Intuitive Eating: What Is It, How to Start, and How to Know if It's Working

Why some people think the best diet is the "anti-diet."

Unsplash / Toa Heftiba

Every year, we’re inundated with new diet trends and updated nutritional advice. Dietitians, doctors, and self-taught experts shout over one another: eat clean, stop eating gluten, try Whole30, or eat like a caveman. It’s near impossible to make an informed, healthful decision amid the conflicting messages. One approach that’s rising above the fray asks you to toss out conventional wisdom — reject the diet mentality! — and embrace intuitive eating. The concept might be more familiar than you think.

Intuitive eating, often referred to as an “anti-diet,” sounds complicated, but really it just means listening to your body, trusting your gut (literally), and doing what makes you feel good. Instead of counting calories, you stop eating when you feel full. Instead of “eating your feelings,” you “respect your body.” Instead of “good” or “bad” foods, you have the freedom to eat whatever you desire. When you feel that hollow feeling or grumbling in your stomach, you should respond with what your body craves.

Evelyn Tribole, registered dietitian and co-author of Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works, says embracing your natural inclination toward food can relieve the psychological pressure of more restrictive nutritional plans, mitigate binge and emotional eating, and stabilize weight.

Tribole and her co-author, nutrition therapist Elyse Resch, coined the term “intuitive eating” in 1995 as a reaction to what they saw as pervasive, toxic diet culture in mass media. Since the ‘90s, intuitive eating has grown more popular, finding success with people who are active dieters.

"When you are not at war with your body … you actually have the ability to get your needs met both psychologically and biologically.

“When you are not at war with your body, and you can listen to these powerful messages, you actually have the ability to get your needs met both psychologically and biologically,” Tribole tells Inverse.

It may take some practice to know what your body needs, but over time, some research shows that intuitive eaters experience improved self-esteem, less weight cycling, a lower preoccupation with food, and long-term sustainable health.

Depending on your goals — losing weight, having more energy, or not thinking so much about food — the counterintuitive concept of intuitive eating may be worth exploring.

“Interoceptive Awareness,” and Why It’s Central to Intuitive Eating

The philosophy does not emphasize calorie counting, promote certain foods over others, or set exercise guidelines. Instead, it suggests people go to the most trusted expert on their personal health: themselves. The approach asks people to use “interoceptive awareness” — the ability to detect inner body sensations — to discover what and how to eat.

Tribole explains that most people’s interoceptive awareness is clouded by the messaging around dieting and body image they receive throughout life.

“In diet culture, you’re constantly listening to someone outside of you,” Tribole says. “And with intuitive eating, it’s an inside job.”

To eat intuitively, Tribole and Resch advocate for 10 core principles of intuitive eating:

  1. Reject the Diet Mentality
  2. Honor Your Hunger
  3. Make Peace With Food
  4. Challenge the Food Police
  5. Respect Your Fullness
  6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
  7. Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food
  8. Respect Your Body
  9. Exercise — Feel the Difference
  10. Honor Your Health

What Is the “Forbidden Fruit” Phenomenon?

Skeptics of intuitive eating, some dietitians, physicians, and consumers suspect that, without limitations, people go straight for the chocolate cake, cheese pizza, and potato chips. Critics question whether people will maintain a balanced or nutrient-dense diet without limits on certain foods.

“There’s usually a tremendous fear of that happening. It’s like, ‘If I eat chocolate, I’m never going to stop,’ but that isn’t usually the case,” Tribole says.

Some people do initially gravitate toward previously “off-limit” foods, admits Tribole. But after a week or two, they get their fill and adjust to more moderate consumption. When this “forbidden fruit” phenomenon passes and people operate from a place of abundance, not scarcity, they often find that they eat balanced diets.

"It’s not a ‘last supper’ experience.

“Suddenly, when you’re allowed to have the food, it’s not this urgent feeling of, I have to have it right now. It’s not a ‘last supper’ experience,” Tribole says. “Instead, you ask questions like: ‘Well, do I want it? If I eat it now, am I going to enjoy it?’ And then, ultimately, ‘Do I like it, and do I like how it feels in my body?’ We can finally ask those questions when we remove all the guilt and morality and drama out of eating.”

Instead of choosing when to stop eating based on guilt and shame, successful intuitive eaters stop based on feelings of fullness and satisfaction. It emphasizes taking pleasure in food, an approach not often included in most conventional diets.

Eat Like a Kid and Studies on Eating Habits

Intuitive eating may seem like a fancy new buzzword in health and wellness, but it’s as fundamental as learning to crawl or pulling our hand back when we touch a hot stove. From birth, humans eat and drink based on feeding cues like hunger, satiety, and thirst, responding to them by signaling to caregivers that they want more or less food. When you’re an infant, there’s no judgment about quantity of intake or restriction of cravings.

But researchers have seen that some people lose the connection to these primal urges as feedback from friends and family — and societal messaging — change the way they think about food and their bodies.

Research shows that our conceptions of body image and dieting start as early as five. A 2008 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, including almost 200 5-year-olds, showed that mothers’ dieting behavior shapes young girls’ ideas, concepts, and beliefs about dieting. In the same way that kids absorb how to walk, talk, and play, they mimic their parents’ eating habits, too.

