Introduction to
Intuitive Eating

Through her work as a Dietician, Anna Lutz was introduced to the concept of Intuitive Eating. This approach has gained traction over the past couple of years. Anna provides an introduction to the principles of Intuitive Eating and the need to change our culture around how we eat.

By Anna Lutz, MPH, RD/LDN, CEDRD-S

Crissy Fishbane: Tell us a little about your background. How did you get involved with Intuitive Eating?

 

Anna Lutz: I actually became a dietician because of my interest in eating disorders, which is actually not a common way to go.  A lot of people become a dietician and their interest kind of leads them that way.

 

I became really interested in eating disorders in college. Observing the different ways my peers were eating, and the diets at the time — very low-fat diets were big then, I became really interested in eating disorders and I became a dietician wanting to work with people with eating disorders.

 

Through that work, I was exposed to Intuitive Eating and also how to feed children, Ellen Satter’s Division of Responsibility. I really feel that these are important pieces to both how we treat people with eating disorders but also to prevention, to changing our culture around how we eat.

 

Cindi Michaelson: Were you first introduced to Intuitive Eating through the Intuitive Eating book?

 

Anna: Yes! By Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole. It was in 2005 that I went to a conference and they were both there speaking. So I’d heard of the book before that, but I remember being kind of starstruck by hearing them speak at a conference.

 

It’s been around a long time, but luckily it’s getting more traction in recent years. 

 

Crissy: Was your shift into adopting Intuitive Eating immediate or did it take you some time to fully adopt the ideas?

 

Anna: It’s definitely been an evolution.

 

Even though I was interested in eating disorders, as a dietician I was very much trained in an old-fashioned way. Hopefully, it’s becoming old-fashioned, that there is a certain way to eat, a right way and a wrong way.

 

I’ve had my own evolution of really understanding it and implementing it in a way that people could make it their own.

 

Cindi: Intuitive Eating is based on a book that Anna had mentioned, authored by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole that came out in 1995. It’s based on 10 principles, there is one we are going to be focusing on, the diet mentality and diet culture.  Can you talk a little about Intuitive Eating and what the principles mean? Each one could take a separate video!

 

Anna: So there are 10 principles, it is a book. A lot of people hear intuitive eating and think, ‘oh, it’s when you listen to your hunger and fullness.’ Really what we are talking about here today is the 10 principles that were published in this book.

 

The first principle is to reject the diet mentality.

So many of us if are growing up in this culture and have been taught the diet mentality, or exposed to the diet mentality, since probably birth, honestly.  If we’re going to really return to the messages our body gives us we need to first really look at that.

 

The diet mentality tells us to not trust our bodies, to use external rules to decide what we’re going to eat, and how much, rather than internal guidance.

 

So we really need to start there if that’s a part of what’s shaped our eating. For most of us, it has, just from being in this culture.

 

Cindi: So basically, from what I’m gathering when you say external determinants for when you’re eating you’re saying things like “eat every three hours, eat a snack.”

 

Anna: Right. Eat a certain amount. Eat these certain foods. Or don’t eat these certain foods.

 

So that was the first principle. If we jump to the 10th principle it’s gentle nutrition.

 

So after you’ve done all this work of rejecting the diet mentality, tuning back into your hunger, really looking at satisfaction. All these 10 principles and that last one is gentle nutrition. Which is bringing in that information that can really help us.

 

You know, pairing up foods to fuel us for several hours. A lot of people can feel their best and have a lot of energy for the day. But, if we start there then we are not able to do all this other hard work of tuning back in.

 

Cindi: So you mentioned diet mentality. A lot of our diet mentality is fueled by what we term diet culture. If you could define in your own words what diet culture is and what essentially diet culture has done to us, to shape the changes in our eating.

 

Anna: In my words, diet culture is the messaging we all get that certain bodies are superior to others, and eating in a certain way is morally superior to eating in another way.

 

The message that we get that small bodies are better, that eating in some “healthy way” that’s defined, and there’s always this morality piece.

 

Diet culture is based on the idea that people that achieve these things are morally superior to people that don’t. When you start to look at where we get these messages, it’s really everywhere.

 

I have three children of different ages and I can hear it out of their little mouths. Which is amazing.

 

Cindi: And you’re like, “I haven’t said this.” I think a great example of diet culture is, you had mentioned hunger and fullness and that intuitive eating is more than just hunger and fullness, but what diet culture has done is really turn it into a hunger-fullness diet with the idea of ultimately shaping your body in a certain way.

 

Anna: Right, we do see that.

People advertising that you can use intuitive eating to lose weight or use it as the latest diet. And they’re really co-opting the language in this book, which is about to come out now with the fourth edition.

