Intuitive eating is an approach to health and food that has nothing to do with diets, meal plans, discipline or willpower. It teaches you how to get in touch with your body cues like hunger, fullness and satisfaction while learning to trust your body around food again. Here’s an overview of intuitive eating including the science behind it, the ten principles of intuitive eating, and the difference between intuitive eating and mindful eating. For more info on ditching the diet and healing your relationship with food, check out the Intuitive Eating Crash Course.
To better understand how the focus on diet and weight loss may be getting in the way of you living your life to the fullest and get insight on how to eat and live unapologetically, take a look at my new book Unapologetic Eating: Make Peace with Food and Transform Your Life.
What Is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating is a non-diet approach to health and wellness that helps you tune into your body signals, break the cycle of chronic dieting and heal your relationship with food. It was created by two registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, in 1995, based on their experience working with clients. From a nutrition professional perspective, intuitive eating is a framework that helps us keep nutrition interventions behavior-focused instead of restrictive or rule-focused.
We are all born natural intuitive eaters. Babies cry to signal their hunger, they eat, and then stop eating when they’re comfortably full. Kids innately balance out their food intake from week to week, eating when they’re hungry and stopping once they feel full. Some days they may eat a ton of food, and other days they may eat barely anything. As we grow older and rules and restrictions are set around food, we lose our inner intuitive eater. We learn to finish everything on our plate. We learn that dessert is a reward, or can be taken away if we misbehave. We are told that certain foods are good for us and others are bad – causing us to feel good about ourselves when we eat certain foods and guilty when we eat others.
Intuitive Eating is not a diet. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. There’s no counting calories or macros and no making certain foods off limits. It’s not about following a meal plan or measuring out your portions (in fact, that is all discouraged!). Instead, it’s about re-learning to eat outside of the diet mentality, putting the focus on your internal cues (aka your intuition) like hunger, fullness and satisfaction, and moving away from external cues like food rules and restrictions.
But intuitive eating is not the ‘hunger-fullness diet’. Intuitive eaters give themselves unconditional permission to eat whatever they want without feeling guilty. They rely on their internal hunger and satiety signals, along with other cues like energy levels, mental clarity, and stress levels, and trust their body to tell them when, what and how much to eat. They know when they want to eat veggies and also when they feel like having dessert (and don’t feel guilty or have any regrets with either choice).
The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating
Intuitive Eating is made up of ten core principles. I’ve gone into more detail in other blog posts, but here is a quick synopsis of each.
1. Reject the Diet Mentality. Think about it: where has your focus on weight loss gotten you to at this point in your life? What has it done to your body? Your mind? It’s not about your lack of willpower or about you being a failure. It’s the system of dieting that is the problem – diets and focusing on body size are a set up for failure. Reject the idea that there are any good diets out there. Get rid of books and magazines that tout diets and easy or quick weight loss. Unfollow social media accounts that propel the dieting myth and diet behaviors (especially those that make you feel bad about yourself) and instead follow accounts that share positive food and health messaging. For a list of accounts we recommend, click here. (Pro tip: Sometimes it can be tricky to tell if something is a diet, but anything that tells you what or how much to eat is a diet, even if it’s promoted as a “lifestyle.”)
2. Honor Your Hunger. Hunger is not a four-letter word – it is a normal, biological process. Your body needs to know, and to trust, that it will consistently have access to food. If you try to override feelings of hunger and don’t eat enough calories and carbohydrates, your body reacts with increase cravings and appetite, which increases the chance of binging or feeling out of control around food. Are there times when you felt hunger but didn’t eat? How come? You may want to try utilizing the hunger-fullness scale to get started with honoring your hunger. Keep in mind that it will be hard to do this in a way that works for your body if you are not honoring each signal of hunger. Pushing some hunger signals aside further disconnects you from your body and makes it harder to eat according to its cues.
In intuitive eating, we also recognize that sometimes we might not feel hungry (say we’re busy, stressed, or drank a lot of coffee). Even if our hunger cues are off, it’s important to ensure we are eating enough throughout the day (regular meals and a few snacks) in order to stay adequately nourished and not get overly hungry in the afternoon or evening.
You may be tempted to think about “Feel Your Fullness” being connected with honoring your hunger, but it’s important to focus on honoring your hunger first. In order for your body to naturally start following its fullness cues, it needs to be adequately nourished and not focused on deprivation.
3. Make Peace with Food. This principle is about working to allow all foods into your diet and giving yourself unconditional permission to eat whatever you want. Notice when you are categorizing foods as “good” or “bad” and work to find the gray area, to make food more neutral. If you tell yourself you can’t have or shouldn’t have a certain food, you will eventually feel deprived; this deprivation builds into uncontrollable cravings and overeating.
