Intuitive Eating: Interview with Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch

In 1993, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch were dietitians working next to each other in the same office. Both of them, in keeping with the wisdom of the time, spent their days counseling their clients on nutrition and meal planning, all with the aim of helping their clients lose weight. Yet both of them had lingering doubts. Discipline and dieting worked for their clients for a time, but inevitably, diets proved impossible to maintain, and natural hunger resurfaced.

When Tribole and Resch shared their dissatisfaction with each other, the two realized there must be a different approach to eating: one that emphasized satiety, not restriction; intuition, not discipline; pleasure, not austerity. They created a philosophy of food that did just that, and Intuitive Eating was born. They published the first edition of their book, Intuitive Eating: An Anti-Diet Approach in 1995.

Centered around ten major principles, ranging from “honor your hunger” and “make peace with food” to “feel your fullness” and “cope with your emotions with kindness,” the philosophy advocates that we become more mindful and self-aware eaters, and that we work with, rather than against, our body’s natural craving for food.

In honor of the 25th anniversary of the first publication of Intuitive Eating, the pair have released a fully updated fourth edition of the book. The Talkspace Voice spoke to Tribole and Resch about how their “anti-diet” approach to eating can benefit our mental health, and how making peace with food and loving our bodies can help further the fights for gender and racial justice.

Talkspace:

Hi, I’m Reina Gattuso, I’m a writer for the Talkspace Voice. I’m here with the founders of Intuitive Eating to mark the 25th anniversary of their publication of their groundbreaking book. Could the two of you introduce yourself to our readers and audience?

Evelyn Tribole:

Sure. I’m Evelyn Tribole.

Elyse Resch:

And I’m Elyse Resch.

Talkspace:

Okay. So to begin with, for those of our readers who might not be familiar with the concept, what is intuitive eating?

Elyse Resch:

Well, Evelyn, you want to start with your definition, then I’ll go on.

Evelyn Tribole:

Yeah. I have many different definitions depending who we’re speaking with, but one definition, it’s a mind-body self-care eating framework, and we have over 125 studies now showing really promising benefits of intuitive eating.

Elyse Resch:

And we like to look at it as a dynamic interplay of instinct, emotion, and thought based on the triune brain, which is three parts of the brain. The instinctual part is for survival. The limited part is for emotions and social behaviors. And then the rational part of the brain, the neocortex, is for the thinking. And we put all three parts of that together so that we can tune into our internal signals or the wisdom that we’re born with.

Evelyn Tribole:

And then I’d say, underlying that mechanism is interoceptive awareness, which is our ability to perceive physical sensations that arise within the body. And that includes, you know, physical things like a full bladder, but also every emotion has a physical sensation. And so when we are connected to our body, as opposed to being at war with our body, we have really powerful ways to get our needs met if we listen.

Talkspace:

Great. So I’m going to ask the big question, is intuitive eating a diet?

Evelyn Tribole:

Absolutely not. In fact, we even have that in the subtitle now, anti-diet, and the first principle of intuitive eating is reject the diet mentality. And one of the things Elyse and I have seen over and over and over again, that when someone comes in from the lens of diet culture and dieting, there’s a tendency to turn intuitive eating into absolutes, and to diets, and to rules, but it is not. You are the boss and these are guidelines for connection.

Elyse Resch:

And what’s connected to that is that most diets are geared toward weight loss and intuitive eating is the opposite of that. It’s geared toward creating a healthy relationship with your body, tuning in, as Evelyn says, to your food and eating.

Evelyn Tribole:

And bringing the pleasure back to eating, right?

Elyse Resch:

Satisfaction is the driving force of intuitive eating. It’s actually the motivator for most people. They’re really happy to learn that they can start to enjoy food and find pleasure in eating again, which is something that’s been taken away from them by diet culture.

Talkspace:

Take me back 25 years, how did you two actually come together to create this.

Evelyn Tribole:

Well, you’ve heard of the term parallel play — you know, toddlers in the sandbox playing — and they’re there, doing the same thing, but they’re not really integrating yet. So Elyse and I were separately in private practice in the same building, in Elyse’s office. And we were working in a very traditional model that wasn’t effective and not feeling right. And we were really experiencing cognitive dissonance because we were creating these beautiful meal plans.

The short story is that we went into the research and really took a look at what the research says in terms of connecting with the body, what’s going on also in the public realm in terms of popular psychology. And we also factored in our clinical experience. So we can say, 25 years ago, this concept was research inspired. But fast forward today, we have a validated assessment scale and a lot of research showing there’s merit to this process. And that people’s lives change.

