Intuitive eating is a philosophy of eating that makes you the expert of your body and its hunger signals.
Essentially, it’s the opposite of a traditional diet. It doesn’t impose guidelines about what to avoid and what or when to eat.
Instead, it teaches that you are the best person — the only person — to make those choices.
This article is a detailed beginner’s guide to intuitive eating.
The basics of intuitive eating
Intuitive eating is an eating style that promotes a healthy attitude toward food and body image.
The idea is that you should eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full.
Though this should be an intuitive process, for many people it’s not.
Trusting diet books and so-called experts about what, when, and how to eat can lead you away from trusting your body and its intuition.
To eat intuitively, you may need to relearn how to trust your body. To do that, you need to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger:
- Physical hunger. This biological urge tells you to replenish nutrients. It builds gradually and has different signals, such as a growling stomach, fatigue, or irritability. It’s satisfied when you eat any food.
- Emotional hunger. This is driven by emotional need. Sadness, loneliness, and boredom are some of the feelings that can create cravings for food, often comfort foods. Eating then causes guilt and self-hatred.
Summary: Intuitive eating is based on physical hunger rather than prescriptions from diet books and experts. Eating should satisfy physical hunger without causing guilt.
History of intuitive eating
The term intuitive eating was coined in 1995 as the title of a book by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. However, the concept has roots in earlier ideas.
Early pioneers include Susie Orbach, who published “Fat is a Feminist Issue” in 1978, and Geneen Roth, who has written about emotional eating since 1982.
Before that, Thelma Wayler founded a weight management program in 1973 called Green Mountain at Fox Run, based in Vermont.
The program was built on the principle that diets don’t work and that lifestyle changes and personal care are more important for long-term health.
Summary: Some of the concepts of intuitive eating have been around at least since the early 1970s, though the term wasn’t coined until 1995.
10 key principles of intuitive eating
In their book on intuitive eating, Tribole and Resch lay out 10 basic principles of the philosophy.
1. Reject the diet mentality
The diet mentality is the idea that there’s a diet out there that will work for you. Intuitive eating is the anti-diet.
2. Honor your hunger
Hunger is not your enemy.
Respond to your early signs of hunger by feeding your body. If you let yourself get excessively hungry, then you are likely to overeat.
3. Make peace with food
Call a truce in the war with food.
Get rid of ideas about what you should or shouldn’t eat.
4. Challenge the food police
Food is not good or bad and you are not good or bad for what you eat or don’t eat.
Challenge thoughts that tell you otherwise.
5. Respect your fullness
Just as your body tells you when it’s hungry, it also tells you when it’s full.
Listen for the signals of comfortable fullness, when you feel you have had enough. As you’re eating, check in with yourself to see how the food tastes and how hungry or full you are feeling.
6. Discover the satisfaction factor
Make your eating experience enjoyable. Have a meal that tastes good to you. Sit down to eat it.
When you make eating a pleasurable experience, you may find it takes less food to satisfy you.
7. Honor your feelings without using food
Emotional eating is a strategy for coping with feelings.
Suggested read: 13 ways to stop eating when you’re bored
Find ways that are unrelated to food to deal with your feelings, such as taking a walk, meditating, journaling, or calling a friend.
Become aware of the times when a feeling that you might call hunger is really based on emotion.
8. Respect your body
Rather than criticizing your body for how it looks and what you perceive is wrong with it, recognize it as capable and beautiful just as it is.
9. Exercise — feel the difference
Find ways to move your body that you enjoy. Shift the focus from losing weight to feeling energized, strong, and alive.
10. Honor your health — gentle nutrition
The food you eat should taste good and make you feel good.
Remember that it’s your overall food patterns that shape your health. One meal or snack isn’t going to make or break your health.
Summary: There are 10 basic principles outlined in the “Intuitive Eating” book. They include accepting your body and honoring your feelings of hunger and fullness.
Research-based benefits of intuitive eating
Research on the topic is still growing and has largely focused on women.
Thus far, studies have linked intuitive eating to healthier psychological attitudes, lower body mass index (BMI), and weight maintenance — though not weight loss.
One of the major benefits of intuitive eating is better psychological health.
Participants in intuitive eating studies improved their self-esteem, body image, and overall quality of life while experiencing less depression and anxiety.
Intuitive eating interventions also have good retention rates, meaning people are more likely to stick with the program and keep practicing the behavioral changes than they would be on a diet.
Other studies have looked at women’s eating behaviors and attitudes and found that those who show more signs of intuitive eating are less likely to display disordered eating behaviors.
Summary: Emerging research suggests that intuitive eating is linked to healthier attitudes toward food and self-image, as well as that it can be learned through interventions.
How to get started with intuitive eating
If you think you could benefit from learning more about intuitive eating, there are ways to get started.
Suggested read: Binge eating disorder: Symptoms, causes, and asking for help
Without judgment, start taking stock of your own eating behaviors and attitudes. When you eat, ask yourself if you’re experiencing physical or emotional hunger.
If it’s physical hunger, try to rank your hunger/fullness level on a scale of 1–10, from very hungry to stuffed. Aim to eat when you’re hungry but not starving. Stop when you’re comfortably full — not stuffed.
Summary: To get started with intuitive eating, approach your eating habits without judgment and become more aware of how and when you eat. Seek additional resources to learn more about eating intuitively.
With intuitive eating, how you eat is just as important as what you eat.
Letting your own internal cues of hunger and fullness guide your eating can lead to improved body image and quality of life.