Although you may not be depriving yourself through traditional diets, the threat of future deprivation is implied when you aren’t letting yourself have certain foods, aren’t keeping all kinds of foods around, or feel guilty or ashamed about what you’re eating. You send your body the conscious or subconscious message, “Tomorrow, I’ll try not to do this again,” which your body hears as, “Better get food in now.” This type of sneaky diet mentality will cause the same outcome as traditional dieting: a bigger appetite and more food cravings. Biologically, this makes sense: If you really were in a famine, energy-dense foods and an increased appetite would be a great way to save your life.
A visualization you can think about is the restrict-binge pendulum (see below). When you finally “give in” to that food, you’re likely to overeat – since you don’t know when you’ll be able to have it again. This overeating triggers guilt, which starts the cycle all over again: deprivation or restriction –> cravings and overeating –> feelings of guilt. Those of you who’ve been in this pendulum know what it feels like to swing from restriction and its intense hunger and cravings to a sense of being out of control around food, which usually leads to overeating and bingeing. Often what happens at this point is that people feel guilty and out of control and think they need to diet again to get “back on the wagon,”which ends up sending them all the way back to the left of the pendulum: to deprivation.
4. Challenge the Food Police. The food police are the thoughts in your head that declare you as “good” for eating a salad for lunch and “bad” because you ate dessert/carbs/sugar/etc. These are the unreasonable rules that were created by dieting that cause you to feel guilty. These rules are housed deep in your brain and pop up on a daily basis to govern your food decisions. It can be really difficult to view eating as a normal, pleasurable activity when the food police are in charge. Challenging the food police is an important step towards becoming an intuitive eater.
5.Discover the Satisfaction Factor. There is a difference between fullness and satisfaction. It’s possible to be physically full but not satisfied. If you’re unsatisfied you’ll probably keep looking for that one thing that is going to make you feel satisfied and content, and it can be hard to feel “done” eating. When you eat what you really want, including food that you’re in the mood for and food that tastes good to you, the feelings of satisfaction and pleasure you feel will help you be content and really feel “done”. As Registered Dietitian Rachel Hartley says, “Fullness is the physical sensation of satiety, while satisfaction is the mental sensation of satiety.”
6. Feel Your Fullness. Before going into this principle, I want to emphasize that there is no need to focus on it or stress about it very much. Feeling your fullness will start to happen naturally once you let go of restricting food types and quantities and are regularly eating when you have hunger cues. It is totally normal to feel “out of control” around eating or to frequently eat until you are uncomfortably full when you first start your intuitive eating journey and even for a significant time after. This is normal; your body is simply recovering from feeling restricted. Eventually, once your body knows it can eat what it wants when it wants, you will begin to stop eating when you’re comfortably full because you know you can eat again whenever you get hungry.
Some tips for practicing feeling your fullness if you would like to explore them: Dieting causes us to feel like we “have” to eat a certain amount at meal times – when it is allowed – so leaving food on your plate can be difficult. However, feeling and honoring your fullness means feeling more comfortable letting go of the “clean plate” mentality. Listen for signals that tell you that you are feeling full and satiated. Pause partway through a meal or snack and check in with your body. How does the food taste? How full do you feel? Bring more consciousness and awareness to your meals. Utilizing the hunger-fullness scale can help, as can this 5-minute mindful eating exercise. If you don’t want to waste food, consider putting leftovers away for later, even if there’s just a little left.
7. Cope With Your Emotions with Kindness. Emotional eating is when we eat for reasons other than physical hunger, such as using food to help cover up unpleasant feelings and emotions. If you notice this happening, the first thing to do is to be kind to yourself. Emotional eating is often demonized, labeled as “wrong” or “bad,” but it can actually be a helpful coping mechanism. Not to mention, it is totally normal. Emotional eating has likely helped support you through many difficult situations, and there is no expectation to let go of it entirely. At the same time, it is important to recognize that, while in the short term food may comfort, distract, or numb, it will not solve anything.
To find sustainable ways to navigate uncomfortable emotions, you may find it helpful to be attentive to how you are feeling and practice a variety of coping skills. In this process, you might find it beneficial to work with a therapist, intuitive eating dietitian, or practitioner specializing in a mindfulness-based healing modality, such as meditation or yoga.
Keep in mind: We often feel out of control when we eat “forbidden foods” or when we eat when we are overly hungry. This can feel like emotional eating, but it is really our body recovering from restriction.
