Disclaimer: This post is not a replacement for medical advice or a client-provider relationship with a registered dietitian. Always seek care from a physician or registered dietitian for your own unique needs. See our disclaimer.
The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating, developed by Registered Dietitians Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S, FAND have created a revolutionary paradigm shift in the way we think about dieting and eating.
Though originally published in 1995, Intuitive Eating has become a mainstream practice over the past decade or so. Over 100 studies have been conducted on the topic since the book came out.
- So.. What Is Intuitive Eating?
- The Problem With Dieting
- The 10 Principles Of Intuitive Eating
- Principle 1: Reject The Diet Mentality
- Principle 2: Honor Your Hunger
- Principle 3: Make Peace With Food
- Principle 4: Challenge The Food Police
- Principle 5: Feel Your Fullness
- Principle 6: Discover The Satisfaction Factor
- Principle 7: Cope With Your Emotions Without Using Food
- Principle 8: Respect Your Body
- Principle 9: Exercise--Feel The Difference
- Principle 10: Honor Your Health--Gentle Nutrition
- Becoming an Intuitive Eater
- More Posts Like This
So.. What Is Intuitive Eating?
According to the intuitive eating website, "Intuitive Eating is a self-care eating framework, which integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought." It's made up of 10 principles of intuitive eating that ultimately help you become attuned to your body's needs while "removing the rules, beliefs, and thoughts" that get in the way.
The Problem With Dieting
A cornerstone of the Intuitive Eating framework is the idea that dieting does not work. Dieting, on the surface, may seem like the best way to lose extra weight. However, it's much more complex than "calories in, calories out."
I'm willing to bet that you've witnessed for yourself (likely many times) that dieting is ineffective in the long run. You may lose a few pounds at first, but once you are unable to continue restricting yourself (which inevitably happens), you binge out on everything in sight.
This leads to guilt, feeling like a failure, and gaining more weight than you lost. The effects of chronic dieting (termed "dieting backlash effect" by Tribole and Resch) include:
- Intense cravings for "sinful" foods
- Stuck in the cycle of restriction, overeating, guilt, and restricting again
- Having little trust in yourself with food
- Thinking about food all the time
- Feeling stressed, shameful, and/or guilty about food
- Continuously having a "last supper" before an upcoming diet attempt
- Avoiding social situations because of the fear of being out of control with food
- Slower metabolism as the body adapts to prepare for another self-imposed famine
- Overusing caffeine from coffee and energy drinks
- Finding that you keep gaining more weight over time despite weight loss attempts
- In severe cases, eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, or binge eating disorder
We all start out as intuitive eaters. But as life happens or outside rules from society creep in, that's when we stop listening to our own bodies and forget how to eat intuitively. Somewhere along the way, many of us develop a problematic style of eating.
If you are interested in further finding out if you are an intuitive eater and what areas may need some work, take this quiz from Evelyn Tribole that was adapted from Tracy Tylka's research.
So how do we get back to being the intuitive eaters we were in childhood? That process is laid out in the 10 principles of intuitive eating.
The 10 Principles Of Intuitive Eating
Principle 1: Reject The Diet Mentality
This principle of intuitive eating is first for a reason. While nutritional science is important, your relationship with food is equally if not more important. You could know everything about nutrition, but a good or bad relationship with food will ultimately determine your eating behaviors and therefore has to be addressed first.
Any focus on weight loss has to be put aside. If weight loss is a natural result of improving health, there's nothing wrong with that. The idea here is that we aren't striving for intentional weight loss anymore.
Understandably, this isn't always easy. It's hard to lose the sense of control or excitement that a new diet can give you. You'll also probably start feeling left out of conversations when people are discussing the new diets they're on.
However, rejecting the diet mentality means you have come to terms with the fact that diets don't work, and they actually backfire.
