What Is “Intuitive Eating” and Is It Really the Opposite of Dieting?

updated Jun 26, 2019
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There’s a good chance you’ve already heard about intuitive eating. Maybe you heard about it from your friend who got fed up with yo-yo dieting and decided to kick the habit once and for all. Maybe you read about it online, or saw the hashtag on Instagram. Thousands of people seem to be singing its praises lately — but still, there’s some confusion about what intuitive eating is, and how to actually do it.

Intuitive eating isn’t just one of those “it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle!” wellness trends — you know, the ones that have you cut out an entire food group (or several) for a certain period of time, only they’re not diets, they’re about health. Intuitive eating is something completely different. In fact, it’s the exact opposite of every diet (or diet-in-disguise, per the above) that’s ever told you what to eat.

And although it’s becoming more and more popular of late, intuitive eating certainly isn’t a new idea. Registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elise Resch first published the book Intuitive Eating in 1999, but both would argue that the approach is one most of us are born practicing. 

In a nutshell, intuitive eating is about rejecting diet culture and its obsession with weight loss; giving yourself unconditional permission to eat; and getting back in touch with your own hunger, fullness, and cravings. No food is off-limits, and there’s no such thing as “good” or “bad” food. 

The process of intuitive eating looks different for everyone. We all have unique bodies and lifestyles, so it makes sense that we shouldn’t all be eating the same way. That said, this ambiguity can make it tougher to grasp.

The Essential Principles of Intuitive Eating

There are no rules to intuitive eating, no right or wrong way to do it, but Tribole and Resch did establish 10 principles meant to guide anyone in the journey to becoming a more intuitive eater. Here are three overarching ideas about intuitive eating that you should know.

1. First, reject the diet mentality and accept your body as it is.

Instead of promoting weight loss, intuitive eating embraces body acceptance and encourages you to treat your body well without trying to change it. To do this, you need to give up on dieting for good. This can be tricky at first, because diets are everywhere. Anyone who tries to tell you what to eat is selling you a diet. If you’re intentionally limiting certain foods, or intentionally putting others on a health pedestal, that’s a kind of dieting. If you avoid eating at certain times of day, that’s a diet. If you stop eating when you’re still hungry because you think you’ve eaten enough based on someone else’s idea of portion control, that too is dieting behavior. And if you’re eating a certain way in the hopes of losing weight, you’re definitely on a diet. 

2. Next, ditch food guilt and give yourself unconditional permission to eat what you want.

Once you’ve rejected dieting, it’s time to let go of food rules and any guilt you associate with them. When you’re hungry, eat what you want. In the first few days, weeks, or months of intuitive eating, you might find that you’re only craving things like doughnuts and pizza. Most likely, it’s because these things used to be off-limits for you, or at least restricted. Tribole says that most often, people find that eventually they crave a variety of foods, and that intuitive eaters end up eating fairly balanced diets.

That’s not to say that once you become an intuitive eater you’ll eat a “perfect” diet. It’s normal to sometimes eat for social or emotional reasons, or because something is just that delicious — intuitive eating makes room for that. As Tribole once told me, “Unless you killed the chef or the farmer, there’s no reason to have guilt in eating.”

You may still have some negative feelings about food, but the goal is to learn from them instead of dwelling on them. You might eat just a piece of toast for breakfast and find yourself hungry soon after; or maybe you eat a sleeve of cookies after lunch and find that you don’t feel great. Next time, you can try adding a little bit more to breakfast, or having just a couple of cookies when you crave them after lunch. Not because someone tells you it’s the right thing to do, but because you’ve learned from experience that it’s what feels best for you.

3. Finally, figure out what feels good for you, and practice judgement-free, gentle nutrition.

Ultimately you’re the expert on how your own body feels. To make intuitive eating sustainable, you should honor your cravings but also pay attention to how different foods make you feel. Taste is important, but so is feeling energized and able to take on the day. By paying attention to your own hunger and fullness cues, you’ll be able to give your body the fuel it needs. (But there shouldn’t be any self-judgement in this. Sometimes you’ll eat beyond fullness, or when you’re not hungry, and that’s OK!)

When you’ve mastered this awareness, you can start to think a little bit about nutrition, and how to incorporate it in a way that’s satisfying to you. Intuitive eating doesn’t deny the fact that vegetables are nutritious — it just encourages you to stop thinking about food in moral terms (good or bad), because this way of thinking tends to make you feel good or bad depending on what you eat.

It’s tough to be neutral about food, because we’re so steeped in diet culture. But you can get there with practice; when you crave something and a voice in your head tells you not to eat it, question that voice and try to silence it. Eventually this will become a habit, and you’ll be able to choose what will make you feel good at a given moment, be that a kale salad or an ice cream cone. 

Who Is Intuitive Eating For?

If you’re fed up with dieting, or with constantly trying to lose weight only to gain it back, intuitive eating might be for you.

If diets don’t seem to work for you, you’re not alone. Turns out, diets don’t work for the majority of people. A 2013 review of several weight-loss studies found that while diets might lead to short-term weight loss, they almost never work long-term — most people will regain any weight they lose by dieting. Even worse, a 2011 review of similar studies found that dieting can actually lead to weight gain, along with a slew of other nasty side effects like a preoccupation with food and body, lowered self-esteem, and disordered eating behaviors. 

There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to back this, too. In a previous interview, Tribole told me that the intuitive eating book came about because she and Resch had been practicing a more traditional approach with clients but found that weight loss was rarely sustainable.

Plenty of other dietitians have since discovered intuitive eating in the same way, as have lifelong dieters. I finally gave up on always trying to make the “healthy” food choice a couple of years ago — I spend a lot less time thinking about food and my body, but otherwise I feel pretty much exactly the same. If the idea of having a more relaxed, flexible relationship with food sounds good to you, it’s probably time to try intuitive eating. 

Like everything, intuitive eating isn’t a fit for everyone. As Joy Manning pointed out in a piece for Kitchn years ago now, she found that even after a couple of years of practicing intuitive eating, she still struggled with figuring out when she was hungry and when she wasn’t, which sometimes led to her being hangry more often than she liked.

Overall, if you’re looking to try intuitive eating, start by reading the book. You can also work with a registered dietitian who specializes in intuitive eating, but make sure to do your research — anyone preaching intuitive eating for weight loss, or intuitive eating with meal plans, isn’t really preaching intuitive eating, even if they might be an expert in their field.

Above all, intuitive eating empowers you in a way that no diet can, by saying that you’re the expert of your body and only you can know what makes it feel best.