What exactly is “intuitive eating?”
Most people hear the term intuitive eating and they assume they know what it means just based on how the words make it sound. They think “Oh, intuitive eating must mean eat whatever you want, whenever you want.” And that actually couldn’t be further from the truth.
Let me explain…So if someone turns this into “eat whatever you want, whenever you want,” it essentially becomes a free-for-all with food. And that’s not really listening to your BODY, right?
And this is where the intuitive eating nay-sayers are so far off base. They will say, “People can’t be healthy by just eating whatever they want.” And again, that’s NOT what intuitive eating is suggesting.
So then, what is intuitive eating? For the definition I’m going to turn to Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, because they are the dietitians who created this concept, and they wrote a book called Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach.
Some people who say that they are practicing intuitive eating don’t even know that there is a book about it or that these authors exist – so if you haven’t heard of it yet make sure you grab a copy of the book and start there.
It’s in this book that they outline the 10 principles of intuitive eating that we are going to talk about today.
So how do Tribole and Resch define intuitive eating? They say:
“Intuitive eating is a self-care eating framework, which integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought. It is a weight-inclusive, evidence-based model with a validated assessment scale and over 100 studies to date.”
They go on to say…
The principles [of intuitive eating] work in 2 key ways:
- By helping you cultivate attunement to the physical sensations that arise from within your body to get both your biological and psychological needs met and
- Removing the obstacles and disruptors to attunement, which usually come from the mind in the form of rules, beliefs and thoughts.
What they are saying here is that intuitive eating is about both the physical sensations of hunger and fullness, AND it’s about using our instincts and wisdom to get our emotional needs met. It’s not just about hunger/fullness, and it’s not just a free-for-all with food.
It’s so much richer than that, which you’re going to really see as we dive into the principles. And I want to make sure you caught that part where they say that the principles of intuitive eating help us “remove the obstacles and disruptors to attunement” – they are talking about those things that get in the way of us actually being able to listen to our bodies. Things like fixating on weight loss, having judgments about food being good/bad, having rules about food such as when you can eat or what you can eat or how much you can eat, and other disruptors can be things like emotions or stress, so within intuitive eating we talk about how to cope with our emotions. And we also talk about navigating medical stuff because at the end of the day intuitive eating is very much about health as well. In fact, the studies on intuitive eating show that it correlates with improvements in health markers like blood pressure and cholesterol levels AND that it helps improve body image and mood. (Dieting actually makes all these things worse – It turns out that all the dieting and stressing about food wasn’t producing the desired effect, and that intuitive eating is a much better pathway towards health and happiness within ourselves. Kind of cool, huh?)
The 10 principles of Intuitive Eating
(I’m going to list off all 10 to give you a big picture overview and then we’ll walk through each one specifically.)
- Principle #1: Reject the diet mentality
- Principle #2: Honor your hunger
- Principle #3: Make peace with food
- Principle #4: Challenge the food police
- Principle #5: Discover the satisfaction factor
- Principle #6: Feel your fullness
- Principle #7: Cope with your emotions with kindness
- Principle #8: Respect your body
- Principle #9: Movement – feel the difference
- Principle #10: Honor your health with gentle nutrition
Principle #1: Reject the diet mentality
Rejecting the diet mentality basically means acknowledging that dieting doesn’t work. It’s an ineffective strategy for managing our weight, our health or our happiness. Yes, diets do tend to produce some temporary weight loss in most people, but about 95% of the time that weight is regained (and ⅔ of those people who regain will regain more than they lost), and the most likely outcome from dieting is that you are going to GAIN weight in the long run.
So with intuitive eating, we are acknowledging and accepting that as much as we want to be able to control our weight, the whole dieting thing isn’t working.
In fact, you might have caught earlier that we call intuitive eating a “weight-neutral” approach. And that basically means that we are taking the focus off of weight, and instead are focusing back inward towards the signals of your body.