Elyse Resch:

And given that we were in the same space one day, we just started talking about our frustrations and what each of us had been working on; we found that we were right there together. And we started writing the book.

Talkspace:

Yeah. I’m just thinking 25 years ago, this was 1995.

Elyse Resch:

Published. So this was about 1993 when we started writing.

Talkspace:

During my quarantine here in New York, I went on a television binge, my favorite being Sex in the City. And I love it to death, but oh my gosh, the way that they talked about eating in that time period. What you guys started doing was really unique. Where did that dissatisfaction come from? What were those sort of cultural standards in terms of diet? What was really mainstream and where did you both get that impulse to depart from that?

Evelyn Tribole:

You know, I remember reading the Susan Faludi book Backlash, and it really, really impacted me on a feminist level, and on many other levels. I just remember thinking what Elyse and I, and now you’re witnessing, is diet backlash. In fact, a lot of people don’t know this, but that was the original title, the working title, the book, Diet Backlash. So it was partly that, and also Naomi’ Wolf’s work that when we become a slave to conformity of dumped diets and being told what to do, we’re not living our lives.

Evelyn Tribole:

And now fast forward, there’s a book that has had a big impact on me that just came out about a year ago, called Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Roots of Fatphobia showing that this body hierarchy is really rooted in racism and patriarchy and religious dogma went back to the 17th century. And so it goes back even even further. So it’s been with us all along, but it’s even more profound now. And sadly, what I’m seeing is, well, on the one hand, there are a lot more health professionals really doing this work with intuitive eating and health at every size — we’re seeing diet culture has hijacked healthcare. And now it’s like, “Oh, we have a bigger, a bigger thing that we need to do.” And that’s cracking the policy that dictates some of these mandates that put our patients in harm’s way.

Elyse Resch:

And going back to that era, I had been reading Susie Orbach’s Fat Is a Feminist Issue. And I was also reading Overcoming Overeating, by Jane R. Hirschmann. So both of those really spoke to me. I’ve been a strong feminist since back in the seventies, sixties and seventies, and, the psychology of deprivation and not being able to have what you want and telling people what they should eat, just spoke to me. That this was wrong. And that was what was leading to the dissatisfaction I was feeling in my work by, as Evelyn was saying, giving meal plans, helping people lose weight, because that’s what we had been taught in graduate school. And we’re both very humble about that. And that’s 25, 27 years ago. It wasn’t on our radar.

Evelyn Tribole:

That was such a toxic suggestion for people. And we look at intuitive eating as a social justice issue today. We see it as part of all of the oppression in the world. So promoting weight loss would be part of that. And we are anti-that.

Talkspace:

There’s so much there in what you just said. I love the point about this being a social justice issue broadly, and the connections to race. And of course, gender. I’m wondering when you were sort of first working through intuitive eating as a concept, what were some of the ways in which you were seeing diet culture affecting the people that you worked with and this emphasis on weight loss?

Evelyn Tribole:

You know, I could tell you one thing I was seeing a lot. I ended up doing a segment on it on a national news program, and it was something I call primal hunger. And that is when you’ve had this biological deprivation combined with the psychological deprivation. There’s this profound, urgent, true need to eat. And no matter who you are, how smart you are, how successful you are, it hijacks you in the moment and leaves you feeling really disconnected from your body. And also feeling less than because I have a lot of patients describing shame in terms of the kind of eating they do. And what I tell them now, it’s no different than if you hold your breath for a long time. We know if you hold your breath for a long time, when you finally breathe, it’s going to be a gasp.

Evelyn Tribole:

You’re going to inhale ginormous amounts of air and no one says, “oh my god, you’ve lost control of your breathing. You are addicted to air, you’re a binge breather.” You know, and we laugh, but we need to have that same perspective with eating. And I think that’s one of the things that really took me away, that combined with some research from Herman and Polivy on restraint theory. They talked about, in all this scientific garb, that when people have really restrained rules around eating to suppress their body weight, there’s this phenomenon where the restraint gets broken, but they called “what the hell effect.” And that’s when I became a fan of their work, “what the hell.” It’s like, yes, that’s what I hear my patients say all the time. When that happens, this all or none, there is a profound disconnection to the body.

Evelyn Tribole:

And it’s also as if I’m never ever going to eat again. And so the amounts of the food can really be quite quite high in the moment. Those are the kinds of things that really impacted me and they still do.

