What Is Intuitive Eating? A Nutritionist Weighs In On This Popular Anti-Diet
In this day and age, it seems like a trendy, new diet makes headlines every couple of weeks. But there’s one eating plan—not a diet, its founders are quick to point out—that’s had some serious staying power. The term intuitive eating was coined by Evelyn Tribole, RD, and Elyse Resch, RDN, in the 1990s; since then, they’ve written several books and participated in numerous research studies on their method. Their most recent publication, The Intuitive Eating Workbook, was published last year.
In short, intuitive eating means breaking free from the on-and-off cycle of dieting and learning to eat mindfully and without guilt. There’s no calorie counting or restrictions on certain foods, but there are some guidelines—10 principles, to be exact—that make up the core philosophy of this method.
Health spoke with intuitive eating co-founder Evelyn Tribole, who has a private practice in Newport Beach, California, about her method; we also asked our contributing nutrition editor, Cynthia Sass, RD, to weigh in on the pros and cons of ditching the idea of structured dieting completely. Here’s an overview of intuitive eating’s 10 principles, and why you might want to give them a try.
1. Reject the diet mentality
Tribole says she and Resch wrote their first book on intuitive eating after watching their patients constantly struggle with dieting. “We were sick of the insanity they were going through: They’d restrict themselves and lose weight, but then they’d gain it back and they’d blame themselves,” she says. “These were intelligent, successful people, and so we really took a deep dive into the research to figure out what was going wrong.”
The bottom line, Tribole says, is that dieting isn’t sustainable. So the first principle of intuitive eating is to stop dieting—and to stop believing society’s messages that quick-fix plans can deliver lasting results. That includes throwing away diet books and magazine articles that promise fast weight loss, and rejecting any meal plans that dictate what or how much you can eat.
2. Honor your hunger
One reason dieting doesn’t work, Tribole says, is because it can leave you feeling deprived and physically hungry—which can trigger binging and overeating. So instead of counting calories or watching portions, she says, simply pay attention to your body’s hunger cues.
That means eating a sufficient amount of calories and carbohydrates to keep your body “fed” and satiated. Once you learn to recognize these signals in your own body, Tribole says, it becomes much easier to trust your instincts and repair unhealthy relationships with food.
3. Make peace with food
“When you’re on a diet, certain foods are promoted as being forbidden—which tends to make them even more tempting,” says Tribole. “Then when you finally eat those foods, you binge and feel guilty, which creates a vicious cycle." That’s why one principle of intuitive eating is to give yourself “unconditional permission to eat.” It may sound like a recipe for all-out gluttony, but Tribole says it almost never plays out that way.
“A wonderful thing ends up happening when you give yourself permission to, say, eat chocolate doughnuts for breakfast,” she says. “You stop and ask yourself, ‘Do I really want this now?’ Not just, ‘Will I enjoy it in the moment,’ but also ‘Will I feel good when I’m finished?’ And often, people realize they don’t really want that food that was forbidden before; they just got caught up in society telling them they couldn’t have it.”
4. Challenge the food police
Intuitive eating describes the “food police” as those voices in your head that tell you it’s good to eat fewer calories and it’s bad to eat dessert; in other words, it’s your psyche’s way of monitoring all of the dieting rules you’ve heard again and again over the years and making you feel guilty for not following them to the letter.
These food police can be real people, too, says Tribole: friends, family, and acquaintances who offer up judgment and “advice” about what and how you’re eating. In either case, she says, “chasing them away” is an important step in embracing intuitive eating.
5. Respect your fullness
This goes hand-in-hand with principle #2. Yes, it’s important to eat when you’re hungry, but it’s also important to stop when those hunger cues are no longer present.
It can help to pause in the middle of your meal or snack to assess your current state: How full do you feel? Are you still eating to feed your hunger, or are you eating out of distraction, boredom, or stress? “We all have the power to listen to our bodies in this way, but many people don’t realize it,” says Tribole.
6. Discover the satisfaction factor
The satisfaction factor has to do with noticing and appreciating the taste and texture of food, but also the environment in which you’re eating. “This is the hub of intuitive eating,” says Tribole. “If we start here and aim for satisfaction, everything else falls into place.”
