What Is Intuitive Eating and How it Works

intuitive eating

Intuitive eating may not be a new concept, but for those who are fed up with diets and calorie counting this can be a refreshing approach to eating and feeling good.

Intuitive Eating Definition

In 1995 Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole first published the book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works. Aimed primarily at people who had been dieting their own life, the book wanted to show a different way to look at food and nutrition to ditch the diet mindset.

The main concept of intuitive eating is to nourish your body instead of starving it, finding a natural way to maintain a healthy weight.

Intuitive eating can be defined as a way to make peace with food. It moves clearly away from attaching moral labels to food such as “good” or “bad” and encourages you to listen to what your body truly needs so you can nourish it accordingly.

It takes practice and persistence to learn how to properly read your body’s hunger cues, from recognising when we are hungry to acknowledging when we are full and satisfied.

Intuitive Eating Principles

The Intuitive Eating Pros website lists all the principles of intuitive eating, ranging from our attitudes to the way we relate to our bodies.

In summary, we need to challenge what others consider as “good” and “bad” food (a concept described as the “food police”) and any other labels such as “eating clean” from the diet culture. We are our own food police when we feel guilty about eating certain foods, for example.

An important principle of intuitive eating is that we eat not to look a certain way, but to choose the right foods that help us maintain our overall health.

When we focus on our health and not our appearance, we choose to reject strict rules and diets that make us feel deprived and often tired. Any type of food restriction will have an effect on our energy levels and we need a mix of different nutrients to support our body’s functions. Unlike diets, which tend to limit the foods we are allowed to eat, sometimes leaving out entire food groups such as carbohydrates, in intuitive eating we are encouraged to have a variety of foods each day.

Knowing when we are full is an essential part of this practice, as fullness cues can be difficult to notice when we eat in a hurry or we are distracted, for example.

When we deprive ourselves of something we fancy, we may start having cravings for it. The idea is to have a small portion of what we find very satisfying and simply have it alongside our meal so we don’t treat it differently from any other food. In other words, everything in moderation.

Ultimately we should find enjoyment from food and find eating a positive experience. This does not mean that we use food to meet our emotional needs; if we are experiencing feelings and emotions that are nothing to do with food it is recommended to speak to a therapist to deal with the causes.

A key concept in intuitive eating is ‘progress, not perfection’. Each day we make food choices that make our bodies feel good and that can make us feel satisfied.

Intuitive Eating for Weight Loss?

While intuitive eating is neither a weight loss or weight gain programme, a registered dietitian can recommend it to reach and maintain a healthy weight after making an in-depth assessment. Intuitive eating may not be suitable for anybody, for example.

Registered dietician Abbey Sharp has popularised intuitive eating through her book and YouTube series and she has made very clear that if something is not supportive to your health journey you should not follow it. So, while intuitive eating may work for some who want to lose weight, it may not be the right approach for a whole section of people, particularly those who have experienced eating disorders.

The goal of intuitive eating is to help people embrace healthy lifestyle choices, including finding an exercise regime that is enjoyable.

When it comes to weight loss, experts (Insider) say that that’s not what intuitive eating is all about: it’s not about the way we look but the way we feel. Intuitive eating puts food in its appropriate place, as one of the elements that support our health, and not as something we should be obsessing about.

A 2009 study from the Journal of the American Dietetic Association pointed out that intuitive eating may promote body acceptance first and foremost at any weight, and also promote healthy weight regulation. In other words, weight loss is not the end goal in itself but the by-product of conscious lifestyle choices.

A 2013 study from Appetite found that intuitive eating in young people can support maintaining a healthy weight. What we learn as children about food can shape the way we relate to it later in life: for example, if we are taught that we need to finish our meal and leave a clean plate, this can go against how full we feel and we may end up eating more than we need. Same applies if we still feel hungry after a meal and require another helping. We have an innate ability to regulate our energy consumption but over time we may have developed habits that mask hunger and satiety signals.

Like with anything related to food and nutrition, the best course of action is to speak to a medical professional first and talk at length about your goals and lifestyle.