ntuitive eating isn’t really a new concept, but it’s become more mainstream over the last few years as a backlash against the pervasive diet culture shown on social media and elsewhere. We started covering the trend last year as we all sheltered at home, and stress-ate our way through the pandemic, and the practice continues to make waves.
In 2019, the International Food Information Council ran a survey that asked more than 1,000 respondents about their food habits and knowledge to determine future food trends. At that time, 49% of respondents aged 18-34 said that they were familiar with the term intuitive eating and 3 out of 5 of those people are interested in learning more about it.
Christy Harrison, a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor and the author of The Anti-Diet, a book on intuitive eating, says there’s a reason that intuitive eating has seen an uptick in popularity and interest.
“I think there’s been a rise in the popularity of intuitive eating because people are fed up with diets (including diets masquerading as ‘wellness plans,’ ‘lifestyle changes,’ ‘resets,’ ‘protocols,’ etc.) and are sick of feeling at war with food and their bodies,” she says.
“Diet culture and its war on fatness have been going strong for around 150 years now, and no diet — whether low-fat or low-carb, fasting or keto or Whole30 — has ever been shown to result in long-term weight reduction for more than a minuscule percentage of the population. I think people are finally starting to wake up to that, thanks in part to the growing popularity of body acceptance and media interest in alternatives to diet culture.”
While interest has been growing, studies have shown that this approach to eating can positively impact health. In general, intuitive eating has been shown to positively influence psychological factors around food, as well as improved dietary factors and intake. One important thing to know about intuitive eating is that the approach is not focused on weight loss, Harrison says, “We can’t predict what’s going to happen to anyone’s weight with intuitive eating, and that’s not the point anyway — the point is to help people get back into a peaceful, health-promoting, and sustainable relationship with food, no matter their size.”
Here’s what you need to know about the basics of practicing intuitive eating.
What is intuitive eating?
“Intuitive eating is a way of relating to food and your body that relies on our innate instincts and desires, rather than on external diet-culture beliefs,” Harrison says. “I always say that intuitive eating is the default mode, the way we’re born knowing how to eat, before diet culture and its fatphobic and food-phobic beliefs take hold and mess up our relationships with food and our bodies.”
At the core of the practice is the idea of listening closely to physical hunger and satiation cues — things like growling stomachs and the sense of fullness — to determine what you need. Intuitive eating also eschews calorie counting and restriction based on physical appearance.
“The first principle of intuitive eating is to reject the diet mentality, which means letting go of efforts to control your body size and shape, and stop listening to all the noise about nutrition that’s out there in diet culture,” Harrison says via email. “Unfortunately, I see too many uninformed people trying to sell intuitive eating as a weight-loss plan, which is antithetical to the very foundation of intuitive eating. The reality is that while some people may unintentionally lose weight by practicing intuitive eating, others will gain weight because that’s what their bodies needed to do, while still others will stay the same.”
There are ten core principles of intuitive eating, Harrison says, and while two of those principles are to eat until you feel satiated, it is not the main focus of the protocol.
“Intuitive eating also isn’t the ‘only eat when you’re hungry and stop as soon as you’re full’ diet — because that’s just another diet. Yes, two of the ten principles of intuitive eating are honoring your hunger and feeling your fullness, but those principles aren’t mandates, and there are many reasons why people end up needing or wanting to eat when they’re not hungry at different times,” Harrison says. “There are also eight other principles of IE that each have tons of nuance to them, too. So viewing intuitive eating in a simplistic ‘just eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full’ way misses so much important context.”
The Core Principles of Intuitive Eating
According to Harrison, the ten core tenets of intuitive eating (sometimes abbreviated as IE) are as follows:
Reject the diet mentality
Skinny isn’t necessarily healthy, just like fat isn’t necessarily unhealthy.
Honor your hunger
According to Harrison, this means making sure you’re eating enough food, so you feel satisfied and relaxed. As she says, “We can’t truly feel at ease with food unless we’re getting enough of it.”
Get rid of the labels of “good” food and “bad” food
Harrison says that giving yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods and not labeling certain foods as “forbidden,” for one reason or another. That kind of thinking can tend to make you swing “back and forth between restriction and feeling out of control, whereas allowing all foods helps you find peace,” Harrison says.
Challenge the food police
This means becoming less self-critical and practicing kindness and compassion with yourself and others around food choices.
Tune into your body
As Harrison says, it’s important to “discover the satisfaction factor, eating foods that truly bring you pleasure. Satisfaction is a powerful driving force in intuitive eating, and in overall well-being.”
Find your fullness
Our bodies can take about 20 to 30 minutes after we’ve eaten to signal a feeling of fullness. Part of intuitive eating is learning to recognize your body’s signals when you are getting full and then trusting that feeling. One thing Harrison notes is that “our bodies tend to override our fullness signals when they’re ravenous and deprived,” which leads to overeating — so it’s important to tune into our body’s signals.
Be kind to yourself when you’re feeling emotional
Many of us are emotional eaters, seeking out the comfort of certain foods when we’re bored, stressed, angry, or anxious. While we might get a tiny experience of pleasure while we emotionally eat, this type of consumption can be hard to manage. “Cope with your emotions with kindness,” Harrison says, “which means recognizing first and foremost that ’emotional eating’ is actually driven primarily by food restriction and deprivation. It also means developing an array of coping skills in addition to eating.”
Love and respect your body where it is now
This is a big part of the intuitive eating practice, Harrison says. “This means accepting the size and shape of your body right now, recognizing that the expectations placed on bodies in diet culture are unrealistic and oppressive, and treating your body with the compassion it deserves.”
Find your movement
It doesn’t have to be miles of running or hours of yoga to count, according to Harrison. She says that we need to tune into our bodies to feel how movement makes us feel different, even joyful and energized. As she says, taking this approach will “probably cost you a lot less in canceled gym memberships, too.”
Engage in gentle nutrition
Harrison says that this tenet is to “Honor your health… which means learning simple ways to help your body feel good. Forget about the nutritional minutiae and black-and-white thinking you learned in diet culture; gentle nutrition is about building on the other intuitive eating principles to support your overall satisfaction, pleasure, and well-being.”
If you’re just getting started, Harrison says that the core principles to begin focusing on include rejecting the diet mentality, making peace with food, not avoiding foods because of black and white thinking, and cultivating the pleasure we get from food.
“Those are the four that I think are the most important and essential to start with, and the foundations upon which the other principles of intuitive eating are built,” Harrison says.
Reframing is key
As Harrison points out, some of these principles can seem really radical to those of us who have been deeply steeped in the latest trending diet fad (Keto, Atkins, Intermittent Fasting, etc.) or those of us who have come to develop disordered relationships with food (good/bad thinking, for example) thanks to diets. Harrison says it also helps to reframe some of the language and thoughts we have around food and diets, especially so early in the year as we all work with our new years’ intentions.
“I’d really recommend reframing it not as ‘making healthy changes to your diet’ but as ‘making peace with food and your body,’ because that’s ultimately going to be so much more beneficial to your health and will help keep you from feeling like you need to make food-related resolutions every year. It takes time, practice, and support to heal your relationship with food, but in my view, it’s a really worthwhile endeavor.”