Friends, celebrities, and social media also quickly affect a person’s thinking about food as they grow up. As a result, many people become chronic dieters, trying new strategies to lose weight or gain some promised health benefits.

Chronic dieting can also lead to eating disorders like orthorexia, anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating, which can contribute to mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.

Oftentimes, diets fail. A group of UCLA psychologists analyzed 31 long-term diet studies, measuring their efficacy and impacts over time, and found that dieters typically lost five to 10 percent of their starting weight in the first six months, but one-third to two-thirds of people regained more weight than they lost within four to five years. They concluded that most of the participants would have been better off not going on the diet at all.

“Their weight would be pretty much the same, and their bodies would not suffer the wear and tear from losing weight and gaining it all back,” Traci Mann, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, principal investigator of the Health and Eating Laboratory, and lead author of the review, said.

Intuitive eating is meant to mitigate the yo-yo weight cycling effect Mann describes. Instead of beating yourself up over eating a big bowl of four-cheese pasta, it suggests you tune into your body’s cues and “intuit” whether you want that meal again or perhaps something lighter. The idea is that if something isn’t restricted, you’ll crave and eat it less.

"Dieting or food restriction is the gateway to binge eating.

“Dieting or food restriction is the gateway to binge eating and emotional eating,” Tribole says. Learning coping strategies other than food is a key tenet of intuitive eating.

How to Let Go of Weight Stigma

For most people, intuitive eating requires a significant psychological shift from self-limitation to freedom. This transition may seem easy, but Tribole says it can be difficult for some people to overcome the fear that can dictate their eating patterns.

While some other diets base their approach on changing your body, intuitive eating does the opposite. “It’s the idea that we accept our genetics and there’s dignity, no matter what your size or shape,” Tribole says.

Tribole emphasizes letting go of “weight stigma,” or the social rejection and devaluation of those who do not fit in prevailing social norms of adequate body weight and shape. Being thin, she reminds us, does not necessarily mean you are healthy.

"Weight loss has become so normalized in our culture, but it is not a proxy for health.

Intuitive eating encourages dismantling conventional notions around nutrition, exercise, and what a “healthy” body looks like. “It’s about removing this idea of, ‘You have got to burn calories with exercising.’ Instead, it’s about connecting with the joy of movement,” Tribole says.

Intuitive eating, unlike most other diets, stresses emotional health as well as physical health. The philosophy leads to positive body image and emotional functioning in women. It has also been shown to help mitigate eating disorders, binge eating, and emotional eating. People eating intuitively report finding joy in food again, putting away their scale, and rejecting diet culture.

Tribole says she also sees improvements in social and familial relationships with individuals who adopt intuitive eating. “Suddenly they’re not the person at the table preoccupied counting the macros in their food that they miss a poignant look on their lover’s face or miss an opportunity for connection,” she says.

Potential Drawbacks of Intuitive Eating

The psychological benefit seems obvious: Intuitive eating can provide much-needed relief from the constant stress of dieting or controlling food intake. However, intuitive eating has not been proven to accelerate short-term weight loss. If you are looking for a quick fix to shed some pounds, intuitive eating is not the most effective strategy. Some calorie restriction or altered food intake, under the guidance of a medical professional, could be necessary to achieve weight loss goals.

The aim of intuitive eating is not weight loss, but healing your relationship with food, Tribole explains.

"If anyone is selling you intuitive eating for the purpose of losing weight, run away.

“Nobody can tell you what’s going to happen to your body as a result of intuitive eating,” she says. “And if anyone is selling you intuitive eating for the purpose of losing weight, run away fast.”

Based on their history of dieting and genetics, some intuitive eaters may lose weight, while others see their waistline expand, which terrifies a lot of folks, Tribole says. “That is the real crossover step: When they can let that go and know, you are not your body. Your body is an instrument; the body is the home of your soul, your consciousness, whatever you want to call it. You’re so much more than that.”

What if You Don’t Feel Hungry or Full?

Intuitive eating centers around bodily sensations, but what if your hunger and fullness cues are out of whack, or you do not feel them at all?

Some people are so accustomed to overriding their primal feeding cues —closing the snack drawer or refusing a second portion of dinner, even if they’re still hungry — that tapping back into their bodily sensations can have a significant learning curve. Tuning back in may mean taking a few extra minutes when you are eating to process your bodily sensations, or check in with yourself for a moment after a meal.

Research has shown that people with eating disorders and obese individuals can have difficulty recognizing and interpreting hunger and satiety cues. But a 2017 literature review published in the International Journal of General Medicine analyzing studies on hunger recognition found that interoceptive awareness can be relearned over time.

However, critics of the approach say intuitive eating isn’t enough to heal some people’s relationship with food. They stress addressing the root biological issues relating to eating disorders alongside an intuitive eating approach.

Intuitive Eating for Emotional and Physical Health

While other diets may lead to more immediate weight loss, the psychological benefit of intuitive eating may lead to a more sustainable, balanced approach to food over time. If you desire a stronger connection with your body, less time thinking or feeling guilty about eating, and perhaps, a more pleasurable eating experience, intuitive eating could be worth a try.

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