What is Intuitive Eating?

by | Oct 20, 2020 | Health Articles, Nutrition Articles

Have you ever heard of Intuitive Eating? Intuitive eating is a way of eating and living that involves listening to and connecting with your body and needs. Learn all about it and the 10 principles in today’s post.

I did a poll on Instagram last week asking how many of you were familiar with or knew what intuitive eating was. Turns out over 50% of you do not know what it is!

Intuitive eating is a big part of my value system as a nutritionist, and while I’ve mentioned it here and there on the blog and in my videos, it’s become increasingly important to me and I figured what better way to teach you more about it than starting with the basics?

What is Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive Eating is an evidence-based eating framework that involves elements of instinct, psychology, behaviour change, and self-awareness. It was created in 1995 by two Dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Intuitive Eating has over 100 studies to date that demonstrate the many ways it can help improve quality of life, health outcomes, and more.

Intuitive Eating is a way of eating and living that’s unique to you as opposed to following a specific diet plan or set of rules. At the root of it, you’re connecting with and honouring your individual wants and needs by learning to tune into and trust your body and its various signals, such as hunger and fullness/satisfaction cues. It’s also weight-inclusive and is associated with Health at Every Size (HAES) and anti-diet culture. Extensive research demonstrates that dieting usually fails, and instead, can create problems such as weight stigma, weight cycling, eating disorders, and low self-esteem.

Health Benefits of Intuitive Eating

Intuitive Eating can have significantly positive mental, emotional and physical impacts on those using the principles that make up this concept which we’ll dive into in a moment. Improving self-esteem, body image, overall quality of life, reducing obesity, anxiety and depression, and helping to improve eating disorders or disordered eating behaviours are a few benefits of intuitive eating.

The process of learning to eat intuitively is a practice that takes time. There are 10 principles that make up intuitive eating. Let’s explore ’em!

The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating

Intuitive Eating is made up of 10 principles — not to be confused with rigid “rules” — that work by helping us meet our biological and psychological needs through cultivating awareness of physical sensations and body signals. These principles also help remove blocks that can get in our way of increasing our awareness. These blocks are usually embedded in our mind in the form of diet or food rules, beliefs, or thoughts.

Tribole and Resch developed 10 principles of Intuitive Eating to help healthcare providers and people alike implement this framework. Below are my explanations of the principles. The original 10 principles can be found here. You can also find more comprehensive information in their book Intuitive Eating which I highly recommend!

1. Reject the Diet Mentality

We are constantly inundated with diet trends, do’s and don’t’s, quick-fixes, weight loss plans or products that make false promises, and an ever-growing obsession with “clean eating”. Intuitive eating encourages us to let go of the false information that leads us to feel like a failure every time we “fall off the wagon” or struggle to stick to a new diet. It has been demonstrated time and again that diets (especially those that involve calorie deprivation) are almost guaranteed to fail. Intuitive eating allows us to find an individual way of eating and living that truly works for our unique body and wants/needs without the need for perfection.

2. Honor Your Hunger

Hunger is your body’s way of signalling to you that it needs fuel. It’s vitally important to honor your hunger and feed yourself adequate macronutients like carbohydrates, fats, and proteins for stable blood sugar and supporting energy. Restricting ourselves can trigger a primal drive to overeat, since reaching the point of excessive hunger makes it nearly impossible for us to eat in a moderate, sensible, or conscious way. Learning to honor our biological hunger signal allows us to regain trust in ourselves.

This aspect of intuitive eating is an innate part of us. When we were babies, we were masters of intuitive eating. Babies eat what they want, when they want it, and they stop when they’re full. Our ability to tune into these signals gets diminished over time as we get older and various diet or eating behaviours begin to take over.

3. Make Peace with Food

Allowing yourself permission to eat all foods is life changing. Here’s the thing, and it’s kind of mind-blowing: If you tell yourself that you can’t or shouldn’t have a particular food, it almost always leads to intense feelings of deprivation that build into uncontrollable cravings and even binge-eating in some cases. When you can no longer take these intense feelings anymore and finally eat your “forbidden” foods, the act of eating becomes so intense that often results in overeating and feelings of guilt or shame. This is also known as a start-and-stop cycle of eating where we 1) try to eat perfectly or adhere strictly to a plan, 2) feelings of deprivation make us cave into “bad” foods or foods we say we cannot have, and 3) we feel guilty and the cycle starts again.

