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Integrating Intuitive Eating: Considering Privilege

Healing the relationship between one’s mind and body requires a fair amount of devotion; it is not easy to unlearn all that has been taught to us about the way we understand and judge our bodies. Typically, when I am working with a client or speaking at a school, people ask about how to achieve a tolerant, accepting or loving relationship with oneself. In addition to the underlying therapeutic work, my answer is Intuitive Eating.

Intuitive Eating was developed by Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, and Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, and includes 10 principles. These principles work toward helping an individual have a truly intuitive, non-judgmental relationship with food and also an accepting relationship toward the body that houses that individual—regardless of size. This is not easy, and unfortunately many diets have tried to commandeer the concept of intuitive eating, hiding behind something restrictive but “intuitive”—when really they are simply promoting weight loss, which goes against the ten principles.

I highly recommend that each and every individual explore the 10 principles and look at the obstacles. Perhaps consider working with an Intuitive Eating coach or dietitian, and process emotionally the way food, exercise or body image has become a way of coping, communicating or distracting.

The second and third principles of Intuitive Eating are to “honor your hunger” and “make peace with food.” There is a lot to unpack within these principles. The idea of “honor your hunger” is to first feed ourselves and honor our biological hunger, which can also prevent binging or eating compulsively. Then, we must “call a truce” and give ourselves permission to eat all categories of food rather than categorize certain foods, taking them “off the table.” The idea behind this is that when we have forbidden foods, we consider this “forbidden fruit” and ultimately end up eating the food—perhaps in an uncontrollable way—and then blame the food or ourselves instead of recognizing that the deprivation led to this cycle. (www.intuitiveeating.org)

I’ve been thinking for some time about the way that working toward permission and honoring hunger implies a level of privilege: it assumes that we are able to honor hunger at all times and also that within permission, there is a level of access. But there are obstacles to this. For instance, if I am hungry and I am currently stuck in traffic, I will not be able to honor my hunger in the moment and the reality is I will likely move past the hunger into possible starvation, which definitely will impact my ability then to eat and choose foods intuitively. Or perhaps I am giving myself permission to eat all types of food but I do not have access to variety due to financial concerns. This comes up very often when we see eating disorders on the rise in low-income communities and families because the deprivation mindset actually can lead to behaviors like binging and purging. Or perhaps I have access to buy the foods I typically like but what I really want at this moment is a dish that a friend once made but that I cannot replicate, or an item from a restaurant that is currently closed.

There are many factors to Intuitive Eating that may discount lack of access to foods, variety of foods, the ability to eat whenever we want, and also not take into account the judgment that can exist toward those who practice intuitive eating and are in bigger bodies. As Chaya Lieba Kobernick, PsyD, stated when I was discussing this topic among colleagues, “People in bigger bodies who choose to listen to and respect the wisdom of their bodies have to contend more so with public judgment when eating in general, and certainly when making the choice to eat foods that are culturally considered unhealthy. Making intuitive choices about what, when, and how much to eat and move can be tougher when navigating a cultural climate that will judge you on it, and may even comment, ‘Are you sure you want to have that?’”

So many clients I work with report openness toward Intuitive Eating but later reveal a hope for weight loss. Although I validate the impact our society has on leading the person to want that weight loss, and that so many have this desire, I explain how Intuitive Eating does not support the pursuit of weight loss. But as Dr. Kobernick notes, people tend to seem more accepting of Intuitive Eating when the person pursuing this is of a certain body size. Just as people tend to not care about health so long as their body looks a particular way.

So, where does it leave us if Intuitive Eating includes privilege?

It’s not all or nothing: Just because this is true does not mean we abandon Intuitive Eating as a way of healing. In life, in general, we can strive to move away from an all-or-nothing mindset. We can still make peace with food even when we acknowledge that we may not be able to easily have something again. There can be a next step or current enjoyment without restricting, hoarding or binging. This requires grounding in the moment, eating mindfully and being aware that we may not have access to what we want most. And we can still work to eat in an intuitive way to satisfy ourselves.

We can connect with the reality of the situation, validate our emotions and still have permission with food. Just because we cannot always go away on an amazing trip does not mean we never allow ourselves a fun day away or to enjoy any rest time because “it isn’t worth it.” So too, even if we cannot have a particular food or meal, this does not mean we should restrict instead. It is essential that we are aware not only of our hunger but of our thoughts and emotions as they are connected with food.

I recommend that you explore Intuitive Eating, and I share the element of privilege to acknowledge aspects of this that could be difficult and to note some challenges that still exist: it is not all-or-nothing; we can explore the hardships, and I truly believe that you can come to a place of healing with your relationship between your mind, body and soul.


Temimah Zucker, LCSW, works with individuals ages 18 and older in New York and New Jersey who are struggling with mental health concerns, and specializes in working with those looking to heal their relationships between their bodies and souls. Temimah is an adjunct professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, an advocate and public speaker concerning eating disorder awareness and a Metro-New York supervisor at Monte Nido. To learn more or to reach her, visit www.temimah.com.

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