And it’s really common for people to step into intuitive eating while still wanting to lose weight, or hoping that it will be the thing that finally helps them lose weight and keep it off. So if that’s you, I see you, and I get it. It’s ok to acknowledge that this is how you’re feeling, AND to also acknowledge that dieting and restricting haven’t gotten you to where you want to be.
Some people lose weight through intuitive eating. Some people gain weight. Some people stay the same. That’s all highly individual, and depends on so many variables. In fact, if you want to learn more about this go listen to episode #4 of this podcast called “How to handle weight gain (or the fear of it) with intuitive eating.”
So again, principle #1 we are rejecting the diet mentality. We are calling a truce with our bodies, and saying ok body, I’m going to stop dieting and start listening to what you want and need.
TAKE ACTION: To help you apply this principle I want you to go listen to episode #20 of this podcast called “Want to lose weight? Here’s why there is no best diet for weight loss (and what to try instead).” In this episode I walk you through the data on dieting and why it doesn’t work. You’re going to want to be really clear and firm on this in your mind to help you ditch that diet mentality.
Principle #2: Honor your hunger.
(And let me just say that these principles don’t happen in order. It’s not a step by step process. Like I said earlier, it’s meant to be more of an orchestra that all works together, but don’t let that overwhelm you. You don’t have to figure all of this out at once, I just want you to know that it’s not meant to be step 1, step 2, etc.)
Honor your hunger. Seems pretty simple and straightforward, doesn’t it? It is until you really focus on trying to DO it! We’ve become so conditioned not to trust our bodies that honoring our hunger can be a really confusing thing to do.
It might take you a while to get back in touch with what true physical hunger feels like. And how does it differ from your hunger to eat for other reasons? Some people describe a head hunger, or a mouth hunger, or an emotional hunger – all of these are different from physical hunger, which sometimes gets called stomach hunger but I hesitate to call it that because sometimes physical hunger presents in other ways than just our stomach growling. It might be things like low energy, or difficulty concentrating, or thinking about food. Get curious about how it shows up in YOUR body.
TAKE ACTION: For something tangible to apply this principle – I have a really helpful resource for this – it’s called 5 Simple Steps to Reconnecting With Your Hunger and Fullness and it’s totally free. Inside you’ll find my 5 steps to help you get back in touch with those signals from your body, as well as a tool called the hunger scale. You can download it at nondietacademy.com/hunger. I definitely want to make sure you have a copy of that because it’s really going to help you with this part.
Principle #3: Make peace with food
Have you ever played tug-of-war? When I was in high school during our homecoming spirit week we always had a tug-of-war match between the grades and it was super competitive. So each class would pick 3 of their strongest guys and girls, and I’m proud to say that I was one of the strong girls. Shout out to all my strong girls out there. So the tug of war goes on with both sides pulling the rope until the other side loses their footing or simply can’t pull anymore. If we use the analogy that struggling with food is like being in a tug-of-war with your body, then what we are saying with Principle #3 is to put down the rope. Opt out of the game. Stop battling against yourself and your body and biology. Your body is on your team. You don’t have to battle each other.
Putting down the rope means making peace with food. It means giving yourself unconditional permission to eat when you are hungry. You don’t have to earn your food, or track your food, or calculate what’s in it, or any of those things. (Now, yes there are certain health conditions where a person needs to be aware of things like sodium or carbohydrate content – but that’s only if you have one of those actual medical diagnoses like congestive heart failure, or diabetes where you’re dosing insulin.)
Making peace with food means that you are shifting your mindset away from labeling food as good/bad. And instead you’re reframing all food as neutral. Food is just food. Different foods have different nutrients, sure, but at the end of the day food doesn’t have moral value. Different is just different. And when we can channel that neutral energy with food, and pair it with unconditional permission to eat when we are hungry, that tug-of-war within ourselves ceases to exist anymore. It’s SO freeing.
TAKE ACTION: To apply principle #3 I want you to write down on a sticky note or a notecard: “I am making peace with food.” And put it in your kitchen – either on the refrigerator or pantry or cupboard, somewhere that you’ll see it. It’s a reminder to stop judging the food and to remember you’re not doing the tug-of-war anymore.
