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  • Dina Cohen

Will Intuitive Eating Cure My Eating Disorder?

What's your response when you hear the term "intuitive eating"?

a) I get to eat what I want without having to follow a plan? A dream come true!

b) OMG, that would NEVER work for me; I'd just eat everything in sight and never stop.

c) This can't possibly have science behind it. It's just laziness.

d) Maybe it can wok for other people, but not for me. My eating is way too messed up.

You reaction may not be covered here, but don't fret. There's so much misinformation about intuitive eating that I don't think there's any reaction that would surprise me. Let's try and clear this up.

Intuitive eating is a self-care eating framework, which integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought and was created by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995. Over 90 studies exist to date that support this framework. You can read more about it here.

Intuitive eating is pretty much the opposite of an eating disorder, since it is weight-neutral and has no rules. It supports honoring the body and developing a respectful relationship with food. It is a framework, which means it has guiding principles, but there is no way to mess it up. The contrast between intuitive eating and disordered eating has led people to wonder if intuitive eating could be used to cure eating disorders. The dietitians who developed intuitive eating have a chapter about this in their most recent edition of the book (which is called - you guessed it - Intuitive Eating). A blog post obviously won't be as thorough, but since this is an important topic, I'd like to leave you with my bottom line:

Intuitive eating is the pot of gold at the end of the recovery rainbow.

Since someone with an active eating disorder won't be able to follow a good number of the principles of this framework, it is not a good idea to just "try intuitive eating" in an attempt to recover from an eating disorder. The eating disorder voices are really loud and can easily overpower your "intuition", or they can twist the principles in a way that feeds the eating disorder rather than nourish your recovery. Bottom line: not a good idea. While some aspects of intuitive eating will most likely be incorporated into your recovery, you will likely have more success doing this with professional help rather than attempting to "do intuitive eating" on your own.

However, intuitive eating is a beautiful illustration of what eating can look like once you are recovered. Knowing that it is possible to have a relationship with food that is relaxed, flexible, and allows for joy may help you keep plugging away at recovery.

You might also be wondering if intuitive eating is the cure for chronic dieting. It sure sounds like the opposite of the on-again, off-again cycle that many dieters experience. . After all, some of the principles are "Reject the Diet Mentality" and "Make Peace with Food"! I do believe that opening your mind to another way of thinking about eating and body image is incredibly valuable. But...many people attempt to "eat intuitively" without really knowing what it means and then get outraged or despondent when it doesn't seem to "work". Other times, people do gain a good understanding of intuitive eating but aren't able to fully implement changes or maintain changes because of other factors in their lives. Sometimes their food issues are very deeply rooted and trying to make changes without adequate help is just too challenging.

Intuitive eating isn't a panacea for a difficult relationship with food. It can be a helpful tool and a source of inspiration. But many people require more structure (check out my post How to Not Diet for more on this) and others will achieve more profound and permanent healing with professional support.

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