Like many, I discovered intuitive eating after many years of dieting and disordered eating. In fact, I spent several of my early years as a journalist writing about diets. Eventually, I started to realize that all the “weight loss” and “clean eating” tips were nonsensical at best, and extremely harmful at worst.
It happens this way for so many people. If you’ve been dieting for years and are committed to giving up food rules and restrictions, intuitive eating can help you. Let’s talk a little more about what it is, what it does for your life, and how to find a coach if you need one.
Let’s start with the basics, because there’s some confusion around what intuitive eating is and what it isn’t.
How is intuitive eating different from dieting?
There are no rules around what you can and can’t eat. NONE. It’s up to you to choose which foods you eat, how much you eat, and when you eat.
There’s also no promise of weight loss. Despite what you may have heard from ill-informed influencers, you can’t use intuitive eating as a way to lose weight.
Intuitive eating is not:
- An eating plan with strict rules
- A diet that tells you what you should or shouldn’t eat
- A framework that says some foods are “good” and others are “bad”
- A way to lose weight or change your body
I know, I know — so many diets and “lifestyle change” out there claim NOT to be diets. If you’re researching intuitive eating, it’s likely because you see right through that rhetoric.
If an eating plan or “lifestyle change” makes suggestions about foods to eat and foods to avoid, it’s a diet. Anything that puts restrictions on when you can and can’t eat is a diet. A program that mentions weight loss as a side effect is a diet!
The thing about intuitive eating, though, is that it’s really, truly not a diet.
What are the intuitive eating principles?
Intuitive eating is a framework, popularized in the 1990s by dietitians Elyse Resch and Eveyln Tribole. There are 10 guiding principles to intuitive eating:
1. Reject the diet mentality
Rejecting all the books, influencers, and magazine articles that say it’s possible to lose weight easily or permanently.
It’s not possible — an April 2020 article in The BMJ looked at 121 diet studies with almost 22,000 participants and concluded that while people on diets lost weight in the short term, almost no one kept that weight off after a year.
Yes, it can be tough to come to terms with that, especially because our culture idolizes thinness and makes us all feel like we should be trying to lose weight. But the sooner you can accept that long-term weight loss isn’t realistic, the sooner you can begin on your journey towards a peaceful relationship with food and your body.
I wrote a bit about how the diet mentality can hurt you in this article for HuffPost.
2. Honor your hunger
Eating a variety of foods regularly is so, so important to health. I wrote about how ignoring your hunger can backfire in this article for HuffPost.
3. Make peace with food
Give yourself unconditional permission to eat what you want, when you want. It might sound counterintuitive, but this actually helps you feel more in-control around food.
A 2017 study published in the Journal of Nutrition looked at data from over 40,000 French adults. Researchers found that those who ate intuitively ate a more varied diet, a more nutrient-dense diet, and less food overall than those who restricted themselves or followed a diet.
4. Challenge the food police
Let go of food rules and cutting yourself some slack. It can be tough to let go of food rules, because you may not even know that you have any. And, it’s often not a good idea to just jump headfirst into abandoning all of your food rules and eating everything in sight. (Although, doing so isn’t wrong!) I talk more here about taking steps to challenge the food police.
5. Discover the satisfaction factor
Tune into the pleasure of food. We eat food for so many reasons other than nutrition — we have cultural traditions around food, we socialize over meals, and we sometimes eat foods because they taste really, really good. This isn’t just OK, it’s a great thing.
6. Feel your fullness
Be mindful of how your food is making you feel. To be absolutely clear, intuitive eating doesn’t mean that you always have to stop when you’re full — we all eat past the point of fullness sometimes!
Still, if you’ve been dieting for years, you may not even know what fullness feels like. This article by Alissa Rumsey talks a bit more about that, and why intuitive eating is different from mindful eating even though they have some things in common.
7. Cope with your emotions with kindness
Understand that emotional eating is fine, but that it shouldn’t be the only way you deal with your stress and your feelings.
I wrote more about emotional eating and why you shouldn’t demonize it in this article for Outside. The short version? It’s fine to use food to soothe yourself sometimes, and beating yourself over doing that can cause unnecessary stress and might even lead to eating more than you normally would.
8. Respect your body
Quit your quest for weight loss. I mentioned it earlier, but the truth is that long-term intentional weight loss just isn’t possible. With intuitive eating, you might gain weight, lose weight, or stay the same.
