Verbal Eating Messages, Intuitive Eating and Body Image

Obesity continues to be a major public health challenge in the UK, calling for alternative treatment approaches. Intuitive eating, an adaptive form of eating behaviour, has been put forward as a natural means of weight control with numerous physical and psychological health benefits. The primary aim of the present study was to explore relationships between parenting style, parental verbal eating messages, body image and intuitive eating.


Obesity has become a major public health challenge associated with numerous health risks that may severely impact physical as well as psychological well-being. In 2011, more than half of the British adult population has been classified as overweight or obese, resulting in a financial burden of approximately 15.8 billion on the British
economy. Rising at an epidemic velocity, this costly trend poses problems on an individual, public and governmental level that calls for immediate action.

Traditional Dieting
Albeit firmly embedded in Western culture as an effective and societally recognized means of weight control, dieting has been shown to be largely ineffective in combating obesity and achieving long-term weight loss. In spite of consistent research evidence for associations with increased food preoccupation, binge eating, eating in the absence of
hunger, low self-esteem, an overall sense of failure among dieters, body dissatisfaction, depression and elevated weight concern, dieting continues to be the most common weight control strategy. Further consequences include weight cycling, heightened fat storage potential, dysfunctional relationships with food, and an increased risk of eating disorders. In the face of children as young as six years of age exhibiting signs of body dissatisfaction and weight concern while one in three primary school children remain obese, alternative approaches are required urgently.

Intuitive Eating

More recently, intuitive eating (IE) has been identified as a new, promising research area for tackling the major health problem obesity. Considering the wealth of recent studies that have demonstrated effectiveness in improving physical and emotional health outcomes and encouraging healthy dietary practices, IE appears to be an alternative intervention avenue worthwhile exploring. Conceptualized in three interrelated key components, IE refers to an internally-regulated eating style that, if allowed to operate properly,ensures optimal functioning through ideal nutrition. The ability to internally regulate food intake is based on an unconditional permission to eat whichever food is desired, physically-motivated eating rather than reliance on emotional or situational cues, and the awareness and implementation of hunger and satiety cues. Research suggests that IE abilities may be an innate ability apparent in all humans, which tends to decrease with age. Overall, men tend to be more responsive to their bodies’ homeostatic signalling than females.

IE has consistently been associated with numerous positive health outcomes and -contrary to traditional dieting approaches-, demonstrated long-term weight loss paralleled by enhanced self-esteem and body satisfaction. As restrictive dieting and coercive eating patterns are rejected, IE promotes a healthful relationship to food, ensures positive nutrition and fulfils a protective function against overeating, binge-eating and harmful forms of dieting. In addition to physical health benefits such as lower cardiovascular risk associated with lower body mass index (BMI), lower cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure, psychological health benefits of IE may include greater unconditional self-regard, body satisfaction, low levels of depression, body appreciation, and body acceptance. Further research found negative correlations between IE and body mass, eating disorder symptomatology, body image disturbance, body dissatisfaction, poor interoceptive awareness, pressure for thinness and the internalization of the thin ideal in a study of college women. The same sample produced positive correlations between IE and optimism, self-esteem, proactive coping and life satisfaction.

Research Aims

Understanding factors that foster or undermine people’s ability to recognize and respect internal hunger and satiety signals, is key to success in developing effective prevention and intervention programs and positively impacting eating behaviour. Environmental factors appear to play a major role in determining the extent to which people apply their innate ability to self-regulate food consumption. While positive body image, emotional awareness and spirituality appear to fulfil a protective function, disruptive agents such as counterproductive feeding practices and sociocultural pressures have been put forward as the root cause of gradual detachment from internal to external nutrition cues. The etiology of adaptive eating behaviours and disordered eating, however, is multifactorial and a holistic investigation lies outside of the scope of this study. Hence, this report will commence to shed light on two particular areas of influence, perceived parenting style, perceived verbal eating messages and body image.

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