Intuitive eating is all about rewiring our bodies back to the default setting we were born with. When we’re hungry, we eat. When we’re full, we stop. There are no other restrictions. For many of us, restrictions can make bad eating choices all the more tempting, which can lead to a cycle of binging and dieting.
It’s not meant to be hard, hence the “intuitive” nature of it all, but it can be very challenging to adjust your relationship with food to something that exists on your own terms rather than in accordance with societal standards or diet culture. It can be especially hard for those accustomed to dieting for years or recovering from disordered eating.
When intuitive eating is discussed, critics often say something like, “If I could eat whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, I’d eat nothing but pizza.” Sure, it does seem like this is what our body would go for, and yes, the first couple of days might rack up a few more unhealthy snacks than usual, but your body will soon intuitively yearn for a crisp salad and some hearty protein. To help guide you along the way, the experts shared all the need-to-know details about intuitive eating.
What is intuitive eating?
“Intuitive eating is not a diet and is rather an approach to eating where you’re eating in response to your physiological hunger and satiety cues, as opposed to eating in response to emotional cues or according to external rules and expectations,” explains psychologist and NYU School of Medicine professor Rachel Goldman, PhD, who specializes in health behavior change. “It’s about slowing down and listening to what your body needs and how food makes it/you feel.”
The method aims to connect you with your body’s internal signals while disconnecting from the external rules we’ve become accustomed to, explains intuitive eating dietitian at Graciously Nourished Kelsey Kunik, RDN. “Instead of trying to control your body by restricting, dieting and stressing over food rules, intuitive eating helps you work with your body so you can be properly fueled and satisfied by what you eat, working with your body instead of against it.”
The 10 principles of intuitive eating
Dr. Goldman says it’s important to understand that intuitive eating and mindful eating are different but related. Intuitive eating is more formally based on 10 core principles developed by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, says Dr. Goldman. The principles include: rejecting the diet mentality, honoring your hunger, making peace with food, challenging the food police, discovering the satisfaction factor, respecting your fullness, coping with your emotions and kindness, respecting your body, joyful movement, and honoring your health.
Kukin says it’s important to implement each of these at some point throughout the process. However, they don’t need to be done in any specific order. “You can decide which principle is most important to you to start, then work your way through them.”
How to practice intuitive eating
Adhering to the above principles is the perfect place to start. Seeking an expert to help you along the journey is also recommended if you have access. Dr. Goldman likes to have her clients begin by becoming more curious and in tune with physiological cues. She encourages clients to take a moment to really listen to what their body needs. ”Are you hungry? Are you satisfied? Do you want something in particular? What is your body telling you?” For many people, diet culture has taught them to ignore these natural clues. “Many people don’t even know what hunger or fullness feels like anymore, so I think it is important to start slow and first become more aware of this,” says Dr. Goldman.
“As soon as you decide you’re going to practice intuitive eating, that’s it. The only way you can fail is if you stop learning from your eating experiences,” says Kukin. “Even intuitive eaters will overeat, find themselves restricting, miss meals, or under-fuel. The important thing is being aware of how these instances affect you and making efforts to learn from them.”
Food freedom and intuitive eating coach Sloane Elizabeth points out that a large part of eating intuitively is healing your relationship with food. If you have a rocky relationship with eating, she suggests identifying the root. “For example, instead of replacing binge eating with intuitive eating, I recommend going deeper and exploring where the binge urges come from. Ask yourself, ‘Which subconscious limiting beliefs are driving you to feel out of control or fearful around food? Which thoughts and feelings arise when you eat your favorite cookies? Is there guilt? Shame? Fear?’ Eating intuitively will come much easier once you’ve worked to address the subconscious programming impacting your relationship with food.”
The benefits of intuitive eating
Kunik says the benefits of intuitive eating cannot be understated. “There are so many benefits of practicing intuitive eating, but I think one of the most important ones is the feeling of being in control of your eating and being truly in tune with your body’s needs,” says Dr. Goldman, a rare feat in the modern world.
“Additional benefits include an improved relationship with food, improved body image, improved self-esteem, reduced stress (especially around food/eating/body/shape, etc.), decreased emotional eating and other disordered eating behaviors, improved focus and concentration,” says Dr. Goldman. Kunik adds that improved social experiences and more self-trust are some of the other powerful benefits that come with intuitive eating. Kunik points to studies that show intuitive eating has improved diet quality, blood pressure, cholesterol and psychological health.
Sloane Elizabeth notes that “thriving holistic health, feeling in tune with your body again, reduced mental and physical stress, improved self-confidence, deepening self-love,” are also some of the many benefits of practicing intuitive eating. “Physically, you will feel healthier, stronger, and more energized when you’re no longer weighed down by obsession with food or unrealistic diets or emotional binges. Mentally, you’ll have so much more brain space and peace. On a soul level, you’ll feel a newfound sense of safety, trust, and belonging in your own body.”
The goal is not necessarily weight loss
It’s important to note that while weight loss is possible when intuitively eating, it’s not the goal. Dr. Goldman notes that intuitive eating is not designed to promote weight loss but rather to foster a healthier relationship with food. Weight may fluctuate during the process.
Who is a good candidate for intuitive eating?
Dr. Goldman says everyone is a good candidate for intuitive eating. “It’s actually the way we were born—in tune with our body’s natural hunger cues,” she points out. “Unfortunately, this natural way of eating has gotten lost due to diet culture, society’s messages, food rules, restriction, and emotional cues.”
Anyone looking to feel more connected to their body and food choices is right for intuitive eating, says Kunik. However, she notes that it can be especially beneficial for those who have “struggled with dieting or disordered eating and want to feel less stressed around food, more comfortable in their body, and confident in their food choices.”
However, people in treatment for an eating disorder need to take special consideration, notes Kunik. “Intuitive eating may need to wait until your medical team feels you’re stable to transition to this way of eating. In this case, you should be working closely with your dietitian and physician as you begin to practice intuitive eating.”