What is intuitive eating and can it help with weight loss?
LAST UPDATED: Jun 29, 2023
6 MIN READ
HERE'S WHAT WE'LL COVER
If you feel like you’ve tried every diet out there, you may be wondering if intuitive eating will just be another one that doesn’t work out. But intuitive eating isn’t just another diet trend, it’s a way of eating that promotes identifying your unique nutrition needs while moving away from the idea of “good” or “bad” foods.
With intuitive eating, you listen to internal cues instead of diet rules and while the goal isn’t to lose weight, you may find your body settling into a healthier weight naturally.
Fad diets stop here
If appropriate, get effective weight loss treatment prescribed for your body.
What is intuitive eating?
Intuitive eating is a way of eating guided by your body’s hunger, fullness, and satisfaction to determine what foods to eat. There are no rules about what foods you can or can’t eat with intuitive eating. Instead of restricting what you eat based on dieting rules or a structured plan, you build trust with yourself around food to make your food decisions. “It’s a self-care framework that can help improve your relationship with food and your body”, explains Ellie Stamerjohn MS, Registered and Licensed Dietitian at Nourish.
The method was made popular with the 1995 book Intuitive Eating by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. They reviewed research studies and patient experiences around the effectiveness of this natural way of eating.
A 2022 review of research found that intuitive eating promotes:
Improved diet quality
Improved body attunement
Reduced disordered eating behaviors such as binge eating and emotional eating
10 principles of intuitive eating
The 10 principles of intuitive eating outlined in the Intuitive Eating approach can help people unlearn the potentially detrimental dieting rules to adopt this natural way of eating. In their book, Tribole and Resch lay out the basic principles:
1. Reject the diet mentality
Each day, we are bombarded with countless messages dictating what foods to never eat and how to resist temptation, all stemming from the pervasive dieting culture. Diet culture encompasses the prevailing narratives surrounding food, exercise, weight, and body image, often fostering an unhealthy and strained relationship with food.
Embracing a mindset of rejecting the diet mentality means becoming liberated from the moral judgments associated with healthy eating—those that tend to burden individuals with guilt for indulging in less-than-healthy food choices. By alleviating the pressure to strictly adhere to dietary rules, you can gain a newfound awareness that can empower you to make food decisions that truly nurture and support your health.
2. Honor your hunger
Often, diets emphasize methods to suppress and delay hunger, but it's important to recognize that hunger is a biological response signaling our body's need for nourishment. “Using a hunger fullness scale can be a helpful guide when trying to better understand trends in your appetite”, says Ellie Stamerjohn MS, RDN, LD. Taking the time to comprehend hunger cues can enable you to discern genuine hunger from urges to eat driven by factors like boredom, stress, or other emotions.
While some individuals may only perceive hunger when they experience physical sensations such as stomach growling or hunger pangs, it's worth noting that these signals can sometimes emerge at a later stage of hunger. Additionally, signs of hunger can manifest in various ways, including difficulty concentrating, irritability, lightheadedness, headaches, and low energy levels.
Delaying meals until the point of extreme hunger can lead to heightened feelings of hunger and overeating. In fact, a study revealed that prolonged hunger intensifies negative emotions while dampening positive ones. Therefore, recognizing and responding to hunger cues earlier on can support healthier eating habits and foster a more balanced emotional state.
3. Make peace with food
Sometimes the rules around eating may leave you feeling anxious about some foods. Maybe you think you have to avoid sweets, carbs, or fat. Or maybe you think you can’t keep dessert in the house without giving in to temptation and eating all of it.
The principle of intuitive eating helps heal this negative relationship with food. After years of trying diets, it’s common for people to adopt a mentality of “I can’t have that” and feel like they’ve done something wrong if they eat it.“It’s human nature to want what you ‘can’t’ have, so deeming foods off-limits often makes them more desirable”, explains Stamerjohn. “This, in turn, can make you feel even more out of control around food, potentially leading to a binge.”
Breaking those food rules can start to build trust with yourself around those foods by focusing on how food impacts you and building a healthy relationship with food.
When you have an unhealthy relationship with food you may find yourself thinking about food often throughout the day. You can also have intense cravings for forbidden foods or find yourself overeating the foods you consider bad when you do allow yourself to have them.
4. Challenge the “food police”
The “food police” is the term the authors use to describe those judgemental thoughts or comments about food. Constantly monitoring yourself around food can feel exhausting. For example, if you find yourself saying you’re “good” for eating a salad and “bad” for eating a piece of cake, that’s a version of the food police.
