Intuitive eating is a philosophy of eating that makes you the expert of your body and its hunger signals. Essentially, it is the opposite of a traditional diet.
Intuitive eating doesn’t impose guidelines about what or when to eat, or what to avoid. Instead, it teaches that you are the best person, the only person, to make those choices.
This article is a detailed beginner’s guide to intuitive eating. Here’s what you need to know.
Intuitive eating is an eating style that promotes a healthy attitude toward food and body image. The idea is that you should eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. Although this should be an intuitive process, for many people it’s not.
Trusting diet books and so-called experts about what, when and how to eat can lead you away from trusting your body and its “intuition.” To eat intuitively, you may need to relearn how to trust your body. And to do that, you need to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger.
Physical hunger: This biological urge tells you to replenish nutrients. It builds gradually and has different signals, such as a growling stomach, fatigue or irritability. It is satisfied when you eat any food.
Emotional hunger: This is driven by emotional need. Sadness, loneliness and boredom are some of the feelings that can create cravings for food (often “comfort foods”). Eating then causes guilt and self-hatred.
History of Intuitive Eating
The term intuitive eating was coined in 1995 as the title of a book by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. However, the concept has roots in earlier ideas. Early pioneers include Susie Orbach, who published Fat is a Feminist Issue in 1978, and Geneen Roth, who has written about emotional eating since 1982. Before that, Thelma Wayler founded a weight management program in 1973 called Green Mountain at Fox Run, based in Vermont.
The program was built on the principle that diets don’t work and that lifestyle change and personal care are more important for long-term health.
10 Key Principles
In their book on intuitive eating, Tribole and Resch laid out 10 basic principles of the philosophy. Here is an overview:
1. Reject the Diet Mentality
The diet mentality is the idea that there’s a diet out there somewhere that will work for you. Intuitive eating is the anti-diet.
2. Honor Your Hunger
Hunger is not your enemy. Respond to your early signs of hunger by feeding your body. If you let yourself get excessively hungry, then you are likely to overeat.
3. Make Peace with Food
Call a truce in the war with food. Get rid of ideas about what you should or shouldn’t eat.
4. Challenge the Food Police
Food is not good or bad and you are not good or bad for what you eat or don’t eat. Challenge thoughts that tell you otherwise.
5. Respect Your Fullness
Just as your body tells you when it is hungry, it also tells you when it is full. Listen for the signals of comfortable fullness, when you feel you’ve had enough. As you’re eating, check in with yourself to see how the food is tasting and how hungry or full you are feeling.
6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Make your eating experience enjoyable. Have a meal that tastes good to you. Sit down to eat it. When you make eating a pleasurable experience, you might find it takes less food to satisfy you.
7. Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food
Emotional eating is a strategy for coping with feelings. Find other ways that are not related to food to deal with your feelings: take a walk, meditate, journal, call a friend. Become aware of the times when a feeling that you might call hunger is actually based in emotion.
8. Respect Your Body
Rather than criticizing your body for how it looks and what you perceive is wrong with it, recognize it as capable and beautiful, just as it is.
9. Exercise — Feel the Difference
Find ways to move your body that you enjoy. Shift the focus from losing weight to feeling energized, strong and alive.
10. Honor Your Health — Gentle Nutrition
The food you eat should taste good and feel good. Remember that it’s your overall food patterns that shape your health. One meal or snack isn’t going to make or break your health.
The Research-Based Benefits
Research on the topic is still growing and has largely focused on women. So far, studies have linked intuitive eating to healthier psychological attitudes, lower body mass index (BMI) and weight maintenance, although not weight loss.
One of the major benefits of intuitive eating is better psychological health. Participants in intuitive eating studies improved their self-esteem, body image and overall quality of life, while experiencing less depression and anxiety.
Intuitive eating interventions also have good retention rates, meaning people are more likely to stick with the program and keep practicing the behavioral changes than they would on a diet.
Other studies have looked at women’s eating behaviors and attitudes and found that those who show more signs of intuitive eating are less likely to display disordered eating behaviors.
If you think you could benefit from learning more about intuitive eating, there are ways to get started.
Without judgment, start taking stock of your own eating behaviors and attitudes. When you eat, ask yourself if you’re experiencing physical or emotional hunger.
If it’s physical hunger, try to rank your hunger/fullness level it on a scale of 1–10, from very, very hungry to stuffed. Aim to eat when you’re hungry, but not starving. Stop when you’re comfortably full, not stuffed.
You can also learn more by following some of the experts in the field:
The Intuitive Eating Book: This book is the best-seller that made intuitive eating mainstream. It was originally published in 1995 but remains popular to this day.
The Intuitive Eating Website: The website of Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch has more information about intuitive eating and a listing of certified counselors.
Geneen Roth: Her website has helpful articles and videos, plus a link to an online class.
Ellyn Satter Institute: Ellyn Satter promotes an idea called “eating competence,” which has many principles that overlap with intuitive eating.
You can also find a dietitian or a health coach who practices and teaches intuitive eating, or join a group or class on the topic.
Take Home Message
With intuitive eating, how you eat is just as important as what you eat. Eating from your own internal cues of hunger and fullness can lead to improved body image and quality of life.