There are many approaches to nutrition counseling, and Intuitive Eating has been in the spotlight lately; many RDs may wonder if they should become an Intuitive Eating dietitian.
And clients, too, wonder if this is an approach that will benefit them, or if the myths are true that an Intuitive Eating Dietitian will just recommend eating junky foods 24/7 and gaining weight.
Let’s find out!
What is an Intuitive Eating Dietitian?
Working as an Intuitive Eating Dietitian is a more inclusive approach to nutrition counseling. So many factors influence how much food – and which foods – are satisfying on a given day.
Intuitive Eating is an approach that allows for flexibility around food, instead of adhering to rigid rules, morality around food choices and a reliance on fad diets and willpower. Intuitive Eating encompasses being more gentle with ourselves and our food choices.
This can feel challenging, different or even rogue for both dietitians and clients who are more accustomed to a dieting approach to nutrition. While Intuitive Eating is evidence-based, myths abound (1). And reflecting on how quickly people tend to leap from “rigid diet” to “free for all” illustrates how much work to be done to find peace somewhere in the middle.
Let’s discuss (and bust) these myths so that you can explore if this model of nutrition counseling is right for you or your practice.
The 10 Principles to Use with Clients
Intuitive Eating was founded by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in the 1990’s (2). They have written books, articles and blogs to teach dietitians about Intuitive Eating. You are welcome to visit The Intuitive Eating Pros website for information about their certification of training programs. Intuitive Eating is based on ten principles, starting with Reject the Diet Mentality.
1. Reject the diet mentality
Myth: diets are the only way to health.
As an Intuitive Eating dietitian, we know full well that fad diets are not sustainable and do not work. Fad diets are temporary. Intuitive Eating builds a foundation for a constructive relationship with food and your body for life.
And the stress and anxiety caused by “failed” diets that were never going to work to begin with causes mental harm, anxiety and shame. Reject it.
2. Honor Your Hunger
Myth: an app knows how much fuel your body needs better than you do.
Honoring your hunger – nourishing your body with enough energy and carbohydrates to keep out of the hunger danger zone – helps us to build trust with our own bodies. We don’t need the same amount of food at the same time each day – honoring your hunger prevents us from feeling lacking in food and calories and risking a cycle of feeling out of control, overeating or binging.
We don’t tend to get angry when we sneeze, get sleepy or need to blink to rewet our eyes. Hunger is just as natural (and just as morality-free).
3. Make Peace with Food
Myth: if I avoid “bad” foods, I am “good”
Remove morality around food. If you’d like an apple – eat it! If candy sounds good, enjoy it and move on.
Placing moral value on foods, and judgment on yourself if you eat them, gives food too much power and makes room for too much guilt. Life is not meant to be lived worrying and obsessing about foods 24/7.
4. Challenge the Food Police
Myth: I am a “bad” person because I choose certain foods.
That negative self-talk that is making you miserable has got to go! Reject the biased voice that is telling you and your clients that deprivation is the pathway to happiness (and thinness).
5. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Myth: food is only here for fuel
Food is sensory, tied to our family traditions, experiences, and holidays. Food nourishes our physical body, if we let it, and also our spirit if we make room for joy.
Rather than worrying that a piece of a birthday cake will ruin your day, week or life, have a slice, enjoy it, and move on.
6. Feel Your Fullness
Myth: if I have fun foods around, I won’t be able to control myself and stop eating.
If your experience with food is more tied to undereating, getting overly hungry and then overeating to the point of uncomfortably full, you’re probably not as easily able to tune into your body’s more subtle signals of being comfortably full.
It takes reducing the stress and anxiety around eating to make space for this messaging from your body. Being at ease around foods lets your body naturally be satisfied with the right amounts.
7. Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness
Myth: you didn’t succeed with your diet because you didn’t have enough willpower.
Curiosity is a much more productive approach than judgment. If things didn’t go as planned, explore it. Were the expectations realistic?
We need comfort. Eating is one source of comfort. As an Intuitive Eating dietitian, you can work with your clients to enjoy comfort eating as one source of stress management vs. being the only way to cope with overwhelming feelings.
8. Respect Your Body
Myth: thin is healthy. Larger bodies are shameful.
Social media editing and filters, photoshop and other pseudo-reality give us remarkably unrealistic ideas about what our bodies “should’ look like.
Respect includes seeing what your natural framework is. Someone who is five-feet tall can pine for being 5’5” all she wants – but outside of wearing tall heels or an extensive surgery, five-feet tall is how tall she will always be.
Genetics cannot be changed. And genetics is one big piece of the natural inclinations of the shape of your body. Making peace with that makes room for respecting your body.