Giving yourself permission to eat all foods doesn’t mean eating chips and chocolate cake all day everyday. Quite the contrary. When you allow all foods to exist in your diet, you discover that many foods are no longer as exciting as they once were when they were forbidden. Eventually, the novelty wears off. The more a person is exposed to and allowed to eat a food, the less desirable it becomes over time. This is called food habituation. Over time, you learn to trust that your body has the innate ability to signal to you that it wants nutritious foods (instead of cake!) without you having to force it. That being said, if you want the cake, eat the cake!

Note: there are times when certain foods need to be avoided in cases of an illness or medical condition such as allergy or intolerance. These types of specialty diets or eating regimes should be treated as such and are different than food deprivation due to guilt or an attempt to lose weight.

4. Challenge the Food Police

Become deeply aware of the thoughts you think around food, known as the food police, that say a certain food is good/bad/clean/dirty, or that you need to follow specific diet rules or beliefs. The food police is rooted deep inside of us, usually from years of being told or believing that we need to eat a certain way. It often involves negative words or phrases that make us feel guilty or shameful, such as feeling bad for eating something “high carb”.

Becoming aware of our inner food police by simply observing the thoughts, asking ourselves with compassionate curiosity where they came from, and replacing the thoughts with positive phrases can help you along your journey of no longer letting these thoughts control you.

5. Discover the Satisfaction Factor

Healthy eating and living is about so much more than just food. It’s also tradition, culture, social connection, and pleasure. However, diet culture overlooks and often deprives us of the satisfaction that can be found within the eating experience. Things like eating what you truly desire in a given moment, creating an inviting, comfortable atmosphere around mealtime, and enjoying food with friends and family all help us to experience greater pleasure and more satisfaction from the food we eat. This in turn can help us discover that we naturally have less of a need to “overindulge”.

6. Feel Your Fullness

Honoring hunger and fullness signals is a major part of intuitive eating. Alongside trusting ourselves to eat the foods that we intuitively desire, listening closely for the signals that tell us we are no longer hungry is key. We can become familiar with this by practicing mindfulness around mealtime. Try putting your fork down or pausing in the middle of eating to ask yourself how the food tastes and what your hunger level is at. Take a few breaths and eat slowly. When you practice this more often, you learn to trust your body so much more around food.

7. Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness

Anxiety, loneliness, sadness, anger, and boredom are experienced by all of us, and while food can comfort, distract, or numb us in the short-term, it cannot fix these feelings. With intuitive eating we learn to check-in with ourselves, not only with what we’re eating, but why we’re eating. Ask yourself why you tend to reach for a certain kind of food. Having self-compassion is very important here; we want to observe our feelings without judgement and with kindness. Then, through patience and discovering new coping strategies, we can find ways to comfort, self-regulate, or resolve any underlying issues instead of always resorting to food as our solution.

8. Respect Your Body

This is such a game-changing perspective shift: fully recognize that everybody’s body is vastly different. Our genetics, our body shapes, and our unique wants and needs vary. I’m 5’2″ and I will never be a 6’0″ supermodel, and I’m cool with that.

Deeply accept and respect your body and what it’s capable of. My legs help me walk, my arms and hands allow me to work, my lungs help me breathe, and my body carries out countless daily tasks without me even knowing it. Bodies jiggle. Skin wrinkles. This is all normal. The less we focus on our appearance and instead express gratitude for what our body can do, the better we feel. It’s hard let go of a dieting mentality if we are constantly being unrealistic or critical of our bodies.

9. Movement: Feel the Difference

I absolutely love this principle of intuitive eating. It’s one that I’ve naturally gravitated towards for years. Shift your perspective on exercise from always needing it to be about high intensity, sweating profusely, or burning calories. Instead, focus on how it physically feels to move your body. It’s just movement. It’s doesn’t have to be so intense all of the time. Sometimes I feel like going for a walk or doing some simple stretches. Other times I’m in the mood for dancing to loud music around my living room or doing some body weight exercises. Other times I have a primal urge to run up a set of stairs because I have pent up energy from sitting all day. I base my movement (exercise) off of what my body is telling me it needs. How it looks changes from day to day, but the point is to focus on how it feels, not on a weight loss or body sculpting outcome.