Elyse Resch:

And for me, everyone used the word shame. I was finding that my clients were walking around with elation when they were able to fulfill the suggestions, the food plan, lose weight. And then when they inevitably couldn’t anymore, because of course, now we know why, they walked around with shame. They blamed themselves. They said there was something wrong with themselves. And it just felt awful to see that. It was something I had never wanted to do in my work, but I got thrown into it because it was so ubiquitous. I finally just knew that I could not lead people down a path where they ultimately are feeling bad about themselves.

Elyse Resch:

So that was a big trigger toward finding a different way and understanding the psychology eating. Yeah, go ahead.

Evelyn Tribole:

I would add to that, the thing that’s so encouraging now, there weren’t very many health professionals working in this arena, but now fast forward, we’ve been training and certifying people in this process. And we now have over a thousand health professionals in over 24 countries doing this work and helping facilitate and be a witness to lives changing. And that’s what blows me away is how often I hear “my life has changed.” When you start connecting to your own truth and authenticity and trusting, because dieting is a profound trust disruptor, that needs to get healed. And every time you honor hunger, you are repairing that trust.

Evelyn Tribole:

And in time that trust crosses over to other areas in that person’s life. And it’s incredibly beautiful to be a witness of that.

Elyse Resch:

I want to say something cute. I have a 15 year old boy client who said to me, “Oh, this is kind of like a movement, isn’t it?” I said, “you are right. It is a movement. It’s all over the place.” It’s being written about, we do so many interviews and podcasts and it is a movement. It’s a movement to heal some people’s trust in themselves and their relationship with their bodies and food.

Evelyn Tribole:

It’s getting your power back, your agency back. And this idea that we hold our humanity with unconditional positive regard, regardless of the bodies that we occupy, we’re so much more than a body.

Talkspace:

First of all, I love the gen-z teen, your client. Awesome. Second of all, I’m about to tear up: this idea of holding your humanity and unconditional positive regard.

I write a lot about gender or gender-based violence for the site. I write a lot about consent and boundaries and how, when you’ve experienced abuse, or even just the routine abuse of living as women, feminine people, queer people, people of color in our society, we get so alienated from those really natural body signals, right? “I’m uncomfortable. I don’t want this, or even I do want this.” And it sounds like there are so many parallels between eating and that sort of cycle of restraint, and not being in tune with what we’re actually desiring and with other aspects of bodily autonomy, like sexuality. It’s so striking.

Elyse Resch:

Yes, and it’s really an issue of boundaries as well. Nobody has the right to cross our boundaries, our inner wisdom and tell us what we should eat, when we should eat, how much we should eat. And we help our clients learn how to speak up. And, in fact, intuitive eaters have less self-silencing, that’s been shown in studies. So they do speak up for their needs and their boundaries. It’s a big part of it.

Evelyn Tribole:

And related to that, there’s this term that I love that was created by Sonalee Rashatwar, she’s known as The Fat Sex Therapist on Instagram, and she calls it nonconsensual dieting. And that’s when children are put on diets early in their life, when they have no concept of this. And when I’m working with adults, who’ve been put on diets, this message of “you can’t be trusted with your appetite.” So your body can’t be trusted, goes way, way back, and there’s more healing to be done.

And I say this not to shame the parents of the patient, because many times the healthcare practice nurse practitioners are the ones urging them to do this, but there’s an impact and there’s harm with this, which is why I get really concerned with a lot of these public policy health campaigns that are shaming the bodies of children. Shaming anyone’s body is wrong. But especially with children, you don’t even have this agency, you talk about a boundary violation. That is a boundary violation. That’s a really early age for something like that. That’s become somewhat normative in our culture. Unfortunately.

Elyse Resch:

What I’m really excited about is that I’m right now involved in reviewing a book from a couple of our colleagues, How to Raise an Intuitive Eater, and they’re addressing all of these issues and it needs to be out there. Evelyn and I have been very busy in other ways, so we haven’t written it, but I’m so grateful they are. And they’re intuitive eating certified, intuitive eating counselors, and right on with our philosophy.

Evelyn Tribole:

Well, and that’s kind of an exciting thing to see also is the burgeoning of our work, other books are coming out and building on or adding in another voice. I think that’s actually really exciting to be seeing this because we really need to change the culture so that we can thrive and flourish and engage in activities that are meaningful to whatever they are for you. If you’re stuck worrying and thinking about your body and your eating, that’s not living, you’re being pulled away from your present moment. And you’re not, you’re not flourishing.

Elyse Resch:

We are changing the world, Reina. We are, we’ve had a big impact. And part of my spiritual path is to try to, every day, do something that changes the world in a positive way. And we’re doing it, I believe.

