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Intuitive Eating: A Complete Guide to Eating Intuitively
intuitive eating
Diet & Exercise

Intuitive Eating: A Complete Guide to Eating Intuitively

Compassion is the key here.

Let’s face it, the priority of crash diets isn’t to develop a healthy relationship with food. 

However, with over 42 percent of Americans classified as obese, there is a clear need for a more balanced approach to eating, one that makes it possible to lose weight in both a healthy and attainable fasion.

Strict calorie-counting and ultra-discipline isn’t likely to last for too long before burning out and succumbing to old temptations. After all, sometimes food tastes just too damn good! Unfortunately, over-indulgence, a reliance on junk food, and a poor understanding of what makes a nourishing diet is far too common. This is where the principles of intuitive eating might come in handy. 

Intuitive eaters have found an approach to food that is becoming increasingly popular for all the right reasons. So if you’re looking for something different, and prepared to ditch both diets and poor eating habits, this guide to finding a more gentle nutrition will get you heading in the right direction.

What is intuitive eating? 

Intuitive eating sounds great - but what is it? The intuitive eating process is a holistic approach to eating. An intuitive eating practice combines mindfulness, nutrition, body positivity, and diet sustainability. 

The term was coined in 1995 by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in their book Intuitive Eating, where they describe the overall ethos of how to eat intuitively as a different approach to crash diets and food-shame: 

“Make food choices that honor your health and taste buds while making you feel good. Remember that you don’t have to eat a perfect diet to be healthy. You will not suddenly get a nutrient deficiency, or gain weight from one snack, one meal, or one day of eating. It’s what you eat consistently over time that matters. Progress, not perfection, is what counts.”

Tribole and Resch introduced an approach that recognises a large aspect of diet control is related to emotions, such as stress, anxiety, or sadness. Judging certain foods as bad creates a relationship of shame and guilt when tempted by, or indulging in, certain foods. Instead, intuitive eating focuses on long-term health. 

In the book, the authors outline 10 principles of their philosophy of intuitive eating:

  1. Reject the diet mentality

Rather than seeing diets as short spells of extreme discipline, intuitive eating encourages people to instead adopt a long term, healthier lifestyle.

  1. Honor your hunger 

This involves tuning into the signals of the body, and eating when hungry, rather than waiting too long and overeating.

  1. Make peace with food
eating intuitively
(Irina Shatilova / Getty)

Humans are curious beings, if something is seen as completely off-limits, there’s a chance it’ll become more tempting. Part of intuitive eating is to make allowances for all types of food, in moderation, to avoid guilt.

  1. Challenge the food police

As an extension, this step extends to the inner-critic that can overanalyze or apply perfectionist tendencies to dieting.

  1. Respect your fullness

In the same way that it’s worth eating when the body signals hunger, it’s important to notice when becoming full, too, and stopping before becoming bloated.

  1. Discover the satisfaction factor

This encourages you to savor food by placing your full attention on what you’re eating. Meals become the focal point, not something you do while busy with other things, such as working, watching TV, or traveling.

  1. Honor your feelings without using food

This is where mindfulness comes into play, as it requires the self-awareness to spot eating habits linked to certain emotions. Choosing healthier ways to regulate helps change unhealthy eating habits.

  1. Respect your body
what is intuitive eating

This step tackles body image. So often high expectations or harsh judgments around people’s physical appearance lead to unhealthy relationships with food. But by respecting your body, not objectifying it, you’re more likely to look to nourish it than sculpt it to perfection.

  1. Exercise and feel the difference

This incorporates exercise in a healthy way, by focusing on activities you enjoy, such as dancing, walking, or running. The key is to focus on the feeling and connection to the body, not just an approach to losing weight.

  1. Honor your health

This means eating foods that are healthy and satisfying, while always keeping the bigger picture in mind. A few snacks or treats aren’t the end of the world, but they are best in moderation.

Giving the full green light to eat any food you like might not seem like solid advice, but it seems to work. “I sometimes call this the ‘permission paradox’,” Tribole says, “because when someone really has permission to eat what food they want—he or she will often discover they no longer want it. Or they eat less of it—because it is allowed—and there is no pressure to eat it while you can.

