Intuitive eating is a dietary approach that rejects the current predominant diet culture and puts you in control of deciding what’s best for your body.
While many popular diets are built on restrictive, external guidelines, intuitive eating is the opposite. It means paying attention to the internal signals you receive from your body and acting accordingly. It’s an approach that aims to restore a healthy relationship with food and developing a positive body image.
Messages from the current diet culture can be hard to ignore, especially if you’ve been hearing them for decades. We’re taught that our bodies need to look a certain way and be a certain weight and size. We’re told that it’s our own fault if we don’t achieve the results we want with the latest fad diet. We’re taught that certain foods are off-limits and that we should feel guilty if we give in to our cravings.
It should come as no surprise that these messages can create disordered eating patterns and an unhealthy relationship with food. Intuitive eating seeks to change that.
Learn to Trust What Your Body Needs
Intuitive eating is built on simple principles, such as eating only when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full. While this may sound simple, learning to trust these signals from the body is a big adjustment for many people.
Relying too much on restrictive dietary guidelines, strict eating schedules, or calorie counting can lead you away from doing what’s truly best for your body. For some, learning how to eat intuitively means relearning how to trust and listen to your body.
One key element of intuitive eating is being able to tell the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger. Physical hunger is driven by the body’s need for nutrients. It may be marked by hunger cues such as shakiness, fatigue, or a growling stomach. Emotional hunger is a craving, often for specific foods, driven by emotions such as stress or boredom. Indulging in emotional eating often causes guilt.
Intuitive eating attempts to move away from feelings of diet-related shame and guilt.
Benefits of Intuitive Eating
Although more research on intuitive eating is needed, some studies suggest that it can lead to improved body image and better psychological health.
Participants in studies that focused on the use of internal cues of hunger and fullness reported that they experienced less depression and anxiety, improved self-esteem, and better metabolic fitness.
The History of Intuitive Eating
The term intuitive eating was introduced by a 1995 book of the same name, now in its fourth edition, by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.
Many of the concepts of intuitive eating, however, have been around for decades. Tribole and Resch based their approach on the idea that diets don’t work, and that lifestyle change and self-respect are necessary to promote true wellness.
10 Principles of Intuitive Eating
As Tribole and Resch define it, intuitive eating is based on 10 key principles:
1. Reject the Diet Mentality
Any diet that promises quick weight loss or other results through temporary changes or overly restrictive eating does not promote a healthy relationship with food. The current diet culture is built on the idea that a new and better diet can deliver the results you want if you can just learn the tricks and follow the rules. These approaches ultimately lead to feelings of failure and shame when they don’t work.
Long-term wellness requires sustainable lifestyle changes and healthy habits that provide your body with what it truly needs, not with punishment and deprivation.
2. Honor Your Hunger
Learning to honor your hunger is the first step in rebuilding trust in yourself and creating a healthy relationship with food.
If you’re truly hungry, then your body needs nutrients. Ignoring your hunger or depriving your body of the food it needs can ultimately lead to overeating and continue to promote disordered eating.
Your hunger can provide important clues about what your body really needs. Learn to see it as a way to communicate with your body, not as something to be silenced or avoided.
3. Make Peace With Food
Intuitive eating means giving yourself permission to eat. Food is not your enemy.
Telling yourself that certain foods are off-limits can lead to cravings and binge eating, followed by feelings of guilt.
We all need food. Recognize that food is a source of important nutrients that improve your health, increase your energy, help fight disease, and lengthen your lifespan.
4. Challenge the Food Police
The current diet culture has created unreasonable rules that can make you think you’re being “good” for eating a certain way and “bad” when you break the rules.
These voices in your head can be difficult to drown out and may prevent you from building a new, healthy relationship with food.
Pay attention to the negative statements or guilt-provoking phrases that pop into your head when you’re eating. Are those statements really true, or have they been ingrained into you by a diet-obsessed culture?
Rather than thinking of different foods as good or bad, pay attention to how different foods make you feel. Do they help boost your energy or drain it? By becoming more aware of the effects of different foods on your body, you may eventually find yourself naturally reaching for foods that are more nourishing.
5. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Food is a source of pleasure and satisfaction. It’s okay—even good for you—to enjoy eating!
When you eat something you really enjoy in an environment that is free from guilt, it can create powerful feelings of satisfaction and contentment.
Allow yourself to enjoy eating again. Deriving pleasure from food may, in fact, prevent binging and overeating. When you allow yourself to truly enjoy something, you can often feel satisfied with just a small portion.
6. Feel Your Fullness
Many of us eat until we’re stuffed and then feel miserable. Part of intuitive eating is learning to listen to signals from your body that tell you when you’ve had enough.
This may mean eating more slowly and pausing occasionally to ask yourself if you’re still hungry or eating out of habit. It may also require eliminating distractions while you eat, such as mindlessly eating in front of the TV.
7. Respond to Your Emotions With Kindness—Not With Food
Overly restrictive dietary guidelines can feel like a loss of control, which, in turn, can trigger emotional eating.
Rather than numbing your emotions with food, learn to listen to them and discover what’s underneath them. Many of us have learned to use food to distract ourselves from what we’re really feeling, but this won’t solve our problems and can make things worse in the long run.
Learning to address and resolve the source of your emotions can ultimately lead to greater self-respect and a healthier relationship with food.
8. Respect Your Body
Everyone’s body is different—not just in shape and size, but also in what it needs to feel healthy.
It can take some time and effort to shed the weight of society’s expectations about body size. It’s especially hard to break free of the diet mentality if you’re overly focused on or critical of your weight or size. Intuitive eating promotes the idea that all bodies deserve dignity.
9. Get Active and Feel the Difference
Exercise shouldn’t be a form of punishment. Find different ways to move your body that you actually enjoy—and notice how it makes you feel.
Being more active offers countless benefits, including increased energy and improved mood. Rather than viewing exercise as a means of fitting your body into someone else’s expectations, make it a part of your lifestyle because it makes you feel good.
10. Honor Your Health
Food can promote good health and still taste good. Learn which foods nourish your body so that you can make informed decisions about what to eat.
Remember, you don’t have to eat perfectly all of the time. One indulgent treat or meal won’t wreck your health if you’re choosing healthy foods most of the time. Focus on progress, not on perfection.
Healthy habits can be difficult to adopt if you attempt to start them all at once. Making small changes that build up over time can lead to lasting, impactful habits.
Wondering what the difference is with mindful eating? Click here.