How Does Intuitive Eating Support Mental Health?

Published on: Jul 25, 2023

True mental wellness comes from nurturing your relationship with your body, mind, and soul. In this article, you’ll discover how intuitive eating is a powerful tool that not only supports your mental health but also strengthens your connection with your body’s wisdom.

Let’s dive right into intuitive eating supports mental health and how listening to our bodies is the best thing we can do for our physical, mental, and emotional wellness! And, if you’re wondering, I’ll be sprinkling nutrigenomics into the conversation too!

How Your Eating Habits Shape Your Mental Well-being

You may already know from reading my blog that what you eat affects your mental health and well-being. But did you know that HOW you eat is just as important for psychological wellness? It’s true! Your eating habits — such as how often you eat, how much you eat, and when you eat — can either support or harm your mental health. Everything from ignoring your hunger cues to extreme dieting and binge eating negatively affects your body image and overall psychological well-being.

When we overeat, for instance, we don’t just feel tired and uncomfortable: we might also experience feelings of shame, guilt, depression, and anxiety. And when we don’t eat enough or at all, our mood and cognition suffer just the same (feeling “hangry” is a very real thing!). 

The same is true for many disordered eating behaviors: skipping meals; binge eating; restrictive eating; and extreme dieting are all associated with obesity, social phobia, depression, anxiety, and panic disorders. They’ve been shown to increase one’s risk of developing an eating disorder such as binge eating disorder (BED), anorexia nervosa (AN), or bulimia nervosa (BN) as well.  

In fact, eating disorders also commonly co-occur with psychological concerns such as depression, anxiety, obsessive behaviors, and substance abuse disorders. However, mental health issues tend to predate eating disorders and increase one’s risk of developing an eating disorder in the future.

To summarize, eating too much or too little and ignoring your body’s hunger cues causes serious harm to your physical, mental, and emotional health! This is why I don’t believe in dieting or restricting food groups unless necessary (in the case of an allergy or intolerance, for instance). My food philosophy revolves around intuitive eating and listening to your unique body’s needs

How Intuitive Eating Supports Mental Health

Created in 1995 by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, intuitive eating is an evidence-based model of eating consisting of 10 mind-body principles that work in tandem to help us break free from diet culture and respect our bodies at any size or shape. These intuitive eating principles empower us to ditch the diet mentality, make peace with all foods (including the foods we’ve been told are “bad” or “unhealthy”), and learn to listen and respond to the body’s internal hunger and fullness cues in order to meet our biological and psychological needs. 

We know our own bodies better than anyone else, and listening to our hunger and satiety cues helps us to choose: 

  • When to eat.
  • What to eat.
  • How much to eat.
  • When to stop eating.

With that being said, intuitive eating is not a diet and it does not involve counting calories, needlessly banning certain foods, or any other form of restrictive eating. Dieting and diet culture in general have been associated with weight gain, lower psychosocial well-being, and disordered eating — while intuitive eating is shown to prevent weight gain, improve physical health and body image, and lower depressive symptoms. 

A literature review published in Public Health Nutrition, for instance, found that intuitive eating was significantly associated with improved self-esteem, positive body image, body acceptance, and greater life satisfaction. A longitudinal study published in Eating and Weight Disorders came to a similar conclusion, finding that intuitive eating was associated with lower odds of disordered eating, high body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, and high depressive symptoms. 

While dieting and failed attempts at weight loss undermine self-confidence and harm our psychological well-being, intuitive eating teaches us to appreciate, accept, and value our bodies — including our internal hunger and satiety cues. 

