What is Intuitive Eating?

Updated: 2 days ago


Woman eyes closed and smiling eating pasta
Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes

Eating today is complicated.


It’s easy to feel like you’re doing yourself dirty by consuming anything other than organic, farm-raised, low carb, keto, macro-nutrient rich, super-food, low caloric density, home-made kombucha.


How anyone navigates the ‘shoulds’ of diet culture without their heads exploding is beyond me.

On top of that, new and often conflicting information about diets is coming in constantly, and everyone is selling the next greatest thing, making it extremely difficult to cut through all the noise and find something that could work for you.


Making nourishing choices is not easy.


But how can your intuition possibly help you navigate all of your complex needs?


Well, what’s the alternative? Do you think the answer is to listen to other people about what you need? Maybe you’ve been listening to others about how you should be eating for so long that you’ve forgotten how to listen to yourself.


That’s what proponents of intuitive eating argue. That you’re better off tuning out the noise and listening to your body instead.


In this post, I will take you through what Intuitive Eating is (in my words), and how following it for a little while could help you re-establish the connection between your physical needs and the food that nourishes you.


Meaning you can eat and enjoy food without getting lost in mixed guidelines and advice coming from all sides.


What is Intuitive Eating?

Forget food for a moment and think about a part of your life that you are happy with without really having to think about it.


Maybe you’re great at keeping socially connected. Do you have a social ‘diet’ you follow? Some set of rules about who to call, when to meet, and what to talk about?


Probably not.


Instead, if you’re managing that part of your life well without thinking too much about it, I bet you intuitively reach out when you feel disconnected or are missing someone.


Maybe you’re a great parent.


Sure, you might have read a book or two. You might take some advice. But you know your kid. You’re in tune with their needs. You don’t always get it right, but you’re proud of them and don’t expect yourself to be perfect.


Maybe you’re great at something else.


Whatever it is, if you’re effortlessly great at it, you’re likely to be managing that part of your life mostly through intuition.


That intuitive connection, Intuitive Eaters argue, is the key to better managing your relationship with food.


No diet rule book. No calorie budge. But also not mindless robotic eating. Even extraverts can get socially over-loaded and need quiet time every now and then.


Instead of using other peoples’ rules, Intuitive Eating is about paying attention to the cues your body is giving you about what you need. Cues, if you’ve been dieting for a long time, you may have learned to ignore.


Where does Intuitive Eating come from?


The term ‘intuitive eating’ was coined in 1995 as the title of a book written by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Some of the concepts associated with intuitive eating, however, have been around long before that. Of particular note are some powerful essays (e.g., by Susie Orbach) about how societal and cultural pressures have perverted our relationship with food into something emotionally linked to self-worth.


As you might expect, women bear the brunt of that social pressure, which may be why men naturally report higher levels of intuitive eating.


Over the past 25 years, Intuitive eating has grown in popularity around the world. Tribole and Resch are still major voices of the movement, but they are now followed by reams of empirical support demonstrating benefits to esteem, wellbeing, health, body image, and reduced disordered eating.


A poster-child of anti-diet culture, intuitive eating has found a place among the many different ideas about eating, advocating for the value of your own experience, and the belief in your intrinsic ability to choose your own food.


So you know how to do it, somehow, deep within you, but you’ve been conditioned to ignore yourself.


If only you knew how to start listening to yourself again…


How to Eat Intuitively

Intuitive eating is based on ten principles to help you restore and heal your relationship with food, with the aim of making food a source of peace and enjoyment rather than tension and anxiety.


According to Resch and Tylka, the ten principles of Intuitive Eating are:


1. Reject the Diet Mentality


To start intuiting your needs, you need to stop listening to others. Don’t let a diet prescribe food to you.


Your needs are complex and vary every day. Following a food schedule, budget, meal plan, etcetera, distracts you from tuning in to those varying needs and responding to them appropriately.


You can’t listen to your own body if you’re listening to diet noise around you. And diet noise can be deafening!


Rejecting a diet mentality means distrusting anything that tells you that you can lose weight quickly, easily, and permanently.


Of course, you can lose weight through crash diets. You’ve probably already done it once or twice. Yet here you are. The evidence suggests most diets don’t stick.


If you want to try intuitive eating, try suspending the belief, for a moment, that you have to follow a strict diet to lose weight.


2. Honor Your Hunger


Your hunger is your primary intuitive connection to your needs. It is your natural diet drive.


It is how your body evolved to regulate the sustenance it needs to survive.


Your body needs food. Listen to it when it’s speaking to you. It will tell you how much it needs. Respect what it’s saying.


Honouring your hunger looks like eating to the point of contentment. Not depriving yourself.


It does not mean eating to the point of discomfort, but we’ll get to that in principle 6.


Honouring your hunger may mean giving yourself permission to eat more than normal when you need to.


Honoring your hunger when you feel it can help prevent uncontrolled eating, which is often a consequence of hunger suppression.


3. Make Peace With Food


It’s one of the quirks of our minds that suppressing thoughts or desires tends to lead to back-lash and obsession.


Fighting against the desire to eat a certain food often serves only to enhance the desire.


Instead, the intuitive eater accepts that the food is not the enemy. It is not something to be fought with. It is something to be considered, and if the body needs it, then by all means go ahead.


