Intuitive Eating 101: A Guide to Nourishing Your Body and Mind

Welcome, friend! Updating this post about intuitive eating was a long-time coming. While the principles haven’t changed, my thoughts and approach with my own clients has evolved somewhat. I hope to share more of this in today’s post. 

Understanding Intuitive eating

Intuitive Eating first and foremost is a book written by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. It was originally published in 1995.

The book was written by the authors based on their years of experience as dietitians. They noticed a pattern with their clients dieting time after time and not getting the results they hoped for. Instead, they ended up gaining weight, feeling obsessed with food, and disconnected from their hunger cues.

From this experience, the intuitive eating approach was born (well, at least documented.)

Intuitive eating is a way of eating that emphasizes connecting with your internal hunger and fullness cues to determine what and how much to eat. It allows you to feel at peace with food rather than fighting with it. It promotes honoring your natural body size and eating in a way that makes you feel good rather than burnt out, guilty, and ashamed.

Intuitive eating brings us back to our roots, so to speak. It allows us to eat in a way that makes us feel both physically and emotionally fulfilled. So where do you start? Let’s first outline the 10 principles of intuitive eating.

The 10 principles of intuitive eating

The 10 principles of intuitive eating include:

1 – Reject the diet mentality

Avoid ANYTHING related to diet, lifestyle change, healthy eating, etc.

2 – Honor your hunger

Allow yourself unconditional permission to eat.

3 – Make peace with food

There is no morality attached to food. All foods can fit in intuitive eating.

4 – Challenge the food police

Pay attention to the inner critic that tells you what to eat and not to eat. Where is this information coming from? Think critically about these messages. 

5 – Discover the satisfaction factor

Pay attention to what feels satisfying to you, and work to incorporate it regularly.

6 – Feel your fullness

Hunger and fullness exist on a spectrum. Tune in a see what degree of fullness feels pleasurable and comfortable for you.

7 – Cope with your emotions with kindness

Emotional eating happens. It can be an effective distraction, but it doesn’t change anything. Give yourself grace and explore alternative coping mechanisms. 

8 – Respect your body

It is easier to make peace with food and honor your hunger when you accept your body. You don’t need to love or even like it, but honoring it with necessities like food and water is critical. 

9 – Movement – feel the difference

Activity has so many benefits, and unfortunately has been hijacked by diet culture. Explore what type of movement you would crave if you knew your body wouldn’t change. 

10 – Honor your health with gentle nutrition

Intuitive eating is not anti nutrition. I am not anti nutrition. I love nutrition, the way the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals all work synergistically in our bodies to keep us healthy. Once you are giving your body the basics, you can explore how nutrition feels to you.

The purpose of the 10 principles is to get you reconnected to your body. There is no right order to pursue intuitive eating. However, I will discourage you from jumping into “gentle nutrition” too soon. I do discuss nutrition with my clients, but it is in a very thoughtful and intentional way. We make sure it does not override their ability to honor their body. 

The science behind intuitive eating

There is increasing evidence that intuitive eating can support health without any of the risks that come with traditional diet interventions. In 2022, there were at least 15 studies published on intuitive eating, and more coming each year. Traditional diets lead to short-term weight loss and improved health markers (e.g. lowered cholesterol and blood pressure, for instance). However, we know that very few people are able to maintain weight loss long-term (check out this archived article in the NY Times for some data points on this). 

There are many hypotheses that attempt to explain why weight loss is so difficult, including genetic, environmental, and biological. One of these hypotheses is that of the set point theory

The Set Point Theory

The set point theory hypothesizes that each human body has a comfortable weight range for that body, and any attempt to change it will be met with resistance. 

This resistance comes in the form of a reduction in metabolic rate and energy expenditure when calorie intake is reduced. There is also a disruption in hunger and fullness hormones. 

a diagram of the digestive system and hunger hormones. It describes how different foods and nutrients impact these

Studies have also shown that restriction and weight loss often lead to an “overshoot” of weight regain that can take years to stabilize. This can lead to weight cycling, which is a major risk factor for all-cause mortality when compared to those who maintain a higher body weight.

