Intuitive Eating 101
Updated: Jun 18
Chances are, you’ve been hearing the phrase “Intuitive Eating” a lot lately. It’s all over social media, it’s showing up in advertisements, and it’s been the subject of a ton of news coverage and magazine articles lately. It was predicted to be one of the top health and wellness trends of 2020, and, so far, it’s certainly living up to that expectation. But despite all the recent hype, I’ve heard from a lot of people that they’re not really sure what Intuitive Eating actually is. And, worse, I’ve seen a lot of people out there selling diets disguised as Intuitive Eating. To help with that, this article is meant to serve as an overview of the framework, as well as an opportunity to dispel some misconceptions and offer some nuance to the basic concepts. It’s a long read, but you’ll walk away with a good understanding of what Intuitive Eating is all about, as well as knowledge you’ll need to spot fake Intuitive Eating when it pops up! And if you want to dig deeper, each principle has its own IGTV video where I give even more detail, as well as ways to take some first steps right now!
What Is Intuitive Eating?
The first thing to know about Intuitive Eating is that, despite all the recent coverage, it’s not new! The first book by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch actually came out in 1995. Since then, there have been three editions of the book & a fourth one is due to come out in June of 2020. It’s constantly evolving and now has over 120 studies showing its benefits. This is far from a fad!
Tribole and Resch created the Intuitive Eating framework based on what they were seeing in their clinical experiences as registered dieticians. Their clients were coming in for weight loss, initially successfully losing weight, and then some time later coming back to lose that same weight (and sometimes more) all over again. And when they came back, they were coming back with a side of guilt and shame over their perceived “failures.” So Tribole and Resch started looking at non-diet practices and realized the truth: Diets don’t work. And, more than that, they do harm. So they created this framework to help people reconnect to their bodies and pursue actual, sustainable health.
Intuitive Eating is a self-care eating framework. It integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought. It is evidence-based, well-defined, validated, weight-neutral, and Health at Every Size (HAES)-aligned. It’s about cultivating autonomous and healthy relationships with food, our minds, and our bodies. It’s a truly holistic approach to health, where we focus not just on our physical health, but on our mental, emotional, social, cultural, and spiritual health in equal measures. It is most definitely not a diet.
The framework of Intuitive Eating includes ten principles, but it’s important to note that these are not rules or even steps. The principles are designed to help us reconnect with our intuition, heal our relationships with food and our bodies, and learn to enjoy eating. While everyone who practices Intuitive Eating will spend time working on each of these principles, each individual has total control over the how, the why, and the when. No two paths will look quite the same, and there’s no right or wrong way to do the work.
As I discussed in a recent episode of the Small Steps Podcast, Intuitive Eating is full of nuances. It’s highly individualized. It’s all about the ands. Read on to dig into those aspects of each of the ten Intuitive Eating principles.
Intuitive Eating Principle #1 - Reject the Diet Mentality (Click for video!)
Rejecting the diet mentality is essentially the foundation for all the other Intuitive Eating principles, and it shows up in various ways within each of the other principles, as well. Why? Because it’s basically impossible to fully connect with your intuition and autonomy until you give up on diets and diet culture.
First and foremost, this principle requires us to give up on the practice of dieting. And, let me be clear, this includes any practice with the goal of intentional weight loss. I don’t care if we’re calling it a diet, or a lifestyle change, or wellness, or an eating plan, or whatever. If success is measured in body size, it has to go! This is because a focus on body size will always interfere with our ability to tune into what our bodies are actually telling us. Our internal monologue of guilt, shame, and “should”s will always override the actual signals our bodies are sending us about what they need.
AND….rejecting the diet mentality is about way more than actually dieting. It also requires us to take a long, hard look at diet culture, how we’ve participated in it, and how we’ve internalized it. It requires us to dig into the insidious and uncomfortable parts of diet culture, like fatphobia, racism, colonialism, ableism, healthism, patriarchal beauty standards, gender norms, and even capitalism. It’s a serious deep dive.
Ultimately, Intuitive Eating is all about autonomy. And true autonomy requires us to unpack all the things that might be making our decisions for us. Diet culture and the diet mentality are everywhere, so it requires a lot of work to be able to root them out of our choices. This principle is basically a life-long process of learning, unlearning, and relearning.
I know this probably sounds really daunting & overwhelming. But you know what’s great about a life-long process? It doesn’t matter where you start or how small your first step is. (A great first step would be to sign up for my free email course, 7 Days to Dumping Diet Culture!)
Intuitive Eating Principle #2 - Honor Your Hunger (Click for video!)
The most basic explanation of this principle is to eat when you’re hungry - to learn to recognize and honor the biological signals, and to keep your body adequately fed and fueled. This is important on a physical level, and also on a mental and emotional level, in terms of rebuilding trust in yourself and in food.
