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Intuitive Eating: Everything You Need to Know

Updated: Aug 25

Have you ever been on a diet to try to lose weight? Once? How about multiple times? If you have dieted or consistently diet, you’re far from alone. Research has found that between the years of 1999 and 2016, nearly half of all adults in the United States were at some point intentionally trying to lose weight (1). Market research has also shown time and time again that the weight loss market in the United States is a multi-billion-dollar industry that continues to grow (2). Think about it: how often do you see or hear advertisements for trendy new diet programs or “miracle” fat burning supplements? Diet and weight-loss messaging – we may even know it in relation to the pervasive term diet culture – is all around us.

On the topic of dieting for intentional weight loss…

One study found that the average person who intentionally tried to lose weight would “weight cycle,” or repeatedly lose and gain weight, roughly 7.8 times in their lifetime (3). Think back to the diet(s) you have been on. How many of them got you your desired results? If you did see your desired results, how long did they last? While you were dieting, how often did you spend time thinking or feeling stressed out about your weight, the food you just ate, or the food you would eat next? Research shows that typically, when we diet to lose weight, we end up regaining some or all of that weight later, and then end up dieting to lose weight again (i.e., weight cycling) (4). Studies are also starting to explore the connection between weight cycling and an increase in incidence of depressive symptoms (3).

You might be asking yourself why we’re discussing this. Maybe repeated dieting is what you’ve always done, so it just feels normal to you. Well, what if there was another option? If you had the opportunity to dedicate less mental energy to the act of dieting and the hope of weight loss, would you?

Allow me to introduce you to the Intuitive Eating framework.

The term Intuitive Eating was officially coined by Registered Dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995, but it is also a biological reality. When we are born, we are all naturally intuitive eaters. When we are fed as babies, we take in the amount of nourishment we need, and our bodies communicate with our brains to tell us when we are satisfied and done eating; studies have even proven that preschool age children are very well able to regulate their nutritional intake on their own based on what their bodies need (5).

So how and why do we lose this innate capability?

As we grow older, we start taking in advertising, marketing, and other types of messaging about food, nutrition, and health. We are also often told what and how much we should be eating by well-meaning friends and family members – were you ever a begrudging member of the “Clean Plate Club?” (5). And guess what? Most of this messaging pushes us away from our own internal cues. For example, studies exploring media have found that there was a substantial increase in advertisements for diet foods and diet products between the years of 1973 and 1991; think about how much those advertisements must have kept increasing in later years!(6) If we are constantly surrounded by clever and persistent diet-related marketing, it’s no wonder that over time, we begin to question and stray away from our innate cues.

The Intuitive Eating program, as written by Tribole and Resch in their books, is identified by the authors as a “self-care eating framework” (7). That’s right, it’s NOT a diet, and there is NO focus on weight loss. In fact, there‘s no focus on your weight AT ALL! Refreshing, right? Instead, the aim of the Intuitive Eating framework is to help us get back in tune with our internal hunger and fullness signals, and to eat what we choose to eat without guilt or any issues of morality (7).

Why is Intuitive Eating introduced as a framework with principles? It’s simple. After living in a world where we are flooded with information about crash diets, exercising until exhaustion, juice cleanses, and calorie-burning tips every day, it can – and should – take some time and some intentional practice to change the way we see health, nutrition, and our bodies. Want to learn more?

Let’s explore the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating:

1. Reject the Diet Mentality

Has dieting made you frustrated in the past? Have you lost weight just to later regain it and feel like you somehow failed? It’s not your fault. The first principle of Intuitive Eating is to work on changing your attitude toward diets. In order to change your life and your health, it’s important to first let go of the false promises that fad diets or sneaky lifestyle changes offer us: quick results, miracle changes, or unrealistic body changes. This way, you will be ready to discover Intuitive Eating with a truly open mind.

2. Honor Your Hunger

When we are on a diet and are following external signals or rules telling us when, what, or how much to eat, it is understandable that we suppress our connection with our body’s biological hunger signals. Research has even found that when we aim to replace those natural body signals of hunger with the cognitive controls of diet rules, we are left more vulnerable to overeating as a result (8). Therefore, the second principle of Intuitive Eating is to honor our hunger. As written by Tribole and Resch, learning to honor our biological hunger “sets the stage for rebuilding trust in yourself and in food”(7).