On the other hand, weight neutral interventions like intuitive eating support a holistic approach to health by changing behaviors, not necessarily body size. 

Research on Intuitive Eating

Studies show that weight neutral and intuitive eating interventions are associated with physical and emotional health [source, source].

Those who eat intuitively have greater body image and appreciation, self-esteem, and a lower risk for eating disorders and disordered eating.

In addition, intuitive eating and weight-neutral approaches have ZERO evidence of causing harm. In fact, they often produce similar health outcomes as those focusing on weight loss and calorie restriction. There is evidence that this approach can help lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk for weight gain. 

I have seen this in my practice as well. My clients are feeling confident about their food choices. They lower their cholesterol and hemoglobin A1c levels. They have found exercise that suits them. Their body weight may or may not have changed, but maybe our quest for smaller bodies is not the answer. Maybe it is body acceptance and health promoting behaviors?

Limitations and criticisms of intuitive eating

A lot of the limitations and criticisms I hear about intuitive eating come from my clients, and often come from a place of fear and lack of trust in their bodies. Maybe they tried it and ended up gaining weight, and decided it wasn’t for them. 

Unfortunately, this can happen. Weight loss, or even weight maintenance, isn’t a goal for intuitive eating. It is entirely weight neutral. That being said, most of my clients are not gaining a significant amount of weight in the long run.There may be some fluctuations at the beginning, especially if you were what we call “weight suppressed”, or sitting below your natural set point. Over time, your body will find its comfortable place.

Other limitations and criticisms I have seen and heard include the following.

Lack of scientific evidence. 

This is unfortunately true. There isn’t a TON of evidence that intuitive eating is valid, especially compared to traditional SHORT-TERM dieting interventions. However, there is SOME evidence that is promising, and more coming every day. We do have plenty of evidence that traditional dieting methods do not work in the long-term (e.g. 5+ years), and may actually cause harm. Intuitive eating offers a low-risk alternative.

Not suitable for certain medical conditions. 

Intuitive eating, if taken as gospel, does not work for all medical conditions. For example, if you are allergic to peanuts and want to eat a peanut butter cup, that’s going to cause some problems. Someone might not be able to tolerate dairy, yet still desire to eat cheese. Someone in treatment for an eating disorder cannot rely on their fullness cues to tell them when to stop eating since they don’t work properly. That being said, I fully believe we can adapt intuitive eating to work for nearly everyone. 

Potential for overeating. 

I struggle with this. It is missing the mark. Only you can decide whether what you’re eating is enough. Are you overstuffed? Yes, maybe you overate. That will happen sometimes because intuitive eating is a learning curve, and sometimes we choose to eat even if we aren’t hungry. There is only an estimated 1 in tens-of-thousands of people born with Prader-Willi, a genetic disorder that causes constant food cravings. I think this criticism is coming from a place of not really understanding of intuitive eating, weight science, and weight inclusivity.

Dismissal of nutrition education. 

Nutrition is a principle of intuitive eating, so again I think this is a lack of fully understanding intuitive eating. I fully believe nutrition education is important and powerful when presented in the appropriate context.

Weight management concerns. 

I fully agree with this. Intuitive eating is not a weight loss method. But it never claimed to be. It may help prevent weight cycling, which is associated with increasing body weight, so by that logic it may help prevent long-term weight gain.

Social and cultural factors not addressed, such as food availability, cultural tradition, and socioeconomic status. 

This point is SO true. Intuitive eating and allowing yourself to honor your hunger and unconditional permission to eat is such a privilege. If you are struggling to afford food, fully practicing intuitive eating will be difficult. Also, say you are fasting for religious purposes. Intuitive eating also does not account for this. 

Doesn’t acknowledge the effect of ultra-processed foods on hunger signals. 

Manufacturers are finding ways to bypass our internal hunger regulation system. In some cases, they have succeeded. Some people are more susceptible to this than others. Honoring your hunger/fullness is not fully reliable in these cases. However, I do fully believe these foods can fit, and there are ways we can work with and mitigate these concerns if desired.

When I’m working with my clients, I recognize that there is no one-size-fits all. I do fully believe that intuitive eating can be adapted for the vast majority of people. My mission is to help you stop obsessing over food so you can focus on your values. There is no right way for this to look.

