Understanding the Science Behind Intuitive Eating

lab coat and googles with an apple in the coat pocket to represent intuitive eating and science

Written By: Cherlyne Mok, R.D, August 2020

What is intuitive eating?
You may have heard of either intuitive eating or mindful eating through social media, people around you, or even your health professional. However, after years of counting calories to “maintain a healthy weight”, the practice of intuitive eating might sound too good to be true. Before jumping to conclusions, allow me to explain why intuitive eating might work for you. 


Intuitive eating is a non-diet approach that focuses on behavioral changes to foster a healthy relationship with food. To practice intuitive eating is to honour your hunger and fullness; it is to reject the diet mentality and to make peace with foods (1). Despite their differences in philosophy (2), the terms intuitive eating and mindful eating are often used interchangeably. Here is some research on specific populations where intuitive eating or mindful eating can be helpful.


Binge Eating Disorders
Binge eating disorder (eating a large amount of food in one setting) is perhaps the most well proven disorder to benefit from practicing intuitive eating. In fact, many studies have collectively shown that participants have reduced frequency and intensity of binge eating episodes while practicing intuitive eating (3). This is undoubtedly the case as binge eating episodes are often triggered by extreme hunger due to food restrictions. As we learn to reject the diet mentality and honour our hunger cues, we allow ourselves a snack or a small meal when we are hungry, which can then prevent feelings of extreme hunger and binging.


Emotional Eating and External eating
Research studies have also proven that intuitive eating intervention reduces emotional eating and external eating, particularly among overweight populations (3). Emotional eating is the act of eating to relieve stress, find comfort or reward oneself (4), whereas external eating refers to eating due to external cues such as an advertisement or a food packaging. Since the practice of intuitive eating allows you to learn and understand your signs of physical hunger, it is helpful to prevent both emotional eating and external eating


Intuitive Eating for Diabetes 
In a study conducted by Miller et. al. (2014), it is found that both mindful eating intervention and the traditional diabetes self-management are comparable as an effective treatment for type 2 diabetes. Both interventions have reported significant improvements in diabetes-related knowledge and self-efficacy, with reduced depressive symptoms, which were maintained for up to 3 months (5). Since mindful eating intervention is still a new concept to many health professionals, it may be offered to diabetes patients as an adjunct treatment plan in addition to the traditional diabetes self-management intervention. 


Bariatric Surgery
Since the primary outcome of bariatric surgery is to suppress physical hunger for weight loss, one would think that intuitive eating interventions align with the treatment plan for those who have undergone bariatric surgery. In fact, a study has observed a reduced disordered eating behaviours among participants who adopted a mindfulness-based intervention after bariatric surgery. Despite not losing as much weight as those who have undergone a standard intervention, all participants of mindfulness-based intervention have adapted a healthier eating behaviour with “healthier food choices”, “greater awareness of eating patterns”, better portion control and many more (6). 


Weight Loss
Last but not least, intuitive eating interventions have been studied for their association with weight loss. According to Olson & Emery (2015), intuitive eating is likely to be associated with weight loss. However, due to limitations of research studies, the exact correlation between intuitive eating and weight loss is not conclusive. The very first principle of intuitive eating is to “reject the diet mentality”. Therefore, adopting an intuitive eating practice for the purpose of weight loss does not necessarily align with this fundamental principle (8). That being said, while weight loss can be a secondary effect of the practice of intuitive eating, one should avoid adopting this practice for the sole purpose of weight loss. 


Check out the 10 principles of intuitive eating article on our website for more about intuitive eating principles!


In short, the practice of intuitive eating or mindful eating has many benefits and can be applicable to many of us. As registered dietitians, our focus is to find an eating behaviour that is sustainable for our clients. With many research studies supporting the benefits of intuitive eating, I welcome you to explore further in this topic by checking out these intuitive eating books and workbooks and by joining our #mindfulsnackingmovement led by the co-founders of Remix Snacks, Jamie and Isabelle!

 

References:
  1. Tribole, E. (2019, July 17). Definition of Intuitive Eating. Retrieved August 16, 2020, from https://www.intuitiveeating.org/definition-of-intuitive-eating/
  2. Tribole, E. (2010, November 17). The Difference Between Intuitive Eating and Mindful Eating Retrieved August 16, 2020, from https://www.intuitiveeating.org/the-difference-between-intuitive-eating-and-mindful-eating/ 
  3. Warren, J. M., Smith, N., & Ashwell, M. (2017). A structured literature review on the role of mindfulness, mindful eating and intuitive eating in changing eating behaviours: Effectiveness and associated potential mechanisms. Nutrition Research Reviews, 30(2), 272-283. doi:10.1017/s0954422417000154 
  4. Smith, M., Segal, J., & Segal, R. (2019, October). Emotional Eating and How to Stop It. Retrieved August 16, 2020, from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/diets/emotional-eating.htm 
  5. Miller, C. K., Kristeller, J. L., Headings, A., & Nagaraja, H. (2014). Comparison of a mindful eating intervention to a diabetes self-management intervention among adults with type 2 diabetes: a randomized controlled trial. Health education & behavior : the official publication of the Society for Public Health Education, 41(2), 145–154. https://doi.org/10.1177/1090198113493092 
  6. Chacko, S. A., Yeh, G. Y., Davis, R. B., & Wee, C. C. (2016). A mindfulness-based intervention to control weight after bariatric surgery: Preliminary results from a randomized controlled pilot trial. Complementary therapies in medicine, 28, 13–21. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2016.07.001
  7. Olson, K. L., & Emery, C. F. (2015). Mindfulness and weight loss: a systematic review. Psychosomatic medicine, 77(1), 59–67. https://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0000000000000127 
  8. Tribole, E. (2019, April 08). No health professional can rightly say you will lose weight with Intuitive Eating, including me! Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://www.evelyntribole.com/no-health-professional-can-rightly-say-you-will-lose-weight-with-intuitive-eating-including-me/