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What Is Intuitive Eating – and Is It Right for Families?

Conversation sparked around intuitive eating in 2021 and has grown in the past year. As a dietitian who incorporates intuitive eating principles into my practice, it has been exciting to see momentum build around an eating framework that promotes balance and a positive approach to food. 

What Is Intuitive Eating? 

Let’s begin with what intuitive eating is not: It is not a diet. There is no calorie counting or focus on weight. Rather, it is an evidence-based approach to eating that uses principles developed by two dietitians – Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch – focused on tuning into body cues to support health. 

Bodies can be amazing at signaling needs. You might recognize the need to rest when your eyelids start feeling heavy, or the need to hydrate when your mouth gets dry. Bodies run on energy provided by food, and when energy needs to be replenished, common signs are a growling stomach, fatigue, lightheadedness, or feeling easily frustrated. As you eat, you may notice your stomach feeling tight or experience less food satisfaction as the meal goes on. These are signals of fullness. Intuitive eaters recognize and act on hunger and fullness cues in a way that supports body function. 

Children tend to start as naturally intuitive eaters. This is why some days, they have almost insatiable appetites, while other days they don’t seem to be all that hungry. As we age, eating patterns become guided by our schedules and set mealtimes, as well as diet culture. Before kids are introduced to these things, they are typically guided by their natural physical cues, eating when hungry and stopping when satiated. Because of this, each day might look different with meals and snacks for children. 

However, everyone has different needs, and intuitive eating is not always appropriate. Different medications or health conditions can impact hunger cues, and more structure with meals and snacks may be better suited for your family’s needs. Any concerns about your child’s appetite should be discussed with a pediatrician. 

Principles and Strategies for Families 

Metabolism is the system of converting food into fuel for body processes. Intuitive eating supports metabolism, as opposed to fad diets which can disrupt metabolic health. Additionally, intuitive eating has no restrictive food rules. This promotes a positive relationship with food and body image. 

If you are interested in introducing intuitive eating to your family, here are some principles of intuitive eating, paired with strategies for raising intuitive eaters: 

1. Honor your hunger. 

Nourish the body with appropriate energy. Each day, we need carbs, protein, and fat. Ignoring hunger cues can lead to cycles of undereating and overeating. 

Strategy: I suggest that parents or caregivers provide the what, when, and where with food, and let children decide how much to eat. Some days, children may ask for more and that is okay. More energy might be needed that day. Adults should try to approach this in a nonjudgmental way to help normalize that some days, bodies need more food. 

2. Challenge the food police. 

The food police label food as “good” or “bad,” usually based on diet culture ideals. For example, spinach is good and brownies are bad. While spinach is more nutrient dense and cake is more energy dense, both are just food. When we restrict foods, this leads to feelings of deprivation and fixation on those foods. Trying to eat only good foods all the time is not sustainable. 

Strategy: Use neutral language about food. When you say to your child, “Let’s be bad and have a cupcake! We can burn it off with a walk,” kids absorb the messages that come along with this statement. When we promote that all foods can fit into a balanced eating pattern, children are encouraged to have a positive and joyful relationship with food. 

3. Honor your health through gentle nutrition. 

Eat in a way that makes you feel good and supports your health. No one meal or snack decision will make or break your health. When it comes to your eating patterns, focusing on progress, rather than being perfect, is more sustainable. 

Strategy: Setting nutrition goals for your family is great. Perhaps you want to aim to include at least two food groups per snack. If your kids are old enough, explain to them why you might be trying a certain food. For example, “Our snack has apples, which give us energy, and peanut butter, which keeps us full and satisfied.” Gentle nutrition also recognizes that sometimes you might stop for ice cream, or there may be a pizza party, and that including these fun foods are okay. To promote a positive approach to eating, incorporate a balance of all types of foods. 

This article is intended as an introduction to intuitive eating –  a nuanced approach to eating that will look different for every family. If you want to learn more, I suggest these resources: How to Raise an Intuitive Eater: Raising the Next Generation with Food and Body Confidence by Sumner Brooks and Amee Severson; and ellynsatterinstitute.org. You can also contact a dietitian to discuss eating, nutrition, parenting, and your family’s needs. 

Ten Principles of Intuitive Eating: 

1. Reject the diet mentality.
2. Honor your hunger.
3. Make peace with food.
4. Challenge the food police.
5. Respect your fullness.
6. Discover the satisfaction factor.
7. Honor your feelings without using food.
8. Respect your body.
9. Exercise – engage in joyful movement.
10. Honor your health with gentle nutrition.

Caroline Best is a pediatric registered dietitian in the Richmond area. She works full-time in a community health setting and part-time at Virginia Treatment Center for Children, covering inpatient pediatric psychiatry. Her favorite part of both of her roles
is working with children and families on building eating habits that promote balanced nutrition and a sustainable relationship .
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