Evelyn Tribole:

We’ve got a long way to go though. Now, when we start looking at all the realms of social justice issues, we have so far to go.

Elyse Resch:

Yes, Evelyn, but it has to start somewhere. We have to, I think be so grateful that many people are hearing our message and our healing as a result.

Talkspace:

I want to back up for a second, you folks have a couple of core principles of what intuitive eating is, right? Could you share those with us?

Elyse Resch:

Well, there are 10. We don’t have time to go through them all. The core, core issue is rejecting diet mentality. You have to start there because if you still have the idea of going on another diet after “I’ll give intuitive eating a try,” it’s not ever going to be something that you can embrace. And then, as I mentioned earlier, satisfaction is a key core principle of intuitive eating. As is honoring your hunger and your fullness and making peace with all foods. Evelyn, you want to take the rest of them?

Evelyn Tribole:

I actually want to build on something that you said and then I’ll take on the rest of them. Aiming For satisfaction, as we’ve described, is the hub of intuitive eating. And I find that if you’re looking for an action point: Where can I start? Where can I guide my clients, when you ask someone, “what would a satisfying meal be like to you?” It’s a very personal question. And sadly, I’ve had a lot of patients really not know because they have abdicated their eating decisions to some kind of diet plan. So it’s a way to get curious and also down a path towards pleasurable connection, because ultimately it’s not satisfying to under eat. Ultimately it’s not satisfying to eat past fullness to a point where you’re not feeling well.

Evelyn Tribole:

So where is that sweet spot? And in order to answer that question, we need to go inside. We need to connect with what’s going on with you, not going to external measures. And sometimes I describe this to my patients. It sounds ridiculous, but it helps I’m going to share it. I can’t get over how often people are comparing their eating to someone else’s eating. And I’ll say, “you know, do you do that? When you go to the bathroom, do you compare how much you pee to someone else? Do you think you should pee more because they pee more.” They’re like, “of course not.” I go, well,” it’s the same kind of idea.” And I wish we had that revulsion about the idea of comparing our or even commenting on other people’s foods and bodies.

Evelyn Tribole:

It’s not that I want the revulsion, but not, but for it not for it to be normative, you know? So it’s, it’s taking back our power. And so respecting your body is also a very key principle. And this is moving beyond the objectification that we are human beings and just that alone, we should have dignity and respect for all living beings. Then looking at joyful movement, looking at coping with your feelings with kindness and our 10th and last principle, which is ironic cause Elyse and I are both dietician-nutritionists is on your health with gentle nutrition. And I didn’t realize when we originally came up with that, with that principle, how prescient it would be because it has become such an evangelical issue in terms of nutrition and eating identity.

Evelyn Tribole:

And it’s like, let’s pause for a moment and see if we’re even ready for going down this path. Let’s make sure you’re at least mostly healed your relationship with food, mind, and body. And then we can, we can look at this. So sometimes people have the misunderstanding that intuitive eating has nothing to do with health when actually it takes a broader vision of what health is — because health includes our mental health, as well as our physical health, psychosocial health. So we’ve got these 10 principles, but the thing I like to stress — they’re not rules. You can start in any order, whatever makes sense to you. And they’re interdynamic, so you can’t just cherry pick and say, “Oh, this one principle defines intuitive eating.” Some people have said, for example, “Oh, it’s just eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full.” It’s like, Oh no, no, no, no. It’s so much more nuanced than that. There’s a lot of grays in here.

Talkspace:

One thing I feel like I wonder about when it comes to people being reacquainted with their own bodily needs and desires and satisfaction is this fear of “if I stop restricting, if I start actually eating what I want to eat, will I ever be able to stop?” I feel like that’s so tied to what you all said earlier, gender and race, and this idea that certain people in our society, including fat people, are just endlessly glutinous, or we have no discipline. We have no limits, and so much of that is tied to this idea of “if I really start listening to myself, Who am I, what is that? That’s scary.”

Elyse Resch:

And I think that is actually the biggest fear that I hear from people. And so helping them understand the psychology of taking away the forbiddenness of something, leads them to feel more comfortable with it. They can have it whenever they want it. This is called habituation. The more you have of something, the less the charge of it. So the greater, the stimulus, the less, the response. We’re helping people understand that when you fully and truly make peace with all foods, so that your emotional reaction to what you eat is equivalent, regardless of the food, then habituation can take place.

