Is Intuitive Eating the Key to Better Health and Less Guilt?

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened. One day, you were a kid, overjoyed when you got invited to a birthday party and could spend an afternoon not only playing, but also enjoying pizza, cake, and ice cream without a care in the world…and then one day, you were an adult, and categorizing foods as “good” and “bad,” as well as assigning guilt to your enjoyment of things like pizza and ice cream (which are obviously, in this topsy-turvy adult world, in the “bad” category). But is thinking of food that way actually helpful for your physical (and mental) health at all? Probably not – and if you ask those who follow an “intuitive eating” protocol, they would say that ditching those judgmental ways of thinking can free you from toxic guilt, allow you to fully enjoy your food, and even make you healthier. Sounds good, right? So what exactly is intuitive eating, and could it be right for you?

What Is Intuitive Eating?

caucasian woman biting into a green apple
Intuitive eating helps you get in touch with your hunger cues, cravings, feeling full, and more.

The first thing you need to know about intuitive eating is that it is not a diet – there is no counting or tracking, no meal plans, and absolutely no emphasis on discipline or willpower. Instead of focusing on these external things imposed by outside forces, this philosophy of eating tells you to listen to your own internal cues, and essentially reminds you that you – and only you – are the expert on your body and its hunger signals. There is no focus on numbers on the scales; in fact, intuitive eating completely separates your “healthy weight” from your actual health, which includes not only your physical health, but also your overall well being.

When following intuitive eating, you guide yourself towards food choices by getting in touch with your physical self: your feelings of fullness, your cravings, and how food makes you feel. The purpose of following an intuitive eating protocol is also to get you out of the dieting mindset and finally free yourself of the rules that tell you when, what, and how much to eat. 

Basically, this philosophy reminds us that we were all born intuitive eaters: as babies we cried when we were hungry, ate till we were full, and then stopped; as children, we filled ourselves with what we needed that day, and didn’t question why we wanted three bowls of strawberries one day and just three crackers the next; and most often we ended up eating a variety of foods and getting what was required to grow up healthy. 

According to intuitive eating advocates, it is only as we grow up, and as we learn the “rules” of eating (like cleaning our plates, not eating something because it is “bad” for us, or not eating even when we are hungry because we should be “dieting”), that we move away from the way we were born to eat. The purpose of intuitive eating is to move us back in that direction, and improve both our mental and physical health along the way. But can it really do that?

What Are the Benefits of Practicing It?

According to the philosophy of intuitive eating, the “rules” surrounding eating that we learn as we get older can set off a variety of harmful behavior, including yo-yo dieting, restricting, binging, emotional eating, and obsessing about food. The effects of all this are physical and psychological: for example, in terms of physical health, despite our country’s obsession with weight and clean-eating, obesity and chronic health conditions are continually on the rise. In terms of our psychological health, because we learn that certain bodies are more valued than others, and we are told that changes to the way we eat can make our body more or less valuable, we are faced with statistics like this: only about 20% of women feel “very” or “extremely” satisfied with their weight, according to recent research in the journal Body Image.

But it’s possible that intuitive eating can help. In terms of simple nutrition alone, there is evidence that following this way of eating can lead to healthier choices: as people reject restrictive food rules, they find that junk-food binges lose their rebellious appeal, and that nutritious foods (proteins, whole grains, vegetables) are more satisfying and make their bodies feel better. According to Evelyn Tribole, one of the authors who literally wrote the original book on intuitive eating, “More than 100 studies show that intuitive eating offers a multitude of health benefits.”

caucasian woman smiling with her hands up
Intuitive eating leads to optimism, and motivation to exercise more.

And these benefits are apparently not just physical: people who scored high on an Intuitive Eating Scale had higher body and life satisfaction and better coping skills, while people with low scores reported more eating disorder symptoms and less satisfaction with their bodies. According to a recent review of 14 studies, intuitive eating is also associated with: 

  • Increased psychological hardiness
  • Increased optimism
  • More motivation to exercise for pleasure

So how do you begin to reconnect with, and feel more positive about, your body?

The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating

Relearning to trust your body, and adopting body-positive behaviors, like exercising and eating in ways that actually make you feel good, and freeing yourself of strict weight-loss expectations might actually be easier said than done. But the way to begin, according to this philosophy, is to first learn to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger. 

