Intuitive Eating: Principles, Challenges and Important Considerations
By: Andrea Stokes, RD, Julie Mancuso, Owner of JM Nutrition, nutritional counselling service by registered nutritionists and dietitians, Sarah Jabeen, MD
In this post:
What is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive Eating origin
Principles (and benefits) of Intuitive Eating
Challenges and important considerations of Intuitive Eating
What is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive Eating is an evidence-based approach to health, food, and nutrition. It promotes eating as a form of self-care, as opposed to self-control.
Simply put, Intuitive Eating rejects the idea that we must listen to external cues–namely diet programs, or counting calories–to guide our eating. Instead, the focus is shifted to internal cues. Some of these include: hunger and satiety signals, taste preferences, energy needs, and what feels good in our own bodies.
In other words, it is an eating framework that removes unnecessary food rules and restrictions. It also eliminates any guilt or shame associated with eating (or not eating) certain foods. What’s more, it is an approach to health and nutrition that focuses on building a healthy and trusting relationship with food and your body.
There’s more to it than just eating intuitively
Of course, Intuitive Eating is about eating intuitively. But there’s more to it. Much more.
Intuitive Eating also serves as a roadmap to help us tune back in to our natural ability to eat intuitively. We were, of course, born intuitive eaters. But as we grow, so do the reasons for pulling us away from this ability.
Here are just a handful of factors that contribute to this:
- being told to finish our plates of food as kids
- acts of being bullied or taunted about our weight
- learning that some foods are “healthy and others are “unhealthy” at school
- the endless stream of social media images that reinforce unrealistic and largely unattainable standards of beauty and health
The origin of Intuitive Eating
The concept of Intuitive Eating was developed in 1995 by registered dietitians Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole, who continue to be prominent health professionals in the areas of nutrition and eating disorders.
In their practice, they noticed that their carefully designed and well-intentioned meals plans could only provide temporary weight loss “success” at best. Time and time again, they noticed that clients would return, looking for new advice to keep the weight off.
Not only were the diets failing, Tribole and Resch also observed that the clients themselves were feeling like failures. Many were convinced they had done something wrong. Some felt they didn’t have self-control. Others still, thought they couldn’t be trusted around food.
This conflict between wanting to help clients nourish their bodies and promote wellbeing through nutrition, and not wanting to cause clients unintended harm in the process, ultimately led to the development of the Intuitive Eating framework.
Eating intuitively: the framework
The framework consists of 10 core principles. These are not a structured step-by-step process to Intuitive Eating. Rather, they serve as a framework to work towards learning to become an Intuitive Eater.
The process is dynamic and unique to each individual. Admittedly, certain principles may be easier to incorporate into life than others.
Becoming an Intuitive Eater is not so much about achieving a certain specific end-goal. Instead, the focus is on the mindset and overall attitude toward food, body and health.
What are the principles of Intuitive Eating?
1. Reject the diet mentality
We live in a culture of dieting. Even if not following a diet plan, we are surrounded by the messages of diet culture. Messages that tell us that our life, health, worth, and happiness would be better if only we all met a certain standard of health and beauty. This is typically defined by being thin, fit and able-bodied.
According to Sarah Jabeen, MD, “We are constantly falling into the trap of comparing ourselves not only to the lives of others, but also how we perceive our own body image.” Jabeen continues, “How often have you scrolled past a Fitness Blogger’s Instagram page and thought to yourself, ‘I wish I could look like that.'”
A study conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, discovered that most women described that the deprivation of dieting and the labelling of foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ often led to an obsession, overconsumption and subsequent guilt and self-hatred. This created the yo-yo and rollercoaster nature of dieting. In turn, dieting failure led women to feel frustrated or depressed.
Mistakenly, diet culture equates thinness with health, value, and moral virtue. At the same time, it positions food and eating as a way to attain those values for yourself.
Dieting not only positions foods as either “good” or “bad, it also makes us believe we are either “good” or “bad” based on our food choices.
It’s incredibly difficult to respect and nourish your body when you’re constantly being told it’s not good enough. Likewise, it’s difficult to have a healthy relationship with food if it’s viewed only as a way to manipulate the size of your body.
Follow your intuition
Conversely, Intuitive Eating encourages the rejection of diet culture and the diet mentality. Doing so helps to pave the way to make food choices that feel good to you, rather than following generalized rules and restrictions that make eating a stressful and unsatisfying experience.
