The Ultimate Guide to Intuitive Eating

This unconventional philosophy of eating may be the key to sustainable weight loss and a sound state of mental health.

By Megan Falk
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In the early ‘90s, fatty foods came to be seen as the enemy in the battle against diet-related heart disease. Meanwhile, high-carb diets were viewed as the savior, both in cutting the risk of disease and shedding extra pounds. A decade later, fat-free foods were out, and a fat-loaded, low-carb diet became the key to weight loss and improved health. This tendency to swap worry-free eating patterns for restrictive diets continues today, and more than one-third of U.S. adults followed a specific diet within the last year, either to lose weight, boost cardiovascular health, or feel more energized, according to the 2018 Food and Health Survey.

But strict diets, whether it be paleo, low-carb, or ketogenic, aren’t sustainable, and in 2007, UCLA researchers analyzed 31 long-term studies and found that the majority of people dieting regain the weight they lost, plus more, within four to five years. Enter: intuitive eating, a non-diet that gives you unconditional permission to eat what you enjoy while lending physical and psychological benefits. Sound counterintuitive? Read on to get the rundown on the eating practice and how it brings about positive health effects.

The Basics

Developed in 1995 by two dietitians, intuitive eating is a mind-body, non-diet approach to eating that’s based on one key concept: trust yourself to choose foods that feel good in your body, without judgement or guilt, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, but only as long as you stay in-tune with your body.

Rather than following a strict meal plan or trying to hit a certain number of macros each day, intuitive eating entails being aware of and responding to your body’s hunger and fullness cues, a skill that’s natural to children. Studies have found that toddlers know what to eat and how much based on their bodies’ needs; yet, over time, adults stop relying on their internal signals, and their eating habits are instead shaped by nutrition books and ever-changing healthy eating ideas in the media. Intuitive eating encourages people to shift their focus back to their own bodies and once again become “unaffected eaters.” “Diets are short term, they’re deprivation,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Kirkpatrick. “Intuitive eating is something you want to form to last a lifetime.”

Though mindful eating has a similar philosophy of eating foods that are self-satisfying and nourishing, as well as acknowledging and accepting your body’s responses to food, intuitive eating takes it a step further — it addresses emotional eating, rejects the diet mentality, and advocates respecting your body. The practice is being prescribed by registered dietitian nutritionists, too — a 2017 study found that RDNs are promoting intuitive eating practices more often than traditional, restrictive weight management practices.

The Principles

The philosophy is based on 10 principles that focus on self-awareness and eliminating the emotional value placed on food. Alongside fueling your body with food when it tells you to and stopping when you’re comfortably full, intuitive eating involves choosing foods that create a truly satisfying eating experience. The theory is that the pleasure you feel from eating food you actually enjoy will help keep you satisfied, and you’ll notice it takes less food to feel content; choosing to eat one oh-so-sweet, expertly frosted bakery cupcake will feel more fulfilling than wolfing down a sleeve of cookies. If you often dive spoon-first into a pint of ice cream after a trying day, taking up intuitive eating will remind you to avoid relying on food to deal with your emotions. Under this philosophy, grabbing a snack when you’re anxious, flustered, or lonely will distract you from your feelings, but this emotional eating is seen as a gateway to possible overindulgence.

The practice also dispels the ideas that certain foods are “bad” or “forbidden” and that you’re “good” for limiting your calorie consumption for the day, as it can lead to binging and a sense of shame. And since food is ever linked to body image and self-worth, the principles advocate respecting your body, no matter the shape or size, and exercising to make yourself feel good, not just to burn calories.

The Benefits

By focusing on the foods that are personally satisfying, eating without shame or self-judgment, and listening to inner hunger cues, intuitive eating can have both mental and physical health advantages, and everyone should try to tap into it in some form, Kirkpatrick says. Researchers have noted a positive link between intuitive eating, self-compassion, and body image acceptance, and an analysis of 26 studies on the eating pattern found that it can possibly improve psychological health, dietary intake, blood pressure, and cholesterol and is connected to lower BMI.

The weight loss associated with intuitive eating could be linked to the mindfulness component of the practice, Kirkpatrick says. There are two digestive hormones that dictate our eating habits: ghrelin, which tells us we’re low on fuel, and leptin, which tells us to stop eating. “When we eat too fast, we miss the signal and eat more than we need,” Kirkpatrick says. By being aware of how you’re consuming food and staying alert to your body’s internal cues, you’ll prevent yourself from overindulging.

According to the National Eating Disorder Association, intuitive eating can play a significant role in preventing disordered eating. In a 2012 study of more than 2,000 young adults, researchers found that both men and women who trusted their body to tell them how much to eat were less likely to have disordered eating behaviors than those who didn’t, and the women who said they honor their body’s satiety cues were less likely to engage in chronic dieting and binge eating than those who continued to eat despite being full. Other studies on college students have shown that more frequent self-weighing and calorie-counting is linked to an increased eating disorder severity, and intuitive eating may lead to favorable eating-related outcomes.

How to Start

As with any daunting challenge to your lifestyle, the first step in beginning an intuitive eating practice is to make a proclamation, Kirkpatrick says. Text your best friends in a group chat, post on your Facebook page, or even send out an email to family members boasting about your new eating practice — do anything that will turn a one-week trial run into a full-fledged commitment.

Each week within the first month or two, focus on just one of the principles and how you’re going to embody it, whether it’s changing the way you eat, the foods you consume, or your perspective on food and eating. Attempting to reach too many goals too quickly can make it difficult to accomplish any of them, especially when it comes to eating, Kirkpatrick says, so remember to take it slow. “Just like how people don’t gain 20 pounds overnight, you can’t change your eating overnight,” she says.

How to Move Past Roadblocks

While it takes about six weeks to form a habit, sticking to intuitive eating can be highly dependent on your personality, Kirkpatrick says. If you’re a Type A person, it could be difficult for you to stop working through your lunch break and focus solely on what you’re eating. But having a supportive group of friends, family, or coworkers who join in on the practice with you could make adapting much easier. “We underestimate the huge power that our circle has on us,” she says. “If you’re trying to become vegan and everyone in your circle are huge carnivores — good luck.”

Being mindful also comes with its challenges, but doing things like putting down the phone while you’re eating, closing that Netflix tab, and even counting your chews can help you appreciate every aspect of food, whether it be the taste, smell, texture, or fueling component, and slow down your eating. If you continue to struggle with overcoming the idea of “good” and “bad” foods, Kirkpatrick recommends seeking out the help of both a dietitian and a mental health professional, as most food issues aren’t about the food itself. Keep in mind that successfully committing to an intuitive eating practice could take months, but with its health benefits and ability to change the way we interact with and view food, it may be worth the wait.

Related:

The Ultimate Guide to the Ketogenic Diet

7 Easy Tips to Live a Mindful Life

Eating Disorders Fact Sheet

Article written by Megan Falk