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Intuitive Eating Approach For Young Adults With Eating Disorders

Freedom From Diet Culture: An Intuitive Eating Approach To Treating Eating Disorders In Young Adults

Est. reading time: 5 mins
Posted Under: Interviews, Treatment Insights

Clinically Reviewed by: Amanda Fialk, PhD, LCSW, LICSW


‘Intuitive Eating’ is an approach to eating that has been around for decades but is seeing a resurgence in mainstream media in recent years. It would be easy to dismiss this concept as just another fad; after all, we live in an age of hyper information (and misinformation) related to food and health. But Intuitive Eating is anything but.

We spoke with one of our registered dietitians to learn more about Intuitive Eating and its role in supporting young adults with eating disorders.

For the uninitiated, can you break down what Intuitive Eating is?

First and foremost, Intuitive Eating is a mindful nutritional philosophy and a journey of discovery around health and food that has nothing to do with diets or meal plans. The term ‘Intuitive Eating’ was first coined by Evelyn Tribole, RD and Elyse Resch, RDN in the 1990s and is a model that follows ten core principles:

  1. Reject the Diet Mentality
  2. Honor Your Hunger
  3. Make Peace with Food
  4. Challenge the Food Police
  5. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
  6. Feel Your Fullness
  7. Cope with Your Emotions without Using Food
  8. Respect Your Body
  9. Exercise to Feel Good
  10. Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition

Each of the principles focuses on increasing internal body awareness and helping unblock obstacles that get in the way of being attuned to the body (including a lifetime of rules, thoughts and beliefs).

In short, Intuitive Eating is about teaching you to get in touch with your body through cues like hunger and fullness, learning to trust your body around food, and making choices around food that feel good, without judgment and without influence from diet culture.

What about our diet culture makes Intuitive Eating so important?

It is hard to turn on the TV, to walk down the street or go on social media without being bombarded with ads for diet products or ‘testimonials’ about how following a new diet or eating a new ‘superfood’ will completely transform your life. It is seductive and pervasive.

Intuitive Eating helps individuals tap into what is really right for their body and helps quiet the noise. This is particularly important for young people who are still actively processing their identities and experiences around food, and who are particularly vulnerable to cultural messaging that ‘dictates’ how they should view food, their health and their bodies.

How is Intuitive Eating different than other nutritional approaches/philosophies?

Intuitive Eating is about creating love and respect and removing limiting beliefs. While many other nutritional approaches and philosophies will rigidly focus on a client’s relationship with food and ‘managing the situation,’ Intuitive Eating focuses on the experience of healing a person’s relationship with food and their body.

To sketch a specific scenario: if a client admits that they overate, some nutritional approaches may instill blame (and more shame) because that client did not follow the prescribed meal plan or “listen to their body effectively.”

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An Intuitive Eating dietitian, on the other hand, would approach the same scenario with a curious and open-minded approach. As a dietitian with years of experience working with eating disorders/disordered eating, many of my clients have struggled with overeating and binging. My general approach is that “overeating” can provide some really good information. For instance, when my clients report that they have overeaten, my reaction is generally, “So what if you overate? Let’s see what your body does with it.”

Instead of micromanaging the situation, I focus on objectively observing and bringing some compassion to the experience. This is what I have found to galvanize the most change and growth.

This insight is not just conceptual or subjective because Intuitive Eating is an evidence-based model with over 100 studies published on the approach to-date. One recent study has shown that Intuitive Eaters are able to rely on internal hunger/satiety cues, have unconditional permission to eat whatever they want with atunement, and eat for physical and not emotional reasons.

In general, Intuitive Eaters honor their bodies and their needs. Studies completed on adolescents and young adult populations show that all the principles of Intuitive Eating can benefit them too (though the focus generally needs to be on helping younger individuals learn to trust that their bodies work).  In fact, Intuitive Eating in young adults is inversely associated with disordered eating and harmful food behaviors.

What place does Intuitive Eating have in recovery?

Intuitive Eating has a huge place in recovery from an eating disorder or disordered eating perspective. The Renfrew Center published a study titled “Intuitive Eating in the Treatment of Eating Disorders” written by one of the founders of Intuitive Eating, Evelyn Tribole. Although there are many articles published on Intuitive Eating and recovery, this one is particularly poignant.

In the article, Tribole succinctly breaks down how to implement Intuitive Eating into 3 different phases, starting with basic nutrition rehabilitation and ending with slowly assessing readiness to implement Intuitive Eating with a client.

What might be surprising at first is that during the first phase of recovery, Intuitive Eating is actually contraindicated. Many individuals in the throes of an eating disorder have a broken “satiety meter,” meaning that it is difficult for them to interpret hunger/fullness cues.

During the Nutrition Rehabilitation phase, a specific and detailed meal plan is often needed. Tribole compares an eating plan to a cast applied to a broken bone. The cast provides structure and support, but it is not lifelong. The cast is used until the bone is strong enough on its own. So too, with a meal plan.

Once a client is getting their biological needs met regularly, then a dietitian can work with them on normalizing and responding to biological cues. This also includes learning to distinguish between biological and emotional cues. Only then, when a client starts to feel comfortable with their inner environment, can the exploration and implementation of the 10 principles really begin.

While many clients would like to jump into the process and become an “Intuitive Eater” overnight, this is a process for a reason — a journey of self-discovery, and a highly individualized one at that.

I do believe, however, that we were born knowing how to eat when we are hungry and stop when we are full; it is our biological birthright. No matter how disengaged my clients are from their bodies and cues, I believe that there is no limit to the healing that can be accomplished.

What resources are helpful for young people/their families as they explore Intuitive Eating?

If someone is interested in the Intuitive Eating model, I would start by reading the Intuitive Eating book but then finding a certified eating disorder specialist and professional support. Although there are many amazing resources on Intuitive Eating out there, it is extremely difficult to do the work by oneself.

I once heard an analogy at a training that working through the principles of Intuitive Eating without a dietitian and/or emotional support is like walking a tight rope without a safety net.

Intuitive Eating gently challenges beliefs and rules and invites individuals to create a different experience with food. While empowering, this is also uncharted territory; it can be scary and uncomfortable. There is generally a significant reason why rigidity around food and the body exists. To expect a client to stop behaviors and do something radically different without support can not only be not helpful but also harmful.

What does The Dorm do to foster and support an Intuitive Eating approach?

At the Dorm, we believe in the Intuitive Eating Model and more often than not it is the ultimate goal of eating recovery. We provide all the essential tools and supports for a client to get there.

Right when clients arrive to begin their treatment journey at The Dorm, our nutritional support team conducts individualized assessments and builds a tailor-made treatment plan. From there, we provide individual and group levels of support around food and processing, depending on the client’s unique goals and needs.

Groups such as “Food and Mood Group,” “Body Image Group,” and of course, our “Intuitive Eating Group,” are facilitated weekly by certified therapists and dietitians who have extensive experience working with eating disorders. Additionally, we provide 14 weekly support meals facilitated by practitioners to foster a positive and safe eating environment with therapeutic guidance available at all times. At each phase, we help clients develop a new trust in their bodies. Through each new mindful eating experience, we hope to instill more flexibility and freedom.

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