The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating and How They Can Work for You
In this post:
- What exactly is intuitive eating?
- How we lose our ability to intuitively eat
- The 10 principles of intuitive eating
- Health benefits of intuitive eating
I remember being really confused when I first heard of intuitive eating. A few dietitian friends were promoting it and I just didn’t understand it. How the heck do “all foods fit”? Even donuts?! I had been a dietitian for 6 years when I found intuitive eating and it took me a LONG time to come to terms with it. So if it feels that way for you too, it’s okay! I totally get it.
Unfortunately, my education to become a dietitian was riddled with a moral hierarchy around food and labeling foods as good or bad, so I saw intuitive eating as irresponsible. I thought people needed MORE restrictions around their food, not less.
Maybe you can relate? Nonetheless, I was intrigued so I dove head first into learning all I could about this concept of intuitive eating. And thank goodness because it actually saved my OWN relationship with food.
What exactly is intuitive eating?
The more I read and learned on intuitive eating the more it made so much sense, because it actually addresses our relationship with food. The process of intuitive eating empowers YOU with the tools to decide how, when, why, and what to eat and how to best care for your body. Instead of relying on external cues such as an app tracking calories, or arbitrary food rules like “I can’t eat after 6pm,” it teaches you how to listen to your own self!
The cool thing is, we’re all born intuitive eaters. So intuitive eating is really about the journey BACK to the purest, most simplest version of you, food, and your body.
Babies cry when hungry and stop eating when full. They tend to feel pretty comfortable that they can eat whenever they want, and so they have no problem asking for their needs to be met. As toddlers, if given a variety of foods in a neutral way (i.e. no food rules) they will naturally choose what their bodies need.
But then… Society, family, friends, school, media, whatever start to mess with this natural relationship.
Some examples of how we lose our ability to intuitively eat:
- Moralize food (broccoli is good, cookie is bad)
- Put restrictions on food (you can only eat pizza on the weekends)
- Create mistrust in the body/mind by saying, “you can’t possibly be hungry/full because you ate ____ amount or at _____ time!”
- Having to earn food, “You can have dessert if you eat your dinner/veggie”
- Ignoring fullness, “You can’t leave the table until you finish your plate,”
- Ignoring hunger, “You can’t have a snack because we’re eating dinner at 6pm,”
This leads to body mistrust, food fear, ignoring hunger and fullness, and an overall confusing relationship with food.
THEN you add a society with a really horrible body image culture that fails to celebrate natural body diversity and it adds fuel to the fire. Cellulite, wrinkles, gray hair, round bellies, hips, larger bodies are all normal even though the $72 billion diet industry and $460 billion beauty industry don’t want you to believe that.
When you add negative body image to an already confusing relationship with food, what do you get? People going on diets that wreck mental health and suck the joy out of life and eating.
I’m guessing you haven’t found a realistic, sustainable, enjoyable diet that “did the trick” or you probably wouldn’t be here on my particular website reading this particular post. The point of intuitive eating is to find more of a gray area with food, which can be very uncomfortable especially moving from a dieting world with very rigid, strict rules.
If only we had a way to get you back to that pure simple relationship between your food, body, mind and spirit, right? WELL, WE DO! I highly encourage people to work with a dietitian 1:1 through this process, but you can also start just by checking out the principles below and the related posts that are linked.
NOTE: principles may be done in order or not. Intuitive eating is a healing, transformational process and not always perfectly “linear” or in order.
Here are the 10 principles of Intuitive Eating
1.) Reject the diet mentality.
Diets don’t work. You believe this in some capacity, or again, you wouldn’t be here. The only thing they work to do is make us miserable by cutting out foods we enjoy, giving us lists of good/bad foods, only letting us eat during certain times, putting rules and restrictions on our eating, and driving us nuts.
How healthy is a diet if it sacrifices mental health? Answer: not healthy. I don’t need to tell you diets fail – we all know it. Rejecting the diet mentality means stopping the food fight. Throwing in the towel and saying F**K IT! I’m done with dieting and ready to try something else!
If you feel tempted to go on a diet, try the ideas in this post first! Each year the diet industry ($72 billion) tries to convince us that we need another program or product to get smaller, but do we? Here are 10 healthy things to start instead of a diet next new year!
2.) Honor your hunger.
As simple as it sounds in theory, but a LOT harder in practice to “relearn” because years of dieting may have you totally confused, mistrusting or just straight up ignoring your own body signals around hunger. Maybe you’ve ignored it for so long it finally gave up and your hunger signals are super weak. Diet culture nonsense like, “if you’re hungry chew gum, drink water or distract yourself,” has messed this up for you. But that’s okay.
Intuitive eating can help you reconnect to the natural signal of hunger, and helps you to not be so scared of it. It’s one of my favorite moments in a client’s intuitive eating journey when they recognize hunger as just a way your body communicates needs for fuel and nourishment. How lovely!
3.) Make peace with food
Maybe you feel like you can’t trust yourself around food because whenever you get in front of ________ food you, “can’t stop eating it,” and, “eat the whole bag/pint/box.” Maybe it feels like there’s something wrong with you because you feel so out of control with food.
Probably one of the most healing parts of intuitive eating is in the work of this principle. When you can finally see food as neutral, it’s like a breath of fresh air, “Ahhhh, it’s JUST a cookie – do I even want one tonight? Nah, not in the mood.” It’s the principle I know my clients have passed through when they say, “I can have a few bites of ice cream and put it away.”
