No gimmicks, no pills. One expert explains how to eat what you love and lose weight without dieting.
Evelyn Tribole, M.S., R.D., may be one of the only dietitians to tell you to eat French fries and chocolate cake. But her
advice is sensible and practical when applied within the context of her intuitive-eating principles—a way of eating that
emphasizes a healthful mind-set about food versus focusing on “good” and “bad” foods.
A competitive runner who qualified for the 1984 Olympic marathon trials, Tribole’s interest in nutrition stemmed from wanting
to know what to eat to run faster. It wasn’t until the early 1990s, when she was working with celebrities at Columbia
Pictures and was frustrated when they regained weight they lost, that she looked into the psychology behind eating. Now,
rather than suggesting diets where people can only eat this and not that, she tells them to eat anything. The catch: they
must recognize when they’re hungry, eat only when they are and then stop when they feel satisfied.
Evelyn Tribole answered some questions on what intuitive eating is and how to get started.
Illustration by Andrew Bannecker
What is intuitive eating?
It’s an approach that helps you have a healthy relationship—mentally and physically—with food. Intuitive eating is the
opposite of dieting: you reject rules for what to eat and not eat. Instead you listen to and trust your body’s natural cues
of hunger and fullness. In other words, you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. If you’re following dieting
rules and feeling unsatisfied, chances are you’re constantly thinking about food. When you eat intuitively, you pay attention
to whether a meal was enjoyable and whether it sustained you for the next few hours.
Can eating intuitively help someone lose weight?
Well, first I want to say that research suggests that dieting doesn’t work—many studies have shown that even when dieters
lose weight they often end up regaining what they lost, and sometimes even more. But a series of studies done in Italy that
taught people to essentially eat intuitively found that people who needed to lose weight lost and those who didn’t need to
lose maintained their weight eating this way. I’ve seen this in my patients too.
If they’re already at a healthy weight, then their weight stays in the healthy range, and if they need to lose, they
naturally do. The problem is a lot of people still want to be thinner, even if they’re at a healthy weight.
How can someone start eating intuitively?
A few questions to ask yourself are: Do you have rigid rules about food? Are you an emotional eater? Can you recognize
hunger? Generally I find that hunger is a good place to start. If someone doesn’t know how to recognize when they’re hungry
or full, it’s going to be hard to tackle the other principles, like ditching strict food rules. A lot of people are good at
the extreme—“I’m going to pass out, I’m so hungry”—but they miss gentle hunger signs and as a result they get too hungry,
which makes it easy to overeat. And often people don’t pay attention when they eat, so they eat well past the point of being
How can people cue into feeling full if they’re not used to doing so?
Start by taking time out to listen to your body and what you need. In the beginning pick one meal a day to really pay
attention to—while you’re eating truly taste the food and notice what’s going on in your body. Ask yourself how the food
tastes. Is it meeting your expectation? Where’s your hunger level? Where’s your fullness? Are you satisfied? All of this can
be incredibly difficult to do. People are so used to checking e-mail, reading or having the TV on that eating a meal without
any distraction is a good first step. Doing so can be very freeing.
Intuitive eating includes this idea of “unconditional permission to eat,” meaning no food is taboo.
But will this lead people to eat too many “forbidden” foods?
I hear this a lot. When you remove the guilt from eating certain foods and know that you can have it again another time, you
get to ask yourself, “How does the food taste? Am I satisfied? Do I like how I feel physically?” I had a patient who was
addicted to French fries, and what she discovered by giving herself permission to eat them was “while I do love French fries,
I’m no longer willing to have them when they’re cold and limp” and she ended up having them less and less often and only
when they were perfect. Even if someone’s been eating this food for a long time, when they give themselves permission it’s
often the first time they’re truly tasting it.
You’ve talked about how it’s OK to eat French fries and chocolate, but where does healthy eating come
Once you’re in touch with your hunger, fullness and satisfaction, then you integrate health. You can think about what your
body might need nutritionally. When people are attuned to their bodies, healthy eating actually feels good and is not done
out of penance.