In this post about Health at Every Size, I explain how accepting your weight actually leads to healthier choices. And in this one, I explain why body acceptance is key for intuitive eating. Intuitive eating can also help you find a set point weight, which can lessen your anxiety about constant weight fluctuations.
9. Movement — Feel the difference
Face it: Our societal relationship to exercise isn’t great. The message is often that we should exercise to lose weight or “earn” food.
Don’t be ashamed if you think about exercise this way — many people do! Instead, recognize that exercising to compensate for what you eat isn’t healthy. Also recognize that using exercise as a way to change your body likely will not work long-term.
As part of the process, you learn to move your body in a way that feels good to you. Sometimes (for some people) that might mean doing traditional “exercise” like running or a fitness class. Other times, it might mean gently stretching, gardening, or walking the dog.
I know that making the distinction between unhealthy exercise habits and healthy ones can be tough. I wrote more about how to tell if your relationship with exercise is toxic in this article for HuffPost.
10. Honor Your Health — Gentle Nutrition
Yes, you can be an intuitive eater and still eat nutritious foods. (It’s also OK not to, if you don’t want to!)
To be clear: You may NOT eat many “balanced” or nutrient-dense meals or snacks when you first start your journey. This is sometimes part of the process of letting go of food rules. It’s helpful to work with a dietitian to figure out what gentle nutrition looks like for you. There’s no one-size-fits-all guide.
Gentle nutrition is a tricky concept, especially because it’s a pretty radical approach to healthful eating compared to what most of us have been taught. Here’s a full blog post about gentle nutrition to help you get started.
Can you use intuitive eating to lose weight?
No. The eighth principle of intuitive eating is: Respect your body. This means accepting your body as it is. It means understanding that you do not need to lose weight in order to be happy and/ or healthy.
Even knowing all this, some people think that intuitive eating can be used for weight loss. Here’s the truth: You’ll never be able to eat intuitively if you’re also eating to lose weight. You won’t be able to listen to what your body truly wants and needs if you’re eating for weight loss.
It’s true that some people lose weight when they start intuitive eating. Some people also gain weight. Other people stay at roughly the same weight.
It can be really, really hard to let go of the pursuit of weight loss! A good non-diet dietitian, alongside a weight-inclusive therapist, can help you work towards body acceptance.
How can you find intuitive eating support?
For many of us, intuitive eating isn’t intuitive. Why? Because we’re so conditioned to diet, restrict, and try to change our bodies. If you’ve tried intuitive eating on your own but feel stuck, a qualified coach (probably a dietitian or a therapist) can help. After all, intuitive eating is nuanced and personal. It’s important to work with someone that’s properly trained and makes you feel safe.
On a basic level, here are some things to look for:
A relevant credential. There are plenty of people out there who call themselves intuitive eating coaches but who don’t have any credentials! A good coach will have proper training. Look for someone who is a registered dietitian (RD or RDN), a psychologist (PhD or PsyD), or another type of certified therapist (LCSW or LPC). These individuals have years of training and are legally licensed to give counseling around food and eating.
A website or social media presence that makes you feel comfortable and accepted. If someone is advertising intuitive eating but only shows pictures of thin people, you’re right to be skeptical. If someone claims to be an intuitive eating coach but also advertises weight loss, steer clear. A good coach celebrates all bodies by showcasing a diverse range on their website.
Someone who offers local or virtual services, depending on your preference. Some people prefer going to an office to meet with a coach. Others might prefer doing one-on-one sessions via phone or video chat. Others still might opt for group sessions or email-only coaching, all of which can be less expensive.
Is intuitive eating for you?
I said above that intuitive eating is for everyone. That’s true — everyone can benefit from becoming an intuitive eater.
However, not everyone is ready to quit dieting. Although long-term weight loss isn’t realistic and that dieting causes harm, there’s no denying that our culture praises thinness and pushes weight loss on everyone. If you’re not ready to let go of diet culture, that’s OK! All of this will be here for you when you’re ready.
Ready to accept your body as it is?
Want to overcome constant cravings for foods that you think are “bad”?
Tired of trying diet after diet, of losing weight and then regaining it time and time again?
Then, yes, intuitive eating is for you.
The bottom line? Intuitive eating will help you quit dieting and get on with your life.
So many dietitians and therapists agree that becoming an intuitive eater can help free up brain space, time, and energy for other things. Instead of overthinking what you do and don’t eat, you can eat whatever sounds good or is convenient. Instead of spending hours exercising, you can spend time with people you care about or doing things you enjoy. When you’re not always pursuing weight loss, you can put more energy into pursuing relationships, passions, or your career.