Is intuitive eating enough? Inner capacities vs. outer food cues

This week I was at a conference at the University of Texas at Dallas on Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology. One of the many nice things about academia is that there’s a group for just about any subtopic of interest, and an annual conference to go along with it. Going to one of these types of small, specialty conferences is kind of like dropping in on someone else’s party, already in progress. However, the host Matthew Brown was very welcoming, and the partygoers were interesting and fun. I knew a few of them already (hi Shari and Dan!), and made some new friends (one of whom may be blogging here soon!)

My reason for being there was to give a talk on public health and Health at Every Size (HAES) approaches to body weight. HAES endorses a view of health that includes three key parts:

  • weight acceptance (instead of weight loss and maintenance)
  • intuitive eating
  • physical activity

Anyone reading this blog is probably already familiar with all of these ideas. I recently joined the Facebook groups Fit Fatties and Athena Triathletes, both of which emphasize and support all kinds of physical activity for all kinds of bodies.

It’s intuitive eating, however, that I’m thinking about more these days. Tracy has blogged extensively about her research and experiences around intuitive eating.  Here’s one of many of her great posts about it. In that post, discussing the book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works,  she talks about the authors’ ten principles; here they are:

  1. reject the diet mentality
  2. honor your hunger
  3. make peace with food
  4. challenge the food police
  5. feel your fullness
  6. discover the satisfaction factor
  7. cope with your emotions without using food
  8. respect your body
  9. exercise: feel the difference
  10. honor your health with gentle nutrition

In my conference presentation, I talked about some worries I have about principles 2, 5 and 6- basically the ones about eating in accordance with hunger and fullness cues coming from our own bodies. But first, let’s hear from Tracy again about them:

Feeling your fullness (Principle 5) is the one that challenges me the most and that I have worked with most closely since I started this approach back in early January. The authors claim that “the ability to stop eating because you have had enough to eat biologically hinges critically on giving yourself unconditional permission to eat” (Principle 3: Make peace with food).

In order to feel your fullness, the authors recommend conscious eating. Instead of moving into autopilot, they suggest paying attention, eating without distraction, pausing part way through a meal to register whether the food still tastes good and whether you’re still hungry. Samantha is doing the same thing with her recent attention to mindful eating. They introduce the idea of comfortable satiety, where you’ve had enough to eat but are not overstuffed.  Respecting your fullness means stopping at comfortable satiety. In order to achieve this, you need to eat engage in mindful or conscious eating.

This approach sounds sensible, powerful, and yes, intuitive. Of course I should listen to my body, not all those external messages like this one:

Screen Shot 2015-05-24 at 10.07.31 AM

But a big problem comes to mind.

It’s really hard to dodge and weave enough to avoid being caught up in environmental cues to eat when a) we’re not actually hungry; and b) when the food presented is not actually food we want.

Tracy points out in her post that the authors cite evidence in support of their intuitive eating program (which I look forward to checking out). However, there’s also loads of evidence about the strong influence of our environments on our eating. The presence of candy dishes, Danish pastries or doughnuts at a morning work meeting, larger portion sizes at restaurants—all of these (and many more) factors regularly shift us into modes of mindless eating  (also the name of a book by this guy  Brian Wansink).  Wansink and others recommend a host of remedies for this set of problems, ranging from downsizing our plates and cups to reconfiguring school cafeterias to place the salad bar more strategically.

My point here is that, as an individual, there are a lot of forces out there, many of which are designed to short-circuit my hunger and fullness cues. And evidence shows that they work incredibly well against us. This isn’t an argument against intuitive eating, but instead to say that I think the tools of intuitive eating are not enough on their own for constructing satisfying eating patterns. We need some outside help from a bunch of sources, ranging from tips for rearranging our pantries and fridges to put the foods we want to eat front and center, to lobbying government to redesign school cafeterias in ways that don’t make it harder to purchase and eat fruits and vegetables.

There’s a lot more to say about this, and I’ll be blogging some more about it. I also welcome comments from readers about their experiences with outside forces that try to block intuitive eating.

12 thoughts on “Is intuitive eating enough? Inner capacities vs. outer food cues

  1. Thanks for pointing out some of the external obstacles. I don’t think advocates of intuitive eating would disagree. After all, they advocate things like eating slowly, not reading while eating, don’t eat in your car etc. The external stuff matters. But I’m also a bit worried about the internal stuff, about the idea of “intuitive” in the context of eating.. There’s a romantic notion that our body’s natural impulses are healthy and that following them will lead to a healthy weight. A philosopher’s critical ears perk up whenever the word “natural” appears. But we’re also salt, fat, sugar craving machines. Our choices aren’t just externally constructed we’ve also got some strong internal tugs in the direction of food that might not be the best choice. Finally, the healthy weight at which our body settles might be well above our society’s aesthetic norms. I’m okay with that but I think lots of people think of intuitive eating as a new age-y kind of dieting technique.

    1. Thanks for the comments, Sam– yes, I agree completely with your view here. I also talked about this issue; I don’t believe (and I don’t see evidence for) the view that we have access to and control over our hunger and satiety cues. More on this later. In addition, some have written on the values that certain kinds of disordered eating confer (will be writing on this issue this coming week).

    2. good points, especially the one about “people think of intuitive eating as a new age-y kind of dieting technique. That is why size and body acceptance are so important! Along with dismantling the diet culture via educational awareness.

  2. Very interesting Catherine. I find I really have to focus on what I eat or don’t eat. Generally, I have no feeling of intuitive eating at all, I don’t think. Looking forward to reading more on this.

  3. This is a great post about some of the complications that make intuitive eating harder than it sounds. I still practice mindful eating but have found that I need to pay attention to nutrition. It’s just not the case that I always gravitate towards healthy foods in moderate portions.

    Sent from my iPhone


  4. Thank you all for continuing to write on this issue. I quit the diet mentality a while back now and with that, left my anxiety around food, food choices and ensuring I hit macro & micro nutrient marks with every meal and every day behind. Food is a much less stressful part of my day and paradoxically, (or maybe not), my overall diet is healthier than when I restricted certain foodstuffs and I no longer find myself overeating or binge eating unhealthy foods (or if I do chow down on a large packet of chips at 5:30pm I don’t then insist of following it with a full balanced meal of veg & protein and end up feeling ill from eating too much food)
    I wonder though, is this approach for everyone or would it only suit those with a good understanding of nutrition and a keen and cynical eye for diet industry/food marketing in the first instance? I mean, you could mindfully eat all the no fat, artificially sweetened yoghurt in the world & never be satisfied as it’s not going to hit the satiety buttons in your head.

  5. Reblogged this on BraveGirl™ and commented:
    This is an excellent blog to read! In this post the author brings up some good points in relation to environmental cues affecting our ability to eat intuitively and mindfully.

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