Challenging the negative thoughts about food is an important step in releasing mental restrictions around food and learning to trust yourself around all foods.
Notice the times you tell yourself you can’t or shouldn’t do something with food. Instead, start asking yourself what you truly want to have both for enjoying the taste and how your body will feel after eating.
5. Discover the satisfaction factor
The satisfaction factor focuses on the influence of pleasure on food choices and eating. When you eat the foods you truly want, you can find yourself feeling more satisfied and content with the foods you eat. This principle discusses how satisfaction is an important factor in being able to stop eating when you feel comfortably full.
6. Feel your fullness
Feeling your fullness involves learning to tell what your different levels of fullness feel like. Practice checking in with yourself halfway through your meal to learn to pay attention to when you start feeling comfortably full or overfull.
Just remember intuitive eating is not a hunger-fullness diet, meaning it’s ok to eat when you don’t feel hungry if you want to. Thinking you can only eat when hungry can in turn be “policing” your food and your diet.
7. Cope with your emotions
One concern people have when adopting intuitive eating is learning how to manage their emotional eating habits. Eating can be one of the ways people handle negative emotions, so it’s important to identify alternative mechanisms for coping with those emotions. This can include:
Speaking with a mental health professional
Taking a walk outside
Talking with a loved one
Spending time doing hobbies you enjoy
8. Respect your body
Bodies are meant to be different and this principle involves embracing your unique body. Your natural body size and shape may look different from other people’s, and that doesn’t have to be a problem. Learning to respect your body helps improve overall body image, body satisfaction, and self-esteem.
Look for ways to be active that feel good for your body. The research showing the extensive benefits of exercise for health is undeniable.
Movement doesn’t need to look like a structured workout, though it can if that’s what you enjoy. Shifting your focus from meeting the recommended amount of exercise to getting in touch with how your body, energy levels, and mental health respond when you get moving can help too. You may find that exercise makes you feel refreshed, happier, and less fatigued.
10. Gentle Nutrition
Gentle nutrition is the principle that incorporates all of the others to offer an overarching, generalized approach to how you eat. It’s the last principle of intuitive eating because it helps to improve your relationship with food, hunger, and dieting rules before adding in the concept of gentle nutrition.
You don’t have to eat perfectly every time to be healthy. The food you eat regularly makes up your health over the years, so there’s no need to focus too much on one meal.
Pay attention to how your body feels after eating different foods. Then use that information to guide what foods help you feel the best and satisfy your taste buds.
Get access to GLP-1 medication (if prescribed) and 1:1 support to meet your weight goals
Can intuitive eating help you lose weight?
The goal of intuitive eating isn’t to change your weight. The goal is to adopt a lifestyle that prioritizes self-care and an overall sense of well-being.
Still, some people find that adopting intuitive eating results in weight loss, particularly if their approach to food had resulted in overeating previously. Research shows that intuitive eating is associated with a lower body weight in comparison with people who restrict their food intake through “restrained eating” or eat emotionally. Restrained eating refers to people who aren’t actively on a diet but monitor what they eat and try to limit some foods.
Intuitive eating drops the short-term focus of reaching or maintaining a specific number on the scale. Instead, it shifts the focus to how food and movement impact you specifically, allowing you to make food choices that best suit your needs.
If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Ackermans, M. A., Jonker, N. C., Bennik, E. C., & de Jong, P. J. (2022). Hunger increases negative and decreases positive emotions in women with a healthy weight. Appetite, 168, 105746. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2021.105746. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34637770/
Hensley-Hackett, K., Bosker, J., Keefe, A., et al. (2022). Intuitive eating intervention and diet quality in adults: a systematic literature review. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 54(12), 1099–1115. doi: 10.1016/j.jneb.2022.08.008. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36274010/
Markey, C. H., Strodl, E., Aimé, A., et al. (2023). A survey of eating styles in eight countries: Examining restrained, emotional, intuitive eating and their correlates. British Journal of Health Psychology, 28(1), 136–155. doi: 10.1111/bjhp.12616. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10086804/
Tribole, E. & Resch, E. (2003). Intuitive eating: A revolutionary anti-diet approach. *St. Martin’s Essentials. * Retrieved from http://students.aiu.edu/submissions/profiles/resources/onlineBook/h8x7p8_intuitive-eating.pdf