Related: The connection between diet, cortisol and stress.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, eating intuitively is “completely opposite of how we’ve been taught to think about food. It’s not black or white, it’s grey, nuanced and there is no one ‘right way’, which is why it can be so confusing.”
Intuitive Eating also recognizes that health is about much more than body weight. Similarly, nutrition is about so much more than simply the foods you eat.
Breaking free from the shackles of diet culture can allow you to honour your health in more sustainable and effective ways. This can certainly provide a foundation on which to build a healthier relationship with food and the body.
2. Honour your hunger
Chronic dieting and hunger
Being able to recognize and respond to hunger is an important aspect of this framework and a key principle of intuitive eating.
Your body needs regular and consistent fuel. Going too long between periods of eating can make it challenging to make conscious, intentional choices about what to eat.
When your body is not adequately fed, primal hunger kicks in. This extreme form of hunger can make you feel ravenous and sometimes out of control around food.
Chronic dieting can make it difficult to recognize earlier signs of hunger. This means that you might only realize you are hungry when it’s become extreme and uncomfortable.
Listen to your body
Intuitive Eating, on the other hand, helps you learn to feed your body at intervals that work for you and become better attuned to your hunger cues as a guide.
It can also help you make practical decisions about when to eat in an effort to avoid extreme hunger.
For example, if you have a meeting over your lunch hour you might choose to eat lunch a little early. You do this even though you’re not necessarily hungry yet, because you know you won’t have the opportunity to eat later.
Again, intuitive eating is about self-care. Keeping your body well-nourished (as best you can) is one of the most basic ways to care for your body.
3. Make peace with food
Moreover, Intuitive Eating is all about ending the fight with food.
This principle encourages unconditional permission to eat. You don’t need to earn calories, or avoid certain foods (unless, of course, it’s medically necessary to do so). Simply put, you can enjoy the foods you love.
In addition, unnecessarily restricting certain foods often leads to obsessive thinking about those foods, intense cravings, and eventual “backlash” (or binge) eating.
It can also lead to “all-or-nothing” thinking, which can lead to making choices that aren’t actually all that enjoyable. Dieters often feel like they’ve “ruined” their diet by including even a small amount of a forbidden food. This mentality often results in feeling like you might as well eat as much as you can in the moment, since the diet will restart tomorrow.
Making peace with food effectively removes some of that urgency and intensity around eating previously “forbidden” foods. Unconditional permission to eat applies to saying “yes” to foods you enjoy. It also means saying “no” to those that don’t serve you. Foods that you don’t allow in your diet can feel highly tempting when you come across them. As a result, you might find you end up eating foods you’re not actually in the mood for.
When we feel like it’s our only chance to eat those foods, we might eat without regard for our hunger or taste preferences in the moment. We might even eat well past the point of comfortable fullness.
Making peace with food means you never have to feel like it’s your “last chance” to eat a certain food. This, in turn, allows for more conscious and mindful food choices.
4. Challenge the food police
Rather than seeing foods as either “healthy” or “unhealthy”, or “good” or “bad”, this principle of Intuitive Eating encourages you to consider the value in all foods.
Sure, some foods are richer in nutrients than others. Food, however, can serve a variety of benefits in your life.
Some foods are more about taste, pleasure, and celebration. Meanwhile, others are about honouring your culture and traditions. Others still are convenient, and maybe the only option you have available at times. You might even eat certain foods to help you relax and unwind, while consuming others to ensure you have energy for the day ahead.
All food has value.
Intuitive Eating helps to remove the moral connotations around food choices. Doing so makes room for more joyful eating that is free of guilt and shame.
Challenging the food police also means challenging unnecessary food rules. Sometimes these rules can be hard to spot, as they are often deeply ingrained in how we think about food and eating.
Examples of food rules that you might consider challenging include:
- “I shouldn’t eat after 7 PM”
- “Eating carbohydrates will make me gain weight”
- “I should clean my plate, even if I’m already full”
Many of these types of rules are rooted in diet culture and disempower you to make mindful choices that best serve your body.
5. Discover the satisfaction factor
When we follow strict food rules, we often lose the joy in eating.
Pleasure, on the other hand, is an important principle of Intuitive Eating. Doing so helps to build a healthy relationship with food.
In other words, it means including foods you really love, as well as enjoying the experience of eating.
