Intuitive Eating Linked With Reduced Disordered Eating

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This article was written by Nutritionist and Dietetically Speaking Intern Hanna Tejani and reviewed by Registered Dietitian Maeve Hanan.


The EAT Study (2010-2018) was a longitudinal study (when outcomes are measured over a long period of time) that examined the impact of long-term Intuitive Eating on psychological well-being. This blog post will break down this study and summarize the key points for you.

January is inevitably a very diet-focused time of year. There can be a sudden feel a compelling urge to start a new diet, join a gym and give in to diet culture. This is very common, and probably something most of us can relate to. In fact, out of the top 5 most common New Year’s resolutions, 3 include diet, exercise and weight loss! (1). This doesn’t mean that resolutions about food and diet are all inherently bad, it depends on what these resolutions are and how they are approached. Many people who have been on the diet merry-go-round for years find Intuitive Eating to be a liberating approach to food, so we felt this is the perfect time of year to highlight this recent study. 

Intuitive Eating (or IE for short) is said to date back to the early 70s with the foundations that laid the groundwork for what we know today. In 1995, Tribole and Resch, coined the term “Intuitive Eating” and produced 10 principles that empower individuals to eat according to internal hunger and fullness cues to cultivate a positive relationship with food (3). This study further builds on this work, which also suggests that diets are detrimental to psychological wellbeing due to failed weight-loss attempts and also undermining our self-confidence (4).

How Was This Study Carried Out?

This study involved adolescents from 20 public middle schools and high schools in the state of Minnesota from 2009-10. The follow-up assessment took place in 2018, and the final sample included 1491 participants. Data was taken at these two-time points using self-reported surveys. 

During the initial assessment the researchers recorded:

  • Markers of IE
  • Depressive symptoms
  • Self-esteem
  • Body dissatisfaction
  • Disordered eating behaviours (this included, but was not limited to, fasting, skipping meals, laxative use, diet pills and binge eating) 

These were then re-recorded 8 years later at the follow-up. 

Many different assessment tools were used to get an insight into these markers. For example, an adapted version of the Intuitive Eating Scale (IES), which asked participants to agree/disagree with statements such as “I trust my body to tell me how much to eat.” Other examples of assessment tools included the Depressive Mood scale, the Rosenberg Self-Esteem scale and the Body Shape Satisfaction scale. 

What Did This Study Find? 

One of the main takeaways of this study was that if individuals observed a greater increase in their IE scores from the initial assessment to the follow-up, this was also associated with lower scores for depression, better self-esteem and higher body satisfaction. 

This was also observed in the scores for disordered eating behaviours, as this also decreased if IE scores increased across the duration of the study. 

Interestingly, another observation found in this study was a 74% lower risk of binge eating if the IE scores increased by 1 point across 8-years. 

What Does This Mean?

This study builds upon the existing literature that highlights the benefits of IE especially related to psychological wellbeing.

Along with this, it could also show IE as a protective factor against disordered eating, and binge eating in particular. However, ongoing research is required as IE is still a relatively new area of nutrition. 

As with any study, there are strengths and limitations to consider. The strengths of this study included the longitudinal design with a good number of participants, and large diversity in the sample (the cohort included males and females from a wide range of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds). However, this study used self-reported measures which can lead to discrepancies in the data as we tend to over/under-report the truth.

This study demonstrates that IE is not a quick fix, but rather something we should try to constantly implement into our lives using lots of little steps to make sustainable changes.

The evidence base is continually growing, but this study provides some very promising evidence for the ability of intuitive eating to predict better psychological well being. 

If you would like additional help to explore your relationship with food and begin your IE journey, please reach out to a Registered Nutritionist or Dietitian with experience in Intuitive Eating (click here for information if you are interested in working with one of our Dietitians at Dietetically Speaking). 

To read the entire study click here.

References 

  1. Armstrong, M. (2020). The Most Common New Year’s Resolutions for Brits. Statista.com. Available from: https://www.statista.com/chart/20381/most-common-new-years-resolutions-gb/ [Accessed January 2022]
  2. Johnson, F., and Wardle, J. Dietary Restraint, Body Dissatisfaction, and Psychological Distress: A Prospective Analysis. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 114 (1), 119-125.
  3. Intuitive Eating. Reference JRank.org. Available from https://reference.jrank.org/diets/Intuitive_Eating.html [Accessed January 2022]
  4. Hazzard, V. M., Telke, S. E., Simone, M., Anderson, L. M., Larson, N. I. and Neumark-Sztainer, D. Intuitive Eating Longitudinally Predicts Better Psychological Health and Lower Use of Disordered Eating Behaviours: Findings from EAT 2010-2018. Eating and Weight Disorders: EWD, 26 (1), 297-294. 

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