What is intuitive eating?
Instead of following traditional diets that create rigid and moralizing food rules, intuitive eating teaches you to stop viewing foods as “good” or “bad”. Through the principles of intuitive eating, you can learn to listen to your body,eat what you enjoy, and discover what feels right for you.
Intuitive eating also involves listening to your body’s natural cues that tell you when you’re hungry or full.
Eating intuitively helps you to let go of diet culture and reject the pressure to fit into society’s unrealistic body standards. The principles of intuitive eating help you work towards an attitude and approach to food that supports your physical and mental health.
The principles of intuitive eating
There are 9 key principles of intuitive eating, which focus on breaking away from dieting cycles and reaffirming the body’s natural cues when it comes to food.
1. Say goodbye to the diet mentality
We live in a society where diet culture is big business, with dozens of fad diets promising miracle results and claiming that if you lost weight or ate a certain way, you’d be happy. So, when one diet doesn’t work for you, diet culture tells you to look for another, and then another, and the cycle continues.
Rejecting the diet mentality might involve clearing out all of the diet books in your home and unfollowing any social media accounts promoting food or exercise plans that cause you anxiety or trigger comparison. It can also involve identifying external triggers and internal thought patterns that make you want to engage in dieting and finding ways to challenge them.
It can help to remember that dieting does not work to produce sustained weight loss and it can also be dangerous. Restricting food can result in nutritional deficiencies and diets that encourage disordered behaviors around food can increase the likelihood of developing an eating disorder.
2. Recognize your hunger
Diet culture teaches us to eat according to external guidelines, so it may take practice to relearn to listen to and honor your body's cues about when it is time to eat. Hunger cues can feel different for different people, and it can be helpful to identify early signs of hunger to make sure that you can nourish yourself adequately throughout the day.
Some people in eating disorder recovery may not have consistent hunger cues or may be scared of feeling hungry. In these cases, it can be helpful to get support from a trained provider to develop a structure around food which will ensure that you are eating enough to meet your needs while working towards feeling more able to listen to your body.
3. Make peace with food
Food is not your enemy and therefore, no foods need to be off-limits, unless there is a medical reason. Part of intuitive eating is giving yourself unconditional permission to eat. This can help to avoid feelings of deprivation which can result from physical or mental restriction of food or specific types of food. Removing these restrictions can help to reduce binge eating and food guilt.
Allowing yourself to eat all foods can reduce obsessive and out of control feelings which can develop when certain foods are labeled “forbidden.” Teaching your brain that all foods are available and morally neutral can help you choose what to eat both based on pleasure and satisfaction.
4. Challenge the “food police”
The “food police” refers to the moralizing of food, either by yourself or diet culture as a whole. It involves the reinforcement of rigid and shaming diet rules such as certain foods being “good” and others being “bad”, or that restriction is “good”, but enjoying food is “bad”.
Intuitive eating encourages you to chase the “food police” away and to challenge the false beliefs that decisions around food make you a good or bad person. This may involve identifying internal and external food rules which show up for you and finding ways to challenge these rules and beliefs.
5. Find satisfaction in food
Often, being stuck in the diet mentality can create a constant sense of deprivation, making it difficult to fully enjoy food or feel satisfied. Knowing that all foods are available and morally equivalent can make it possible to be present for, find pleasure in, and feel satisfied by a meal or snack. Approaching decisions about meals with the goal of joy and satisfaction, rather than from a dieting mindset based in deprivation and stress, can help you make more intuitive decisions about what type of meal or snack will satisfy your current needs.
6. Feel your fullness
Diet culture can make us believe feeling full or eating until we are physically and mentally satisfied is a bad thing. Intuitive eating can help us to challenge those thoughts and learn to trust our body’s signals to tell us when we are full versus when we might need more food. Through trial and error, we can tune into our body’s fullness cues instead of deciding how much to eat based on external rules.
7. Cope with your feelings with compassion
Some people engage in emotional eating, which means that they use food or food-related behaviors to deal with uncomfortable thoughts or emotions, such as anxiety, stress, loneliness, or boredom. In some cases, these behaviors can escalate and lead to an eating disorder.
It can help to develop and practice a range of compassionate ways to respond to difficult emotions. This can include engaging in pleasurable or distracting activities, journaling, or reaching out to a trusted friend or therapist.
8. Respect your body
Thanks to social media and constant exposure to heavily-edited images, many people have unrealistic expectations of how their bodies could and should look. This often results in people being overly critical of themselves and having low self-esteem. Continuing to hold on to these expectations can make it difficult to reject the diet mentality.
Part of moving away from diet culture is challenging these ideas of how your body should or needs to look so that you can respect its needs and care for it. Your body is unique and deserves food, rest, and pleasure regardless of how it compares to unrealistic body ideals.
Engage in Movement Safely and Joyfully
Diet culture messages may have taught us that exercise should always be painful and should always be done with the goal of changing our bodies. However, there are many different ways that movement can look, and it is never mandatory to do any specific form of exercise or to exercise at all. For people with certain health conditions, including for some people recovering from eating disorders, exercise is not safe or appropriate.
If you want movement to be part of your life, you can choose formal or informal ways to be active which feel physically and mentally rewarding. Listening to your body’s intuition about when to rest can help reduce the likelihood of getting injured or engaging in disordered exercise behaviors.
9. Gentle nutrition
Whereas diet culture teaches us to relate to food through rules and restriction, intuitive eating supports us in listening to our body to meet its needs and find joy in food. There are many different patterns and styles of eating which can provide us with enough energy and meet all of our nutritional needs. Eating with consistency and variety over time is more important than obsessing about fitting every nutrient into every meal.
Some people who have allergies, specific health conditions, or who have many sensory sensitivities around food may have to be more intentional about meeting their nutritional needs. In these cases, it can be helpful to work with a trained health professional to develop a strategy to both support needs and incorporate pleasurable foods.
The benefits of intuitive eating
Intuitive eating teaches that you are the best person to decide what to eat and when to eat, by helping you relearn your body’s cues for hunger and satiety, making you the expert on what your body needs.
Implementing the teachings of intuitive eating can have significant benefits to both your physical and mental health. Emerging research in the field suggests that intuitive eating is linked to improved self-image, healthy attitudes towards food, greater emotional functioning, and a reduced risk of developing disordered eating behaviors.
Research published in the Journal of Eating Behaviors compared intuitive eating and restrictive diets in a large sample of women and men. Results of the study showed that intuitive eating was associated with reduced levels of disordered eating behaviors and body image issues.
This led to researchers suggesting that promoting intuitive eating within public health approaches may be beneficial in eating disorder prevention, thanks to its emphasis on promoting body acceptance and eliminating unhealthy attitudes around food and eating.
It’s important to remember that if you plan to start eating intuitively you should speak to your doctor first, especially if you have a medical condition - like diabetes, celiac disease, or high blood pressure - that is associated with specific nutritional needs.
If you need some help incorporating intuitive eating into your daily life, a registered dietician or trained therapist will be able to guide you and work with you to challenge the diet mentality and work towards implementing the principles in a way that works for you.