3. Make Peace with Food

A typical tenet of dieting is to eliminate or severely limit our permission to eat certain foods. Have you ever noticed that this often makes you want those foods more? It’s science! Research on habituation as related to food intake shows that the more we are exposed to a food, the less exciting it becomes; however, if we only allow ourselves to eat certain foods on occasion, if ever, their novelty goes through the roof, and we find them much more appealing (9,10).

Making Peace with Food, the third principle of Intuitive Eating, encourages us to give ourselves unconditional permission to eat and to finally abandon the idea that foods are either good or bad (7). This may feel like a significant undertaking, but trust that the Intuitive Eating framework is meant to be taken on slowly and methodically, and that a Registered Dietitian can provide you with valuable support along the way. When we Make Peace with Food, we will find that those foods we couldn’t imagine having in our house, ordering at restaurants, or giving ourselves access to will become much less exciting once we simply let them into our lives (7).

4. Challenge the Food Police

The fourth principle of Intuitive Eating involves challenging the Food Police – but who is the Food Police? The Intuitive Eating framework defines the Food Police in terms of guilt, and notes that our own internal Food Police voice is “developed through dieting” (7). What types of messages, internal or external, do you receive about food that make you feel guilty? Maybe it’s a feeling you get after eating a second slice of cake at a birthday party: “I shouldn’t have had that. I’m going to gain weight.” Or, maybe it’s an offhanded comment from a family member around a Thanksgiving dinner table: “you’re eating that?”

The Food Police can come in different forms, even via marketing and advertising like we discussed before. Have you ever seen an advertisement for a “guilt-free” diet food? The Food Police is front and center here (7). This principle of Intuitive Eating encourages us to work on disengaging from these feelings of guilt (or the “guilt-free” diet food messaging) we are conditioned to hold so dear when it comes to the way we eat.

5. Discover the Satisfaction Factor

This principle of Intuitive Eating focuses on something we so often lose when dieting: the feeling of pleasurable, satisfying eating. Many people who are dieting believe that they should not enjoy eating, for fear that they would lose all control around food if they did (7). Many dieters also spend a lot of time trying to avoid those foods they have labeled as “bad.” Have you ever craved a cookie, but to avoid eating one, you tried to suppress the craving by eating something else? You likely never felt fully satisfied, and may have even overeaten other foods as a result, which could have left you uncomfortable and frustrated. When we work on rediscovering pleasure and satisfaction as it relates to eating, we are better able to fulfill our cravings and feel both nourished and satisfied from our food.

6. Feel Your Fullness

Very often when we are dieting, we follow specific plans or are given specific quantities of food to eat. This can lead to us feeling out of tune with our hunger cues, as well as our fullness cues! This principle of the Intuitive Eating framework encourages us to engage in conscious eating, paying attention during eating experiences for biological signals that we are beginning to feel comfortably full. Just as with working to honor our hunger, feeling our fullness takes practice. Reengaging with these cues will not happen overnight. However, through doing this work, we will get to a place where we can again trust our bodies’ innate wisdom to guide us (7).

7. Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness

This principle of Intuitive Eating recognizes the connection that food and emotion can have. Rather than encouraging us to eliminate or ignore the connection between food and emotion, this principle encourages us to learn how to deal with different emotions in a healthy way. Emotional eating can happen, but when we learn how to get to the root of unpleasant emotions instead of masking them with food, we will be able to develop healthy coping skills for life (7).

8. Respect Your Body

Research has found that body dissatisfaction and chronic dietary efforts are correlated with emotional distress (11). This principle of Intuitive Eating implores us to accept our genetic blueprint and let go of the fantasy that we could suddenly and magically end up with a different body, which is a message often sent to us via diet and weight loss advertising and marketing. Alongside our efforts to Reject the Diet Mentality and Make Peace with Food, Tribole and Resch note it is also important that we work to respect and accept our bodies, as well as honor them for all they do for us (7).

9. Movement – Feel the Difference

This principle of Intuitive Eating is centered on movement and exercise, rather than food. You may know about this principle, as the topic is (excitingly!) becoming more commonly addressed in the world of fitness. This principle suggests that, rather than seeing movement and exercise as purely a calorie-burning or body-altering pursuit, pay attention to how you feel when you engage in movement and exercise. Studies show that moving our bodies has benefits that extend far beyond our physical appearance, such as psychological wellbeing and prevention of many diseases (12,13). Once we can work to separate the act of exercise from the hope of changing how our bodies look, we can truly appreciate all the benefits of movement.

