What Is Intuitive Eating?
You may have heard about the latest fad diets—the new things to cut out for "health," the latest gripes about carbs or fats or proteins, the new reasons to fast (or not to fast)—and you may have a lot of questions. Fad diets chronically overpromise and underdeliver. A different approach? Learning to tune in to your body and finding out what is healthy for you. It may sound radical, but intuitive eating can actually be freeing and satisfying. Plus, it's backed up by science.
Pictured recipe: Gnocchi Pomodoro
Learn more about what intuitive eating is, how to eat intuitively, the principles and steps involved with tuning in to your body, and if it's the right approach if you're trying to lose weight.
What is intuitive eating?
First introduced in a book by registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995, intuitive eating is about listening to your body and ditching diets.
"People are so sick of dieting. They're starting to learn on an experiential level that it doesn't work, and it messes you up," says Tribole, of why these principles resonate with consumers and nutrition professionals alike. So instead of another diet book, she flipped the script and came up with the anti-diet way of eating. "Intuitive eating is about body autonomy, and learning to eat with attunement," she adds.
It's a permission slip to stop dieting, for good. No more rules, no more tracking, no more cycling on and off any given plan or food trend.
The 10 principles of how to eat intuitively
The Intuitive Eating book and workbook (buy it: $12.18, Target.com) outline 10 principles, starting with ditching what Tribole and Resch define as the "diet mentality" and ending with "gentle nutrition." These principles are not meant to be a 10-step process, but, as Tribole notes, "They are inter-dynamic." Whether you pick up the book, follow along through a podcast series, or work with a dietitian to get started, all 10 principles will be part of your journey to a healthier relationship with food.
1. Reject the diet mentality
"Dieting is everywhere—you may not even realize you're dieting!" says Tribole. I often ask clients to work through this principle by making a list of food rules that guide their eating behaviors—things as seemingly innocent as "I always eat this for breakfast" or "I never eat past 8 p.m"—and we begin breaking or challenging those rules, one by one. This also helps bring awareness to the diet mentality in our culture that's seeped into their lives.
A few examples of diet culture: the "clean" salad now advertised at your favorite quick-service restaurant, elimination diets disguised as a "wellness cleanse" or the annual pressure to start fresh with a new diet in January.
"Recognize how often these diet thoughts drive your behavior," says Tribole, as opposed to letting hunger, fullness and satisfaction cues, along with gentle nutrition, guide your eating patterns. Reject the idea that you need a diet, or rigid meal plan, in order to feel healthy.
Without rejecting the diet mentality, the rest of the principles are hard, if not impossible, to fully embrace.
2. Honor your hunger
Vincci Tsui, R.D., a Calgary-based registered dietitian, refers to hunger as "the gateway principle" of intuitive eating. Tsui incorporates intuitive eating and weight-inclusive practices in both a nutrition clinic and private practice. Maybe the simplified versions of intuitive eating you've seen on social media have homed in on the "eat when you're hungry!" message. But it's more nuanced than that. There are various forms of hunger, and many things can significantly influence biological hunger cues—disordered eating, medication and stress, to name a few.
And don't forget that diet rules also tend to trump our ability, or willingness, to truly honor hunger. Start to cue in to your hunger—and fullness—by taking time throughout the day to check in with your body and asking yourself how hungry or full you feel.
3. Make peace with food
"Give yourself unconditional permission to eat," write Tribole and Resch. This principle may come with one of the steepest learning curves. Along with the diet mentality comes a tendency to label foods as "good" and "bad," healthy or unhealthy, and then assign that morality or label to your own body. Restricting certain foods can lead to uncontrollable urges and overeating.
I urge clients to work on seeing the bigger picture, that no single food is healthy or unhealthy on its own, in one unique instance. It's about patterns, flexibility and practicing unconditional permission to eat so that no food is a "treat" or a "guilty pleasure" but rather, just another thing you consume and enjoy.
4. Challenge the food police
Tribole and Resch describe our inner food police as the thoughts directing our food choices every day. Again, an extension of the diet mentality, and something clients often have to reckon with throughout the process, even once they've rejected the idea of needing to be "on" a diet.
5. Respect your fullness
Another gateway principle in intuitive eating is often boiled down to "stop eating when you're full." And while that is one skill to learn—while unlearning the act of eating according to specific portion sizes or servings on a package—it leaves out the nuances of feeling fullness. Many clients think about fullness as "Thanksgiving full" (i.e., uncomfortable and stuffed). The fullness scale helps us learn to identify early signs of fullness, and to feel fullness on a spectrum, as we learn the cues our bodies provide.
