What is Intuitive Eating?

Christy Harrison
December 3, 2021
A colorful assortment of food

Hi everyone, Dan here. For years, I’ve struggled with dieting and self-image.  Often, I would indulge my cravings and then ping-pong between shame spirals on the one hand and rebelling against unsustainable restrictions on the other. I also felt a lot of self-loathing when I looked in the mirror that I didn’t see the body I had in my thirties. 

Then I met Christy Harrison, a leading expert on “intuitive eating.” Her work changed my life – and I don’t say that lightly.  She’s the lead teacher in our seven-day Anti-Diet Challenge, which starts tomorrow.  Here are a few excerpts from our conversations.   

Dan: So, Christy, what is intuitive eating?

Christy: Intuitive eating is really about helping people reconnect with the innate skill of relating to food in their bodies. Babies know to cry when they are hungry and to push away food when they are done. Intuitive eating is about getting back to this natural way of relating to food and your body. It’s about shifting from self-control to self-care. There have been over 125 studies on intuitive eating, showing a variety of benefits including lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, greater psychological wellbeing, and higher self-esteem.

Dan: How does it work in practice?

Christy: It means eating based on what your body needs, recognizing when you’re hungry and when you’re full, enjoying the experience of eating, finishing meals feeling truly content, and doing away with the shame and guilt associated with eating what feels good. I want to give you unconditional freedom to eat. If you aren’t eating enough your body will go into starvation mode. That can cause your body to create cravings for energy-dense foods, reduce the total amount of muscle tissue, increase fat storage enzymes and decrease fat release enzymes.

Dan: Now some critics might be asking: Eat whatever I want? Isn’t there some empirical evidence that a salad is better than a cupcake?

Christy: Nutrition is important, but it’s really important to first remove restrictions. When we are rigid around food it actually makes it harder to make easy nutrition choices because we can get so caught up in trying to get it right every time.  The path to healing your relationship with food is not to say you can never have sugar. The path to balance is actually making peace with food. You need to suspend your judgments and actually allow yourself to have whatever you want.

Dan: Even sugar?

Christy: The important thing here is that when you shame and restrict sugar, that ironically is what can lead to an addictive relationship with it. There are a lot of studies that have been done that show restriction is the problem for sugar. It’s really the rigidity that is the enemy.

Dan: Let’s talk about the food police.

Christy: We all have what I call the food police. It is that inner judge. It’s the critical voice that doles out guilt and shame. It tells you when you are being “good” or “bad”.

Dan: There have been times when I have wanted to rebel against my food police in my head and I’ve just been like “F it, I’m going to eat this entire sleeve of Oreos” and then I feel terrible afterward. Is there a better way of countering the food police?

Christy: The most important thing is to have compassion for your inner food police. That voice is trying to help you. Weight stigma is so rampant. Our culture tells us a slim or muscular body is how we find love, success, and health, things we all want and deserve! It can feel really scary to let go of a voice that promises to help you achieve those things. Instead of the food police, we really want to invoke an inner caretaker so that we can make food choices based on self-care rather than self-control. You can honor the need to feel good about yourself and have your needs met, while also recognizing that your inner caretaker can do a better job than your food police. And that’s because self-care is more sustainable than self-criticism.

Dan: Tapping into your inner coach will give you cleaner burning fuel to keep taking care of yourself.  So you listen to your body, you listen to a little bit of science, but you definitely don’t listen to Instagram influencers.

Christy: Yes, exactly.

As you may have noticed, all of these skills – self-compassion, listening to the body, noticing when we’re full and when we’re hungry – can be sharpened with meditation.  So, in addition to my conversations with Christy, the Anti-Diet Challenge includes seven days of guided meditations on these subjects, together with additional advice from other mindful eating experts and meditation teachers.  I hope you’ll check it out!

- Dan

Christy Harrison is an anti-diet registered dietitian and nutritionist, a certified intuitive eating counselor, and a certified eating disorders specialist who has struggled with disordered eating herself. She has come out the other side and written a book called Anti-Diet.

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