Considering these steps were written 25 years ago, it’s quite incredible how much Tribole and Resch were ahead of time. It’s not uncommon for books to gain traction years after they were released. 

Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages was selling modestly before a huge spike in recent years led to his work becoming a cultural sensation. The same could be happening with intuitive eating, with the fourth edition of the book released in June 2020, and total sales to date around 500,000. 

Tribole and Resch, who are both dieticians, were inspired to write the book having noticed how many clients were disillusioned with dieting. The book was written almost 10 years before Facebook was invented and 15 years before Instagram. 

When you consider the impact social media has on body image and diet culture, plus the rise of the body positivity movement, intuitive eating is even more appropriate now than when it was first conceptualized. 

The science behind intuitive eating

The tentacles of diet culture run deep. 

Research has shown that American women internalize concepts around restrictive eating as young as five-years-old, particularly when raised by mothers who dieted themselves. A study from 2008 found that 75 percent of American women engage in disordered eating, abnormal eating behaviors that don’t classify as an eating disorder in themselves, such as consistent restricted eating, emotional eating, or ignoring hunger.

This really hits home the importance of intuitive eating to reverse cultural conditioning. Such is the popularity of intuitive eating, there have been a number of scientific studies that explore its effectiveness. Although it’s not the optimal choice for short-term weight loss, that’s beside the point, as the approach of intuitive eating is to develop a long-term, healthy relationship to food, and offer a solution to diet culture. Progress, not perfection.

Intuitive eating has been found to improve mental health, reduce the risk of obesity, and the risk of eating disorders. Not only that, studies have shown intuitive eating improves body image

intuitive eating principles
(Westend61 / Getty)

The intuitive eating website contains many more studies of its effectiveness. Overall, the evidence behind Tribole and Resch’s philosophy is as strong as it can be, from a scientific angle. Looks like their intuition was right.

How to start your intuitive eating journey

If you’ve spent a large amount of time obsessing over different diets of yo-yo-ing between restricting foods and indulging, the approach of intuitive eating might come as a relief. It does, in some ways, seem too good to be true. 

But the results of this relaxed approach to mindful eating and health do affirm Tribole’s “permission paradox.” So if you’re inspired to apply intuitive eating principles, the following 8 steps will get you started.

1. Be aware of diet mentality and thinking processes

A big part of the ethos of intuitive eating is to reverse conditioning around diet culture, which is a facet of culture in general. Start by reflecting on your eating history — do you have certain judgments about certain foods? Were you influenced by peers or parents growing up? This part of the process encourages you to surface beliefs around dieting that could be subconsciously shaping your relationship with food.

Part of this step is to set the intention of shifting from a diet mentality to long-term health. That means incorporating your thinking processes and beliefs into your nutritional plans and spotting the ways in which thoughts and emotions affect your eating habits.

2. Boost your self-awareness

intuitive eating principles
(primipil / Getty)

Self-awareness is one of the pillars of intuitive eating. That includes paying attention to thoughts and feelings, as well as sensations in the body. Consider starting a mindfulness or meditation practice in order to familiarise yourself with the objective “observing” state of mind. 

Meditation acts as a training ground to improve awareness, while mindfulness is the deliberate act of being aware of the present moment throughout the day.

3. Start learning the language of the body

For most people, the default waking state is one of disconnection from the body. There are always ever-changing, evolving sensations in the body that aren’t recognized. For example, right now, place your attention on your feet. 

Can you notice different sensations? Are they warm or cold? Relaxed or tense? Do you see how, by placing your attention on your feet, you suddenly become more aware of their energetic imprint?

As self-awareness improves, you’ll begin to notice more sensations running through the body. More awareness means more sensitivity. And more sensitivity means noticing the ebb and flow of the body’s messaging signals. 

Through awareness, you’ll start to notice how your body responds to certain foods, what hunger feels like, and when to stop yourself from overeating. It’s also important to learn more about how even supposedly healthy foods can cause issues, which you can do by checking out our article on fog eating.

4. Know the difference between appetite, hunger, and craving

As an extension of increased awareness, it pays to be aware of the difference between appetite and hunger. This is a fundamental distinction that many people are unaware of. 