Principle #4: Challenge the food police.
This is where we look at all the food rules that you’ve internalized over the years. Some of them might have come from being on diets – like the thing where some people think they can only eat ½ a banana. As a banana enthusiast this makes me so sad. I literally eat 1-2 bananas a DAY. It’s my favorite fruit. Anyway…Other rules you might have essentially made up in your own mind – like “I’m only allowed to eat X food on the weekend” or “I’m not going to let myself have X food in the house.” Some of the rules are handed to us by diet culture – things like “carbs are bad” or “don’t eat past 7pm” or the general idea of “clean eating” (which isn’t even a legitimate thing BTW).
When we have these rules, what do you think happens when you inevitably break one of them? You feel like you’ve done something wrong. And you feel guilty. And that inner food police inside your head might even want to punish you. You then feel like crap – and the ironic thing is that sometimes this guilty feeling leads people to turn to food to cope. It’s such a vicious cycle.
So with challenging the food police we are noticing those food rules, and the things that make you feel guilty – and we are breaking those rules and doing the mental work to tell ourselves that these rules aren’t necessary, nor are they helpful. Breaking these rules can actually be kind of fun and empowering if we embrace it. And it’s not an excuse to just go nuts with food, it’s about not letting these food judgments and rules run your life anymore. You deserve better than that.
TAKE ACTION: To apply principle #4 I want you to make a list of all the food rules you can think of that exist in your mind. It might take you a few days to really get all of these on paper (or you can do it in a note on your phone). I want you to SEE all these rules that have been floating through your head influencing your food decisions and how you feel about yourself. And I want you to see how much nonsense is in there. Not to shame yourself, but to see that these rules are absurd, confusing, they often contradict each other – and that no human being could possibly follow all of these rules. And then if you want to take this a step further, you can go through each rule and intentionally break it, and when you’re done you can tear up your list and burn it symbolically. It’s actually really powerful to do this kind of symbolic act. (And if you do it, send me a picture!! I love it when people do these things!)
Principle #5: Discover the satisfaction factor
Satisfaction is one of the most overlooked parts of our relationship with food. Which is so interesting and kind of sad that we don’t factor this in more to our food decisions. In Japan, part of their version of the food guide pyramid specifically says that satisfaction is part of the goal of eating to be taken into consideration alongside nutrition. I heard Evelyn Tribole, one of the authors of intuitive eating, interviewed once on a podcast and she was talking about how she sees satisfaction as the “hub” of intuitive eating – meaning that all the other principles point to it. That food is literally more satisfying when we eat when we are hungry, and choose food we like, and challenge our inner food police, and stop when we are comfortably full. You can see how IE fits together like pieces of a puzzle to equate to satisfaction and freedom with food.
And when you think of satisfaction, think about what type of food will be satisfying to you in that moment. Is it something that is hot or cold, sweet or savory, crunchy or smooth, maybe combining some different textures like in a salad or mixing some fruit and granola into your yogurt. Think about a fancy restaurant and how they will so beautifully plate and present the food to you. It’s part of a satisfying eating experience – that thing where we say we “eat with our eyes” first. Now, not every meal needs to be a gorgeous piece of artwork on your plate, but try to sometimes take care to make your food look nice.
There are little things you can do like if you’re eating a frozen meal for lunch, put it on a plate after you microwave it. Or if you’re having a snack, put your food in a dish or on a plate so you can see it in front of you rather than eating out of the package. One thing I love to do is sit outside and eat whenever possible. It’s just inherently more mindful for me. So play around with things you can do to make your eating experience more enjoyable. (AND remember that not every eating experience needs to be the most enjoyable thing. Sometimes food will just be fuel and that’s ok too.)
TAKE ACTION: To practice satisfaction today, I want you to just pause and think about what type of food sounds really delicious and satisfying today? What would taste good AND make your body feel good? What type of eating experience would you enjoy? And see if you can provide this for yourself. Even if you can’t – maybe you’re craving a nice dinner on a patio at your favorite restaurant and that’s not going to work out today, maybe you could eat dinner outside at home, or use your nice plates tonight. Have fun with it.
