Woman practicing intuitive eating with green smoothie

What is Intuitive Eating?

The name might sound explanatory enough, but intuitive eating goes beyond consuming food mindfully. How exactly is it a different approach to nutrition?

Intuitive eating (IE)—first introduced by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch—is a non-diet approach to changing your overall eating habits. It's about trusting what your body tells you so that you can make choices that will feel good mentally and physically. And, it's about finding food freedom.

Essentially, it guides you in paying attention to internal cues rather than external ones. IE eliminates judgment or influence from diet culture. It shifts the focus from aesthetics to well-being.

"I always tell people to listen to their body," said Life Extension registered dietitian Holli Ryan, RD, LD/N. "Intuitive eating encourages just that! This practice helps people pay more attention to the way foods make them feel, facilitating connections and realizations."

Importantly, eating intuitively is about establishing a healthy relationship with food. No food is "good" or "bad." There's no such thing as "cheat days," a term which implies that you did something that was "against the rules."

Why is mindful eating not a weight loss plan?

Because mindful eating encourages you to listen to your body's hunger cues, it's not necessarily a way to lose weight. This is because your body might actually be telling you that it wants more food or a different type of food. For example, your body might signal that it prefers skim milk or over whole milk not because of the calories, but because whole milk may not be as easy on your stomach. Food choices hinge on how they make you feel.

Does intuitive eating work? Benefits of eating intuitively

If your only goal is to lose weight, then IE might not "work" for you. If your goal is to facilitate a healthy relationship with food, then intuitive eating can work quite well.

One of the biggest benefits of intuitive eating is completely dismantling diet culture and the negative relationship many of us have with certain foods—and in turn, with our body images. It's about learning to love and appreciate food as nourishment for your body. And because IE isn't about restricting you but rather freeing you, you don't deprive yourself and then have unhealthy cravings, which is the result of many (if not most) diets.

10 principles of intuitive eating

Woman eating avocado toast

In establishing the concept of intuitive eating, Tribole and Resch outlined 10 main intuitive eating principles.

  1. Reject the diet mentality

    : Diets generally focus on aesthetics, not wellness or what your body actually wants. IE puts these at the forefront.
  2. Honor your hunger

    : Focus on getting adequate macronutrients and respond to your body when you start to experience physical hunger.
  3. Make peace with food

    : Food isn't the enemy, and it has no moral value. By allowing your body to have what it wants, you avoid restriction and its repercussions.
  4. Challenge the food police

    : There's no such thing as "good" or "bad" food, and a food's calorie count doesn't determine whether or not you are "allowed" to eat it. There are no food rules.
  5. Discover the satisfaction factor

    : Eating is an experience. Enjoy the people around you, the environment, and everything you see. Eat slowly and intentionally.
  6. Feel your fullness

    : Similar to how you listen to your body when it's hungry, listen to it when it's full. Give your body a chance to react to food before you consume more.
  7. Cope with your emotions with kindness

    : Find healthy ways to cope with emotions, such as going for a walk, journaling, or chatting with a friend.
  8. Respect your body

    : Accept what your genes gave you. Have realistic expectations, as opposed to what diet culture or the media tell you what you should look like.
  9. Movement—Feel the difference

    : Exercise to feel great, not to burn calories. Find a physical activity you enjoy, do it regularly, and as an added bonus, the health benefits will follow.
  10. Honor your health—Gentle nutrition

    : Focus on consistency, not perfection. It's safe to indulge occasionally. Let yourself live without obsessing over "perfection."

Reject the diet mentality: How do you transition from restrictive diets to intuitive eating?

Woman eating avocado toast

Following the 10 principles of intuitive eating is a great place to start. Your mind and your body are on the same team and should work harmoniously; it's not a battle!

You might find it helpful to keep a journal where you jot down how you're feeling throughout the day. This is going to force you to better acknowledge your internal cues. How do you feel right now? Are you hungry, full, thirsty, tired?