Don’t force yourself to push through a difficult, unenjoyable workout that you’ve scheduled 5 days a week first thing in the morning if it’s not what feels good for you in that moment. We are not robots. Our needs and preferences change all of the time.

10. Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition

Honoring your health is all about making food choices that nourish your body and make you feel your best. But you don’t need to eat perfectly all of the time in order to lead a healthy lifestyle or eat well. It’s about the food choices you make consistently over time that matters most, not what you ate on one particular day.

Remember that nutrition is not one-size-fits-all. Everyone’s wants, needs, preferences, schedules, and lifestyles are different. This is why developing healthy eating habits that work for your individual needs is so important.

What Intuitive Eating is Not

Before I finish off this post, I want to make it clear what intuitive eating is not. Intuitive eating is not…

  • is not about counting calories, macros, or tracking points
  • is not a diet, 30-day plan, or quick-fix of any kind with the intention of weight loss
  • is not based on food rules, restrictions, or telling you what to eat or avoid
  • is not about eating whatever you want and as much as you want with total disregard of nutrition or hunger/fullness. Intuitive Eating honours the needs of your body with an emphasis on attunement of biological hunger and fullness.
  • is not reliant on an expert to tell you what to do
  • is not intended to be followed “most” of the time, or short-term. Remember, intuitive eating involves learning how to tune into biological needs and bodily cues each and every day, life-long.
  • is not a “cheat day” in between a diet plan. There is no such thing as a cheat day with Intuitive Eating. There are no good/bad/clean/dirty foods. All foods are neutral.

How to Start Eating Intuitively

If Intuitive Eating feels right for you, here are some steps for getting started.

  1. Alongside the principles listed in this post, read the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch for more comprehensive information. It’s extremely insightful and a great place to start. They have a self-help workbook version that you may find helpful as well as their website.
  2. Recognize that it’s a process and will take time to become more familiar with your body’s many signals and cues, such as hunger and fullness. This is especially so if you’ve been dieting on and off for many years. It’s also a process to un-learn many years of food rules/beliefs that may not be serving you. Self-compassion is so important when embarking on any new journey. It’s okay to face challenges along the way! They are to be expected.
  3. Set boundaries with those who fuel your dieting beliefs or behaviours, including accounts you follow on social media. Unfollow accounts that make you feel unworthy, shameful, or that feed into a food rule system that gives you fear, anxiety, or obsessions.
  4. Seek professional help if you need it. This is especially important if you’ve been dealing with an eating disorder or disordered eating behaviours, chronic dieting, or issues such as binge eating. You are not alone in this, and there are many professionals available who are eager to help you on your journey. Contact a Registered Dietitian or Certified Nutritionist in your area that specializes in Intuitive Eating and HAES. You may find the Intuitive Eating Counsellor Directory helpful here.

Do you practice intuitive eating? How has it worked for you?

by Meghan Livingstone

Note: this post may contain affiliate links. Learn more here.

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2 Comments

  1. Jenna

    I learned about intuitive eating when I took a wellbeing course in undergrad. I think it is a great idea, as many people forget to enjoy the food which leads to overeating. Great post!
    Jenna ♥
    Stay in touch? Life of an Earth Muffin

    Reply
    • Lunelle

      This is so insightful and indeed helpful. Thank you! I think I’ve been following this way of eating without knowing that it actually has a name. As a Dietician (no longer registered nor practicing) I became increasingly frustrated with the conventional way of approaching healthy eating and slowly over time just started following my gut. I am continually trying a whole lot of things and I hold on to what I enjoy and what works for me. It’s so liberating! I will definitely try to get my hands on the book suggested.

      Reply

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MEGHAN LIVINGSTONE, CNP

Hi, I’m Meghan. I’m a Certified Holistic Nutritionist, blogger, and YouTuber with a passion for mindful eating and intuitive living. I’m here to inspire you to listen to your body, connect with yourself, and create a fulfilling life that’s completely unique to you.

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