Getting Started with Intuitive Eating

Have you heard of intuitive eating? While it’s not the most popular “diet trend” out there, there’s a good chance it’s crossed your path. And, given that it is a pattern of eating that I am super passionate about, I thought it was a good time to break it down and offer tips for getting started with intuitive eating.

But first, what is intuitive eating?

Intuitive eating definition

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 working with clients – 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 (or, 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 one 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 we start?

10 Principles of Intuitive Eating

Tribole and Resch identified ten principles that support their “revolutionary anti-diet approach”. I will outline the principles below, but I encourage you to seek out the original explanations done by the authors!

Principle 1: Reject the Diet Mentality

This is hard, but essential. It means saying NO to every diet that comes your way. If you’re not ready for this, ask yourself how every diet you’ve ever done turned out. How did you feel? Did it produce the results you were hoping for?

Principle 2: Honor Your Hunger

Most diets tell us when and how much to eat. This can make it hard to trust our bodies when we feel hungry.

To honor your hunger means to eat when you are hungry. If you let yourself get too hungry, how do you feel? Most of the time, when we get to this point, we end up overeating to the point of uncomfortable fullness. 

Principle 3: Make Peace with Food

There is no morality attached to food. Food is not good or bad!

Making peace with food means you can eat any food without guilt or shame. For many people with a history of dieting, this can take some time. 

Principle 4: Challenge the Food Police

The food police is the voice in your head that says “you really shouldn’t be eating this”.

While working toward intuitive eating, bring awareness to these thoughts and when you are able, start to challenge them! Where does this “should” come from? According to whom? When did this thought first pop up?

Principle 5: Discover the Satisfaction Factor

Eating is supposed to be enjoyable and pleasurable.

Think about the meals that have been truly satisfying for you. What made them so satisfying? Was it the environment of the meal, the people you were with, or type of food being served? Try to replicate these experiences. 

Principle 6: Feel Your Fullness

Hunger and fullness cues exist on a spectrum.

Many people have eaten to the point of extreme fullness on one occasion or another. That being said, it is much easier to eat to a comfortable fullness when you have reliable and consistent access to food.

While eating, check in with your hunger level. How does it compare to the beginning of the meal? Where would you like it to be?

Principle 7: Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness

Emotional eating is not that big of a deal. Really.

That being said, if it’s your only coping mechanism, it can become a problem because food doesn’t get to the root of the issue. While it can be a really effective distraction, it doesn’t change or fix anything.

Finding additional coping tools can help you better process your emotions without furthering the disconnect between hunger and fullness.

Principle 8: Respect Your Body

Bodies come in different shapes and sizes. Rationally we all know this, but it can be really hard to accept this in our culture.

Working toward acceptance of and respect toward your natural body size makes it easier to make peace with food and reject the diet mentality. If you’re looking for some guided support, the Body Image Workbook is a great resource.

Principle 9: Movement – Feel the Difference

Yeah, we’ve all heard that exercise is “good for us”. And how many of you have rolled your eyes at the person who says they generally love to exercise? I get it – traditional “exercise” can be uncomfortable at times.

But let’s reframe this: bodies naturally crave movement.

For example, if  you are sitting in the car for a long car ride, your knees and legs get stiff. You want nothing more than to get out of the car and stretch your legs. That is movement! What type of movement would you crave if you didn’t have any expectations of yourself? 

Principle 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.

However, this principle comes last because if we focus on it too soon, the mind-body-food connection is easily lost. And that part is arguably more important.

Is Intuitive Eating Healthy?

At this point you probably know that my biased opinion is YES. It is probably one of the healthiest ways to eat that can both improve our physical health while not hurting our emotional and mental health.

AND research shows that incorporating principles of intuitive eating, mindful eating, and weight inclusive care demonstrate improvements in body image and appreciation, self esteem, and cholesterol. It also reduces the risk for “obesity”, eating disorders, and disordered eating behaviors.

So yes, it improves many of the factors that traditional “diets” aim to improve, but without the risks of declining mental health that some may experience on traditional diets. 

Intuitive Eating Improves Physical and Emotional Health

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

Those who eat in this manner 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. 

Why does Intuitive Eating Work?

First, it is important to understand why traditional dieting attempts often don’t work. I’ve written more about this here

Why don’t diets work?

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 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 (in the form of physical activity) when calorie intake is reduced as well as a disruption in hunger and fullness hormones. 

These hormones typically work together to regulate food intake. Leptin, the fullness hormone, is produced in the fat cells, and ghrelin, the hunger hormone, is produced in the stomach. 

When weight (fat) is lost, leptin levels naturally start to decline (since they are produced in the fat cells!) As a result, ghrelin levels take over and hunger starts to rise. All of a sudden you feel hungry all the time! This makes sense to anyone who has dieted in the past – it starts out relatively easy, but gets more difficult as time goes on. 

Studies have also shown that restriction and weight loss often lead to an “overshoot” of weight regain that can take years to stabilize.

Why is intuitive eating different?

Psychologically, intuitive eating makes sense. Tribole and Resch attribute this to the phenomenon known as the ironic process theory. The ironic process theory says that anything we try to avoid thinking about, we can’t help but think about. 

So when your diet tells you to skip the chocolate, what do you want to eat more than anything?

Intuitive eating avoids this biological and psychological resistance by not triggering it in the first place. By engaging in intuitive eating, you are accepting your body’s current and future weight, and recognizing that health is so much more than just your weight. 

Is Weight Loss Possible with Intuitive Eating?

Weight loss is not the goal of intuitive eating. That being said, intuitive eating is associated with lower body mass in general. 

Some people may lose weight while eating this way, especially if they were stuck in a binge-restrict cycle prior to beginning. Other people may gain weight eating this way if they were previously following a restrictive diet, and others may maintain their weight.

There’s no way to truly predict what your weight will do. We can look at family history and weight trajectory throughout your life to get an idea, but no one can accurately predict what your healthy weight is (even your doctor or a BMI chart!)

Who is Intuitive Eating For? 

EVERYONE! Or at least eventually I hope it is for everyone.

Intuitive eating is for those who are sick of the diet cycle and are ready to make peace with food. It is for those who are ready to give up the pursuit of changing their body. 

Who Should Not Try Intuitive Eating?

While I believe intuitive eating is the ideal way to eat for nearly everyone, there are a few groups of people who may not be ready for it.

Those with significant restrictive dieting history and/or eating disorders are not ready for intuitive eating (at least not all parts of it). Eating disorders and restriction disrupt our fullness cues. Even if you don’t feel hungry, it is very likely that your body still needs to eat. It is important to work with a team consisting of a dietitian, therapist, and doctor when recovering from an eating disorder.

Lastly, I would encourage you to get your expectations right before starting the journey. It is not a weight loss plan, and it is an ongoing process. It doesn’t happen overnight or in 12 weeks! That being said, simply reading this post is a step in that direction. Progress over perfection. 

Getting Started with Intuitive Eating

I would recommend getting a copy of the Intuitive Eating book to learn more, and the authors have an amazing workbook to help you work through the principles.

Looking for one-on-one support? Book an appointment with me today! I am licensed in North Carolina and see clients via telehealth across the state.

1 thought on “Getting Started with Intuitive Eating”

  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.

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