AND… It’s not nearly this simple once you peel back the layers.
To start with, do you know what hunger feels like? When we’ve spent long periods of time ignoring our hunger cues, they can be really hard to identify again. Do you feel the sensations that we typically associate with hunger - emptiness or growling in our stomach? Or do you have to look further? There are a lot of other sensations that can be signals of hunger, and everyone will have to figure out for themselves what hunger feels like in their bodies.
To go deeper, what happens if we eat when we’re not hungry? Does that mean we’re doing this wrong? The short answer is a resounding no. For one thing, everything is a part of the learning process, so there is no such thing as “doing this wrong.” For another thing, there are a lot of perfectly valid reasons to eat when you’re not hungry! Remember, Intuitive Eating is the dynamic integration of instinct, emotion, and rational thought. That means your biological signals are not the only factors to consider. Maybe you have a “taste hunger” where you’re seeking a specific sensation to satisfy an emotional need. Or maybe you have a really busy day ahead and your rational mind tells you that you need to eat when you have the opportunity, regardless of whether you’re truly biologically hungry. Just to name a few.
Lastly, remember that Principle #1 applies here too! Diet culture has done a lot of work to disconnect us from our hunger signals. It’s made us both afraid of hunger and afraid to eat. It’s told us for years that hunger is something to be drowned out and suppressed - by any means except simply eating, of course! So honoring our hunger is going to involve unpacking how diet culture has been interfering, as well.
Intuitive Eating Principle #3 - Make Peace With Food (Click for video!)
This principle can be summed up as giving ourselves unconditional permission to eat. And if just reading that made you feel super uncomfortable, I get it, and I urge you to read on.
This is probably the most misunderstood and demonized aspect of Intuitive Eating. People get really worked up over the idea of being told they can eat whatever they want, whenever they want it. There’s a lot of “but what about health” arguments over this principle. But if we remove the lens of diet culture and healthism, we can see this concept a lot more clearly.
The big disconnect here is the idea that if we don’t have food rules, then we’re destined to eat pizza and donuts for the rest of our lives. And we can thank diet culture for this belief. Diet culture tells us that we need rules, and that those rules are the only things keeping us from dietary and health catastrophe. But here’s the truth: Those rules are exactly the reason why we can sometimes feel so out of control around food. Rules = rebellion. We want what we can’t have (or at least what we think we can’t have).
The reality is that when you remove the rules and restriction, you also remove the rebellion. The foods that we used to think of as “forbidden” or “addictive” lose their power. Because there’s no longer anything special about them. They’re not up on a pedestal. There’s no feeling of scarcity making us feel like we’d better stock up while we’ve got the chance. If we can eat cake whenever we want, we usually find that we don’t want it nearly as often as we thought we would.
AND... For a while we probably will eat a lot more of these fun foods. I’ve often heard this described as a pendulum swing. I love the imagery that Deb Burgard uses to describe this. When we’re dieting, we exist on one side of the pendulum at “Dietland.” When we let go of diets, we swing all the way to the other side, called “Donutland.” But, eventually, when we’ve lived in Donutland long enough to truly believe that we have unconditional permission to eat, the pendulum will settle somewhere in the middle, in “Discernment.” This is where we can make truly autonomous decisions about what, when, how, and why we want to eat, not from rules or rebellion, but from our own best interests.
Intuitive Eating Principle #4 - Challenge the Food Police (Click for video!)
This principle is all about letting go of value judgments about food. So, let’s be clear: There’s no such thing as “good” food and “bad” food! Sure, some foods are more nutritionally dense than others, and some foods are more energy dense than others, but neither of these things is inherently “better” or “worse”.
This kind of black and white thinking about food (and really everything) is a trademark of diet culture. By casting some foods as morally superior to other foods, it convinces us that we ourselves are morally superior when we eat some foods and morally inferior when we eat other foods. The result is a cycle of food guilt, restriction, bingeing, and shame.
Detaching moral judgment is a necessity for learning to trust ourselves and our bodies. Building an awareness of the ways that diet culture portrays foods in a moral light, how we’ve internalized this black and white thinking, and how that thinking is interfering with our autonomous decisions is the first step to making that shift.
AND…we also need to become aware of the external food police in our lives.
This is complicated. But you know that relative who’s always talking about how bad she is for eating this or that at the holiday gatherings? She’s the food police. And you know that co-worker who’s always talking about how sugar is poison and how important clean eating is? He’s the food police. Or what about your friend who thinks they’re doing you a favor by suggesting that you might not actually want to eat that cookie? They’re the food police, too.
Part of working through this principle can involve setting boundaries around food talk. And that can be uncomfortable. But good boundaries make good relationships - with other people, with ourselves, with our bodies, and with food.
Intuitive Eating Principle #5 - Discover the Satisfaction Factor (Click for video!)