The GI Society offers a useful breakdown of the difference. In essence, hunger is physiological, based in the body — it’s a sign that your body needs fuel. Whereas “appetite is simply the desire to eat. It can be a result of hunger, but often has other causes, such as emotional or environmental conditions.

One way to test this is to consider a healthy food you enjoy. If you’re hungry, you’ll likely want to eat that food for nourishment. If you’re craving chocolate or, in my case, peanut butter, but you wouldn’t eat the healthy replacement, you’re more than likely experiencing appetite.

Cravings, on the other hand, are an appetite for certain foods. Again, in my case, peanut butter. There’s not much scientific proof around whether cravings are due to the desire for specific nutrients, although a lot of people feel this to be the case, and I do sometimes crave foods in a way that feels like a message from my body, so I honor the craving.

5. Spot your triggers

Getting a solid understanding of your weak spots is another way of introducing intuitive eating in a way that is sustainable long-term. Emotional eating is one of the biggest factors in disordered eating. Shining a light on your triggers is one way of combating emotional eating. 

what is intuitive eating

For example, some people might be more prone to eat high-sugar, high-fat junk food when stressed, or anxious. Others might lose their appetite. The more you can detect these triggers, the more likely you are to catch yourself in real-time and break the loop of old habits.

6. Balance nutritional knowledge with the full permission approach

I’m someone who always likes to consider potential drawbacks or ego-traps with any approach to self-development. Like every practice, self-honesty is required. You might convince yourself you’re intuitive eating by giving yourself the green light to eat as much chocolate as humanly possible. While that’s completely forgivable, it’s worth building up knowledge of nutrition to support the eating process.

Even “building knowledge” can be based on a deep connection with your body. You might want to research the basic building blocks of a healthy diet, depending on your current level of knowledge. But from there, experiment, and pay attention to how your body responds.

I believe the biggest boost to eating healthily is becoming aware of how much better you feel by eating well. With self-awareness, you might spot patterns of feeling more energized from certain foods, and lethargic from others. That’s great! It offers motivation to choose healthier alternatives not because you should, but because you value their beneficial impact on how you feel.

7. Check-in with yourself regularly

It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day. But intuitive eating is a long game. 

That means regularly checking in with yourself, and considering how your nutrition is, and if any adjustments have to be made. Intuitive eating is a relaxed approach, so you don’t have to count calories or analyze yourself daily. However, it pays to check in every few weeks. 

Consider how you’re doing compared to the 10 steps of intuitive eating. Are you feeling in tune with your body? Are you having spells of emotional eating that could be addressed differently? Have you been skipping meals or slightly indulging in certain snacks?

I’ve adopted intuitive eating after years of restricted calories due to weight training. At one point I was obsessed with putting on weight and worried I wouldn’t get enough calories or protein. Since then, my relationship has improved immensely. My check-ins are relaxed, too, and often inspired by how my body is feeling. If I notice I’m feeling sluggish, or I’ve not eaten a certain food for a while, I make small adjustments.

8. Be compassionate to yourself

I suspect Tribole and Resch were familiar with many fields of wellness when they wrote their book, particularly the Stages of Change model. I say that because they’re careful to note that the ability to accept setbacks is a crucial factor in making long-term change, just as the Stages of Change model makes a distinction between lapses and relapses.

Lapses are short-term mishaps that are easily overcome. In a type of reverse psychology, the more someone shames themself or judges a lapse, the more likely a relapse is, which is falling back into unhealthy habits.

That makes compassion a valuable final step. After years of conditioning and potential guilt around food, intuitive eating is one way to feel good. That doesn’t mean conditionally good, like only when your diet is completely on-point and full of healthy foods. It means feeling good even if you indulge, feeling good when you eat your favorite treat (like peanut butter), feeling good when you’ve gone a few days without vegetables.

intuitively eating
(JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty)

The more you have compassion towards yourself, the more likely you are to nurture positive habits in a way that feels good for you, and your body. Who knows, before long you might be using our 100 funny food quotes for the perfect, witty Instagram caption. 

And, you never know. If more and more people feel good about their bodies and the way they eat, then maybe that $75 billion diet market will be reduced to $0.

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