Understanding the Intuitive Eating Principles
What are the intuitive eating principles and who are they for?
In 1995, two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, introduced the intuitive eating principles to help those who feel confused about what and how to eat in a world obsessed with diets and weight loss. Different from any diet you’ve tried, intuitive eating focuses on cues from your own body to help guide eating decisions and puts zero restrictions on the types of foods you can and can’t eat.
Intuitive eating is for anyone who feels frustrated by yo-yo diets that result in weight loss followed by weight gain, confusing and contradictory nutrition advice, or feelings of guilt and anxiety around eating. The 10 principles of intuitive eating are designed to help you build awareness of your body’s physical sensations (we’ll call this body attunement) while showing you to navigate obstacles that get in the way of this awareness (we’ll call these attunement disruptors).
The 10 intuitive eating principles
1. Reject the diet mentality
Diet-obsessed culture is everywhere, making it seem as though everyone knows the secret to fast and permanent weight loss except for you (spoiler alert: they don’t!). Research shows that diets fail for upwards of 95% of people– not for lack of willpower, but because our bodies are genetically programmed to maintain our set point weight (read more here). Diets and the pursuit of weight loss are a key attunement disruptor, creating barriers to you being able to tap into your own inner eating wisdom. The first step towards intuitive eating is focused on exploring your desire for weight loss, recounting all the ways diets have failed you in the past, and letting go of the idea that the next best diet awaits you around the corner.
2. Honor your hunger
Chronic dieting takes us further away from being able to recognize and honor hunger when we feel it. Under-nourishment will dampen natural hunger cues while endless food rules about what, when, and how to eat might have you second-guessing your hunger when you do feel it. In this step, you will work on nourishing your body with adequate calories and carbohydrates, and increasing body attunement to hunger signals. Learning how to approach eating as an act of self care is an important first step to rebuilding trust between you and your body.
3. Make peace with food
Continue healing your relationship with food by allowing permission to eat all foods– yes, ALL foods! Restricting certain foods, from chips and cookies to whole food groups like carbohydrates or fats, will create a sense of deprivation which ultimately leads to binge eating and feeling out of control around food. Break the restrict-binge cycle by giving yourself permission to eat all foods, especially forbidden and “unsafe” foods.
4. Challenge the food police
The food police make food out to be good or bad (and make us feel like a good or bad person for eating them!). Food policing thoughts sound like “I’m so bad for eating this” or “I’ll be good and skip dessert.” The food police are considered attunement disruptors– you won’t be able to tap into your inner food wisdom while the food police continue to evoke feelings of guilt and shame for eating foods you enjoy. In this step of intuitive eating you’ll learn how to reframe challenging thoughts about food and chase the food police away for good.
5. Discover the satisfaction factor
Satisfaction is often overlooked by diets as being an important part of the eating experience. We gain satisfaction from the meals we eat by eating foods we truly enjoy, creating a peaceful eating environment, and being present in the eating experience. This step helps you identify what food flavors, textures, and sensations provide you the most eating satisfaction and sets the stage for you being able to assess comfortable fullness.
6. Feel your fullness
Just like hunger, dieting can interfere with your ability to sense and honor fullness. Many diets encourage us to eat too little, ignoring satisfaction and fullness in favor of reducing calories, which often leaves us open to overeating to the point of discomfort at future meals. This step focuses again on body attunement, discovering what comfortable fullness feels like in your body through the process of mindful eating.
7. Cope with your emotions with kindness
Emotional eating has become demonized in our culture. Many diets encourage eating for physical fuel only, making us feel guilty if we turn to food in times of happiness, boredom, sadness, stress, loneliness, etc. Intuitive eating emphasizes that while food is a morally neutral emotional coping tool, it may not always be the most effective tool in your tool box. Explore when and how you are using food to cope with emotions with curiosity, not judgment, and discover how it feels to approach emotions, and emotional eating, with kindness and compassion.
8. Respect your body
Poor body image often results from years of negative self talk encouraged by diets that make you feel as though your body is a problem to be “fixed.” Negative self talk is also considered an attunement disruptor if it gets in the way of you caring for and nourishing your body. Body respect focuses on rejecting the idea that you are only worthy of love and care in a smaller body and encourages you to embrace your body and all of its perceived “flaws” and embrace all the wonderful things your body does for you every day. All bodies are good bodies, and all bodies deserve dignity and respect.
9. Movement, feel the difference
Just like how diets strip the joy away from eating, they may have also impacted the way you view or perform exercise. Moving your body doesn’t have to look a certain way to be beneficial. Feel how liberating movement can be when it doesn’t focus on burning calories or dropping pounds. Discover how different exercise feels when you perform it in an adequately nourished body as well!
10. Honor your health with gentle nutrition
Diet culture will have you believe that healthy eating can only look a certain way (re: “clean eating,” which you can read more about here). Gentle nutrition acknowledges that healthy eating is important, but that it is far from black and white. Instead of using ‘healthy’ to describe specific foods that are ‘safe’ to our health, gentle nutrition defines ‘healthy’ as eating a variety of foods while encouraging a healthy relationship with all foods. Read more about gentle nutrition here.
FAQ’s about intuitive eating
How long does the intuitive eating process take?
Intuitive eating is a lifelong process! It can take anywhere from several weeks to several years to feel as though you have achieved body attunement and mastered mindful eating. However, there is never an end point while practicing intuitive eating– there will always be new challenges and things to learn about yourself along the way!
Will intuitive eating help me lose weight?
Intuitive eating is not a weight loss diet. Through the process of intuitive eating you are encouraged to put weight loss on the back burner and explore how diets are impairing your ability to achieve body attunement. Some people lose weight by eating intuitively, some gain weight, while still others maintain their weight. The focus of intuitive eating is not weight changes, but rather improving your relationship with food.
Will intuitive eating improve my body image?
It very well might. Diets often promise to make you feel better about your body once it is smaller, but most often this is not the case. Dieting doesn’t improve body image because dieting focuses on changing the way you look instead of changing the way you feel about how you look. Intuitive eating can help you explore the preconceptions you have about weight loss and help you foster a greater sense of body respect. Research shows that intuitive eaters have higher self-esteem, improved body image, and increased sense of overall well being compared to dieters.
Can I practice intuitive eating if I have dietary restrictions or a chronic health condition?
Yes! If you feel as though your relationship with food has been damaged by unhelpful dieting advice or that focusing on weight loss alone hasn’t helped you improve your health markers, you may find intuitive eating beneficial. In addition to improving body attunement, intuitive eaters learn how to implement gentle nutrition that can help them meet their medical dietary needs. Research shows that intuitive eating can lower total cholesterol and bad cholesterol, lower triglycerides, and improve good cholesterol.
Can I practice intuitive eating if I have an eating disorder?
If you’ve been diagnosed with an eating disorder, you should consult with your dietitian and/or therapist to determine if you are ready to pursue intuitive eating in your recovery.
Intuitive eating resources
Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach by Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch
The Intuitive Eating Workbook: 10 Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food by Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch
Intuitive Eating for Every Day: 365 Daily Practices and Inspirations by Evelyn Tribole
Kristin Jenkins, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Kristin specializes in eating disorders and intuitive eating, and is an advocate for weight-inclusive care for all her clients.