Principle #6: Feel your fullness
Fullness is one of those things that can be surprisingly tricky with intuitive eating. Because there are varying degrees of fullness. And for people who have done a lot of dieting or restricting, it’s common that you might only know the feelings of extreme hunger or fullness. So now we are learning to recognize the nuances of the different degrees of fullness. And another really interesting thing is noticing how different foods feel in your stomach. Some foods will feel lighter, or heavier. Some foods will keep you full for a long time, and some will break down more quickly. None of this is good or bad – it’s just different, and you’ll get more skilled over time at recognizing what type and amount of food will FEEL best to your body at that moment. And on different days, or at different meals/snacks you’ll need different things. I know this might be a bit confusing or overwhelming – but it’s one of the most beautiful things about intuitive eating and food freedom. It’s flexible and fluid based on your needs and desires at any given moment.
TAKE ACTION: Next time you eat a meal or snack, try to stay really mindful while you’re eating, and notice how the sensation of fullness changes as you eat. And then what’s also really interesting is to check in with your fullness AFTER you’ve eaten, like maybe set a timer for 15, 30 and 60 minutes after you eat to see how the feeling of fullness changes as you digest. It’s super interesting to get to know how your body responds to food.
Principle #7: Cope with your emotions with kindness
This is the part about emotional eating. So many of us use food to cope with feelings. And when I say using food, I mean that sometimes we eat certain foods in response to emotions, but I also mean that sometimes we restrict or withhold food in response to emotions. And sometimes we diet as a way to try and cope with how we are feeling. Often we don’t even know we are doing this. These food and dieting behaviors become such a normalized part of our lives that we aren’t even aware that we are using it to distract from or numb ourselves from feeling our feelings.
I also want to be clear here that I’m not pathologizing emotional eating. Sometimes we all eat in response to emotions, and that’s not a bad or wrong thing. It’s just that when this becomes the only way we have to cope, or when we are actually using it to avoid our feelings, then it becomes a problem.
So with intuitive eating we are working on finding different ways to connect with our emotions, and to view them as messages from our soul. Our emotions aren’t something we need to be afraid of. They serve an important purpose in terms of telling us what we need. With intuitive eating we practice noticing our feelings, naming them and giving language to how we’re feeling (which is sometimes harder than you think it will be because most of us weren’t raised with a very good emotional vocabulary), and then we must learn how to cope with our feelings in ways that are more kind and compassionate towards ourselves. This is why it can be super helpful to work with a therapist AND a dietitian when you’re going through this process because intuitive eating is one of those things where it is about the food, but it’s also NOT about the food and we need to address it from both angles.
TAKE ACTION: Before you eat, practice pausing to ask yourself, “Am I hungry?” If yes, eat something satisfying. If no, ask yourself, “What am I thinking, feeling or needing outside of food?” Get curious about those thoughts, feelings and emotions!
Principle #8: Respect your body.
This principle is essentially about body image. One of the hardest parts of the intuitive eating process is often this body image piece. It can be really really hard to learn to accept your body as it is genetically meant to be – ESPECIALLY if your body type is not one that has the privilege of being generally accepted by society. Now, don’t get me wrong, people of all sizes and shapes have body image struggles, including thin people. But I also want to fully acknowledge that accepting your body can be EXTRA hard when your body is fat (and I say that word without any judgment or negative connotation – I’m using it as a neutral descriptor). When you live in a fat body in a world that hates fat bodies, it’s hard to accept and love yourself, right?