For example, rather than eating in a rush in front of your computer, you might take the time to eat at a table and really savour your meal. Or, you might realize you prefer to eat vegetables with a dip, rather than plain; or that the donuts left in the office lunchroom aren’t actually all that delicious.
Tuning in to what foods are truly satisfying can help you to enjoy your meals, eat a wider variety of foods and make more mindful food choices.
6. Feel your fullness
Recognizing the signs of ‘comfortable fullness’ can be challenging. This is especially true if you often only eat when you’re ravenously hungry, or while distracted.
Fuelling your body regularly and consistently will allow you to avoid feeling overly hungry. This, in turn, can help you slow down, think about what you want to eat, and focus on enjoying your food.
Eating more slowly and mindfully can help you cue in to when you feel as though you’ve had enough to eat. Giving yourself unconditional permission to eat allows your body to learn to trust that you will give it enough to eat. Eventually, this makes it less likely that you will feel out of control around certain foods and eat to the point of discomfort.
7. Cope with emotions with kindness
This is another critical principle of Intuitive Eating.
It’s important to recognize that food restriction itself can trigger a loss of control around certain foods, which often feels like emotional eating.
It can feel like difficult emotions are driving the need to eat, but that’s not always the case. It’s important to be curious about your eating behaviours. If you find yourself emotionally eating, ask yourself:
Have I been eating enough over the last few days?
Is it possible that I have been too busy to eat consistently?
Have I been restricting certain foods?
These types of questions can help to clarify the root cause of your behaviour.
Of course, food can also be a source of comfort, relaxation, and joy. Therefore, it’s understandable that we would sometimes turn to food to help cope with difficult emotions.
And while there’s nothing wrong with using food in that way, it can be problematic if that is your only coping mechanism. Food won’t solve the issues that are causing uncomfortable emotions, so there may be more helpful ways to appease and deal with those feelings, separate from food.
8. Respect your body
It’s hard to reject the diet mentality and make peace with food if you’re constantly at war with your body.
Learning to respect your body, no matter what it looks like, is another significant principle of Intuitive Eating.
Respecting your body allows you to use food as a way to honour and nourish it, rather than as a way to punish it.
Although you may never love your body, or be totally accepting of what it looks like, you can work towards treating your body with the respect it deserves.
One way to show respect for your body is to nourish it adequately. You might also try making an effort to think about aspects or capabilities of your body for which you are grateful. You might also consider seeking counselling to help improve your body image.
After all, diet culture makes it very difficult to accept and respect our bodies, so sometimes we need a little extra help.
Just like eating should be an act of self-care, so should physical activity.
Rather than forcing yourself through unenjoyable forms of exercise, try to focus on movement that feels good and brings you joy. Humans tend to follow the path of least resistance. The more enjoyable something is, the more likely we are to engage in it.
On the other hand, the less pleasurable an activity, the less likely we are able to achieve intrinsic motivation to take part in it.
Finding pleasure in movement, in other words, can help it to become (and remain) a more regular part of your life. All forms of movement “count” towards physical and mental health, so find activities that work for you. Focus on how activity makes you feel, rather than simply its calorie-burning effect.
10. Honour your health with gentle nutrition
This principle of Intuitive Eating encourages you to make food choices that taste good and bring you joy, as well as honour your health and nutritional needs.
Rather than following unnecessary food rules and rigid eating patterns, the idea is to choose foods and engage in eating habits that make your body feel good.
There is no “perfect” diet, and no one meal or snack will make or break your health.
An effective approach is to think about positive nutrition.
In other words, what can you add in to confer nutritional benefit, instead of always focusing on what you should take away.
For example, perhaps you could benefit from adding more fibre to your meals to help ease digestive issues or better manage cholesterol levels. Or, you might seek out sources of omega-3 fatty acids to help with cardiovascular health. Speaking with a registered dietitian can be a great way to learn more about how food can best provide nutritional value in ways that work for you.
Intuitive Eating: Challenges and considerations
Some people may require professional guidance to help navigate the nuance and dynamic nature of their Intuitive Eating journey.
In many cases, a team of health care practitioners can offer the best guidance, such as a nutrition expert trained in Intuitive Eating, and/or a mental health counsellor or therapist.
Adequate support at home
As with any significant change, the transformation (or reversion) to becoming an intuitive eater may be challenging for some without ongoing support from friends and family. For this reason it is critical to support oneself with people who are positive, uplifting and supportive as you make changes to your mindset.
