Last week I did a big presentation to our state dietetics conference on Intuitive Eating. The practice has blown up in popularity over the past few years with the mainstreaming of body positivity, but there’s still a lot of people who are new to the practice, including most of the dietitians and students in the audience that day. I felt so incredibly honored (and a huge sense of responsibility!) to lay a solid framework for people to understand the practice.
In my talk, I discussed Intuitive Eating basics, and what this non-diet approach is, and isn’t. While I’m thrilled to see Intuitive Eating getting more publicity, giving more people access to this truly life-saving approach, the rise in popularity has also led to a lot of confusion about the practice, especially for those who are doing most of their learning on instagram. Don’t get me wrong, social media is FREE and there are a lot of great resources, but I might jump through the screen the next time I see a trainer hashtag intuitive eating alongside if it fits your macros.
So on that note, I wanted to create a resource that covers the basics of Intuitive Eating - probably something I should have done years ago when I first started training in it! I hope this post serves as a helpful resource for you to share with others, and that it helps fill in any gaps in knowledge.
What is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating is a non-diet approach to eating that emphasizes internal cues over external diet rules. Now, let’s break down that jargon. Non-diet means that the focus isn’t on the scale, but instead on promoting health-enhancing behaviors, better body image, and a healthier relationship with food. To help guide eating choices, intuitive eating helps you get back in touch with internal cues, like hunger and fullness, cravings, and how food makes you feel. Intuitive eating also helps chip away at diet rules, like what, how much, and when to eat, so you’re better able to respond to your internal cues.
We were all born intuitive eaters. Think of babies, who cry when they need food, stop when they’re full, then cry when they need to eat again. There’s no schedule (unfortunately for tired parents!). They may eat more one day and less the next, but it all balances out. Kids do the same! You might also notice their changing preferences - one day they eat tons of fruit, the next day all they want is pasta with butter. But if you zoom out, they’re often getting a variety of foods and enough to support healthy growth - or at least will in an environment with food security and variety.
As we grow up, we’re introduced to diet rules. We’re forced to clean the plate even if we’re full or push it away when we’re still hungry. We’re told to eat certain foods and to limit others. We also learn that certain bodies are more valued than others, and told that changes to the way we eat can make our body more or less valuable. When this happens, we get away from using internal cues and start listening to external cues about what, how much, and when to eat. This can set off a cascade of unwanted food behaviors including dieting, restricting, binging, emotional eating and obsessing about food. Intuitive eating is a counter to this. It teaches you how to get back to eating the way you were born to.
In short, intuitive eating is normal human being eating.
What are the benefits of Intuitive Eating?
Higher HDL (“good”) cholesterol
Lower rates of emotional eating
Lower rates of disordered eating and eating disorders
Better body image
More satisfaction with life
Optimism and well-being
Proactive coping skills
(Sources and citations for studies are here.)
Note that IE has benefits to both physical and mental health. We often talk about nutrition and health in a very clinical way, forgetting that there are people with complex thoughts and emotions who are doing the eating. Mental health is health too, and any dietary change that negatively affects mental health probably isn’t actually making you any healthier.
With a non-diet approach like intuitive eating, you’re also negating the negative health effects associated with dieting, including the following:
Food and body preoccupation
Weight cycling (i.e. yo-yo’ing)
Focus on weight vs. sustainable health promoting behaviors
The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating
Intuitive eating is based on 10 principles, which I will describe below. Note that these are principles, not rules. There’s no wrong or right, just basic principles you can incorporate into your life at the pace that suits you and your healing.
Principle 1: Reject the Diet Mentality
The first principle of intuitive eating is all about rejecting the idea the system of dieting, and the diet mentality that fuels it. YOU are not the reason diets have failed, it’s simply a flawed paradigm. There is not a single bit of research suggesting more than a small number of people can lose weight and keep it off permanently. Yes, there are a bazillion weight loss studies, but almost all are less than a year, and most are less than 6 months. Yet one third to two thirds of weight is typically regained within a year, and almost all is usually regained within five years. In fact, you are more likely to gain weight with dieting, as approximately 60% of people who diet gain back more weight than they lost.
This is a place where I feel tempted to throw in a lot of statistics and research (and if you’re interested in that, check out Health at Every Size or this TED Talk on why dieting doesn’t work), but instead I’d encourage you to reflect on your own dieting history. Has dieting ever helped you sustainably improve your health? Live a life in line with your values? Or, has it set you on a spiral of dieting, restricting, giving in to a craving, shame and guilt, binging, and then starting all over Monday?
