If you’re looking to heal your relationship with food, stop looking at influencers and start looking at your toddler. Though young kids may have earned a certain amount of notoriety around mealtime, they’re actually masters of intuitive eating — a rules-free approach to food that may be healthier for you than any diet.
In the abstract, intuitive eating is such a simple concept that it hardly merits a name. But in reality, it can be so difficult to adjust to emotionally that entire books have been dedicated to the subject. Intuitive eating a practice built around the idea that a healthy lifestyle involves trusting your body to tell you when and what you want to eat. The only rule is that there are no rules. Some dieticians call intuitive eating the anti-diet diet, the ultimate way to prioritize emotional wellbeing over aspirations of gaining or losing weight. And unlike other dietary practices, young kids are the masters of it.
What Is Intuitive Eating?
We’re all born intuitive eaters, says Sumner Brooks, a registered dietician and co-author of the book How to Raise an Intuitive Eater. Babies cry when they’re hungry and turn down a bottle when they’re not. Toddlers might turn down a sandwich after one bite if they’d rather play.
“It's only when something interrupts our intuitive eating abilities — such as dieting, acculturation, or food insecurity — that we lose touch with how to eat intuitively,” Brooks says. What we learn from the world around us — when our parents tell us to empty our plates or our grandparents tell us we’re looking a little too thin — slowly erodes our ability to trust our own hunger.
Intuitive eating is based on a 10-principle framework. These principles — which include concepts such as stripping different foods of the moral values you may have assigned them (“I’m so bad for eating that brownie”), respecting the feeling of fullness as a sign to stop eating, and engaging in physical movement that you enjoy for its own sake — feel childlike in their freedom.
Benefits of Intuitive Eating
The evidence in favor of these intuitive eating principles is strong. Research has found that intuitive eaters have better self-esteem and lower rates of depression. Multiple studies have also found a connection between intuitive eating and the ability to maintain a constant weight, which spares the body the stresses of yo-yo dieting.
The first major review to compile evidence about the health changes associated with intuitive eating was released by two Australian researchers in 2013. Their data affirmed the positive impact that intuitive eating had on weight maintenance and psychological health, but also pointed out some of the routine’s limitations. The most straightforward was that intuitive eating seemed to have no impact on peoples’ physical activity levels (like working out, going for walks, etc.) — couch potatoes were no more likely to get off the couch when they started intuitive eating.
Listening to the body’s physiological cues, the basis behind intuitive eating, has a technical name: interoception. Though this subjective ability is difficult to study, a few researchers have managed to research interoception and eating behaviors in recent years and have found that poor interoception — which is particularly common in people with anxiety and depression — leads to more emotional eating. Interoception is closely associated with mindfulness, which could point to future strategies for helping people adhere to intuitive eating.
So how do you know if intuitive eating is right for you? You don’t really have to — the 10 principles work well on their own or in any combination, so you don’t need to jump in head first. And the process of getting to know your own hunger and satiety cues can be valuable even if you don’t immediately choose to listen to them.
“A lot of people come to me and they're like, ‘I just want to feel free from thinking about food and my body and my weight all the time,’ ” says Alison Barkman, a registered dietician and intuitive eating counselor based in New York.
Intuitive Eating Isn’t About Weight Loss
Today, you’re most likely to come across people talking about intuitive eating on social media, a fact Brooks calls “unfortunate” because of the ways the concept can become twisted in the wrong hands. “It becomes confusing when an influencer may say that a reason to eat intuitively is to manage weight,” she says. That’s because one of the key premises of intuitive eating — and one of the biggest reasons some people struggle emotionally to adopt it — is that weight cannot and should not be used as the exclusive barometer for health.
Though bodyweight can to varying degrees be associated with some health metrics and disease risks (such as heart disease risk), there are many equally critical metrics that weight has absolutely no impact on. In a culture that repeatedly pushes the belief of a 1:1 association between body size and health, people at completely healthy weights risk deprioritizing changes that can be far more impactful.
“Weight is a complex outcome of many factors, including genetics, which we don't have control over,” says Brooks. “In some cases, when someone stops dieting and gains weight, this could be the healthiest their body has ever been.” Successful intuitive eating, she adds, often requires individuals to work to combat the fatphobia so many of us have been conditioned to believe in.
It's here that intuitive eating can massively benefit kids as well. Children soak up their parents’ attitudes toward eating habits and body image like sponges, and it’s incredibly easy to pass along dangerous beliefs without even realizing it. “Our societal obsession with weight and the thin ideal reaches nearly every aspect of how we talk to kids about health, teach health and nutrition in school, and how we celebrate thinness all around,” says Brooks. These are the types of messages that can contribute to the development of disordered eating behaviors in kids and adolescents — something else that intuitive eating is protective against.
It’s important, Barkman notes, to strike a careful balance between encouraging kids to listen to their instincts and supplying the structure and education that little ones need around food. “It's important to have structured meal times,” she says, “while also not placing rules on them and the types of foods that they eat.” With her own children at mealtimes, “I kind of put all the foods out on the table and let them pick what they want, versus me putting things on their plate.”
Even, she says, if what they want is dessert before dinner.