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Neurodiversity and Intuitive Eating

BY Phaedra Longhurst

How do you ‘listen to your body’ when you’re not quite sure what it is saying? This is a common issue for neurodiverse people – UK researcher Phaedra Longhurst shares her lived and learned experiences.

Intuitive eating is a helpful approach for developing healthy, positive attitudes around food and encompasses listening to one’s body and honouring its needs. More specifically, intuitive eating is typically defined as:

  1. Rejecting the diet mentality. Diet culture promotes weight loss often by ignoring your body’s needs. For example, you may adapt your diet in a way which excludes food that you typically enjoy and can be socially isolating (e.g. declining birthday cake at your friend’s party). To reject this, you opt to eat unconditionally and without judgement towards your body.

  2. Honouring your hunger. Your body is biologically programmed to tell you when you’re hungry, thirsty and full in order to maintain adequate energy and nutrients. In doing so, this helps keeps the body healthy enough for you to enjoy your day-to-day activities, such as walking, playing and singing. Ultimately, it’s about trusting your body.

  3. Feel your fullness. Trusting your body also means listening to your body when it is no longer hungry. While eating, you may want to stop and feel what your hunger level is. This helps you decide when you have adequately enjoyed your food.

  4. Discovering food. Society focuses on a ‘bad’ or ‘good’ attitude around food. Intuitive eating rejects this idea by encouraging us to explore what food we enjoy and what makes us feel good.

  5. Social connections. Eating intuitively is also about discovering and focusing on how food connects us to people. For example, the enjoyment of food can be found by helping your family or friends make a meal and eating it together. 

However, intuitive eating isn’t so straight forward for neurodiverse people. While being neurodiverse gives us the skills to be inquisitive, thoughtful and creative, we may experience difficulties surrounding social situations and our body. In particular, our senses are often either hyper- or hyposensitive, meaning that taste, texture and smell is different to us.

With this in mind, it’s important to recognise that intuitive eating may be different for us. Here are some ways in which intuitive eating may be alternatively expressed and/or promoted among neurodiverse groups.

Find the approach that works for you and your body


Intuitive eating emphasises eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full. Yet this can be problematic for some neurodiverse people as we may struggle to feel these internal sensations accurately, particularly hunger and fullness. For example, we may delay eating until experiencing extreme hunger (which may be a distressing feeling itself) and/or over-analyse when to stop eating, causing us anxiety over figuring out and determining how we feel. Instead, neurodiverse people may either choose to
eat consistently throughout the day or prefer a structured approach (e.g. follow a meal routine). Deciding which approach works best is fundamentally intuitive, as you are listening and trusting your body to guide what works best for you. This ultimately helps us honour our body’s needs and its functioning, but in a unique way. 

Choose foods that are accessible and meet your unique needs


Intuitive eating is used as a means to improve one’s attitude towards food by shifting attitudes away from ‘good’ or ‘bad’ food (which fundamentally gives feelings of guilt or shame) and towards picking foods that we enjoy. This shift in attitude also consists of trying a wide variety of food and engaging in joyful cooking and food preparation. For neurodiverse people, however, this isn’t the most accessible way of engaging in or promoting intuitive eating, as we often experience aversive sensory experiences with food. For example, we may not enjoy foods that have certain textures and flavours, and therefore eat a small variety of food. This may limit our choice of foods, however it is necessary to recognise that this is our unique way of intuitively eating – that is, meeting our unique needs (e.g. managing sensory concerns). We may also experience difficulties in preparing or cooking food due to having differing sensory and attention skills. A great way to help us overcome this is choosing foods that are more accessible and convenient to eat – for example, pre-packaged ready meals. It is also worth recognising that this helps us to eat in a way which ensures adequate nutrition and energy.

Recognise that environment plays an important role


Social relationships are a core component of intuitive eating, as promoting a healthy relationship with food often consists of eating communally with loved ones. However, neurodiverse people often struggle with social situations due to differing communication and interaction styles, and may prefer our own company in order to maintain a quiet, predictable environment.
Eating in communal spaces may be perceived negatively due to noise or disrupting routine. It is therefore important to make the environment suitable for us in a way which allows us to engage in intuitive eating, such as a quiet room. Indeed, this may not always be possible, however we could make small arrangements and/or requests such as asking to eat at a separate time to others, asking for a quiet space to eat, or requesting certain foods.

Adapt the meaning of eating ‘mindfully’


Lastly, intuitive eating is connected to mindfulness: to engage with the body, we need to pay attention to bodily sensations and emotions without distractions. As previously noted, this is not always accessible as we often rely on external stimuli to regulate ourselves. Therefore, this
typical approach to eating ‘mindfully’ may be an aversive experience for us. Instead, a neurodiverse approach may involve eating with a form of stimulation, whether that would be a stimming toy/object, TV or music, or while moving in a way which makes the body feel good while being safe (e.g. walking).  

Ultimately, intuitive eating is possible for neurodiverse people, however it is the way in which we perceive intuitive eating that will ultimately make it more accessible. That is, making it more diverse by approaching it without (neuro)typical pre-conceptions and limitations.

Key Readings:

Avalos, L.C. & Tylka, T.L. (2006). Exploring a model of intuitive eating with college women. Journal of Counselling Psychology, 53(4), 486-497. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0167.53.4.486

Kinnaird et al. (2019). Eating as an autistic adult: an exploratory qualitative study. PloS One [online]. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0221937

Mayes, S.D. & Zickgraf, H. (2019). Atypical eating disorders in children and adolescents with autism, ADHD, other disorders, and typical development. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 64. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2019.04.002 

Pearce, D. (February, 2017). Not on the menu: intuitive eating and autism. Accessed at: https://asdah.org/not-on-the-menu-intuitive-eating-and-autism/ 

Petitpierre, et al. (2021). Eating behaviour in autism: sense as a window towards food acceptance. Current Opinion in Food Science, 41. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cofs.2021.04.015

Meet The Author,
Phaedra Longhurst

Phaedra is a PhD student based in South West UK. Her research focuses on body image and eating disorders among underrepresented populations (e.g., neurodivergent groups) across clinical, education and community contexts. She aspires to advocate for hard-to-reach individuals through her research and lived experience in the hope to promote well-being which is diverse and inclusive.
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