What is intuitive eating, and could it change the way you approach your diet?


Can I let you in on a secret? The secret is that there isn’t a secret to intuitive eating at all.

The latest movement in the world of nutrition is one back to the simple, grassroots of listening to your body, loving it, and eating when you’re hungry. That’s it. There’s no sneaky tricks or cheat days or calorie counting when it comes to intuitive eating. It’s a simple, yet radical practice to help you transform your relationship with food and diet.

It makes sense, right? And yet somehow this way of approaching food, not with a set of rules as something we need to control, but as a necessary, lovely form of sustenance, has been lost over the years, particularly by women.

“We live in a culture that normalises disordered eating,” nutritionist Laura Thomas PhD explains over the phone from her offices in London. Thomas is the author of Just Eat It, a zero-bullshit manifesto championing intuitive eating and a move away from dangerous diet culture. “If you’re not on a diet or not trying to control what you eat or optimise what you eat, then you’re reading a magazine article that tells you tricks to stay fuller for longer, as though there’s something inherently wrong or problematic with being hungry. As if hunger isn’t a message from your body telling you to eat something.”

According to Thomas, the pervasive, persnickety tendrils of diet culture has eroded our ability to understand our own appetites. As such, Just Eat It features a whole chapter on reconnecting with your desire for food, through food diaries, hunger scales and a chart of emotions related to eating. By filling these out, Thomas believes that you will better understand your urge to consume: are you stressed or upset? Are you tired? Are you emotional? Are you lonely? Or are you actually, stark-raving starving? Just Eat It will help you identify each of these stages so that you can service their needs.

The most common anxiety among her clients is a fear that if they give up on the rules and regulations and give in to their appetites that they will lose control around food. It’s a trust issue, Thomas explains. “Diet culture instils this fear that if we don’t follow its rules – the meal plans and the calorie trackers and the workout plans – then we will will lose control.. From the outset there’s a distrust in our own bodies.”

Often, Thomas adds, the anxiety around ceding your food inhibitions is based in real scenarios. Maybe there was a time when you did ‘lose control’ around food. “Oftentimes that sense or urgency and intensity to compulsive eating is a backlash to restriction and deprivation,” Thomas explains. “It could be our preoccupation with food and eating that is the thing that leads to compulsion in the first place.”

If you’re concerned about that, don’t be. Thomas says you’re not going to be sitting around eating donuts all day long. “It’s important to state really clearly that intuitive eating is health promoting,” she explains. “Unconditional permission to eat means that you are allowed to eat the foods that you like and enjoy and satisfy you. So the people who think they’re going to be eating donuts all day, well, who said eating donuts all day is satisfying? A donut every now and then sounds good and appealing, but it’s an extreme. It’s about finding your sweet spot, whatever that looks like to you.”

What’s she’s saying is that intuitive eating gives you the permission to eat. It allows you to identify the foods that make you feel good and satisfied and eat them, whatever they may be. There’s no banned food list; the words clean and cheat and naughty are forbidden. No food is inherently good or bad. It’s up to us to eat in a way that is intune with our bodies.

And it works. Aside from helping you reach a better relationship with your body and your self, intuitive eating has been proven to lower risks of type 2 diabetes, reduce food anxiety and lower your BMI.

But it’s not going to be easy. Working towards a comprehensive understanding of intuitive eating and implementing it in your life is hard work, and just how much hard work depends on what kind of relationship you have with food right now.

Are you the kind of person who gets involved in diet chat whenever an office birthday cake is passed around? Can you order a dessert and not feel the need to share if you have the appetite for a whole one? Do you feel confident enough to say to someone who questions your beliefs: “I don’t worry about what I eat anymore, I just eat in accordance with my body’s natural appetite and I really like how freeing that is.” (That’s what Thomas suggests you fire back at any naysayers up in arms about your move away from diet culture and towards intuitive eating. Pretty good, right?)

The most important thing is to be kind to yourself as you go about the process of extricating yourself from vicious circle of diet culture. Intuitive eating is not a diet. It’s a way of life. “When I’m working with clients, they often say ‘It’s so overwhelming’ and they get into a cycle of beating themselves up about it,” Thomas says “We need self compassion. Be gentle, offer yourself some kindness, and recognise that the whole system is rigged from the start. No wonder we fell through it. But it’s time to move past it and come out on the other side.”

Just Eat It (Bluebird, $29.99) by Laura Thomas is out now.