Principle 2: Honor Your Hunger
This principle focuses on learning to feed your body adequately throughout the day with energy and carbohydrates. Firstly, your body simply deserves to be fed adequately, and functions best when it is. But also, underfeeding often results in a primal hunger that fuels a drive to overeat, as well as impulsive choices around food. Feeding your body adequately may sound super simple, but it’s also a game changer! In my practice, I’ve had many clients notice eating concerns or digestive issues almost completely resolve simply from fueling more adequately. This principle also teaches you how to identify the more subtle signs of hunger. Years of suppressing hunger through dieting and restriction can make hunger cues a bit wonky, so intuitive eating includes practices to get back in touch with those cues.
Principle 3: Make Peace with Food
Making peace means giving yourself permission to eat all the foods you enjoy, including those that may have been off-limits. Telling yourself you can’t have a certain food just leads to uncontrollable cravings. When you do eat the forbidden food, eating might feel quite intense. We call this Last Supper eating, and it usually results in eating larger quantities or in a way that feels checked out/disconnected because you’re not sure when you’re going to be allowed to eat that food again. Intermittent access to foods does not allow for you to gain the skills to eat them like a normal human being, and by bringing these foods back in you can begin to gain experiences that help you make peace with them.
After bringing off-limits foods back in, it’s really normal to experience a bit of a honeymoon period, where you might be eating a lot more of those foods than normal, and maybe eating isn’t quite so nutritionally balanced. This period can last for a short time, or a long time depending on your unique history with food. It’s ok! It’s really important to go through this period because it allows for you to experience habituation, when those foods start to lose their “special” and become less exciting.
Principle 4: Challenge the Food Police
I like to contrast this principle with “Make Peace with Food.” Making peace with food is all about giving yourself physical permission to eat all foods, while challenging the food police is all about giving yourself the emotional permission to eat all foods. With this principle, you’re learning to challenge that voice inside your head that tells you that you’re being good for eating certain foods, and bad for eating others. It helps you take the morality out of eating choices.
Part of challenging the food police is nurturing more helpful self talk. You’ll learn how to neutrally observe, and speak to yourself in a more nurturing parent voice. By chipping away at the food police, you’ll begin to be able to look at nutrition in a more helpful way that’s rooted in self care, rather than punishment.
Principle 5: Respect Your Fullness
What’s that point where you are satisfied, but not stuffed? That’s a great place to stop in a meal! There is a very good reason why respect your fullness comes after honoring your hunger and making peace with food - if you’re not sure if you’re ever going to get a food again, or if you’re sitting down to a meal feeling ravenously hungry, it’s going to be challenging to honor your hunger. This is a place where mindfulness skills are helpful.
Principle 6: Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Pleasure should be a goal of healthful eating. Other cultures value pleasure above health and actually have better health outcomes. And regardless of physical health, everyone has the right to enjoy the food they eat. Enjoying tasty food enhances mental health and is part of the human experience! We were designed to connect with others over food - and I can’t imagine connecting with others over a bowl of boring salad with diet dressing!
Also, by intentionally choosing pleasurable food, you’re less likely to overeat or experience binges. That might sound counterintuitive, as many people fear they won’t be able to stop eating a food if it tastes good. In actuality, by eating enjoyable food and eating more mindfully, you’ll start to notice when a food stops tasting good, and be able to stop eating.
Principle 7: Cope with Your Emotions with or Without Food
I made a little edit to the original principle by adding “with or,” but in reading Evelyn and Elyse’s more current works, and in doing individual training with Evelyn, I’m fairly confident they’re cool with the edit! You see, food is a coping mechanism. It can provide comfort, or distract from uncomfortable emotions. But it’s not the most effective coping mechanism, because food rarely helps us deal with the root cause of that uncomfortable emotion. And often, emotional eating can make you feel worse, especially if it leads to a shame spiral. But alas, it is one way to cope, and there are certainly more maladaptive ways of coping with intense emotions! Plus, sometimes food really can make you feel better - think about decompressing after a tough day at work with pizza and beer with friends, or making your favorite mac and cheese recipe from scratch to cheer yourself up when you’re feeling depressed.
Buuuuut, we also need to have other coping skills too, because when food is our only coping skill, that’s when it becomes a problem. So that’s where IE comes in handy, teaching you how to identify the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger, ways to cope with emotions without food, and how to emotionally eat in a more helpful way.
Principle 8: Respect Your Body
Body diversity naturally exists. It’s part of the rich tapestry of human existence. If you fed 1,000 people exactly the same food in the same amounts, moved their bodies exactly the way for the same amount of time, you would still have 1,000 different body shapes and sizes, and some of those sizes would be fat.