What about athletes?
The principles of Intuitive Eating are compatible for truly anyone.
This includes athletes. The journey may simply look a little different for them. For example, the principle of Gentle Nutrition may be a focus very early on in the process. This will likely be necessary to ensure energy demands are being met, or to best manage digestive concerns in relation to training schedules, among other considerations.
Athletes can also work on rejecting diet culture, respecting their bodies, avoiding unnecessary restriction, honouring hunger and fullness, and all the other aspects and principles of Intuitive Eating.
Importantly, athletes are at a higher risk for the development of eating disorders than non-athletes, for a variety of reasons. Intuitive Eating can be one important protective factor that helps promote a healthier relationship with food and body.
Can you be an Intuitive Eater while trying to manage health issues such as diabetes or digestive distress?
In short, yes.
At its core, Intuitive Eating is eating for self-care. It’s about empowering you to know and listen to your body and to make food choices based on what’s going to lead you to feel your best. If there are foods that you know will cause digestive distress, for example, eating them often probably won’t make you feel great.
At the same time, however, eliminating a long list of foods (or entire food groups) is rarely medically necessary. Doing so can actually exacerbate digestive issues and other medical conditions, especially when eating becomes a source of intense stress in your life.
The principles of Intuitive Eating can guide you towards eating in a way that helps you to manage health conditions, without unnecessary food rules and without sacrificing satisfaction. No matter what your health status, you can use all the principles of Intuitive Eating to guide your eating habits. This includes rejecting the diet mentality, honouring your hunger and making peace with food.
What if I want to lose weight? Can I still be an Intuitive Eater?
A focus on changing your body size will undoubtedly be an obstacle to Intuitive Eating. That, however, doesn’t mean you can’t work towards incorporating the principles into your eating habits.
Because we live in a world that places high value on achieving a certain body size, and doesn’t always treat all bodies kindly, it’s understandable that weight loss can be top of mind for many people.
Treat yourself with compassion. Focus on working on any of the principles that speak to you, and that you feel ready to embrace. For example, you might start by honouring your hunger.
Or, focus on body respect, perhaps by meeting with a therapist or counsellor who specializes in body image.
Keep in mind, however, that the goal of Intuitive Eating has nothing to do with changing your body size. Some people will gain weight as they learn to eat intuitively, some will lose weight and some will remain the same.
The purpose is to build a healthy and happy relationship with food and to disentangle diet culture from taking up so much space in your life. Remember, there’s no perfect way to be an Intuitive Eater and no perfect way to begin.
Is intuitive eating just about eating whatever you want, whenever you want?
It’s a common misconception to assume Intuitive Eating is simply eating whatever you want, whenever you want. Frequently, this misconception wrongly assumes Intuitive Eating means eating with disregard to health.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. Intuitive Eating is about eating in a way that best serves your body, mind, and soul. It doesn’t mean eating foods based only on taste, without considering the other aspects of how that food will make you feel.
Eating ice cream, for example, can taste fantastic. But you probably wouldn’t feel great if you ate it for 3 meals a day, day after day. In fact, you’d probably start to feel sick. Eating to the point of feeling ill would not be eating intuitively. Remember, taste is just one of the many benefits of eating.
You might also make intuitive food choices based on digestive comfort, or to optimize your energy, or with religious or cultural considerations in mind. Plus, it’s not practical to eat whatever you want, whenever you want. There are many situations in which the foods you desire may not be readily available to you. This is especially true for individuals living with food insecurity. The idea is simply to make choices that appeal to you and meet your needs, as best you can, without feeling guilt or shame around what you are eating.
While the concept of Intuitive Eating is relatively simple in theory, the process is complex, nuanced, and dynamic. The journey will look different for each individual, and everyone moves along his or her own pace.
Becoming an Intuitive Eater often takes time, with many challenges along the way. That said, there’s no finish line, and no way to fail.
It’s all about building trust with and learning to respect your body, making peace with food, and removing the stress and shame from eating. When food doesn’t take up so much mental space and energy, you are free to enjoy all the other wonderful aspects of your life.
Andrea Stokes is a registered dietitian and contributing writer to JM Nutrition. She is based in St. John’s, NL, and specializes in intuitive eating. Andrea offers a practical, weight-inclusive approach to help you build a healthier and happier relationship with food, mind, and body, bringing back the joy to eating. Andrea operates her own practice called Mindset Nutrition and Wellness.