8. Respect Your Body. Body respect means that you listen to your body, serve your body by caring for it physically and mentally, are kind and compassionate to your body, and appreciate your body as it is right now. Loving your body is not a prerequisite for respecting it. You can respect your body no matter how you feel about it because respect begins when you recognize that you are valuable and worthy of care just as you are today. Regardless of how your body looks, how it works, or how you feel about it. Respecting your body doesn’t start when you feel good about your body; it starts when you realize your worth as a person is inherent and everlasting.
You are in a relationship with your body; it is a two-way street where information and experiences are communicated back and forth. A healthy relationship with your body cannot exist without mutual respect. When you speak badly about yourself, ignore your body’s signals, or put others’ needs in front of your own, you send your body the message that you don’t respect or value it. Most people try to avoid disrespecting someone they care about. Yet, how many of us stop to consider how we might be disrespecting ourselves?
We’re so quick to judge ourselves and criticize our bodies. Learning to respect your body for how it is at this moment is an important tenant of Intuitive Eating. See if you can shift your focus from physical “imperfections” and comparison to others to all of the things your body does for you and why you are grateful for it. At the same time, it is okay to struggle with this. Have compassion for and patience with yourself – unlearning and relearning takes time, and it’s a constant journey.
9. Movement – Feel The Difference. Many people approach exercise as something they “should do” or something to check off our to-do list. We know it’s good for our health, yet it becomes something we either dread, force ourselves to do, or struggle to do at all. Especially given how weight-focused and appearance-driven society, exercise becomes something we “have to” or “should” do, instead of something we want to do. This is also why it is so hard for many people to start or maintain a consistent exercise practice.
Intuitive movement is the practice of paying attention to and connecting to your body. Instead of focusing on the exercise you think you “should” be doing, shift your focus to what types of movement feel good to you. Forget about the calorie burning effect of exercise and think about how you feel after working out. Do you feel energized? Do you sleep better? If you use exercise only as a way to lose weight or eat more food, it’s not going to be something you will stick with forever.
10. Honor Your Health – Gentle Nutrition. Being healthy doesn’t mean eating “perfectly”. Consider how certain foods make you feel, in addition to how tasty and satisfying they are to you. It’s the consistency of what you eat over time – it’s not all or nothing. If we’re still caught up in diet mentality, nutrition can sometimes be seen by the body as a form of restriction. For that reason, some people find it helpful to work through other principles before focusing on embracing gentle nutrition.
Gentle nutrition can be thought of as using food from a place of self care rather than a place of control and restriction. Rather than thinking about nutrition in terms of what foods you should cut back on or eliminate, can you think of nutrition in terms of what foods you can add in? Experiment to see which nutrient-dense foods you truly enjoy and how to prepare them in a way that is appetizing and tasty. For example, perhaps you like berries with some whipped cream on them, oatmeal with peanut butter and chocolate mixed in, or Brussels sprouts when they’re prepared with butter.
The Science Behind Intuitive Eating
There are now over 100 research studies that have shown the benefits of intuitive eating. The studies show that intuitive eating is associated with:
- Higher self-esteem
- Better body image
- More satisfaction with life
- Optimism and well-being
- Proactive coping skills
- Higher HDL cholesterol levels
- Lower Triglyceride levels
- Lower rates of emotional eating
- Lower rates of disordered eating
In addition to noting these benefits, you can find more ways to measure your progress on your intuitive eating journey in this post.
What’s the Difference Between Intuitive Eating and Mindful Eating?
Before I started training in Intuitive Eating, I used the terms Mindful Eating and Intuitive Eating interchangeably. While this isn’t totally incorrect, it’s important to note the differences.
The Center for Mindful Eating defines mindful eating as “allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food selection and preparation by respecting your own inner wisdom” and “using all your senses in choosing to eat food that is both satisfying to you and nourishing to your body and becoming aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your decisions to begin and end eating.”
You can tell right there that Intuitive Eating encompasses the principles of mindful eating. However, it goes a step further, also addressing the importance of rejecting the dieting mentality, respecting your body (regardless of your weight or shape), coping with emotional eating, and gentle movement and nutrition without judgment. Both mindful eating and Intuitive Eating can be useful tools to help you reach a place of eating that works best for your body.
Are you interested in learning more about Intuitive Eating?
We work with clients virtually throughout the US, helping people who are frustrated with dieting change their relationship with food and say goodbye to diets once and for all. Learn more about our intuitive eating coaching programs to see how you can find balance and develop long-term lifestyle habits, no diets required.
Not ready for one-on-one coaching or looking to learn more about intuitive eating on your own? The Intuitive Eating Crash Course is a self-paced online course that walks you through the foundational principles of intuitive eating. You also might want to check out my book, Unapologetic Eating: Make Peace with Food and Transform Your Life.