I’ll admit it. Sometimes I forget that not everyone lives in this non-diet bubble I’ve created for myself. When I scroll through my email and social media accounts, I see carefully curated content and images all about the dangers of dieting and the fulfilling life you can lead once you experience food freedom. I see helpful quotes and reminders to not revert back to old disordered thoughts and behaviors. I see fellow non-diet dietitians and therapists who are living a life true to their values. At times I really do forget that not everyone is working towards becoming an intuitive eater again. In fact, I forget that there are many, many people who have no clue what intuitive eating even is! If you are one of these many people, that’s okay! It is not your fault. I am writing this blog post for you!
So, let’s get started! What is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating is an approach to improving your relationship with food that was created in 1995 by two registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. This framework aims to help you break free from the cycle of dieting and tune into your body’s signals to guide you in what, when, and why to eat. We were all born intuitive eaters! It almost sounds silly at first – that we would need help re-learning how to eat according to our own wants and needs; however, I talk to people every single day who have been on so many diets, they have no idea how to navigate eating without strict guidelines (does this sound familiar?). The diet industry has done an excellent job of leading many of us to believe that our own bodies cannot be trusted to make decisions about food. I believe that intuitive eating is the solution to the problems of chronic dieting, weight cycling, and feeling out of control around food.
What makes intuitive eating different than a diet? There are no meal plans, strict rules, all-or-nothing thinking, or “willpower” involved. This approach is completely individualized, and you can’t do it wrong or fail. You will be the one in charge, making choices about food that you and only you can make. The best part? It’s sustainable, unlike diets. You can eat intuitively for the rest of your life!
Sound too good to be true? It’s not. However, learning to eat intuitively again is hard. The longer you have been entrenched in diet culture and have associated your worth with your body size and/or food choices, the more difficult it will be. But, I can promise you it’s worth it. Now that you have a better understanding, let’s dive into the framework.
Intuitive eating consists of 10 principles used to guide you on your journey.
Principle 1: Reject the diet mentality – For many people, dieting has become a way of life. Do you remember a time when you weren’t trying to change your body? It’s important to acknowledge where dieting has gotten you so far. It’s also helpful to recognize the damage (both physically and mentally) that diets can cause. Giving up dieting isn’t giving up. It’s allowing you to start taking steps towards a healthier relationship with food and your body.
Principle 2: Honor your hunger – Have you ever felt out of control with your hunger? Do you think of hunger as a bad thing or a sign of weakness? Hunger is a normal and natural signal our body sends. Maybe people have lost touch with their hunger cues, however it is important that your body knows it will always have access to food. If not, you will continue to feel a primal drive to overeat.
Principle 3: Make peace with food – What happens when someone tells you that you can’t have something? Do you want it more? Do you have urges and cravings and think about that particular thing more often? Making peace with all foods will allow you to make choices based off what you really want and not just what you think you will restrict the next day (read: the last supper mentality).
Principle 4: Challenge the food police – Does your inner critic tell you that cake is “bad” or that you are weak for giving in to your cravings? Oftentimes, this voice is unreasonable and causes you to feel guilt or shame for your choices. It may be difficult to believe, but this voice is very unhelpful and actually adds to the cycle of dieting. By challenging the negative voice in your head and embracing the kind, nurturing one, you can make choices out of love and compassion.
Principle 5: Feel your fullness – Learn to listen to your fullness cues. Just like hunger is body data, so is fullness. It is not bad and should not be avoided at all costs. Observe signs that you are comfortably full. This may require mindful eating practices in the beginning. Understand that there are times when you may want to be more full than others.
Principle 6: Discover the satisfaction factor – There is a difference between full and satisfied. Whether you feel unsatisfied with your meal or with other areas of your life, you may continue to eat past fullness. Learn what foods you enjoy and what foods help you to feel content. It is okay and even encouraged to find pleasure in food.
Principle 7: Cope with your emotions without using food – Eating for reasons other than hunger is often discouraged in this society. Emotional eating is normal, however it should not be the only tool in your toolbox. Learn to identify unpleasant feelings and to differentiate between hunger and emotions. Then, try out new strategies to soothe and cope.
Principle 8: Respect your body – We have learned to be very critical of our body, comparing ourselves to others. It is difficult to reject the diet mentality if we can not accept our “here and now” body. Think about all that your body is capable of. Care for THIS body, not a future body that may never come.
Principle 9: Exercise – Feel the difference – There is a difference between militant exercise and moving your body for enjoyment. If you weren’t worried about burning calories, how would you move your body? Physical activity has many benefits and can help energize us, but if you don’t enjoy it, it won’t be sustainable.
Principle 10: Honor your health with gentle nutrition – Once you’ve worked through the first 9 principles, it’s time to incorporate nutrition in an empowering way. There is no such thing as a perfect diet, however there are many ways to eat in a health promoting way that does not cause worry or stress. This is the last principle for a reason. It is not encouraged to skip ahead to this one.
Are you still questioning whether intuitive eating is for you? Do you have a chronic illness? Do you “need” to lose weight? Do you have an eating disorder?
I truly believe that intuitive eating can be for everyone. Depending on your current status, you may need to start with specific principles first. For example, if you have an eating disorder, you may be able to begin working on principles 1 and 7 while you are on your path to healing. If you have chronic diseases that need managed or have been told that you need to lose weight, intuitive eating is definitely for you!
There is research to show that intuitive eating is associated with the following:
-Better body image
-More satisfaction with life
-Optimism and well-being
-Proactive coping skills
-Lower body mass indexes (BMI)
-Higher HDL cholesterol levels
-Lower Triglyceride levels
-Lower rates of emotional eating
-Lower rates of disordered eating
My hope is that this article has opened your eyes to another way of life. A life without constantly starting over with a new diet. A life without guilt and shame for your food choices and body size.
If you would like to learn more about Intuitive Eating, I recommend reading the official book:
Then, if you are ready to dive deeper into the principles and apply them to your life, I suggest the going through the workbook:
Lastly, this book really helped me with the first principle of rejecting the diet mentality:
I want to remind you again that this is hard work. Not everyone can do it alone. Working with a non-diet dietitian and/or therapist can be extremely helpful during this process and can definitely speed up the journey. Just by reading this article you have made a huge step towards food freedom. Congratulations!