Intuitive eating is a lifestyle practice that has been gaining momentum in the media lately, and with good reason. More and more people are realizing that dieting often doesn’t work in the long term and can often end up doing more harm than good—both in the body and mind. But what exactly is intuitive eating, and how does it work? This article will address these questions, explain its benefits, and give you tips on introducing intuitive eating into your lifestyle.
Intuitive eating is a concept developed in 1995 by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch(1). It takes an entirely different approach to traditional dieting that involves both the mind and body. Ultimately, it teaches its followers how to tune into their body’s innate cues to guide their eating habits and make peace with food and their bodies.
Intuitive eating is based upon a set of 10 evidence-based principles that aim to free people from the traditional confines of restrictive dieting and obsession about weight. Perhaps surprisingly, it has nothing to do with diets, meal plans, calorie counting, or even willpower.
While this may sound like a foreign concept to many, the truth is that we are all born intuitive eaters. Babies cry when they’re hungry and naturally stop when they are full, without anyone telling them how much or how little to eat. As we get older, though, cultural influence and behaviors taught in childhood or adolescence can cause us to stray from this framework, and we learn to eat based on a list of arbitrary rules and restrictions.
Intuitive eating, therefore, is about re-learning how to eat outside of the diet mentality—shifting the focus onto the body’s internal cues to guide your eating. Proponents of intuitive eating believe that it’s not just aboutwhat you eat, but also abouthow andwhy.
The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating are(2):*
This principle is first for a reason. The longer people hold onto the belief that there is a magic diet out there to solve all of their problems, the harder it will be to adopt a truly intuitive eating mindset. Research shows that frequent dieting negatively affects metabolism and increases your risk of gaining weight in the long term, which ultimately defeats the purpose (3). Following this principle involves changing your beliefs about the success promised by most diets and doing whatever is in your power to remove yourself from that mindset
Hunger is a normal, biological process, yet dieting often teaches us to ignore hunger cues and instead limit ourselves to strict guidelines and calorie restrictions. The truth is that if you try to ignore feelings of hunger and deprive your body of adequate calories and nutrients, your body will often fight back with cravings and overeating. Utilizing a tool such as thehunger-fullness scale can help you get started with honoring your hunger.
This involves giving yourself unconditional permission to eat what you want, when you want.Sometimes conflict with food looks like guilt, while other times it looks like rules associated with eating (e.g., saying things like “I can only eat dessert if I ate really healthy the rest of the day”). Making peace with food allows you to experience more enjoyment and less anxiety associated with eating, which can positively impact many aspects of your life.
We have all likely had our own internal “food police” in our heads, telling us we’re “good” or “bad” for eating certain foods. These thoughts create guilt and a negative association with food. Challenging the food police means recognizing that no single food has the ability to make you healthy or unhealthy on its own. Rather, it's the holistic picture of your diet that matters most. This principle encourages you to stop giving food so much power and allowing unreasonable rules to govern your food decisions.
Just as important as recognizing and honoring hunger is respecting your fullness. Dieting often causes us to eat based on routine, which doesn’t always line up with when we’re actually hungry or full. Following this principle means slowing down with your eating and listening for signals that tell you you’re full and satisfied. Referring to the hunger-fullness scale can help with this principle as well.
It’s common to feel full but not satisfied. This often happens when we fill up on foods we feel like we are “supposed” to eat, while avoiding those we truly want. Often, this cycle leads us to search for more food to satisfy our hunger, causing unintentional overeating. Discovering the satisfaction factor means allowing yourself to eat what you really want, which often leads to eating less.
It’s common to use food to cover up unpleasant feelings and emotions. Yet continuing in this pattern rarely addresses the underlying emotion and can lead to feeling worse in the long run. Intuitive eating encourages you to gain awareness aboutwhy you are eating and to explore ways to comfort yourself without turning to food every time (while also recognizing that eating without being physically hungry is okay sometimes).
Body shaming is sadly second nature for so many people. It’s often a result of dieting and media influences, which tell us that our bodies aren't good enough the way they are. Yet being too critical of your body makes following intuitive eating very challenging and is more likely to lead to the vicious cycle of chronic dieting. Intuitive eating encourages accepting your body how it is right now, while acknowledging that it's okay to desire change as long as it’s achieved in a healthy, loving way.
Exercise plays an essential role in health, but it’s easy for it to become an obsession. Exercising with intuitive eating involves shifting your focus from just the calorie-burning effects of exercise to instead thinking about other reasons for intentionally moving your body. Think about what type of movement feels good to you and how you feel both before and after working out. Exercising only to lose weight or eat more food means is not likely to be a sustainable motivator. So start exercising because you want to, not because you have to!
Good nutrition absolutely remains a priority in the setting of intuitive eating. But being healthy doesn’t mean eating perfectly, and it’s an important distinction to keep in mind. Honoring your health means learning to make healthy food choices out of the desire to nourish your body—not out of guilt or other food rules. For this reason, incorporating health and nutrition is the last step in intuitive eating. If a healthy relationship with food is not established, it’s difficult to pursue healthy eating without falling into the trap of a diet mindset. Therefore, it’s important to get a good grasp on the first nine principles before moving on to this one.
*Note thatthese principles are not a set of “rules,” and there is no way to “fail” intuitive eating. Instead, they are guidelines that make up this eating approach to help you understand what implementing intuitive eating into your lifestyle might look like.
All of this comes as a welcome alternative to traditional dieting—an approach that may work in the short term, but doesn’t teach the follower how to truly nourish their body in the long term. Instead, dieting often promotes disordered eating thoughts, which can have a detrimental impact on your mind and health.
If you’re someone who feels defeated by dieting and are ready to try a new approach to managing your health, intuitive eating is likely right for you. Even if you haven’t had this experience, just about anyone can benefit from incorporating the principles of intuitive eating into their lifestyle.
Some questions to ask yourself to help determine if intuitive eating is right for you are:
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you owe it to yourself to break free from diet culture and embrace intuitive eating.
Begin by clarifying your goals and desires with your relationship with food. Think about what finding freedom with food would feel like to you, and how you would spend your days if you weren't obsessing about food all of the time. Then, ask yourself what you can do today to commit to your journey toward intuitive eating.
Remember that intuitive eating doesn’t ever expect or require perfection, and it will likely take time to fully adopt the new mindset that it is associated with. So remember to be patient with yourself, and continue to improve awareness of your thoughts and habits. Working alongside a trained professional in intuitive eating can also be extremely beneficial as you work to incorporate this new approach into your lifestyle.
Intuitive eating is a well-researched approach to health that is contrary to typical diet culture and associated with many benefits both for the body and mind. Anyone can adopt and follow the principles of intuitive eating, and there is no “perfect” way to do so. Followers of intuitive eating are likely to report more freedom and enjoyment with eating as well as in their overall lives.
If intuitive eating sounds too good to be true, know that it isn’t and it is completely doable for just about anyone. If you’re interested in learning more, read about the myths of intuitive eating and how to overcome them.
Joanna Foley - Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice