Intuitive Eating

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By Malu Trehan, RDN, MPH

When my daughter was about 5 years old, I would urge her to eat a little more before leaving the table. After all, how could she be full when there was so much left on her plate? “Five more bites please,” I said. She looked at me and I’ll never forget what she said. “I’ll eat ‘til it hurts if you want me to Mama.” My eyes welled up. I knew right then that I was going about this the wrong way.

“Clean your plate,” “eat just one more bite,” “people are starving in Burundi,” or whatever else we say to our kids to nudge them to eat more (even the healthy stuff), just doesn’t go hand-in-hand with helping them identify real hunger cues. Intuitive Eating, a term coined by Dietitian Evelyn Tribole,  is our natural way of eating. It means we eat when we’re hungry and stop when we are full; not the stuffed kind of full, but comfortable-full. We don’t eat because we are feeling sad, bored, or anxious. We don’t eat because it’s social. We don’t eat because the clock says it’s lunch time. We eat because we are genuinely hungry and in need of nourishment.

I know for some of us, this might be a difficult concept to swallow (pun intended), especially if we were raised differently. It also may not be convenient given our hectic lives. Intuitive Eating however is a healthy way to relate to food. Studies have shown that Intuitive Eating is linked to a lower BMI and better psychological health.(1)

To raise an intuitive eater, we need to remind our children to trust their bodies and “attune” or listen to the signals it’s giving them. Sure, the nutritionist in me is still going to teach my child which foods are better for the body. I’ll also continue to serve mostly nutrient dense foods, but I’ve stopped labeling food as “bad.” This neutral approach allows room for the occasional french fries or slice of chocolate cake without surrounding it with guilt or making it a coveted reward. If you’re looking for a place to get started, Evelyn Tribole’s 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating are a worthy read. I’ve never forgotten the lesson my daughter taught me that day, to trust our bodies. It has something to say, if we’re willing to listen.

A commitment to intuitive eating is a great start, but I also realize that it may not solve all the food challenges that you may have going on in your family, such as fussiness around the the table. I know it can be frustrating to have a child reject a meal you painstakingly took time to prepare; perhaps even a little discouraging. My previous post Exercising Patience and Creativity for the Picky Eater could address some of those concerns. If you think you or your child need more one-on-one support, feel free to contact me.

Have you tried practicing intuitive eating yourself or with your child? If so, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear what has worked for you.