Getting satisfaction from your food is about truly understanding what feels good and what doesn’t. “Most people have never asked themselves the question, ‘What do I like to eat? What feels good in my body?’” Tribole says. “When you can bring the pleasure and joy back to eating, you can truly feel satisfied after a meal and move on and enjoy the rest of your life, rather than continue to eat for other reasons.”
To put this into practice, Tribole recommends starting with just one meal a day. “Make it a sacred time in which you eat without distraction,” she says. “Place your awareness on one aspect of the food, whether it’s the texture or the taste or the visual aspect.” If even that sounds too difficult to do with your busy schedule, concentrate on just the first bite, the middle bite, and the last bite.
7. Honor your feelings without using food
Speaking of “other reasons,” Tribole says that people often overeat because of anxiety, loneliness, boredom, anger, or stress. That’s why it’s important to get to the root of these problems, and to find ways to nurture yourself and resolve those issues without turning to food.
“It’s not always big, extreme emotions that are causing overeating, either,” says Tribole. “Sometimes it’s as mundane as being bored because you’re eating while distracted.” But being more mindful in all aspects of life—with your food and with your emotions—can help you sort out those overlaps.
8. Respect your body
Intuitive eating is also about body acceptance: That means feeling good about your “genetic blueprint” and the body you were meant to have—not striving for unrealistic expectations about how much weight you can lose or what size jeans you can squeeze into.
It’s also important to understand that intuitive eating is not a weight-loss plan, although Tribole says that some women do lose weight (and keep it off) once they leave behind their unhealthy history with dieting and food restriction.
9. Exercise: Feel the difference
You don’t have to go to the gym every day while following an intuitive eating approach, but it is important to move your body on a regular basis. “It’s not about finding the exercise that burns the most calories or the most fat,” says Tribole. “It’s about finding something that’s sustainable and that you enjoy.”
Exercise has many benefits that even the healthiest eating plan can’t convey on its own, Tribole adds: It’s been shown to boost mood, strengthen the heart and cardiovascular system, and increase lean muscle mass, to name a few—all things that can help you feel comfortable and powerful in your own skin.
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10. Honor your health with gentle nutrition
Despite the fact that intuitive eating preaches an “eat what you want” mentality, that doesn’t mean its founders don’t care about good nutrition. In fact, their final word of advice is to make food choices that honor your health, as well as your taste buds.
“This last principle is probably the least controversial one, so it doesn’t get talked about as much,” says Tribole. “We’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater: We still encourage healthy eating, but we know that comes naturally when you embrace the other principles first.”
In other words, eating “intuitively” should still involve more fruits and veggies than ice cream. But at the same time, a diet doesn’t have to be perfect to be healthy, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up every time you make a less-than-perfect meal or snack choice.
Health's nutritionist weighs in
So can intuitive eating really help people establish a healthy relationship with food and with their bodies—and is it really okay to kiss dieting goodbye, once and for all? Tribole says yes.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is that, without a structured diet, people will start to be unhealthy,” she says. “But if you look at the research, it’s clear that intuitive eaters have higher self-esteem, higher well-being, and they also tend to have lower body mass indexes. They eat a variety of foods, they have more trust in their bodies—it’s really rather lovely all of the good that comes out of this.”
Sass agrees that there are a lot of great things about intuitive eating, and she incorporates many of these principles into her recommendations to clients. But she also thinks that some additional structure isn’t a bad thing.
“In my experience, intuitive eating can free someone from a dieting mentality that has kept someone stuck in a vicious good/bad cycle—and breaking that pattern is a very good thing,” she says. “But I have also seen intuitive eating lead to imbalanced eating and confusion about what really does feel balanced.”
Yes, it’s true that humans are born with an instinctive sense of balance, which is why babies eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. "But as adults, we’re faced with a number of social and emotional eating triggers on a daily basis," Sass points out. And today more than ever, it can be difficult to tease out which messages are coming from our bodies versus our brains or outside sources like peer pressure or the media.
That’s why Sass believes a hybrid approach may work best for many people. She agrees that tuning into hunger cues and embracing the idea that no food is forbidden are both crucial for long-term health and weight management. “However, I do believe in marrying that with education about balanced meals, appropriate portions, food quality, and strategic meal timing,” she says.
“In other words, it doesn’t have to be either intuitive eating or dieting—those aren’t the only two options,” Sass adds. “I believe that a blend of intuitive eating and nutrition education can work very well together, and I don’t think they are contradictory.”