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.
What Is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating is an approach that was created by two registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, in 1995. 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. 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, they eat, and then stop eating until they’re hungry again. 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 and trust their body to tell them when, what and how much to eat. They know when they want to at eat veggies and also when they feel like having dessert (and don’t feel guilty or have any regrets with either choice).
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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 are a set up for failure. Research shows that the act of dieting increases your risk of gaining weight. Remind yourself: if dieting is the problem, how can it be part of the solution? 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.
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 consistently will have access to food. If you try to override feelings of hunger and don’t eat enough calories and carbohydrates, your body reacts with cravings and binges. Are there times when you feel hunger, but didn’t eat? How come? Utilize the hunger-fullness scale to get started with honoring your hunger.
3. Make Peace with Food. Allow all foods into your diet and give yourself unconditional permission to eat whatever you want. Stop categorizing foods as “good” or “bad” – no one food has the power to make you healthy, just like no one food has the power to make you unhealthy. 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. 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.
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’s impossible to view eating as a normal, pleasurable activity when the food police have ahold. Challenging the food police is an important step towards becoming an intuitive eater.
5. Feel Your Fullness. Dieting causes us to feel like we “have” to eat at meal times – when it is allowed – so leaving food behind can be difficult. 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.
6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor. 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 you’re likely to overeat. When you eat what you really want, the feelings of satisfaction and pleasure you feel will help you be content (and often with less food).
7. Cope With Your Emotions Without Using Food. Emotional eating is very common. We often eat for reasons other than physical hunger and food is often used to cover up unpleasant feelings and emotions. While food can certainly be used to sooth or cope with emotions, it can become a problem if a) it’s not working to help and/or b) it’s the only coping mechanism you have. Building up several different coping skills is an important part of intuitive eating.
8. Respect Your Body. 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. If you are too critical of your body and don’t accept yourself as you are, it’s hard to reject the diet mentality.
9. Exercise – Feel The Difference. 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 With 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. This is the last step of intuitive eating – once you’ve worked through the other principles you can learn how to embrace gentle nutrition.
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
- Lower body mass indexes
- Higher HDL cholesterol levels
- Lower Triglyceride levels
- Lower rates of emotional eating
- Lower rates of disordered eating
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 normal eating.
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.