Getting started with intuitive eating

There are so many places you can start with this eating approach, and a lot of nuance within it. Here are the main areas I work on with my clients. These include action-oriented steps you can start today. 

Eat regular, balanced meals 

99% of the time I am starting with this. This is important because hunger cues won’t be totally calibrated if you are used to skipping meals or restricting your food (from a diet or any other reason). Ironically, this may mean eating even if you don’t feel hungry. 

Regularity and adequacy are the essential foundation to practicing intuitive eating. I really like combining the two meal planning methods known as the rule of threes and the plate by plate approach. 

Rule of ThreesPlate Approach
Eat 3 meals per day
Eat 3 snacks per day
Eat every 3 hours
Fill up a 10-inch dinner plate roughly:
1/3 starch
1/3 protein
1/3 fruits/vegetables
Eat this for all meals. Snacks fill in the gaps and are like “mini meals”
a diagram of a plate. It is a circle with a magenta background split into thirds. one third of the plate has the word starches written on it with clip art of bread, potatoes, rice, and noodles. One third has protein written on it with clip art of a chicken drumsticks, a steak, eggs, and beans. The last third has fruits and veggies written on it with clip art of a red pepper, an orange, a salad, and bananas. There is a circle in the middle with fats, oils, and fun foods written on it.

There is not a ton of portion guidance here because everyone’s needs are different. But this is a start to get your appetite cues close to or on track. 

After following these approaches for a period of time, you may be able to rely on your own internal cues. This can take anywhere from a few days’ time to months. Unfortunately, some people can never fully rely on hunger cues and will always need to use some sort of structure and reminder system.

Keep a food journal

Most of the time, I’m asking my clients to keep a food journal. I never ask anyone to track their calories, macros, exchanges or anything specific like that. However, I find it helpful to know what, when, where, and why they are eating. This type of information gives a lot of insight into your relationship with food and your thoughts and feelings about it.

You can use an app to keep your food journal or a paper journal.

Suggested Food Logging Apps:

Learn your triggers

Using your food journal, start to look for patterns. What do you notice about your weekdays versus weekends? How is your internal dialogue with food? Are you finding yourself avoiding certain foods? Do you have a lot of variety in your diet or do you eat the same thing? Are there certain feelings, events, or situations that trigger you to overeat or restrict certain foods?

Once you identify these triggers, work to avoid putting yourself in a vulnerable position. For instance, eat regularly so you are not starving, prioritize sleep, and find alternative coping mechanisms for stress. 

Reflect on your progress

Intuitive eating is a long journey. You won’t become an intuitive eater overnight. It is so important and helpful to reflect on how far you have come. Maybe you’re able to go out to eat at a restaurant and order what you want without losing control. Perhaps you’re able to enjoy a holiday with friends without stressing about what food is available. Maybe you’ve taken steps to feed yourself 3 balanced meals every day this week. Wherever you are at, celebrate your progress! 

Take baby steps if needed

Intuitive eating can often feel like a free-for-all of eating whatever, whenever you want. If someone wants to jump in this way, I’m all for it. However, most people are a little apprehensive about this approach. I want you to know that baby steps are ok! It is ok to set boundaries and give yourself guide rails as you are making peace with food.

What does this look like? It might mean buying your trigger snacks in individual sized portions. It could look like going out to eat ice cream instead of buying a whole gallon to keep at home. You might feel safer having someone be there with you so you don’t end up binge eating when you order form your favorite restaurant. It’s ok to set yourself up for success, whatever that looks like for you. 

Respect your body

Doing body image work is critical to having lasting success with intuitive eating. That’s because intuitive eating is NOT a weight loss plan. Some people gain weight while eating intuitively. This isn’t a bad thing. It is just a reflection that your body may be more comfortable at a higher weight. 

It’s important to remember that you do not have to like your body in order to honor and respect it. You can make peace with food without loving your body. 