I said something earlier about making sure that you’re not going to go on another diet because, if habituation doesn’t take place, you’ll then still have some internal fear of future deprivation. So when I help people understand the psychology of this, and there’s a lot of psychology in intuitive eating, it calms them down some. And it’s so interesting how prevalent it is, that they say, “you know, you’re probably right. I could just never have ice cream in my house because I would eat all of it. And I’ve got four flavors in the freezer and when I want it, I have it.” And that’s just an example of what I’m being told on a regular basis. So that’s how you respond when someone is so afraid that they’ll never stop eating.

Evelyn Tribole:

And what I would say to that, a couple of things. One, it’s a real common response. It’s an understandable response. And what I find, it’s usually in direct proportion to the amount of deprivation the person’s had in their lifetime, the more that they’ve dieted, they can’t even imagine this because then you really don’t habituate. Someone who’s chronically dieting or going on food plans, they’re constantly having rules to rein them in. And then, when they can’t stand the rules, they have all this false evidence. “Oh my God, I can’t control myself with eating.” And what ends up happening is food stays exciting and scary. So that emotional ability stays there.

But with this habituation, it’s the urgency and the excitement that stays. If it’s a food that you normally loved, you’re still going to like it, but it’s not this, “Oh man. I’m never going to get to eat this.” It’s a profound thing. When you have permission to eat. It’s a paradox that happens. Because you finally get to ask, for the first time: Do I really want this food? If I eat this food right now, am I going to enjoy it? And, as I’m eating it, do I like how it feels in my body?

I have a significant number of patients who have discovered, “Oh, I don’t really like this.” I’d like to see a study on this because I see it happening a significant amount of the time and they don’t understand, but when there’s guilt happening or shame happening with the eating, there’s not this pure direct experience of the impact of the eating. And so we remove all this excitement, remove the judgment and they get to decide: Do I like this? Does it taste good? Do I like how I feel? Will I choose to do this again? And there’s no wrong answer.

Elyse Resch:

It doesn’t take anything away however, the excitement of enjoying food. Trying a new restaurant and tasting new foods and delight. Life is sitting with people that you love and enjoying food. So it’s the forbidden excitement that is diminished. The idea that I can have it now, but I won’t have it. I haven’t had it and I won’t have it again. But there’s still a joy and some excitement that can be attached to eating.

Evelyn Tribole:

Absolutely. That’s a good point. It’s absolutely true.

Talkspace:

So we’re almost out of time. I think the last question we’ll do a little round-robin style. So in the 25 years since you have published this first book, what is some change that is really positive in the way that our society views food and eating and our bodies? And one thing that you feel like we still really have some ways to go on.

Elyse Resch:

I’ll take the second part. I think that the culturally thin ideal as it’s called still needs to change. I have a new client who has a severity disorder and she said, “but everybody, all the guys I date all like me thin. All my friends.” It’s just so prevalent, this idea that you have to be a certain size and shape to be acceptable.

And on the other side of the fence is that there’s such an openness to intuitive eating now. People are so eager to learn about it. So they both kind of coexist for me.

Evelyn Tribole:

I completely agree with that. You know, as Elyse was saying earlier, intuitive eating has morphed into a bonafide movement, which I find encouraging. And I think one of the complexities as we the movement has gained steam is recognizing the intersectionality of oppression in the social justice realm, in terms of people in marginalized bodies, whether it’s gender based, race based, or whatever it happens to be, that this is where we need to combine our resources. And when we can help with the liberation of all bodies, we all benefit, we’re all free. And I find that incredibly, incredibly helpful.

Talkspace:

Well, I have chills now. Thank you so much. And you, have a new 25 year anniversary edition of the book out, too, right? So our listeners can learn more.

Elyse Resch:

It’s the fourth edition. It does celebrate the 25th anniversary. We have more things coming out too, actually. We have an intuitive eating workbook. That’s a couple of years old. There’s an intuitive eating workbook for teens that came out last year. Next year, there’s an intuitive eating journal book and a deck of cards. And Evelyn, you have a book coming out as well.

Evelyn Tribole:

I do. Intuitive Eating for Every Day. And I think for the professionals listening, they might be interested in getting ad certified, we have a whole certification pathway towards that, and you can just check out our website, www.intuitiveeating.org, because that’s how we want to change the world. When we train others, they help in this process, you know?

Talkspace:

Yeah. Well, thank you both so much. This was truly a delight. And again, I’m Reina Gattuso, here with the founders of Intuitive Eating, and we’re going to sign off. Thanks.

Evelyn Tribole:

Alright. Thank you so much for having us.

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