The term “intuitive eating” has been around since the mid-1990s, first coined by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. But many still aren’t sure what intuitive eating really is, much less how to do it. I first discovered intuitive eating as I was recovering from a pattern of binge-eating, compulsive exercise, and a disordered relationship with food. In the years that followed, I was able to let go of my feelings of guilt, shame, and dissatisfaction with my body to discover a world of food freedom on the other side.
I’m now incorporating it into every aspect of my practice as a registered dietitian as an alternative to mainstream diet culture. If you’ve hit your rock bottom with diets and feel more stuck than ever before, rest easy that there is another way. Let’s start with the basics.
What Intuitive Eating Is Not
First and foremost, intuitive is NOT another diet. I often tell clients that by definition, a diet is simply the foods a person eats on a regular basis. We can reclaim the word “diet” and use it very selectively to refer to foods we eat, not a pattern on restricting foods or depriving our bodies of nourishment or pleasure.
Intuitive eating does not focus on weight loss. Instead, it focuses on removing judgment and restriction and replacing it with compassion, respect, and a reconnection with your body so you can learn to trust it (and not what the media and diet culture tells us we should be doing for our health). People who embrace intuitive eating may find their body shape and size remains the same or it may change. But the focus is never on weight loss.
Feeling sick of diet culture? Me too – here’s why.
Something I’ve noticed lately is that diets, programs, methods, and a number of people are using the term “non-diet approach” or “intuitive eating” to promote weight loss or disguise dieting behaviors. This is NOT intuitive eating, and anytime you see intuitive eating being used to promote weight loss or dieting behaviors, take that as your cue to run in the opposite direction if you truly want to ditch the diet mentality. Taking a diet and calling it by any other name doesn’t mean it’s not a diet – it still very much is and it can still keep you trapped in the pattern of weight cycling (AKA yo-yo dieting), dissatisfaction, guilt, or shame.
What Intuitive Eating Is
Intuitive eating is a complete 180-degree turn from traditional diets. It makes you, and you alone, the expert when it comes to your body. The ten principles of intuitive eating serve as a guide to transition away from the diet mentality, live out your values, and restore trust around foods that were previously forbidden, avoided, or made you feel out of control anytime you were around them.
While “diets” focus on what you can’t eat, intuitive eating grants unconditional permission to eat – no more avoiding foods because of their fat or sugar content, no arbitrary rules about what or when to eat. The result is that space is created for cravings to be addressed without feelings of shame, guilt, or anger for making the decision to eat that food. Clients who have started using intuitive eating will sometimes describe it as if morality has been taken away from food and it becomes neutral. Foods are no longer considered “good” or “bad” and you are not deemed “good” or “bad” for having eaten them.
Does it sound like that’s a far reach from where you are right now? Don’t be discouraged. It could take years to fully reject the diet mentality. But we all possess a sense of intuition that can be a remarkably powerful tool for achieving better health – physically and emotionally.
A great example of a natural intuitive eater is a young toddler. They’re unaffected by external signals and instead rely on their innate sense of hunger and fullness to guide them towards what and how much to eat. Although we’re all born with this internal wisdom, we quickly learn to override those cues and begin to base food decisions on external triggers. With practice and patience that inner intuitive eater can be unburied.
It should also be noted that intuitive eating can support recovery from eating disorders or disordered eating and orthorexic tendencies. This is best done under the guidance and supervision of a dietitian with expertise in eating disorders and intuitive eating so it can be introduced at an appropriate time. But with principles such as “Make Peace with Food”, “Respect Your Body”, and “Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food”, it’s easy to understand how embracing intuitive eating can forge a path to recovery.
Is There A Difference Between Mindful Eating and Intuitive Eating?
Though the terms are often used interchangeably, there’s actually a distinct difference between the two. Mindful eating refers to the practice of becoming more aware and attuned to the experience of eating food. It taps into all five senses and encourages the exploration of food likes and dislikes. The Center for Mindful Eating adds that mindful eating helps us learn to recognize physical cues of hunger and satiety to guide decisions about food.
Intuitive eating includes mindful eating, but it’s a much broader philosophy because it also addresses aspects of satisfaction, physical activity and movement for pleasure, and perhaps most importantly, rejecting the diet mentality and removing judgment from food choices. So while the two terms do overlap in some areas, many diets and food trends promote mindful eating while still leading us to hope for weight loss or other changes to body shape or size.
Still have questions? Read more about intuitive eating and mindful eating, plus a tool to help you quickly compare the two! And check out the Way app, it’s designed to help you explore your relationship with food without judgment. Click HERE to learn more!
Where Do I Start?
Let go of the thought that the next diet you try will be the magic pill. Get angry at the false hope diets have sold you and the sense of failure they made you feel. You didn’t fail, the diet failed you. Until you accept that there will never be a new or better diet coming around the bend, you won’t be fully free to embrace intuitive eating.
The ten principles of intuitive eating provide guidance for the process – but remember that becoming an intuitive eater is not a destination. That’s one of the hallmarks of a diet because you envision a clear path forward as long as you follow the road map of that diet. There is no linear progression to intuitive eating as it’s common to experience setbacks or detours as you work through the deeply ingrained beliefs about food and health.
Are you ready to reject the diet mentality and rediscover joy in eating? Intuitive eating might be the best change you ever make for your health. To learn more about intuitive eating, the original book “Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works” is a good place to start. There are also many dietitians transitioning to the non-diet approach in their practice – find one of them HERE.
Think it sounds hard? It is…but the challenges are so, so worth it.
If you want to get started on your own before working with someone one-on-one, these books can serve as a great starting point (affiliate links).
And if you’re looking for more support for a non diet approach and intuitive eating, be sure to check out my Intuitive Eating Workbook. It’s full of resources and tools to help you kick the dieting mentality and find food freedom!
So there you have it! A summary of what intuitive eating is and isn’t. This is just the tip of the intuitive eating iceberg – because IE focuses on the process, there is always something new to learn or discover about our relationship with food and our body. So now it’s your turn: what are you biggest questions about intuitive eating? What else do you want to know?
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Intuitive Eating FAQs
I get asked a LOT about intuitive eating so I’ve written some posts that tackle some of the most frequently asked questions. You can find them all HERE, or check out some of the most popular ones below:
- What is normal eating?
- How do I know if I’m hungry?
- How do I deal with cravings?
- What’s the difference between diets and dieting?