10. Honor Your Health – Gentle Nutrition

The final principle of Intuitive Eating, as identified by Tribole and Resch as purposefully listed and approached last, is to honor your health with gentle nutrition. This principle comes last within the Intuitive Eating framework so we can first focus on doing the necessary work to repair our relationships with food, movement, and our bodies. After that, we can integrate all we have learned (or re-learned) into our relationship with nutrition. As discussed by Tribole and Resch, healthy eating should be defined as “having a healthy balance of foods and having a healthy relationship with food” (7). The aim of this principle is to understand that true, sustainable healthy eating will allow us to honor our health and our taste buds while making us feel well (7).

Are you finding Intuitive Eating intriguing, but curious how it actually works when people adopt the framework?

Others were too. Let’s discuss the robust research on Intuitive Eating. To date, more than 100 research studies have been published on the Intuitive Eating framework. This research has shown great promise for both physiological and psychological outcomes.
One systematic review found that Intuitive Eating was associated with improved body image and emotional functioning and a decrease in disordered eating habits (14). Studies have also found that intuitive eating is associated with lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, lower Body Mass Index, and improved cardiorespiratory fitness (15,16). Another systematic review examined the long-term sustainability of “non-diet” approaches integrating intuitive eating and body acceptance (i.e., the Respect Your Body principle) and found that results such as increased self-esteem and decreased body dissatisfaction were maintained by study participants followed for 2 years (16).

In contrast to this research on Intuitive Eating, let’s take another look at research on diets and weight loss.

A review of literature on dieting between 1970 to the mid-1990’s found that diets lead to short-term weight loss, a now widely understood concept (17). This conclusion also helps to explain why so many of us have regarded previous diets as successful: we initially lost weight. However, this same review also found that the short-term weight loss was not maintained. One study found that when participants were followed for more than 2 years after the study period, 83% gained back more weight than they had originally lost (17). Another study that compared three dieting experimental groups with a control group found that the experimental groups lost weight, but kept off only an average of 3.7 lbs. over the 2.5 year study period (17).

Long-term results provided in diet- and weight loss-related research bring us back to the term “weight cycling” we discussed at the beginning of this article.

Weight cycling has been studied and found to be related to increased risk for heart attack, stroke, diabetes, impaired immune function, and increased cholesterol, though continued research on the mechanisms leading to these health issues is needed (17). It can be helpful to compare the available research on diets and intentional weight loss with the available research on Intuitive Eating because when we know more, we can make more informed decisions for ourselves. Everyone has bodily autonomy and can make the decisions they feel are best for them regarding their weight. However, for those who have felt like they’re on a never-ending merry-go-round of diet after diet, understanding the significant physiological and psychological benefits of Intuitive Eating can be incredibly freeing and empowering.

Disclaimer: It is important to understand that eating intuitively is a privilege, and that our ability to put this framework into practice is highly dependent on our socioeconomic status, access to food, and other life circumstances.

All in all, Intuitive Eating is a powerful tool that can help us reconnect to our bodies and can empower us to loosen the grip that repeated diets and the elusive promise of weight loss have on so many of us. If putting this framework into action in your own life feels scary or daunting to you, know that working with a Registered Dietitian who specializes in Intuitive Eating can help give you the help and support you need to get started. Our dietitians at INC Nutrition are here to answer questions, field concerns, and walk alongside you as you begin your journey to a better relationship with food, nutrition, exercise, and yourself.

Written by: Tory Sheehan, MS, RDN Performance Dietitian INC Nutrition LLC

Reference List
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  13. Calogero R., Pedrotty K. Daily Practices for Mindful Exercise. In L. L’Abate, D. Embry, & M. Baggett (Eds.), Handbook of Low-cost Preventative Interventions for Physical and Mental Health: Theory, Research, and Practice. Springer-Verlag, 2007:141-160.

  14. Bruce LJ, Ricciardelli LA. A systematic review of the psychosocial correlates of intuitive eating among adult women. Appetite. 2016;96:454-472. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2015.10.012

  15. Denny KN, Loth K, Eisenberg ME, Neumark-Sztainer D. Intuitive eating in young adults. Who is doing it, and how is it related to disordered eating behaviors?. Appetite. 2013;60(1):13-19. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2012.09.029

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