eat with unconditional permission and eat for physical instead of emotional reasons have a more positive body image [4]. This research shows promise that intuitive eating may be used as a tool to improve mental and physical health in those who struggle with obesity and eating disorders [4].

Although intuitive eating is not intended to lead to weight loss, there are instances in which weight loss is achieved as a result. In a study done on women who received bariatric surgery, there was a significant association between intuitive eating and BMI decrease after surgery.

In the 18–66 month period after surgery, the participants showed a decrease in reliance on hunger and satiety cues and eating for physical rather than emotional health. These changes in behavior may be a large contributing factor to weight regain that was also seen during this period. This is an indication that intuitive eating may be able to improve long-term results of bariatric surgery [5].

Have you heard about some myths surrounding intuitive eating? Check out this article for four myth-busting facts.

How to implement intuitive eating with your clients

If you are looking to teach your clients about intuitive eating, here are a few key points you may want to focus on:

  • Unconditional permission to eat. The longer that a food is prohibited, the more appealing it becomes. After eating one of these “prohibited” foods, the person is often overcome with guilt. Many times, this guilt can lead to overeating and the cycle will repeat. To break this cycle, the client must allow themselves unconditional permission to eat any food. This will remove the specialness from the foods that they tend to overeat [2]. This is easier said than done, so this is where the client will need reassurance and support from you!

  • Hunger-fullness scale. Over years of dieting and not listening to your body, it becomes easy to ignore signs of hunger until you are ravenous. This often leads to uncontrollable overeating and feeling uncomfortably full. Teaching your clients to recognize the gentler signs of hunger (like headaches, irritability, or mild stomach gurgling) will allow them to assess where their hunger is and not let them stray to the extreme ends of the hunger fullness scale [2].

  • Steps to regain pleasure in eating. After many years of dieting, many clients may have lost their ability to find pleasure in eating. Dieting tells us to eat only what we are told, and often these foods are not very tasty or satisfying. Rediscovering what foods you like and understanding that you have the right to eat them without guilt are two crucial steps in the intuitive eating process [2]. As a dietitian, you will be able to help your clients find joy in eating and fuel their bodies in the process.

  • Un-labeling food. Demonizing and labeling a food as “bad” leads to negative outcomes. After eating a “bad” food, the person will begin to have negative thoughts that lead to negative emotions that ultimately lead to negative behaviors such as binge eating [2]. This is where good nutritional support comes in, as you can help your clients switch their mindset from “bad foods” to “all foods fit”.

Summary

Using the intuitive eating principles in your private practice is a great way to counsel a variety of clients. Whether they are dealing with years of dieting, disordered eating, eating disorders or weight fluctuations, intuitive eating is a great tool meant to help your clients regain peace with food, improve their body image, and properly fuel their bodies.

Research shows that intuitive eating is one of the most effective ways to teach clients to become more in-tune with their innate capabilities and calm the voices of diet culture.


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References
  1. Homepage. Intuitive Eating. (2019, June 3). https://www.intuitiveeating.org/.
  2. Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2020). Intuitive eating: A revolutionary anti-diet approach. St. Martin's Essentials.
  3. Denny, K. N., Loth, K., Eisenberg, M. E., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2013). Intuitive eating in young adults. who is doing it, and how is it related to disordered eating behaviors? Appetite, 60, 13–19. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2012.09.029
  4. Keirns, N. G., & Hawkins, M. A. W. (2019). The relationship between intuitive eating and body image is moderated by measured body mass index. Eating Behaviors, 33, 91–96. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eatbeh.2019.04.004
  5. Keirns, N. G., & Hawkins, M. A. (2019). Intuitive eating, objective weight status and physical indicators of health. Obesity Science & Practice, 5(5), 408–415. https://doi.org/10.1002/osp4.359