All bodies deserve respect. That doesn’t mean that we have to overly love every square inch, but starting from a place of respect is making room for contentment. It is just as damaging to assume that people in larger bodies are not healthy as it is to assume that people in smaller bodies are more healthy. Health at Every Size is a growing, interdisciplinary movement, focusing on the research that demonstrates that measures of health, including blood pressure reduction, can be achieved at any weight.
9. Movement—Feel the Difference
Myth: Intuitive Eating Dietitians don’t care about exercise.
If the only goal of exercise is to accomplish shrinking your body, the many benefits of joyful movement are completely missed.
Help your clients to cultivate an appreciation for the many benefits of regular movement, from a better night’s sleep to emotional resilience during the day, reduced blood pressure, better control of blood pressure, more comfortable joints, etc – exercise benefits all of us.
You don’t have to be a CSSD Dietitian to brainstorm ways to embrace and enjoy more movement. You can also bust the myth that exercise in the gym, wearing spandex and feeling miserable, is the only path to health. Walking, dancing, pickleball, yoga, vacuuming, riding the bike are all movement and all “count”.
10. Honor Your Health—Gentle Nutrition
Myth: You cannot be trusted around all food.
Gentle nutrition is usually explored last with Intuitive Eating. It is the deceptively simple exploration of how foods make you feel, with curiosity rather than judgment. Like any skill, it takes practice. You can read more about gentle nutrition in our previous blog post.
Helpful tips for aspiring Intuitive Eating dietitians
Now that you know what the Ten Principles of Intuitive Eating are, you may be wondering how to incorporate them into your practice. Practice builds confidence!
Adjust your marketing and messaging.
If the only messages that your website and social media channels are stating are weight loss, this just furthers the (false) idea that weight loss is the only path to health.
Instead, consider expanding your messaging to include other goals. This helps your audience to understand that their body is worthy of respect at any size and health goals can be accomplished at any size. Eating the foods and enjoying the movement that helps you get your best night’s sleep is sexy!
Think outside the food with clients.
We were never meant to be rigid, highfalutin moral eaters. Life is far too dynamic to have that inflexible mentality. Stress, celebrations, family support, foods available in your neighborhood, the amount of free time available, our budget – these all influence the food choices that we make and it is more realistic – and compassionate – to acknowledge these factors than to pretend that they don’t exist.
Rather than blaming a person for their circumstances, or lack of motivation or willpower, Intuitive Eating is a compassionate approach to meeting a client where they truly are, with the understanding that each day is different. Craving simple carbs after a terrible night’s sleep is hormone-driven and evidence-based; not a character flaw.
Connect with a peer Intuitive Eating dietitian.
As registered dietitian nutritionists, it is exciting that we’re never done learning. And most RDNs are happy to support one another’s growth.
Connect with an Intuitive Eating dietitian who offers supervision for other RDs embracing a new area of practice; finding an RD to supervise may help you get important feedback to become a more effective intuitive eating RD.
Explore your own biases.
We all have biases. The sooner we recognize that reality and do the uncomfortable work of exploring them, the sooner we can authentically connect with and support others.
Weight bias and stigma is soundly present in the healthcare setting and causes harm (3). We have a free weight inclusive guide for dietitians to explore what weight inclusive care is as well as how to get started.
Make room for cultural foods.
Do your food models include foods that your clients love? Do you have any experience cooking foods from other countries and cultures? What kinds of cookbooks do you use for providing recipes and meal plans for your clients?
If you do not include your client’s favorite foods and culturally significant foods, they may get the message that their foods are “bad” or that their preferences are not important. (Pssst: we have a webinar to help you to expand your competency working with diverse populations.)
Exploring the cruise of your clients is your next step, and good news: this homework can be really delicious and fun! Try cooking recipes outside of your usual comfort zone and dine in restaurants serving cuisine around the world.
Allow for a journey.
Just like a deep friendship with a childhood friend was developed over time, through life changes and personal growth and missteps, cultivating a constructive relationship with your body and eating takes time and practice.
Intuitive Eating is skill-based. It takes practice. It also takes adjustments as the days vary and life seasons change. This is normal but can feel vulnerable and muddled as you and your clients work on this.
In conclusion: learning about Intuitive Eating is just the beginning
We do ourselves – and our clients – a disservice if we limit ourselves to only a narrow scope of nutrition counseling. Our clients can make progress on their health, wellness and nutrition goals, and any size, with respect for their body. We can help.
Our lives are dynamic, and our clients will need different tools and strategies to achieve balance in the current season of their life.
Intuitive Eating can be used in most settings and with most clients. It is the ability to make room for flexibility, kindness and curiosity for our own bodies and eating.