By putting pen to paper, you can better understand where your mind and body are at, and what you need. (Do keep in mind, though, that keeping a food journal might not be a good idea if you feel like food tracking is stressful. Self-compassion is critical.)

How to start intuitive eating

So, if you want to get going with intuitive eating, what is the next step? "There are dietitians who specialize in IE and have support groups," said Ryan. "You can locate a registered dietitian online. The founders of IE also offer a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselors Directory."

The point is this: You never have to go on this journey alone.

Is intuitive eating better than dieting?

To be clear, intuitive eating is not a diet but rather a lifestyle. "Better" is subjective because it's going to depend on the individual.

While diets are short-term and usually end once you lose weight, the eating principles of IE are about finding long-term peace with food and developing eating habits that you can maintain. It's about loving and appreciating food instead of fearing it.

In this sense, is intuitive eating better? Yes, because diets often lead you to revert back to poor eating habits, encouraging negative self-talk and low self-esteem. IE addresses this by permitting all foods (except anything medically prohibited).

Intuitive eating vs overeating

One misconception about intuitive eating is that because nothing is off-limits, you'll end up overeating. If you've been dieting for years, calorie-counting every morsel you eat, you might be worried that you'll be unable to stop eating without rules to follow.

However, just like how intuitive eating tells you to eat when you're hungry, it also tells you to stop when you start experiencing fullness cues. IE doesn't encourage or promote anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. In fact, it's the polar opposite.

Overeating implies eating beyond fullness. It's knowing that you're full and still reaching for another bite. Therefore, it's something that IE should help, not exacerbate. "It can be a helpful tool for this population," said Ryan.

Natural ways to eat mindfully

Mother and son preparing a healthy meal

Take a heart-healthy dietary approach

You can improve your relationship with food by fueling up on nutrient-dense meals and snacks. This helps keep you satiated as well as healthy, in general. The Mediterranean diet, for example—which is more of a lifestyle and not your traditional "diet"—offers a number of heart health benefits thanks to its emphasis on healthy fats and fresh produce (similar to the keto diet, although not low carb). The flexitarian diet is newer and emphasizes plenty of healthy plant-based foods, with occasional red meat and other animal products.

The MIND diet

The Mediterranean-DASH (MIND) diet combines the Mediterranean diet with the DASH diet to help protect cognitive function as we age. The Japanese diet is also famous for promoting healthy aging.

Weight management supplements

If you sometimes find yourself mindlessly grazing even if you're not hungry, a weight management supplement might be able to give you the support you need as you adjust to intuitive eating. For instance, saffron can help fight the urge to snack.

Supplements can also help if, as an intuitive eater, you're vegan or vegetarian. Vegans commonly experience nutrient deficiencies, and supplements—like vegetarian DHA—can help fill in the gaps.

Man doing yoga in living room to manage stress

Stress management

Stress eating, or emotional eating, can derail mindful eating habits for intuitive eaters. It's a response to negative emotions, not hunger. Stress can also lead to overeating. Try journaling, yoga, meditation, or spending time outdoors to better manage your stress.

Support a healthy metabolism

Engaging in physical activity should be a regular habit for you. According to the CDC, you should aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, per week. Add in strength training two times a week or more, if possible. Aim to work all major muscle groups, including your legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms.

Sleep

Aim to get seven to nine hours of quality sleep a night. A lack of sleep can influence hunger, ultimately leading to unhealthy eating behaviors.

Happiness chemicals

Following the tips above can also help your body maintain healthy levels of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins. This will contribute positively to your physical and mental health.

References

By: Michael A. Smith, MD

Dr. Michael A. Smith received his medical doctorate from the University of Texas, Southwestern Medical Center, and he practiced Internal Medicine and Radiology in Dallas, Texas in the early 2000s. Dr. Smith is the author of The Supplement Pyramid: How to Build your Personalized Nutritional Regimen. He is also the host of Live FOREVERish, a podcast and Facebook Live show for Life Extension.