Intuitive eating is an eating method that encourages a healthy relationship with food. It promotes body positivity and focuses on recognizing and honoring hunger.
Dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch coined the term “intuitive eating” in their 1995 book, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Diet Approach.
However, they were not the first people to teach the principles of this eating method.
In 1973, Thelma Wayler founded Green Mountain, a non-diet community emphasizing sustainable habits for long-term health. Several years later, Susie Orbach published Fat is a Feminist Issue, which outlines how to end dieting and food anxieties. Poet Geneen Roth started writing about emotional eating in 1982.
The origins of intuitive eating may be murky, but its core message is clear: Intuitive eating is anti-diet and focused on building a healthy body image, making peace with food, and listening to the body.
Unlike diets that label foods as “good” or “bad,” intuitive eating focuses on honoring hunger with foods that benefit both physical and mental health.
This article explores the principles of intuitive eating and explains how to get started. It also discusses the benefits and risks of this dietary approach.
According to Tribole and Resch, intuitive eating requires a person to listen to their hunger signals and eat what they want without guilt. People who eat intuitively should enjoy eating while honoring hunger cues and recognizing fullness.
Ideally, this would be a natural process. However, for some people — such as those who have spent many years dieting — it is not. Years of restricting food, using food to cope with negative emotions, and obsessing over healthy or so-called clean foods are all reasons why people struggle with intuitive eating.
According to Tribole and Resch, toddlers are an example of naturally intuitive eaters. People following intuitive eating try to return to this simpler view of food.
This dietary approach also aims to help people build a stronger relationship with their body by learning to trust its natural hunger and fullness cues.
People looking to try intuitive eating frequently refer to the 10 key principles. Tribole and Resch originally outlined these in the first edition of their book and then updated them in later editions.
1. Reject the diet mentality
When a person has a diet mentality, they have a constant awareness of food and how they believe it affects their body. They filter their food choices through the diet mentality in an attempt to look a certain way or “be healthier.”
Having a diet mentality can be harmful, especially if a person has it for an extended period.
People with a diet mentality choose their foods based on this mentality, and they do not always consider factors such as hunger, cravings, and what their body wants. Intuitive eating considers each of these factors.
2. Honor your hunger
Restricting food can trigger an urge to overeat. People following intuitive eating should eat enough calories, including sufficient carbohydrates, protein, and fat, to feel satisfied.
Although it may be difficult for some people, the aim of this principle is to learn to recognize hunger and fullness cues.
3. Make peace with food
Food is not the enemy.
People should not consider any foods to be off-limits, unless they have an allergy or intolerance. When people give themselves unconditional permission to eat, they may avoid uncontrollable cravings, feelings of deprivation, and the desire to overeat.
4. Challenge the food police
The “food police mindset” refers to people moralizing food. They may think that healthy foods are good and that unhealthy foods are bad.
These beliefs are not true, and intuitive eating encourages people to challenge them.
5. Discover the satisfaction factor
Eating can, and should, be enjoyable.
A person can make eating pleasurable by sitting down to eat, eating foods they enjoy, and eating in an inviting environment. People tend to feel more satisfied after a meal when eating is a pleasurable experience.
6. Feel your fullness
People should honor both their hunger and their fullness.
Intuitive eating principles suggest that people check in with themselves during and after eating. They should pay attention to how the food tastes, how they feel, and their current hunger level. Doing this helps them recognize when they are satisfied.
7. Cope with your emotions with kindness
Sometimes, people eat to deal with uncomfortable or challenging emotions, which is called emotional eating.
This one of the 10 principles encourages people to find different ways to cope with how they feel. These strategies include writing in a journal, taking a walk, and calling a friend or family member.
Additionally, seeking help from a therapist may help people find the source of their difficulties and learn effective coping strategies.
8. Respect your body
People may have unrealistic expectations for how their body should look, causing them to criticize themselves harshly. Clinging to these expectations can make it hard to reject the diet mentality.
Individuals following intuitive eating should try to appreciate and respect their body.
9. Movement — feel the difference
Rather than focusing on how many calories they burn during exercise, people can focus on how exercise makes them feel. They should use that feeling as motivation to get and stay active.
10. Honor your health — gentle nutrition
What a person eats consistently over time is what matters. They can and should choose foods that honor their nutrition goals and cravings.
The benefits of intuitive eating are both mental and physical.
A 2019 study looked at body acceptance and weight management. It showed that when participants ate intuitively and focused on their physical hunger, they had a more positive body image.
However, this correlation was strongest in the participants with a lower body mass index (BMI). The researchers concluded that BMI consideration is important for future studies.
Although the study included participants of varying races and ethnicities, 72% of them were female.
In another 2019 study, which involved 37 adults with anorexia nervosa and 39 people without eating disorders, researchers analyzed interoceptive sensitivity. This is a measure of how accurately a person recognizes their bodily signals.
The results suggested that there is a correlation between increased intuitive eating and higher interoceptive sensitivity in people with and without eating disorders. However, the rates of intuitive eating were lower among people with anorexia.
These findings suggest that although people with anorexia may find it more difficult than other people to eat intuitively, doing so may help them recognize their natural bodily signals.
Intuitive eating is a lifestyle practice, and each person will have a different experience. People interested in getting started with intuitive eating can follow these guidelines:
- Observe food habits: Pay attention to food habits without judgment.
- Reflect on reasons for eating: Consider whether physical hunger or negative emotion is behind the decision to eat.
- Try mindfulness: Mindfulness training may help change the psychological factors behind emotional eating.
- Listen to hunger cues: Eat when the body feels hungry, and do not restrict food.
- Avoid moralizing food: Do not label foods as good or bad.
Intuitive eating may not be a good choice for everyone.
For example, people with health conditions requiring them to follow certain diets should stick to the guidance of their doctor or registered dietitian. These individuals may include those with diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
People who need to avoid certain foods for health reasons — such as people with Celiac disease — should continue to exclude them.
Some people who need to gain weight, including those recovering from eating disorders, should not follow intuitive eating. Instead, they should seek the guidance of a registered dietitian or a doctor.
Intuitive eating is an approach to eating that focuses on honoring hunger and satiety and practicing body positivity. People eat intuitively with the aim of developing a healthier relationship with their body and food.
Several resources are available for people who wish to begin practicing intuitive eating. These include books, support groups, and registered dietitians.
Intuitive eating may not be a good choice for everyone. Anyone with a health condition or particular dietary requirements should contact a doctor or registered dietitian before starting intuitive eating.