Beware of pseudo-dieting, in which you don't realize you are dieting but actually are:
- Meticulously counting carbs or eating only "safe" foods
- Eating only at certain times of the day whether or not you're hungry
- Eating less or exercising more because you ate "bad" foods
- Eating only what you see as "proper" in front of other people
- Judging what or how much you are eating
- Becoming a vegetarian or eating gluten-free only for the purpose of losing weight
How To Reject The Diet Mentality
- Acknowledge the damage chronic dieting causes
- Forget about willpower, being obedient, and failing (you can't fail at intuitive eating; something previously considered a setback is now a learning experience)
- Ditch the scale, diet programs, diet books, and other external forces to regulate your eating
- Be compassionate towards yourself
Principle 2: Honor Your Hunger
Hunger is primal; food is necessary to survive. When we restrict ourselves and ignore our hunger cues, we eventually hit a point of desperation for food. The moment we have the ability to obtain food in this ravenous state, we are out of control and scarfing down as much food as possible to satisfy our instinct to eat.
"Failing" a diet isn't about willpower; the drive to eat is hardwired into our biology. Have you ever set out to "do good" with a diet in the morning and afternoon, only to find yourself binging on ice cream, chips, and everything in your pantry in the evening? That's our body's natural response to feeling restricted and deprived.
Eating in a ravenous state becomes mindless. The brain is so hyper-focused on getting calories that we aren't able to slow down and savor the food we're eating. How many times have you eaten so quickly that you barely even tasted and enjoyed the food?
Think about it this way. If you were underwater holding your breath for as long as you could, what would eventually happen? You would come up gasping for air. Whether we are restricting ourselves of oxygen or food, the brain and body will frantically compensate as a means of survival.
A Few Mechanisms That Trigger Eating
- Leptin and Ghrelin are two of the many hormones that work to keep our body in balance. Ghrelin (produced in the stomach) boosts appetite while leptin (produced by fat cells) boosts satiety. When we lose weight, ghrelin increases and leptin decreases, making us more hungry and less satisfied.
- Neuropeptide Y is a chemical produced by the brain that triggers us to eat carbs (the body's preferred source of energy) when we are deprived of food.
- Insulin and Glucagon tightly regulate our blood sugar because the brain, nervous system, and red blood cells require glucose for fuel. If we aren't eating enough carbs, the body will begin breaking down muscle through a process called gluconeogenesis just to keep blood sugar levels steady. This is not ideal, so our brains send us hunger signals.
This quote from Intuitive Eating perfectly paints the picture of what happens during diets and starvation:
The takeaway message here: the body needs carbs and food for survival!
How To Honor Your Hunger
- Eat when you are hungry so the body knows it has consistent access to enough food
- If you are not in tune with your body's hunger signals, you will need to start paying attention to them. Some signs of hunger may be:
- Mild stomach growls
- Difficulty concentrating
- Uncomfortable stomach sensation
- Feeling faint
- Check in regularly to assess your hunger level
- Avoid getting overly hungry or ravenous
- Understand and recognize the other types of hunger
- Taste hunger: eating what sounds good or because the occasion calls for it
- Practical hunger (planning ahead): eating when you may not be fully hungry yet because its what is practical in your plans for the day (ex: eating at 6pm before attending an event without food from 7-10pm)
- Emotional hunger: eating to suppress uncomfortable feelings
Principle 3: Make Peace With Food
A psychological deprivation has just as big an effect as a biological deprivation. When we are told we can't have something, our brain focuses on it and we want it even more. Just the threat of deprivation is strong enough to make us uncontrollably overeat.
Before the start of a new diet, we go through a "last supper" mentality where we subconsciously eat as much as we can now because we won't be able to in the future.
How many times have you told yourself you'll start a new diet on Monday, then find yourself binging on all of your favorite foods during the weekend? It's the psychological feeling of restriction making you binge.
The way to stop the cycle of restricting and binging is to give yourself unconditional permission to eat.
How To Make Peace With Food
- Make a list of foods you like
- Put a check by foods you still eat and circle the foods you've been restricting
- Give yourself permission to eat one forbidden food from the list
- Check in with yourself to see if the food tastes as good as you imagined; if you do really like it, continue to give yourself permission to eat it
- Keep enough of the forbidden food in your home so that you know it's always there if you want it
Go through this process with as many foods as you need to and at whatever pace makes sense for you. When a food is always available to us, it loses its mystique. Over time, you'll rebuild trust in yourself with food.