6. Discover the satisfaction factor
Eating should be an enjoyable, satisfying experience. If our food choices, meals and eating patterns leave us unsatisfied, we'll keep looking for (or craving) more. Chronic dieting is essentially chronic dissatisfaction—not eating enough, often not eating foods you like or enjoy, and not trusting yourself around those foods. Intuitive eating encourages discovering satisfaction, and learning what satisfies you.
7. Honor your feelings without using food
For some people, food is used as a coping mechanism. This happens in various types of dieting, and even in some clinical eating disorders. Stephanie Brooks R.D., a certified Intuitive Eating counselor in the Bay Area, notes, "I think the more we focus on the minutiae of food and dieting—what's good, bad, right or wrong—it becomes a way to keep our brains occupied, so we can escape other things." As part of changing your eating (and tuning in to your body) you're also encouraged to be more emotionally aware and learn skills to feel these emotions without immediately searching for a numbing agent or distraction.
8. Respect your body
"Intuitive eating is about body autonomy," says Tribole. It's a point she finds crucial for people to understand. And the processes of learning to identify and honor hunger, fullness and our personal needs for satisfaction are all related to respecting what our unique bodies need every day.
9. Exercise—feel the difference
Exercise has myriad health benefits, including stress reduction and keeping your heart and brain healthy. But it shouldn't be something you dread. Instead, think of exercise as movement. Find something you enjoy and ways you can do it often. Try walking, dancing, bike riding, rock climbing or playing with your kids instead of going to the gym (if that's not your thing). Brooks notes that once clients have worked through earlier principles and start to eat intuitively, they feel energized. "They get excited to incorporate some movement."
10. Honor your health (with gentle nutrition)
Finally! Nutrition reenters the picture. Nutrition science can also lend itself to the formation of rules, and rigid thinking. It helps to put it aside for a while, if you can. In the absence of any need to monitor nutrition while managing chronic health conditions, like diabetes or heart disease, nutrition gets saved for the last step.
I often tell clients we can come back to nutrition once it's something they don't care about anymore. Nutrition is built into all of the other principles, though. We have to fuel our bodies in order to help them move and exercise well. We can use nutrition to build more satisfying and satiating meals. We can think about nutrition when we consider what is satisfying. But even when this nutrition information comes back in, Tribole makes sure to clarify an important intuitive eating foundation: "There shouldn't be any guilt with eating a salad or a doughnut—you get to be the boss of you."
Does intuitive eating work?
One of the biggest criticisms of intuitive eating is that if you tell people they can eat whatever they want, they'll just eat ice cream or cake or cookies. But that's just not what happens. Sure, ice cream is delicious, but eventually it would lose its appeal.
"The principles of intuitive eating have been used in over 100 research studies, showing benefit and scientific validity," notes Tribole. Tracy Tylka, Ph.D., developed the intuitive eating scale to help evaluate the behaviors of intuitive eating such as "unconditional permission to eat, eating for physical hunger rather than emotional reasons, and reliance on internal hunger/satiety cues." It has been studied in relation to everything from body image and eating disorder treatment to post-collegiate eating patterns and BMI. (Updated research and resources can be found on intuitiveeating.org.)
Studies have found that eating intuitively is associated with positive health outcomes such as improved blood glucose control in Type 1 diabetes, decreased disordered eating behaviors, positive eating-disorder treatment outcomes, improved body image and weight stability.
Okay, but does intuitive eating work for weight loss?
As with any diet or eating pattern, there are three possible weight outcomes when someone starts practicing intuitive eating: weight loss, weight gain or weight stability. But intuitive eating was never intended to be a weight-loss diet.
"If you're going into intuitive eating with the mindset that you'll lose weight, you'll probably be disappointed," says Tsui. She acknowledges, "It's frustrating, because intuitive eating is so different from anything else we've been exposed to." And if you try to incorporate these principles while also trying to lose weight, you'll feel like you're not doing it right.
Try to put weight-loss goals aside and remember that weight changes do not directly result in better (or worse) health outcomes. Health is about much more than just our food intake and our weight; it's multifaceted. When we focus on body awareness and respecting what the body needs, instead of just what the scale says, health improvements often follow.
Brooks notes that many of her clients experience "better energy levels, improved mood, clarity and ability to focus. And sometimes we'll see metabolic improvements."
It's a welcome relief from the yo-yo-dieting cycle. "Clients are surprised I don't weigh them, or put them on a strict diet, or tell them to eat things they don't like, or take all the chocolate away," says Brooks. "They're relieved. And some people say 'I wish I'd called years ago.'"
Breaking up with diets and tuning in to your body can help you be healthier. The principles of intuitive eating can help you improve your relationship with food and never diet again. Use these tips to get started, and check out the Intuitive Eating book or look for a registered dietitian with an intuitive eating focus to get more personalized help.