All foods fit with intuitive eating. Nothing is “off limits” unless it doesn’t agree with you, you have an intolerance, allergy, or just don’t like it.
If you want to learn more, check out these 3 tips to stop feeling out of control with food.
4.) Challenge the food police
The food police are SUPER loud for some people, and only slightly present for others. They shout things in your head like, “You can’t eat that, it’s too much sugar!” or, “You didn’t exercise today, you shouldn’t eat that _____,” and, “I’m so bad for eating ______.” But the truth is, food doesn’t have a moral value – it’s not inherently “good” or “bad”. You’re not good for eating a salad and bad for eating a burger. You’re just a person eating a salad, or a person eating a burger. This principle allows us to challenge the food rules we’ve developed over time and move towards being informed about nutrition and food choices versus making decisions out of food fear.
Trust me, it’s time to stop letting the food police ruin your life!
5.) Discover the satisfaction factor
Defined by the authors as the “hub” of intuitive eating, that’s how important this one is. The authors write, “In our fury to be thin…we often overlook one of the most basic gifts of existence – the pleasure and satisfaction that can be found in the eating experience. When you eat what you really want, in an environment that’s inviting, the pleasure you derive will be a powerful force in helping you feel satisfied and content. By providing this experience for yourself, you will find it takes much less food to decide if you’ve had ‘enough’,”
6.) Feel your fullness
Intuitive eating is NOT a “hunger/fullness” diet – meaning it’s not all about eating ONLY when hungry and stopping once PERFECTLY full. It’s not a diet, so there will be times you may eat when you’re not hungry (like when your roommate bakes cookies and they just look too good to pass up!)
The principles of hunger and fullness with intuitive eating are more about tuning in. Just noticing more what you’re body is telling you in terms of how much food you do/don’t need at different times. It doesn’t feel all that great to be overly full all the time, so this principle helps us work through different skills to be able to notice more often when we’ve had “enough”.
Unfortunately a long history of dieting can really mess with your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues. Learn how to take back the hunger and fullness cues diet culture stole from you here.
7.) Cope with your emotions with kindness
Emotional eating is normal! You could actually say ALL eating is inherently emotional because when we eat, neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin (feel good, reward-like hormones) are released and make us feel things. If you get comfort or emotion from food it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you, it just means you’re a human and not a robot, yay! It’s normal to comfort and soothe with food. It only becomes “problematic” or uncomfortable when it’s our ONLY coping skill. This principle is about discovering what we’re feeling (sad, angry, upset, annoyed, anxious, etc) and what do we need to care for ourselves in that moment? Maybe a walk, cry, call a friend, get outside, nap, etc.
8.) Respect your body
This one can be a real doozy. It’s about meeting your body where it’s at. It’s the principle that encourages us to put weight loss on the backburner (oof!). And with a society that praises weight loss like it’s the most amazing thing anyone could ever do, this is SUPER challenging and I won’t lie and say it’s not. BUT at least with my clients, we do a lot of work around body image healing so that this concept becomes a little more digestible along the way. We start to separate weight from worth, and weight from happiness so that you can truly make mindful, healthful decisions around food and your body. It’s not necessarily about learning to LOVE your body, but moreso about learning to respect it and meet it where it’s at, even if you don’t love or even like the way it looks. You may lose weight, gain weight or stay the same through your intuitive eating journey but we prioritize health behaviors over a number on the scale. Read more about this here.
9.) Movement – feel the difference
What’s your relationship with exercise? Do you enjoy it? Does it feel punishing or like a chore? Are you mostly focused on calories burned or miles logged? In my experience, that tends to create a superficial relationship with exercise that’s hard to keep up with long term. When my clients start to focus on how movement makes them feel vs. it’s effect on weight loss or changing their bodies, remarkable things happen. They end up moving more and having a much more balanced, realistic, empowering, and enjoyable relationship with exercise.
10.) Honor your health with gentle nutrition
The last principle for a reason! If a healthy relationship with food is not in place, it’s very difficult to pursue healthy eating. That’s why it’s important (for most people) to first reject the diet mentality, challenge the food police, learn hunger/fullness, etc. before focusing on gentle nutrition.
One main concept of this principle is to zoom out and see that the food we eat is only one small piece of our health. Things like social connection, sleep, stress, mental health, access to non-stigmatizing healthcare, etc. are all super important. You will not suddenly get a nutrient deficiency from one snack, meal or one day of eating. This principle brings in gentle nutrition concepts like drinking enough water, including whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, veggies, fruits, and other nutrient dense foods alongside foods we eat just for fun like cookies, cake or ice cream. Because those “fun” foods are important for mental health and just feeling like a normal person!
To learn more about the concept of gentle nutrition, check out my post all about How to Practice Gentle Nutrition with Intuitive Eating.
There are over 125 published studies on Intuitive Eating showing multiple health benefits.
Benefits of Intuitive Eating:
- Higher self-esteem
- Improved body appreciation/acceptance
- Higher HDL (beneficial cholesterol)
- Lower blood pressure
- Lower triglycerides
- Greater variety of foods eaten
- More pleasure from eating
- Improved well-being and optimism
- Lower rates of disordered eating
- Lower rates of binge eating
- Less “loss-of-control” eating
- Less emotional eating
If you’re looking for some other great posts, people to follow on social media, podcasts and more, check out my Intuitive Eating and Body Image Resource Guide.
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