Trying to resist foods can take your attention away from listening to what your body needs.


4. Challenge the Idea That Food is Morally Wrong


Food is not good or bad.


It’s not bad to eat. It is necessary. And you do not have to feel guilty for eating something good.


It’s important to be aware of how you feel about certain foods, and how you judge yourself for eating them.


Challenging those thoughts can be difficult. A good place to start is to write them down. For example, think of the last time you felt guilty about food and write down the thoughts you were having that relate to that guilt (e.g., “I shouldn’t eat this”). Ask yourself why you thought that, whether that thought is helpful, and what you might be able to tell yourself instead next time.


If you struggle with that, instead think of a friend you really care about having those thoughts. What advice would you give them?


5. Discover the Satisfaction


Food is fantastic. It can be humble, complex, surprising, comforting, mesmerizingly smooth, or a melody of tastes, textures, and sensations.


There is something to be said for allowing yourself to fully appreciate every bite. If you’ve ever practised mindful eating, this concept won’t be new to you.


Discovering the satisfaction can also help you to slow down when you eat, stop when you have had enough, and help to rehabilitate your appreciation of the complexity of food, as opposed to mindlessly indulging in it.


6. Feel the Fullness


Just like you need to honor your hunger, you must also learn to honor your fullness.


That means giving yourself time to observe when you no longer need to eat or are satisfied and stop when you don’t need to eat more.


If you’re like me, you might need to practice slowing down. I tend to eat like somebody is about to take my plate away, and find it easier to take a break to chat, empty the dishwasher, or check my emails mid-meal.


Incidentally, I’ve noticed when I get distracted while eating a meal, I’ve started to appreciate the interruption, whereas in the past I would have felt rushed or still be thinking about my meal and be distracted during my distraction.


Your body needs time to discover what it’s feeling.


They say it takes 20 minutes after eating enough food for your body to tell you that it’s full. But I disagree. At least in my case, I’ve found that when I stop to listen, I can hear it a lot earlier. Maybe it starts to whisper around the 5-minute mark and yell after 20 minutes.


If you don’t like wasting food (another personal challenge of mine), you may need to practice intentionally leaving a little bit of food on your plate to begin to normalise it for yourself.


Make no mistake, this principle is hard. That’s one of the reasons Principle 7 is so important.


7. Use Kindness to Cope With Your Emotions


Kindness is an important tool for dealing with your emotions. In particular, those that can contribute to emotional eating.


There are many ways to cope with negative feelings (e.g., talking to a friend, going for a walk, journaling, meditation, and more specific techniques you might get from a psychologist like cognitive defusion or restructuring).

Shame and food are often so tightly linked it can be challenging to untangle them. This self-compassion letter-writing exercise by Dr. Kristin Neff can be a really powerful way to find a kind and compassionate voice within yourself to manage the inevitable setbacks and challenges you will face.


It can take a lot of practice and repetition to develop coping strategies that are better for you in the long term. Mainly because until you get really good at them, your old tried and tested (maybe used and abused) habits will feel more effective.


8. Respect Your Body


Different people come in different shapes and sizes and have different needs. That shouldn’t be news to anyone. So why do we feel like we need to fit some generic standard?


There is little point in trying to make your body fit a beauty template that was not made for it.


That is a big reason intuitive eating is important. Namely, being deeply connected to your own individual needs means you will be better able to meet those needs in a more realistic and sustainable way.


Your body is also the vessel in which you move through the world. Your lungs breathe and your heart pumps. As long as it continues to juggle a mind-bogglingly number of complex functions to sustain you, your body deserves care and respect.


9. Get Active and Move


Exercise, like diet, is not something that should feel like it is a prescription.


Focusing on how many calories you are burning can take your attention away from the sensation of movement.


What does it feel like to stretch your legs as you walk with big strides? What does it feel like to keep a straight back while you carry something heavy?


That intuition you’ve been developing (respecting?) regarding how you eat can also apply to how you move.


As a side-note, it can be easy to fall into the trap of remembering how fit you used to be, and feel deflated by how far you think you have to go to get back there.


Instead, why not try to explore and appreciate what you can do right now.


10. Honor Your Health


Your food choices should honor your health, but this doesn’t mean you have to eat perfect foods. Desserts, fatty foods, and more have their place and can be enjoyed too.


Honoring your health means generally tuning into your own needs and aiming to nourish your body in a way that you respect has a bigger impact than an occasional snack.


This includes food sensitivities and intolerances.


How does your body feel after eating certain foods? If there is something that it doesn’t agree with you, a way of honoring your body is to remember how it makes you feel next time you have the opportunity to eat it.


By contrast, fixating on a weight goal where weight fluctuates wildly at the best of times is an indirect and often confusing way to honor your health.


One benefit of focusing on your health rather than your weight is that the feedback is much more immediate. You know, often within the same day, if a food does not help you feel good.


If that means you begin to prefer ‘healthier’ choices, then so be it.

 

Contemplate uses daily reflections to help you start and sustain behaviour change. You can sign up now to test Contemplate for 14 days for free on iOS here, the web here, or if you have an Android phone, on the Google Play store here.

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