Just like we couldn’t diet our feet down to fit a smaller shoe size, we can’t expect our body to permanently stay in a smaller size than it’s genetic blueprint wants it to be. For all that you hear about BMI and ideal weights, there’s no way to predict what weight you’re supposed to be. Instead, intuitive eating focuses on behaviors vs. the scale. When you’re feeding your body adequately and appropriately, moving it semi-regularly, getting good sleep and managing stress - basically, when you’re being a good steward of your body - your weight will settle in the range it’s supposed to be in, which may be smaller, bigger, or the same size that you are right now.
Note that the authors use the term “respect.” You don’t have to love your body to treat it with respect. Body positivity isn’t a command, and no matter what barriers you face in accepting and loving your body, you can still start to treat it with more kindness and respect.
Resources: What if I Can’t Love My Body?, The Benefits of Body Fat, Dressing Your Here-and-Now Body, The Best Books to Build a Better Body Image, Body Image is About More Than Liking Your Looks, Body Image Through Stages of Life,
Principle 9: Exercise - Feel the Difference
This principle of intuitive eating is all about uncoupling exercise (or movement as I like to call it) from weight loss. When exercise becomes wrapped up in weight control, it often results in overexercise to the point of harm as one tries to militantly burn calories, or exercise avoidance, as exercise becomes a chore. Most frequently, it results in cycling between the two. With intuitive eating, one learns the art of pleasurable movement - moving your body for fun for purposes of self care, not punishment!
Principle 10: Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition
See, nutrition is part of intuitive eating! It was created by two dietitians after all. There’s a good reason gentle nutrition is the last principle - because it’s important to heal your relationship with food first, otherwise gentle nutrition can quickly become wrapped up in diet mentality. Gentle nutrition is all about taking a birds-eye view to eating habits. One meal or day of eating won’t make or break health, so zoom out to get perspective on eating over time, and consider things like how food makes you feel, and your personal health goals.
Myths and Misconceptions About Intuitive Eating
You’ll lose weight with intuitive eating. With intuitive eating, your body will do one of three things - go down, go up, or stay the same. None of those outcomes say anything about your “success” as an intuitive eater. Anyone who says or suggests differently is distorting intuitive eating, and promising you something they do not have control over and nor do you. If you see someone selling intuitive eating and weight loss (or those insidious diet messages like portion control or clean eating), you have my permission to kick them in the kneecap and run away!
Intuitive eating is only for people with eating disorders. Many of the practitioners who use intuitive eating have a background in treating eating disorders, probably because they are more likely to be exposed to it, and have the professional experience that would prime them for it. But intuitive eating is for everyone, eating disorder history or not. Keep in mind, you don’t have to be diagnosed with an eating disorder to struggle with your relationship with food - 75% of women engage in disordered eating behaviors.
Intuitive eating is not for people with eating disorders. When someone has an active eating disorder, hunger/fullness cues can be quite wonky. But saying someone with an eating disorder can’t practice intuitive eating is insinuating that IE is only about hunger and fullness. While honoring hunger and listening to fullness might be out of reach for the moment, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other principles of IE to engage with, like making peace with food, learning to cope with emotions with or without food, or respecting your body. Here’s a post I wrote about intuitive eating in eating disorder recovery.
You can’t do intuitive eating if you have a dietary restriction. There are many non-diet reasons one might have a dietary restriction, for example celiac disease, a food allergy, religious or cultural practices, or other ethical beliefs. These restrictions, or practices really, can and should be honored within the framework of intuitive eating. Here’s a post on intuitive eating with celiac/food allergies and vegetarian/vegan diets and intuitive eating.
Intuitive eating is anti-health/nutrition. IMHO, intuitive eating is one of the most powerful tools we have in taking care of our health. Intuitive eating is not anti-health, it simply takes a broader view of health, considering mental health as equally important as physical health. While sometimes making peace with food means putting nutrition on the back burner for a bit, that’s simply one step in self-moderating and figuring out how you’d like to engage with gentle nutrition.
Resources to Learn More About Intuitive Eating:
Instagram - yay for free learning! Check out this IE RDs highlight reel I created for more dietitians to follow.
Work with an IE RD. It’s one thing to conceptually understand IE. It’s another to put it into practice. I work with clients out of my Columbia, SC office and virtually worldwide - here’s a link with more info about my nutrition services.
For dietitians interested in learning more, I highly recommend becoming a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. I’d also recommend getting supervision or doing case consultation with an experienced Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. I work with dietitians frequently who are transitioning to an intuitive eating practice, so feel free to reach out if you’re interested in scheduling something!
Podcasts! Here’s a link to five of my favorite intuitive eating podcasts.
What questions do you have about intuitive eating? Leave your questions in the comments!