Adapting Intuitive eating

I also spend a lot of time adapting the intuitive eating model. Intuitive eating does not need to be all-in. You can take bits and pieces depending on where you are at in your journey. Some examples of situations requiring adaptations:

Recovering from an eating disorder

It might take your body time to fully regain natural hunger and fullness cues. That being said, you can fully embrace aspects of intuitive eating from day one. Examples include giving yourself unconditional permission to eat, respecting your body, and making peace with food. However, respecting your fullness and satiety will not be appropriate until someone is fully nutritionally rehabilitated. 

You are neurodivergent

I consider myself pretty neurotypical, so this is purely from what I have seen with my clients. But those with ADHD or autism may struggle more with recognizing (or even having) typical hunger and fullness cues. You might be someone who benefits from long-term structure and “guide rails” with eating. We would also look at other atypical hunger cues

You have had weight loss surgery or are taking an injectable medication for diabetes or weight loss.

These two situations intentionally alter your hunger. Weight loss surgery reduces the size of your stomach. Injectable medications include Ozempic, Wegovy, and Mounjaro. These medications reduce and nearly eliminate the empty stomach sensation. That doesn’t mean your body doesn’t still require food and energy to support life. In these instances I would still encourage structure and adequacy every few hours. However, you are unlikely to regain those hunger cues. Instead, we’d have to use other physical cues and sensations. Assessing mental focus, energy, sleepiness, and overall mental well being can help determine if you’re eating adequately. 

You are someone who wants to lose weight. 

I again want to highlight that intuitive eating is not a weight loss plan. However, nearly all of my clients want to lose weight and want to make peace with food. I think we can make strides to improve your relationship with food no matter where you are in your journey. This might look like gradually challenging food rules, working on respecting your body, and practicing self compassion.

Overcoming Challenges with Intuitive Eating

Anytime you are changing your habits there will be challenges. That is just the nature of behavior change. Self compassion is so essential here! That being said, there are a few challenges that feel specific to intuitive eating.

Diet culture triggers

Diet culture is all around us. From our well-meaning medical system, to food marketing, social media, and even influences from friends and family, diet culture and messages often tell you why you can’t trust your body, and even try to hijack intuitive eating and turn it into a weight loss diet. It’s hard to stay the course when everything around you is pushing a different narrative. 

External influences

You may have all the desire in the world to eat intuitively, but reality may have a different plan. For better or worse, we exist in a society driven by timelines, money, pressure to be productive, and the drive for thinness. Balancing work, schedules, family needs, and other demands makes it hard to tune into your body. Not to mention, it is hard to find the time to take care of yourself. I do believe we can adapt intuitive eating in these circumstances, but I understand it can be a challenge. 

Judgment and stigma

I am writing from a place of thin privilege. I own and acknowledge this with my clients, and I want you to know I recognize it. While embracing intuitive eating isn’t always rainbows and butterflies for me, I do wholly believe it is easier for me than someone in a larger body. I have never experienced judgment and stigma over what I am eating and what my body looks like. If it doesn’t feel safe for you to practice or engage in intuitive eating, I want you to know that I hear and believe you. 

Food insecurity

Intuitive eating is also a lot easier if you have total access to food and skills to prepare food. If you are struggling with food insecurity, it is going to be hard to give yourself unconditional permission to eat. Heck, even if you are secure now, if you have ever been food insecure it can impact your relationship with food. 

I fully believe that we can build the skill of intuitive eating and apply it to any circumstances. It is not a perfect solution, it is just the most compassionate and inclusive approach in my mind. Eating is so personal and I feel that intuitive eating allows more flexibility than most traditional dieting approaches. 

In conclusion

I’ve been practicing intuitive eating personally for a long time, and the approach that I take with my clients has evolved a lot over the years. I find there is a lot more room for flexibility than the media suggests. There is increasing research on the impact of intuitive eating on health outcomes which I think is incredibly promising! At the end of the day, it feels like a compassionate and empowering approach to eating that anyone can benefit from.

Looking for more support? Sign up for my newsletter where I send regular intuitive eating tips and resources. 

1 thought on “Intuitive Eating 101: A Guide to Nourishing Your Body and Mind”

  1. Intuitive eating is a very interesting topic and one that you discussed in great detail here. I think it speaks to how one’s relationship with food can improve and have them better enjoy the different options available.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.