The Psychological Benefits of Intuitive Eating

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A new meta-analysis reveals the links between intuitive eating and well-being.

Intuitive eating involves letting one’s internal signals of hunger and satiety guide their eating, rather than external pressures or diet plans.
A new meta-analysis found a range of benefits to intuitive eating, including lower rates of eating disorders and higher self-esteem.
Men are more likely to engage in intuitive eating than women, but across genders and demographic groups, intuitive eaters tend to be thinner.

Psychological scientists have excelled at documenting the more negative or painful parts of the human condition. In the domain of eating, that has meant focusing on eating disorders and related unhealthy behaviors like bingeing, restricting, or obsessive exercise. In recent years, a wave of research has moved away from focusing on how we shouldn’t eat to consider more positive approaches to our relationship with food. Much of this work has centered on a concept called “intuitive eating.” A new meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders suggests that intuitive eating is associated with a wide array of psychological and health benefits across demographic groups.

At its essence, intuitive eating is about listening more carefully to your body’s signals about when you are full and when you are hungry and using those signals to guide your eating. Intuitive eating is also about rejecting rigid food rules that classify some foods as acceptable and others as unacceptable. People who excel at intuitive eating don’t tend to obsess over food or calories. They can enjoy eating the foods they like and they tend to stop eating when they’re full.

The authors of this new research conducted what’s called a meta-analysis, which is a statistical technique for combining the results of multiple studies on the same topic. They included just under one hundred intuitive eating studies in the analysis. In addition to summarizing patterns of overall results, meta-analyses are important because they allow researchers to determine whether those results hold across different groups of people or different time periods.

Results of the meta-analysis documented numerous psychological benefits linked to intuitive eating. Those who engage in more intuitive eating showed fewer symptoms of eating pathology. They were less likely to binge and purge, less likely to engage in emotional eating, and less likely to report unhealthy levels of dietary restriction. Intuitive eating was also associated with several psychological benefits, including greater body satisfaction and body appreciation, a better awareness of the body’s internal cues, and more of a tendency to reject unrealistic cultural appearance ideals. People who regularly engage in intuitive eating were more likely to appreciate their body for what it does, were more mindful, and reported higher self-esteem and overall well-being. They also showed lower levels of depression and anxiety.

Overall, the authors found that men engaged in higher levels of intuitive eating than women. Because women feel so much pressure to attain a thin body ideal, they may, as the authors of the research wrote, “feel less encouraged to trust their hunger and satiety signals than men and instead opt for a controlled diet.”

Body mass was negatively correlated with intuitive eating. In other words, the more you engaged in intuitive eating, the thinner you tended to be. This finding challenges the idea that the key to thinness is chronic dieting or restricting specific food groups. Instead, sustainable weight control appears more closely linked to eating thoughtfully, in response to your body’s cues rather than in response to strict eating rules. This pattern is consistent with findings that dieting tends to lead to periods of binge eating.

Intuitive eating can be a difficult practice. Those who have more success with it tend to have more accepting and supportive social environments. Perhaps because they feel loved and accepted as they are, they feel less pressure to meet societal body ideals or to engage in chronic dieting. It can also take a good deal of economic privilege to engage in intuitive eating. People with difficult work schedules or caretaking responsibilities don’t always have the option to let inner cues guide when they eat. Further, when you’re not sure how or when your next meal will arrive, stopping eating when you’re full (before you’ve eaten everything on your plate) may not feel very intuitive at all. Those who promote intuitive eating also emphasize listening to your body when it’s craving foods that might have key nutrients – but if you don’t have the funds to buy those foods or a convenient place to buy them, this advice isn’t very helpful.

Nonetheless, the findings of this meta-analysis suggest that the mental health benefits of intuitive eating are numerous. The more you can let go of rigid food rules and let your internal bodily cues (when you feel hungry, when you feel full) guide your eating, the more likely you are to have a healthy, happy relationship with your body.

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