Beware of falling into the "I can eat whatever I want, as much as I want, whenever I feel like it" trap. It's one thing to give yourself unconditional permission to eat. It's another thing to eat without regard to your hunger, fullness, and the way you feel.
Principle 4: Challenge The Food Police
It's time to stop thinking about foods as morally "good" or "bad." Do the kinds of foods we habitually eat affect how we feel? Of course. But our food choices don't make us good or bad. It's just food; we aren't "good" for eating vegetables or "bad" for eating some fries.
The food police resides in our own mind, with beliefs we've obtained throughout our lives. We have to learn to decipher and silence the judgmental thoughts about our eating to learn to eat intuitively.
How many times have you said to yourself: "I can't eat that donut. It's way too fattening!" or "Carbs will make me gain weight. I really want the pasta, but I'll just get the salad instead." These kinds of thoughts get in the way of being attuned to our bodies.
Negative Self Talk & Cognitive Distortions
- Dichotomous Thinking - Black-and-white thinking or all-or-nothing mentality
- Ex: You don't allow yourself to ever eat brownies. Then if you give in and eat one, you proceed to eat all of them because you already "failed."
- Instead, start thinking more in the gray.
- Ex: "I can have brownies whenever I want to." When the novelty is gone, you can eat one or two brownies then move on with your day.
- Absolutist Thinking - Believing that one behavior will absolutely result in another behavior; you must act a certain way or something "bad" will happen
- Ex: "I have to lose enough weight before my wedding, or it'll be terrible."
- Instead, start using more permissive statements.
- Ex: "It's okay if I don't lose weight before the wedding."
- Catastrophic Thinking - Exaggerating negative thoughts that make you feel badly about yourself; then you compensate with self-sabotaging behaviors
- Ex: "It's hopeless. I'll never find a husband at this weight." This thought then causes overeating to comfort negative emotions.
- Instead, replace exaggerated thoughts with thinking that is more positive and accurate.
- Ex: "People of all sizes find spouses who love them as they are."
- Pessimistic Thinking - Seeing every situation in the worst-case scenario
- Ex: "I had a terrible week. I overate so many times. All I ate was sweets."
- Instead, reframe negative statements to look at the positive.
- Ex: "I had some successes. I honored my hunger several times. I'm doing better little by little."
- Linear Thinking - Thinking success is linear and only looking at the end goal
- Ex: "To be successful, I must hit my goal weight by a specific date."
- Instead, focus on the process of learning and growing rather than the end result.
- Ex: "This was a rough week, but I learned new things about myself that will help me continue to improve."
It's one thing to not eat a donut because you're in the mood for something lighter. It's another thing to not eat a donut you really want because you have been told you "shouldn't."
You can challenge the food police by practicing self-awareness and analyzing the "food talk" that comes up in your mind before an eating situation. Instead of listening to food rules or judgmental thoughts, listen to your own hunger and fullness cues and trust that your body knows what it needs.
Principle 5: Feel Your Fullness
In order to feel our fullness, we have to be in-tune with our body's sensations and practice mindfulness while we eat.
If we are eating while distracted, ravenous, or emotional, we tend to mindlessly eat until all of the food is gone. We never stopped long enough to taste the food, let alone feel our fullness.
The Hunger-Fullness Scale
During your next meal, stop for a moment. Ask yourself how the food tastes. Are you genuinely enjoying it, or are you just eating it because it's there? Then ask yourself where you are on the hunger-fullness scale. If you're still hungry, keep eating. If you're full, don't feel obligated to clean your plate.
Ideally, we would begin eating around a 4 when we are slightly hungry and stop eating around a 7 when we are satisfied but not overly full. Eating before we get overly hungry helps us to be more mindful and avoid overeating to the point of being stuffed.
This doesn't happen every time. Sometimes, you may realize that you let yourself get too hungry and will need to eat more to feel mentally satisfied. That's okay. You may not accurately feel your fullness the first few times. That's okay. By continuing to practice eating mindfully, it gets easier to pick up on your body's signals.