Intuitive Eating Principles for Physical & Mental Wellness

Now that we’ve discussed the psychological benefits of eating intuitively to support mental health, let’s highlight a few of the 10 intuitive eating principles we use as part of the intuitive eating framework. Three of them include:

  1. Honoring signs of hunger. Instead of skipping meals or restricting food intake, honor your body’s biological hunger signals (such as fatigue, stomach gurgling, shaky hands, brain fog, headache, and irritability). Ignoring your body’s hunger signals often leads to feelings of deprivation, which eventually leads to cravings and overeating. 
  1. Challenging your internal food police. Eat good-mood foods that nourish the body, fuel the mind, and support your mental health, but don’t deprive yourself of the foods you enjoy. There’s no such thing as “good” or “bad” foods, and it’s important to give yourself permission to eat the foods you love without judgment. Challenging the food police can enhance your self-awareness and allow you to release food-related anxiety and guilt.
  1. Noticing signs of fullness. Pause mid-meal to assess your current hunger levels and determine whether you’re satisfied with the food you’re eating. Is the food you’re eating energizing you or making you feel sluggish? Are you experiencing any physical sensations of satiety, such as a comfortable fullness, tight belly, or a disinterest in finishing the meal? 

As I mentioned above, intuitive eating is not a diet; it’s about honoring your unique body’s hunger and fullness cues! Your dietary needs are not the same as anyone else’s, and your genetics come into play here.

Genes & Eating Patterns: The Little-Known Link Between Intuitive Eating, Mental Health, and Nutrigenomics

Our genes affect many of our eating behaviors and preferences, such as when we eat, how much we eat, and how often we eat. Some genetic variations, for instance, make us much more sensitive to feelings of fullness (satiety) reducing our risk of obesity and offering protection against the negative effects of overeating. Other genetic variations make us less sensitive to the sensation of fullness. This can lead to overeating, which negatively impacts our weight, mental health, and physical wellness. 

My appetite is greatly influenced by genetics. Thus, it’s extra helpful for me to be mindful of my body’s current state, needs, and preferences. For example, I know that I am prone to overeating if I’m not conscious of my eating patterns, meal composition, and my hunger/fullness levels. Since I now know that my body is uniquely influenced by genetic variations, I can use tools such as intuitive and mindful eating to support my mental health and find balance in the way I fuel my body.

Genes that impact appetite, satiety, and food intake include variations in the following:

  • APOA2
  • DRD2
  • FAAH
  • FTO
  • LEPR (Gln223Arg A/G, Lys109Arg A/G, and Lys656Asn (G/C)
  • MC4R
  • SLC2A2
  • TAS2R38
  • CLOCK

In last month’s blog post, I talked about the CLOCK gene and its impact on sleep deprivation, weight, and food cravings. I encourage you to read that post if you haven’t already! 

A Note on Genes & Food Preferences

Genetic factors also affect our food preferences and consumption, according to a study published in Nature Human Behaviour. Researchers identified 26 genetic regions in the brain associated with a preference for foods higher in carbs, proteins, and fats; this could explain why eating behaviors and food preferences vary so widely among people! 

Genetic Testing for Mental Health Support

Since our genes affect many of our eating patterns and preferences, genetic testing can tell us a great deal about how to eat for optimal physical and mental wellness. Having one or more genetic variations associated with appetite and food intake may affect our dietary needs, serving and portion sizes, calories consumed and burned, frequency of meals, and other eating behaviors. Some genetic variations may also increase our dietary requirements for nutrients such as choline, vitamin D, and B vitamins

At The Fulfilled Fork, it’s my mission to empower you to nourish your mind, body, and soul through intuitive eating, mindfulness, nutrigenomics, and HAES (Health At Every Size). To apply for private or collective coaching, please learn more about my services here or download a sample report of the genetic test I use in my practice. I look forward to working with you and helping you to create your most fulfilling life! 

Ready to ditch the diet mentality and explore the principles of intuitive eating? Apply for collective or private coaching or learn about genetic testing to begin your mental wellness journey!

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Howdy! I’m Haley. A registered dietitian nutritionist, yoga teacher, personal trainer, and holistic mental wellness coach on a mission to help you transcend the struggle, stress, and suffering that life can bring. I’ve lived through it and discovered a path to feeling amazing in my mind, body, and soul. Now, I want to help you to live your most fulfilled life too through evidence-based nutrition and lifestyle practices!

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