 

The research behind it is amazing, but people are co-opting that as another way to shape bodies and that is not at all the intention.

 

Crissy: I’ve explored intuitive eating and it really speaks to me on a deep, personal level. It just makes sense. I still struggle with a lot of the diet mentality though. Do you think, in your experience, we can ever actually ditch it? Can we ever fully ditch the diet mentality and embrace this or is it something you’re constantly working on? We are bombarded every day.

 

Anna: I think that’s different for each person. That’s what I’d say.

 

I think you’re right, that we live and breathe in this every single day so it’s something that people have to work on and work on and work on. I don’t think there is a certain perfect way to do it.

 

Yes, doctors have laid out these 10 principles, but you don’t have to do it in perfect order. It doesn’t have to look a certain way.  It could be something you’re constantly noticing or having to work on, and that’s okay.

 

Talking to moms I think the work we do in this every single day and the change that we’re making for ourselves could then make an effect on our children, who then might not have to work so hard if they’re not brought up with those messages. Which is a neat thing to think about.

 

But, I’ll tell you I live and breathe this stuff and I still need to work on it every single day. You know, I talk to clients about it, write about it, I’m constantly living it. But, I grew up in this culture and am still influenced by it.

 

Crissy: That is very helpful to hear.

 

Anna: Maybe our children won’t have to work so hard. That’s what I tell myself.

 

Cindi: Right now in the fitness world and in the eating world, you’re seeing lots of different foods being deemed as good and others being deemed as bad. There’s this scale. For example, gluten has been touted as the thing that everyone is allergic to now, as well as dairy, etc.

 

With intuitive eating, I’m gathering that there is nothing excluded. It’s what you feel works best in your body. But, what if somebody has a certain medical condition?  For example, celiac or lactose intolerance. Is intuitive eating right for them?

 

Anna: Absolutely.

 

Those would be things that make them feel really sick. So they need to avoid it.

 

People with certain medical conditions can really benefit from intuitive eating. For example, if someone has celiac, that is really harmful to their body.  You absolutely would not want to eat that food.

 

Diet culture is saying these other foods are bad and we shouldn’t eat them. If someone really dives into this work and they truly feel worse when they eat certain foods, that is also intuitive eating.

 

The thing is, right now it’s all so muddied up with diet culture.

 

That’s hard personal work. But, I would never sit across from someone and say, “that food doesn’t really make you feel bad, you should eat it.”

 

It’s more, we should investigate that. Where is that coming from? Let’s really look at that.

 

So often, when foods are off-limits we actually seek them out more. So we might restrict them, but then eat more of them later. Healing from intuitive eating really helps that.

 

What I find is that if something really makes someone feel poorly, they don’t really seek it out. It’s not really a restriction, it’s guided by internal cues.

 

Cindi: So for example, if we were to try to do a specific diet to shape our bodies by eliminating carbohydrates, you’re saying most likely what we will do is crave carbohydrates and then binge on those carbohydrates because we’re telling ourselves we can’t have them.

 

Anna: Right.

 

And that happens on two different levels.

 

On the psychological level, when we tell ourselves that we can’t have something, we want that thing more. That’s just human nature.

 

That’s also on the physiological level. Our bodies need carbohydrates. We feel better. We make serotonin when we eat carbohydrates. Our brains work off of carbohydrates. It’s a survival mechanism when we eliminate things that our body truly needs, most people really seek them out in some way, whether it’s this week, this month, this year, five years from now. That usually happens.

 

Cindi: Would that hold true for food such as brownies? We love brownies, don’t we? Sweets are often deemed…

 

Crissy: I literally just said the words “it’s my guilty pleasure!” (laughter)

 

Cindi: So in the book, they say to have it in the house and people are like, “no, because I’ll eat the whole thing.”

Anna: Right. And I would say, would you eat the whole thing because it’s been off-limits?  Is that the reason why you would eat the whole thing?

 

It’s really kind of experimenting with that.

 

For some people that does mean bringing all the foods in and seeing what happens and for some people, it needs to be little steps working towards that.

 

There’s an interesting study with teenage girls that weren’t allowed to have snack foods in their house, so brownies, chips, crackers, and things like that. They split the girls up into two groups. One that was allowed to have those snack foods at home, and one that was not.

 

They put these girls individually alone in a room with all these foods. The girls who were not allowed to have those foods ate way more, and way past their hunger then the kids that were allowed to have those foods.

 

I think we all know that on some level.  If you’re not allowed to have something you want it that much more when it becomes available.

