What is Intuitive Eating and How Can It Help Cancer Patients?

All of us are born with the ability to regulate our food intake intuitively. Babies know when they are hungry and when to stop eating when they are full. Unfortunately, while growing up, we have been conditioned by hearing phrases like “Clean your plate,” or “Take one more bite,” so our natural intrinsic system of self-regulation was overridden by extrinsic ones.

Especially when sick, eating routines tend to lean more toward external cues. For example, while going through cancer, patients don’t only follow strict nutrition rules; they may also experience changes in self-image or appetite due to certain medications, making it difficult to eat and get the nutrition needed. Through intuitive eating, it is still possible to eat an overall health-promoting dietary pattern while allowing yourself to enjoy the food you love.


What is intuitive eating

Intuitive eating, sometimes called “mindful eating” is an evidence-based mind-body health practice of trusting your own body to tell you when to start and stop eating and what it may need or not need. Listening and responding to the direct messages of the body allows you to meet your physical and psychological needs.

This practice was first given its name in 1995 when Evelyn Tribole, a dietitian, and Elyse Resch, a nutrition therapist, published a book entitled Intuitive Eating. Since then, it has continued to become a popular topic online and in magazines. In a 2019 Food & Health Survey, it was reported that 49% of Americans ages 18-34 years are familiar with intuitive eating.

Unlike traditional diets or food plans that commonly bans certain foods or dictates the amount of food you should take, intuitive eating does not have a “pass” or “fail”. It is rather a journey of cultivating a healthy relationship with food and understanding the best way to nourish yourself. It takes time and persistence for it to come back naturally. It may take weeks, months, or even years, depending on your own pace.


Principles of intuitive eating

Set by Tribole and Resch, intuitive eating revolves around ten principles as follows:

  • Reject the diet mentality

Realize that most restrictive diets fail many. Limiting yourself to certain foods can sometimes lead to feelings of deprivation, often manifested by overeating. Aside from triggering overeating, restrictive diets could also result in cutting out necessary nutrients and leave you feeling guilty for no reason.

  • Honor your hunger

As previously explained, fueling your body adequately with all three macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) helps reduce a person’s primal drive to overeat. Learning to honor this first line of biological signal sets the stage for regaining trust in your body and food.

  • Make peace with food

All foods are supposed to fit in the diet. They break down into the same biochemicals that the body uses for energy. While some foods may provide more nutrients than others, it doesn’t mean that one food item or group is bad. Avoiding labeling foods as “good” or “bad” helps reduce food-related guilt and the primal drive to overeat.

  • Challenge the “food police”

The food police (could be yourself, a family member, or a friend) monitors the unreasonable rules created by the diet culture. Instead of following it, tune in to your body’s cues. Learning how to shut it off is a critical step in returning to intuitive eating.

  • Feel your fullness

Another critical step to intuitive learning is getting familiar with your body’s hunger/fullness scale. Observe the signs that indicate you’re comfortably full. Pause in the middle of eating and assess what your current hunger level is. 

  • Discover the satisfaction factor

Many of us forget one of the best gifts of existence—the satisfaction and pleasure from eating. To fully experience this, create a pleasant eating environment and eat what you really want. By doing this, you’ll easily feel satisfied and content and naturally stop at the right amount of this food.

  • Cope with your feelings without using food

For some, eating is a way to cope with difficult emotions because it may be a comfort. While this is true, it should not be your only tool. Ask your healthcare team for advice to explore other ways of coping.

  • Respect your body

Understand that everyone has a different body composition and has different shapes and sizes. Being overly critical of your body shape and size also makes it difficult to reject the diet mentality.

  • Exercise and feel the difference

Rather than focusing on the calorie-burning effects of exercise, focus on how it feels and celebrate what your body is capable of. Find a type of exercise that you enjoy doing.

  • Honor your health with gentle nutrition

When it comes to food choices, pick what honors your health and taste and what will make you feel good. Remember that what you eat consistently matters over time, and not a single meal or snack.


How does it help cancer patients?

Cancer patients often have difficulty trusting their bodies, so they often seek to follow strict nutrition rules to have a sense of control and stability. What’s even harder is that certain medications affect their eating patterns so they tend to rely more on external cues.

Intuitive eating can be a helpful practice for patients and survivors struggling with food intake and self-image. Amber Thomas, a Registered Dietitian who specializes in Cancer Nutrition, explained in a podcast how intuitive eating helps cancer patients heal from the psychological impact of cancer. Some of these benefits include increasing body positivity and acceptance, building self-trust, figuring out what foods make body feel its best, and shifting the focus to “what to do” instead of “what not to do”.

While intuitive eating is suggested by some experts as an approach to managing cancer, patients should keep in mind that it does nto give you the right to eat what you eat as often as you want. Remember that listening to what your body needs is an essential aspect of this practice. For example, eating plant-based foods is highly recommended in lowering cancer risk and progression of any type of cancer. To learn about this, check How a Plant-Based Diet Helps Fight Cancer.

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