Factors That Affect Fullness
- The amount of time that has passed since you last ate
- The amount of food you're eating (volume in the stomach signals fullness to an extent)
- The type of food you're eating (carbs provide energy; fiber, fat, and protein help slow digestion and increase satiety)
- Hunger level before you start eating (if you are ravenous, you're more likely to overeat)
- Social settings can distract from inner signals (most people tend to eat more when they are with other people; alternatively, dieters tend to eat less when someone is "watching")
- Distractions while eating (doing other things while we eat keeps us from being in tune with fullness signals)
What if you find that you are still eating past fullness? It could be that you're missing the satisfaction factor or using food to cope with emotions.
Principle 6: Discover The Satisfaction Factor
Have you ever wanted to eat some chips or a cookie but stopped yourself and instead chose to eat something "healthy" like a salad or soup? What happened afterwards? I'm willing to bet you didn't feel satisfied and you stayed "on the prowl" looking for diet or low-calorie foods that would hopefully hit the spot.
But you didn't eat just one diet food, did you? You ate three, four, five... and still weren't satisfied. So then you went for a few different foods and... still weren't satisfied. Eventually, after all the "healthy" foods you ate, you still "succumbed" to the chips or cookie. But because you felt psychologically restricted, you ate several cookies and/or the whole bag of chips.
By the end of the day, you ate WAY more food than you would have had you just eaten the chips or cookie and moved on with your day. Settling for "guilt-free" food that you didn't actually want worked against you in the end.
Don't Be Afraid to Enjoy Your Food
There's a common fear that if you allow yourself to enjoy delicious foods, you will continue to seek out indulgent foods uncontrollably. The truth is, when we eat the foods we actually want, we are left satisfied and end up eating much less food overall. (It's true that when you first begin intuitive eating, you'll likely overeat the rich foods that you've been avoiding, but once your brain knows you won't be depriving yourself of them again, you'll want less to be satisfied.)
It may be more enjoyable to eat full meals rather than a bunch of snack foods. By eating snacks without sitting down to enjoy a meal, we are more likely to feel unsatisfied and continue snacking throughout the evening, feeling as though we never really ate anything substantial.
How To Regain Pleasure in Eating
- Ask yourself what you really want to eat
- Rediscover the qualities of food that you like (taste, texture, aroma, appearance, temperature, volume)
- Make your eating experience more enjoyable
- Sit down, eat slowly, and savor the food
- Eat when slightly hungry instead of ravenous
- Eat in a pleasant environment
- Avoid tension or arguments during meals
- Keep a good variety of foods around
- Don't settle (You don't need to finish eating something you don't love)
- Check in: Does it still taste good? Or is the satisfaction dwindling?
Not all of our meals have to be perfectly pleasurable to our taste buds. Sometimes the only food we have available is something that's just "average." But as we put more awareness into savoring our meals, we'll feel much more satisfied after eating.
Principle 7: Cope With Your Emotions Without Using Food
Emotional eating can be used as a coping mechanism to deal with emotions and boredom. However, it won't solve the problem; it'll only provide temporary relief. Whether you are eating for mild sensory gratification, comfort, distraction, sedation, or punishment, you will ultimately still need to deal with the source of the emotion.
Emotions and Eating
- Boredom and Procrastination: boredom is one of the most common triggers of overeating; may happen when laying around without plans, working, studying, watching tv, or waiting
- Bribery and Reward: using food as a reward for accomplishing tasks or goals
- Excitement: using food to bring more excitement to your life
- Frustration, Anger, and Rage: the physical act of biting and crunching food can be used as a way to release anger
- Stress and Anxiety: food can be used as a way to relieve tension
- Mild Depression and Loneliness: using food to feel positive emotions and distract from sadness
- Loosening the Reins: using food as an outlet to let go of control and relax
How to Cope With Emotions Without Food
- Check in with yourself
- Are you physically hungry?
- What emotion are you feeling?
- What else (other than food) would help fulfill the unmet need?