  • Physical hunger is the actual biological urge to replenish your body with nutrients, and includes the familiar sensations of a growling stomach, fatigue, and irritability, and can be satisfied with any food.
  • Emotional hunger is driven by an emotional need. Sadness, loneliness, boredom – any of these feelings can cause cravings for certain comfort foods, but eating them will not satisfy the hunger, it will usually only lead to feelings of guilt and self-loathing.

Easy enough, right? But the tricky part might be figuring out how to make eating more about satisfying the physical hunger in a positive, healthy way without triggering the guilt that eating for emotional reasons often does. To that end, Evelyn Tribole and her co-author, Elyse Resch, created the 10 key principles of intuitive eating. Again, there are no “rules,” no “wrong” or “right” here, just ideas to digest and incorporate into your life:

  • Reject the diet mentality – Unfortunately, most signs point to the fact that diets simply don’t work (one-third to two-thirds of weight is typically regained within a year, and almost all is usually regained within five years, and approximately 60% of people who diet gain back more weight than they lost). Not only do they often not improve your health in a sustainable way, but they can set you on a shame spiral. Intuitive eating tells you to stop looking for the “perfect” diet that will work for you.
  • Honor your hunger – Intuitive eating says that your body deserves to be properly fed; it also points out that adequate fueling is the only way that your body will function at its best. In addition, if you deny your hunger, you will be more likely to overeat, so learning to get back in touch with your hunger cues is vital.
  • Make peace with food – We’ve all been there: cutting certain foods out of your diets (we’re looking at you, french fries) means you only want them more, and can lead to bingeing. Making peace with your food means giving yourself the permission to eat all the foods you enjoy, so you can eventually reset your ability to moderate your eating.womans lips puckered up with a macaron in front of it
  • Challenge the food police – While making peace with your food is all about giving yourself the physical permission to eat what you like, challenging the food police means giving yourself the emotional permission, and getting rid of the notion that food has judgment values attached to it. In other words, foods are not “good” or “bad,” and you are not “good” or “bad” for what you eat or don’t eat.
  • Respect your fullness – Your body will tell you when it is hungry, and it will also tell you when you are full. Listen to it!
  • Discover the satisfaction factor – Remember, part of healthful eating is getting pleasure out of the experience – you have a right to enjoy your food! Sit down, relax, connect with other people, eat things that taste good to you – you might find that it will take less food to satisfy you. 
  • Honor your feelings without using food – Emotional eating is a way to deal with (or not deal with) your feelings, so find other ways to look after your mental health, like taking walks, talking to friends, journaling, or meditating. But remember, there should be no guilt attached to unwinding after a long day with splitting a pizza with friends or diving into some indulgent ice cream.
  • Respect your body – Intuitive eating definitely overlaps with the body positivity, or maybe even body neutrality movement, and encourages you to shift from focusing on criticizing the way your body looks to respecting it for what it can do. It might be difficult to shift your thinking in this way, but if you start by being kind to your body, instead of trying to punish it, and remember to always respect it (even if it takes time to love it) you’ll reach a point where you’ll make healthier choices both physically and emotionally.black and white picture of a woman holding a bar on her shoulders
  • Exercise – feel the difference – Again, the goal shouldn’t be to punish your body; choose a type of movement you enjoy, and, instead of focusing on calories burned and the weight loss aspects of exercise, think about the positive ways it makes you feel, like more energized, stronger, and more alive. This way, your body will get what it needs, you’ll feel good, and you’ll be less likely to over-exercise or avoid it altogether. 
  • Honor your health – gentle nutrition – After you’ve spent some time healing your relationship to food with the principles above, you can start to focus a little more on your nutrition, and as you do, it might be helpful to think about what you can add rather than what you should subtract. In addition, gentle nutrition is all about taking the long view of your eating patterns: remember, one meal or snack won’t make or break your health – it’s all about enjoying your food and fueling your body.

When it comes down to it, a lot of us might need to focus more on how we’re eating as opposed to being obsessed with what we’re eating. So if you feel like you’re caught in a never ending, useless, and emotionally damaging cycle of dieting, it might be worth stepping back, reconnecting with your hunger cues, and moving towards a more respectful way of treating your body. It might just lead to an improved body image and quality of life!

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