Hold tight because I’m about to introduce a concept that’s totally outrageous through the lens of diet culture. Here we go: Food is supposed to be enjoyable. Eating should be a pleasurable experience.
When diet culture talks about being “satisfied”, they’re usually referring to a physical feeling of having eaten enough to stave off hunger for a few hours. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about actual sensory satisfaction. We’re talking about pleasure.
Discovering the satisfaction factor is all about letting food and the act of eating make us feel good. It’s about feeling nourished by the experience. It’s about savoring the taste, smell, texture, and look of our food.
AND...it can be a challenge to allow ourselves this pleasure after years of denying it through dieting.
Because after all this time eating according to rules, do we even know what we like anymore? Maybe not! And that makes perfect sense! If all we know is how to follow rules, it becomes difficult to know whether or not we like something without a rule telling us if we’re supposed to like it.
This principle can be full of fun experimentation. And it can also be uncomfortable. Because healthism can show up really strongly here, much the same way it shows up when we talk about unconditional permission to eat. Diet culture and healthism tell us that if we’re eating for pleasure, then we’re necessarily eating nothing but energy dense foods. They tell us that pleasure should be reserved for “cheat days” or special occasions. They say we don’t deserve pleasure unless we earn it through deprivation.
But pleasure is a human right. Nourishment is just as important as nutrition. And a healthy relationship with food involves our body, mind and soul.
Intuitive Eating Principle #6 - Feel Your Fullness (Click for video!)
Before we dig into what this principle is, let’s talk about what it's not. This is not your typical advice to stop eating at 80% full (or whatever). This is not an excuse to micromanage your portion sizes so that you never, ever eat past a certain point of fullness. This is not something that you can fail at. In short, this is not the “hunger and fullness diet” (as described by Christy Harrison of the Food Psych Podcast).
Feeling your fullness is all about cultivating a deeper awareness of your body’s signals. It’s about being mindful and present in our eating. It’s very much intertwined with discovering the satisfaction factor because it requires us to take note of our sensory eating experiences.
Unlike the 80% goal of diet culture, there is no single prescriptive answer here. The goal is to eat to a comfortable and satisfying (there’s that word again) level of fullness, which will be different for each individual. Maybe you need more food to feel satisfied. Maybe you need less food, more often, to feel comfortable. Maybe the right level of fullness will change from day to day, or even from meal to meal.
AND...We’re all definitely going to eat past the point of comfortable/satisfying fullness. Sometimes it will be accidental - we missed the mark due to distraction or simple miscalculation and ended up more full than we wanted to be. Sometimes it will be intentional - we were eating something that we really enjoyed and made the choice to continue eating it even after we knew we were full. The important thing here is that both of these scenarios are 100% fine. There’s no failure. No need to make up for it later. No need to punish ourselves. The former is a learning experience, the latter is an exercise of autonomy, and both are equally valuable in this framework.
Intuitive Eating Principle #7 - Cope With Your Emotions With Kindness (Click for video!)
This principle used to be called “Cope With Your Emotions Without Using Food.” And there’s a very good reason for the change: Because emotional eating is a perfectly valid coping mechanism sometimes.
Contrary to what diet culture tells us, emotional eating is not necessarily a bad thing. Eating is emotional. It’s in our nature as humans to associate food with safety. Food is tied up in our sense of love, security, family, culture, and community. Of course we find it soothing.
Should it be our only coping mechanism? No. It’s really important for all of us to spend some time getting in touch with the things we might be stressed or emotional about and learning how to manage them instead of avoiding them. Food will never fix our feelings. But we don’t all have access to the same help for this process. And even those of us who do have access to other forms of coping might occasionally just want the kind of easy comfort that food can give.
AND...Let’s remember that eating and restricting (a/k/a dieting) are both coping mechanisms! The reason we demonize emotional eating but praise dieting as healthy behavior is entirely based in fatphobia. Both of these behaviors can be used to avoid, soothe, or numb our feelings. But only one of them is commonly believed to cause fatness (although, the science says otherwise, of course). Even worse, research shows that people with a history of dieting are more likely to seek food in times of stress than people without that history. So diet culture is out here causing an increase in emotional eating and then telling people they’re failures for doing it.
Ultimately the goal here is not necessarily to change our eating habits, but to meet both our emotions and our coping mechanisms with kindness, compassion, and curiosity.
Intuitive Eating Principle #8 - Respect Your Body (Click for video!)
You don’t have to love your body in order to respect it. Body respect is a human right for everyone, regardless of size, race, gender, age, health, or ability.
What this means in practice is that our bodies are deserving of care no matter what. They deserve comfort, nourishment, safety, movement, pleasure, and dignity. Even when we feel like they’re not attractive. Even when we feel like they’re failing us. Even when we feel disconnected from them.