- Meet your needs without food
- Do something relaxing
- Ex: rest, use a sauna or hot tub, take a bubble bath, listen to music, meditate, breathe deeply, do a yoga class, get a massage, play with a pet, spend time with friends, buy yourself small presents, garden, get a pedicure, cuddle up in a blanket
- Deal with the emotion
- Ex: journal your feelings, call a friend, say your feelings out loud, release anger through physical activity or hitting a punching bag, confront the person triggering your emotion, let yourself cry, sit with and accept your feelings, speak with a therapist
- Find a healthier distraction
- Ex: read a book, watch a movie, be social, take a drive, organize your closet or house, dance to music, go for a walk, garden, listen to a podcast, do a puzzle, play games, take a nap
- Do something relaxing
- Acknowledge how food has both helped you and hurt you
- Helps - tastes good, it's reliable, it soothes me, etc
- Hurts - my cholesterol is high, I'm uncomfortable walking and exercising, I feel stuffed and uncomfortable, etc
Ultimately, using food to mask our emotions doesn't make us feel better. It typically makes us feel worse -- stuffed, guilty, out of control, etc. Instead, strive to eat in a way that makes you feel good and satisfied, while working through emotions or boredom in a healthier way.
Principle 8: Respect Your Body
Understandably, it's hard to not pick ourselves apart in front of the mirror when we are bombarded with images of "perfection" in the media everywhere we look.
Whether it's the "heroine chic" stick-thin look of the 90's or the Kardashian "big butt and tiny waist" look of the past decade or so, there's always a new desirable body shape affecting how we look at ourselves. But it's time to respect our bodies and form more realistic expectations.
When we look at ourselves in a negative way, we are much less likely to want to take good care of ourselves or take risks in life. Have you ever had the thought that you will only do _____ once your body looks a certain way? Many people can relate to that experience.
If you're coming from a place of hating your body, it may feel too unrealistic to look at your body positively. Instead, the goal can be body neutrality, where you see your body in a neutral way, rather than a negative way.
How to Respect Your Body
- Wear clothes and underwear that comfortably fit your body (even if that means getting some new clothes).
- Stop weighing yourself or hanging on to clothes that are too small.
- Quit the body-check game where you compare your body to everyone else's. You don't know their situation - they could be genetically lean or have hidden eating disorders. It only leads to more body dissatisfaction.
- Don't fall into the dieting trap for a big event like a wedding or reunion. The more pressure you put on yourself to lose weight, the more it tends to backfire. Additionally, you'll spend the whole time worried about your body instead of enjoying yourself.
- Stop body-bashing - it only creates more self-consciousness and body image issues in the long run. Put your focus on what you like about yourself instead.
- Accept that bodies aren't one-size-fits-all - genetics largely determine our body size and shape.
- Be realistic - If maintaining your "ideal" weight means living on a diet of only vegetables and protein, it's a pretty good indicator that the weight is not realistic (just as it's unrealistic to expect to fit in a different shoe size).
- Do nice things for your body like massages, bubble baths, and stretching.
Ultimately, disliking your body gets in the way of taking care of it (eating nutritious foods, managing stress, getting enough sleep, staying physically active, etc). Respecting your body doesn't mean you'll no longer put effort into health. It actually means the opposite--you'll care for it better.
Principle 9: Exercise--Feel The Difference
If your only experience with movement is militant exercise while dieting in an attempt to lose weight, you likely don't enjoy working out. If you're deprived of energy from lack of calories and carbs, your body doesn't have the proper fuel to enjoy exercise. Once you learn to eat intuitively, you will have the ability to live more actively and engage in joyful movement.
How To Start Enjoying Movement and Exercise
- Focus on how exercise makes you feel throughout the day compared to periods of inactivity (less stress, more energy, more positive outlook, better sleep, more confidence, feelings of empowerment, etc)
- Stop thinking about exercise in terms of calories burned (If weight loss is your sole reason for working out, you're unlikely to continue doing it long-term)
- Look at exercise as a way of taking care of yourself (Exercise increases bone strength, decreases stress, decreases blood pressure and risk of chronic illness, increases heart and lung health, increases metabolism, improves sleep, improves mood, improves appetite regulation, etc)
- Don't get caught in exercise mind traps (Thinking exercise doesn't count if it was short or you didn't sweat--all movement counts; Saying you have no time--it's really that movement has not been made a priority for you)
- Get active in daily life (Take the stairs, park further away, go on walks, etc)
- Choose a form of exercise you enjoy (Sports, bike riding/cycling, yoga, jogging, weight lifting, pilates, barre, walking, fitness classes, boxing, hiking, etc)
- Make movement a nonnegotiable priority (Make an appointment with yourself and plan ahead by packing or laying out what you'll need to make it easier to stick to)
- Have comfortable workout attire and shoes that you like to wear
- Include strength training and stretching (Strength training helps build and maintain lean muscle mass; stretching helps prevent injuries and keeps you flexible)
- Know when you need to rest (If you didn't get enough sleep, are starting to feel sick, or are worn out, take the day off to rest)
Principle 10: Honor Your Health--Gentle Nutrition
Now that we've first tackled our relationship with food and being attuned to our bodies, we can also incorporate the science of nutrition.
