What is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating, aptly named, is an approach that trusts in the body’s intuition to guide eating decisions. Unlike a diet that prescribes rules about what and when to eat, intuitive eating emphasizes attunement with natural signs of hunger and fullness. These internal signals replace any externally imposed rules, and the body is situated as the expert of its physical and psychological needs.
Dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch first outlined their model of intuitive eating in a 1995 book of the same name. The book’s fourth edition, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach, was released earlier this year. Tribole and Resch’s paradigm continues to garner public and clinical attention, and its evidence base continues to grow (Tribole, 2017).
Though the intuitive eating approach is rooted in the body’s intuition, it can (and often does) feel far from intuitive for many. Diet culture’s “health” and “wellness” messages, as well as dieting, disordered eating, and eating disorders all serve to distance the mind from the body. Without a firm mind-body connection, the mind often acts as a micromanager of the body’s needs, tending to or ignoring them based on external rules and restrictions.
Relearning how to trust and honor internal body cues takes time—and often, courage—in a culture so steeped in diets and unreliable markers of health. The word “revolutionary” in the book’s title is intentional. Intuitive eating is an anti-diet, Health At Every Size-aligned approach that requires us to actively challenge commonly held assumptions about health and weight.
The approach includes ten principles that help to foster a strong mind-body connection. These principles are “tools, not rules”—not strict standards, but instead guidelines for examining our relationship with food. Taken together, the principles can aid in recognizing and challenging any barriers to intuitive eating that may be present in our lives.
The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating
1. Reject the diet mentality.
Intuitive eating is not a diet. It is not something done to “prepare for” a season or event or to “make up” for other eating. It does not set rules around any food or food group, and it does not chart appropriate “windows” for eating. There is no counting of calories or “points.” These types of rules are antithetical to this approach. Becoming attuned with our body signals requires ditching external rules and restrictions.
2. Honor your hunger.
Despite what diet culture would have us believe, we don’t need to fear or fight hunger. We need not ignore or “curb” it, and we don’t need to attach pride to it, either. Hunger is simply a bodily cue, as natural as those that tell us when we need water or sleep.
Only by feeding our bodies adequately and consistently can we meet our energy and nutritional needs. When we do this, we decrease the likelihood of bingeing after a period of restriction. Honoring hunger cues also helps to develop trust in our bodies, and our bodies similarly learn that they can count on us for getting their needs met.
3. Make peace with food.
Food is not the enemy. In instances of disordered eating and eating disorders alike, it is not food that is the problem; it is an unhealthy relationship with food. Making peace with food requires that we work to strip it of its power over us.
To challenge the idea that food is dangerous or something to be feared, some people find it helpful to reframe food as medicine, or what the body needs to heal from disordered eating or an eating disorder. Others reconceptualize it as energy, the fuel needed for other activities in life. Others still redefine it in even simpler terms: food is just food.
4. Challenge the food police.
The “food police,” in broad terms, are any sources of food judgments. It implies that food has an inherent moral component—that it is either “good” or “bad.” The food police might manifest in a thought that says a slice of dessert is “sinful,” for example, or a comment that suggests someone is “being good” by choosing a salad.
In intuitive eating, food is neither good nor bad. Different items provide different nutrients, but there is no moral value attached to any of them. All foods fit in this paradigm.
5. Feel your fullness.
In addition to honoring our hunger, intuitive eating asks that we feel our fullness. This principle is rooted in mindfulness. How do we feel throughout a meal? What signals are we receiving from our bodies? What signs tell us that we are comfortably full? We can practice recognizing and then honoring these cues.
6. Discover the satisfaction factor.
Eating can be an enjoyable experience, especially when it involves food that is personally satisfying. Intuitive eating aims to include meals and snacks that we find tasty, nourishing, and interesting. We can work to incorporate pleasure into our meals with ingredients that delight our senses or invoke positive memories of childhood, special occasions, and other fond times.
7. Cope with your emotions with kindness.
Eating for emotional reasons happens, and in many cases, it is part of normal eating. It becomes problematic, however, when eating is our only coping skill. Finding ways to cope outside of food equips us with a bigger toolbox for tending to our emotions in a balanced, sustainable way. We can learn to sit with and feel our feelings, rather than numb or ignore them through food.
8. Respect your body.
Body respect doesn’t require full body confidence or body positivity. It simply asks that we treat our bodies respectfully even if we don’t like the way they look. We can nurture our bodies with kindness and compassion by tending to their physical and psychological needs.
9. Movement—feel the difference.
Exercise should not be a chore. It is not something we must do to “earn” food or to “burn off” food we’ve eaten. Instead, movement (a term preferred over “exercise” by many eating disorder professionals), should take the form of physical activities we actually enjoy. It’s about making our bodies feel good, no matter how they look. Movement—when appropriate in eating disorder recovery—should be for pleasure, not punishment.
10. Honor your health with gentle nutrition.
Intuitive eating takes a holistic view of health, including its physical, mental, and emotional dimensions. Nutrition is more than eating vegetables, and health is more than food and fitness. Gentle nutrition is a concept that allows us to continuously explore what makes us feel well and why.
Intuitive Eating in Eating Disorder Recovery
An intuitive hunger/fullness approach to eating may not be appropriate for all people at all times. Those actively struggling with an eating disorder, for example, may not receive reliable signals of hunger and fullness and therefore cannot rely on them. Often, these signals are hijacked or overpowered by disordered rules and judgments.
Until these natural signals return, a more structured meal plan is often recommended in early eating disorder recovery. As recovery progresses, professionals can help these individuals eventually transition to more of an intuitive eating approach. The help of a specialist can ensure that the eating disorder isn’t gaining a foothold in this more flexible style of eating.
While a hunger/fullness meal plan is typically reserved for later stages of recovery, intuitive eating has far more than a meal plan to offer. The strategies are designed to identify and challenge external food rules to restore our connection with internal cues. Beyond any meal plan, the principles are useful for people at all stages of eating disorder recovery, as well as anyone else looking to improve their relationship with food.
If you are concerned about your or a loved one’s relationship with food, take the first step toward help by calling 888-364-5977 or completing our online form. For book recommendations beyond Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach, check out our page of book recommendations.