 

Cindi: Which is a great lead in to my next question for you about children. Can we teach children intuitive eating?

 

Anna: What a great question!

 

What I believe, and I think a lot of my colleagues would agree, is that children are born intuitive eaters. They arrive in this world, yes there are exceptions to this, but in general, they arrive here being able to listen to their hunger and fullness. And again study after study after study proves this. Kids know how much food they need.

 

So, the question for me more is how can we keep them continuing to be intuitive eaters in this culture that we’re all living in? That’s the million-dollar question.

Crissy: Not even just how much, but also what they need.

 

I’ve learned this from you actually, but I see it regularly with my daughter. Over the course of the week, if I step back and see what she’s chosen one day might, in my mind, not be what I would term ideal but the next day all she ate were fruits and vegetables. If I step back and let her choose, at the end of the week she really has made some smart intuitive decisions.

 

Anna: I just think that’s amazing to see.

 

Some people when they hear that they might be thinking oh do you just then open the cabinets and say free for all and that’s certainly not what we do.

 

Kids really do benefit from structure. I like to equate it to bedtime. We don’t just say go to bed when you’re tired. We help them have a routine and a structure at bedtime.

 

Crissy: We try! (laughter)

 

Anna: Yes, we try to have that same structure with food.

 

So here is a balanced meal. As the parent, you decide the what. This is Ellen Satter’s division of responsibility, and it’s a way to hold structure for our children.

 

Here’s this healthy balanced meal, and then letting them truly decide what they’re going to eat out of those choices, and how much.

 

It’s kind of this in-between.

 

Some people hear this and think, “oh you just let them eat whatever they want” or “does that mean if they don’t eat their chicken you go fix them a hot dog?”

 

You know those are the extremes. This is really an in-between structure so that they can listen to their body because they’re little intuitive eaters. We set that up for them.

 

Cindi: There is so much to unpack with this.

 

Crissy: Yes! There is so much to this and it can be overwhelming to think about completely changing your mindset and your approach to how you eat and how your family eats.

 

So, if I’m a mom, well, I am a mom, but if I’ve never heard about intuitive eating before and I’m interested in bringing this into my home in some capacity, what’s my first step? What do I do?

 

Anna: That’s a really great question.

 

I’m a really big fan of the division of responsibility and I think you can use that for yourself and your children.

 

So I’m thinking of a busy mom like we all three are, who is juggling a ton of stuff, but really using this model of the parents deciding when what, and where.

 

So, it’s dinnertime, everyone comes to the table, this is what’s for dinner, we are having chicken, rice, broccoli, and some sliced up apples. This is dinner. 

 

Take a deep breath. Then let your children decide if and how much, and yourself.

 

Taking a deep breath for yourself and deciding based on how you’re feeling how much you’re going to eat, what you’re going to eat that’s on the table.

 

I think that can be healing in both directions, to the children, and to yourself. I also think any work we each do as mothers, inadvertently helps our children.

 

If it’s someone really working on giving up dieting, doing that work, reading Intuitive Eating, working with someone who understands intuitive eating, your kids are going to benefit from that.

 

Cindi: We’ve referenced quite a few materials and resources during this conversation. We’ll be sure to include that when we share this. Is there any advice you can offer to our moms if they want to learn more about intuitive eating, along with some of the reference materials we’ve already mentioned?

 

Anna: Definitely the book is a great start.

 

There is a 20/20 edition coming out. I’m not sure of the release date, but you can look and see when that is.

 

There is an intuitive eating workbook that I use with my clients that is nice for someone that likes activities to do.

 

If you want support, dieticians like myself help people with intuitive eating, and also intuitive eating counselors.  The authors have made a credentialing for those seeking out the support of someone else.

 

Trying to surround yourself with other likeminded people. It’s really hard to change if everyone around you is talking about diets.  That doesn’t mean change all your friends, but that might mean to start seeking out people that aren’t always talking about weight and food.

Anna Lutz is a Registered Dietitian with Lutz, Alexander & Associates Nutrition Therapy and specializes in eating disorders and pediatric/family nutrition. Anna practices from a Health at Every Size® approach and supports individuals in breaking free of diet culture for themselves and their families. Anna received her Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology from Duke University and Master of Public Health in Nutrition from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Anna writes about nutrition, cooking, and family feeding, free of diet culture, at Sunny Side Up Nutrition. She is the mom of 3 very different eaters, ages 13, 9 and 4.

Social handles: 

  • FB: @lutzandalexander, @sunnysideupnutritionists
  • IG: @annalutzrd, @sunnysideupnutritionists
  • Twitter: @annalutzrd, @sunnysideupnutr

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