Some basic tenets of nutrition to start off are variety, moderation, and balance. Eating a variety of foods helps to meet all of our nutrient needs, moderation keeps us from overeating or under-eating, and balance is intended to be achieved over a period of time. Tribole and Resch add in "progress over perfection" to that list -- we don't need to eat perfectly to be healthy.
Health is the bird's eye view of your diet, physical activity, sleep, stress, and relationships over time. One cookie or one bad night of sleep won't ruin your health, just as one workout or one serving of vegetables won't make you healthy if you don't regularly do those things.
Remember that the following nutrition information is not meant to be used as another diet or to make you feel guilt from eating. Nutrition information is simply to help guide your eating choices to honor your health -- not to take over your entire life.
Nutrition Principles to Honor Your Health
- Eat lots of fruits and vegetables (and other plant-based foods)
- Fruits and vegetables provide us with fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals
- For more in-depth science, see benefits of a plant-based diet
- Include sources of omega-3 fatty acids
- Hemp seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and algae-based supplements (or fatty fish and fish oil for those who are not plant-based)
- When choosing other fat sources, limit saturated fats (highest in animal fats) and omega-6 fatty acids (highest in some seed oils) and opt for omega-3s or monounsaturated fats like olive oil and avocados
- Nuts and seeds are also great healthy fat sources
- Drink enough fluids (primarily water) and limit or avoid sugary beverages
- Choose whole foods over processed foods
- Generally, the less processed a food is, the more nutrients are retained; Processed foods are generally higher in sodium, fat, sugar, and preservatives
- Choose nutrient-dense whole foods: whole grains, beans, soy, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables
- Choose calcium-rich foods: fortified plant milks, yogurts, and tofu (or low-fat dairy for those who are not vegan)
- Choose protein-rich foods: beans, lentils, peas, soy milk, tofu, seitan, tempeh, nuts, seeds, nutritional yeast (or fish, lean meats, and low-fat dairy for those who are not plant-based)
- Avoid smoking and limit alcohol (1 drink per day or less for women, 1-2 drinks per day or less for men)
If you were to imagine your plate, the goal would be half the plate as fruits and vegetables, a quarter as your protein-rich food, and a quarter as your carbohydrate-rich food. But remember, this is just a guide, not a rigid rule. The goal is balance over time; there are no forbidden foods or unreasonable rules to follow.
The important thing is to listen to your body and eat in a way that makes you genuinely feel good. For most people, this means eating nutrient-rich healthful foods most of the time because it feels better (not because a diet told you to do it).
Becoming an Intuitive Eater
Alright, so now we understand the principles of intuitive eating. But what about putting it into practice?
It's important to focus on the present rather than the end result. Ups and downs are expected as you learn to trust and listen to your body, so view the process as a learning experience. Rather than placing judgement on yourself, gently take note of the areas that need more work and continue on with the journey.
Think about it this way: if you write your signature with your dominant hand, it likely looks pretty decent. But if you try to sign your name with your non-dominant hand, it'll probably look like a child wrote it. The difference is practice. If you've been surrounded by diet culture your whole life, eating intuitively may feel foreign to you. It takes time to learn to trust and care for your body.
A great tool for your intuitive eating journey is The Intuitive Eating Workbook, which walks you through actual questions and exercises to help you navigate areas that need more work. I also highly suggest seeking out a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor or intuitive eating dietitian with a non-diet approach to help guide you through the process.