Think of our feelings about our bodies on a spectrum. On one side there’s body hatred - a place where a lot of us live, unfortunately. This is where we treat our bodies with outright hostility. We poke, and prod, and talk negatively, and workout in ways that feel terrible, and deprive ourselves of food, and deny ourselves pleasure. All the way on the other side is body love - a place that seems entirely out of reach, if not outright fictional, to those of us currently residing on the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s easy to feel like we have to exist in one of these two places. But that’s the black and white thinking of diet culture at work.
In between those two ends of the spectrum lie three other options: body respect, body neutrality, and body acceptance. Maybe these are steps, or maybe these are end goals in themselves. That’s entirely up to the individual. But none of these requires us to love our bodies, and all of these require us to at least treat our bodies with the care that we would extend to literally any other human being. There’s room on this spectrum for everyone.
AND...there are a lot of societal factors working against us when it comes to cultivating body respect. This principle is very closely related to rejecting the diet mentality, in that it requires us to take note of all the ways that society (and diet culture) tells us on a daily basis that our bodies are, in fact, not deserving of respect. It requires us to unpack all the ways that we’ve internalized that belief, both about our own bodies and about the bodies of other people.
Intuitive Eating Principle #9 - Movement: Feel the Difference (Click for video!)
There are a million amazing reasons to move our bodies that have absolutely nothing to do with changing the way our bodies look.
In fact, chances are, if you hate movement/exercise (and you’re definitely not alone there), it’s because of the association with the pursuit of body change. It’s because exercise is synonymous with diets. It’s because exercise is a miserable experience when you’re underfed and underfueled. It’s because when the only movement that “counts” is grueling and brutal, it’s destined to make you feel worse, not better. It’s because when the diet failed, the exercise made you feel like a failure, too.
But movement is a health promoting and life improving behavior regardless of whether or not it changes the appearance of our bodies. Regular movement (or physical activity, or exercise, or whatever you want to call it) can improve digestion, sleep, bone density, blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol levels, mood, mental health, stress levels, strength, endurance, flexibility, mobility, coordination, body image, confidence, self esteem, and so much more. The more we can disconnect movement from diets and body change, the more that movement can benefit us.
AND...In order to do that, you might actually need to take some time away from movement/exercise altogether. You might need to spend some time prioritizing rest and refeeding so that you can make sure your body is capable of sustaining exercise properly. You might need to do some unpacking around what you believe counts as movement. You might need to dig into your past experiences with exercise and how they’ve made you feel, physically, emotionally, and mentally. You might need to redefine the way you relate to movement entirely.
This principle requires a lot of exploration of both our emotions and our bodies. Because, like most things, movement is not a one-size-fits-all thing. And we all get to choose what it we want it to look like for us.
Intuitive Eating Principle #10 - Honor Your Health: Gentle Nutrition (Click for video!)
As I’ve noted before, while these principles do build on each other, they’re not steps that have to be completed sequentially. This principle is the exception. Gentle nutrition is the last part of Intuitive Eating, both in theory and in practice, for a very good reason.
The concept of nutrition is so deeply embedded in diet culture that it requires us to have built a strong foundation in all the other principles to avoid turning it into another diet. We need to be able to proficiently practice all the other skills we’ve learned, to be tuned into our bodies, our emotions, and our rational thoughts, and to be able to make autonomous choices, even in the face of outside pressures.
The key is being able to take facts about the nutritional content of foods and measure that against our actual experiences in our bodies. This is not about following rules or prescriptions from outside sources. It’s about experimenting and noticing how our bodies feel when we make certain choices. Instead of following an outside rule about how much of each macro group to eat, we’re going to pay attention to how our energy and satiety is affected when we eat more carbs or protein or fat. Instead of cutting out gluten because it’s “bad”, we’re going to pay attention to how eating gluten affects our digestion. Instead of filling half of our plates with veggies at each meal because someone told us to, we’re going to notice how eating veggies affects how we feel physically.
AND...There’s no such thing as perfect nutrition. That’s a diet culture myth. The pursuit of perfect nutrition is no different than the pursuit of a perfect body. It will only lead to guilt, shame, and a sense of failure. Health and nutrition don’t shift with every meal or even every day. They’re best viewed on a longer timeline. And the truth is, when we work on attuning our bodies with all the other principles, a lot of the time the nutrition part sorts itself out.
Phew! That’s a lot to take in, right? The truth is that Intuitive Eating is not easy. It’s not a quick fix. It takes work. But the good news is that you don’t have to do that work alone! I am accepting applications for new Intuitive Eating 1-to-1 Coaching clients! If you’re ready to get off the diet rollercoaster and start working on making peace with food and your body, click here to get all the details and fill out an application. If you’re not sure whether this is a good fit for you, click here to set up a free 15-minute discovery call to talk it through.