So when I think about principle 8 of intuitive eating and what it means to respect your body, I think about the different areas this occurs in. There’s this macro element where we are looking at society’s anti-fat bias and needing to change the cultural narrative around these things. Which is like trying to turn the tide on a monsoon, but I do think progress is slowly being made here. And then there’s the personal level where we can do this work within ourselves to learn to treat our own bodies with kindness and respect. And one of the main ways we can do that is by making the commitment to step away from dieting. To actively choose to no longer pursue behaviors in the name of weight loss. And I’m not saying that it’s bad or wrong to lose weight, because that will just happen to some people as they make changes in their life. What I’m basically saying is let’s stop dieting and spending so much time, energy and money trying to shrink yourself, especially when it’s such a futile effort.
And instead of berating your body, and scrutinizing it in the mirror or in photos, how about shifting that inner dialogue to be more gentle and compassionate towards yourself. And how about reducing the time you spend thinking about and evaluating your body in the first place? Studies show that the more time you spend weighing, measuring, and body checking in the mirror the worse you will feel about yourself.
TAKE ACTION: To put this principle into action, I have a REALLY good podcast episode on this topic of body acceptance and how we can shift that inner dialogue we have with ourselves. It’s actually my episode from last week, episode #28 with Jenna Kutcher. So go check that out because she’s such a wise and relatable woman when it comes to how we feel about our bodies, and I think we could all channel more of Jenna’s energy into our lives.
Principle #9: Movement – feel the difference.
When we say “movement” here we are referring to exercise. And this language shift is very intentional. The word “exercise” has gotten such a negative connotation that in the IE space we’ve started using the word “movement” to help shift the narrative around what it means to be physically active in our bodies. Because the truth is, our bodies love to move. Our bodies are made to move.
The trouble we’ve gotten ourselves into as a culture is that we’ve lumped exercise in as part of the diet mentality. When I was fresh out of college and working as a research dietitian we were doing clinical trials on “diet and exercise” – and I spent so much time in that world talking about that topic that the words “diet and exercise” became so closely intertwined that it was like this big conglomeration of beliefs and behaviors. (And I saw pretty quickly that it didn’t work and the harm it was doing to people, but that’s a story for another day…)
ANYWAY…Let’s do a thought experiment. Just be fully present with me for a moment here, ok? Take a deep breath and get really mindful. Now – what mental images come to mind when I say the word “exercise?” What does this conjure up for you? Do you picture somebody at a gym, running on a treadmill, or lifting weights, or in an exercise class, or out running or biking? What are they wearing? How do you FEEL when you think about these things? Does it feel like something you want to do? Or something you should do?
Ok, now erase all of that. Back to the mindful blank slate. Now what do you think about when I say the word “movement?” What comes to mind? For me, I picture a person in regular clothes (not workout clothes), and I picture them moving freely in a really playful way. They aren’t doing any formal type of workout. They are just moving their body in a really playful way. And then I start to see images of people swimming, and hiking, and playing frisbee, and at the park, and I imagine my two little boys wrestling on the floor. Such different imagery than when I think of exercise. Now based on what you are envisioning, how do you FEEL when you think about movement? And how does it feel different for you than exercise?
TAKE ACTION: I would highly encourage you to journal about what came up for you just now. And to consider what “movement” could look like in your life. And to think of it as an experiment to see what feels good to you and to your body when we remove the pressure and expectation of doing a certain amount of movement, for a certain number of days per week, or to burn a certain number of calories. If all that is off the table, what would you WANT to try? Maybe it’s something you used to do that you enjoyed. Or maybe it’s something you’ve never done before that you’re curious about. The cool thing is that there are infinite possibilities here for ways to move your body. And for some people they’ll still choose something like the gym or a workout class – that’s totally fine if it’s your thing! Other people will find that they prefer things that don’t even require them to change clothes. To each their own – have fun with it.
Principle #10: Honor your health with gentle nutrition.
This is probably the most misunderstood principle of intuitive eating. So often people interpret it to basically mean returning to dieting behaviors but under the guise of “gentle nutrition.” They think “oh good, now I can go back to those things that made me feel more in control and maybe I’ll lose weight.” That’s not what this is about at all.
Gentle nutrition is (and this is according to the authors): “Making food choices that honor your health and taste buds while making you feel good.” And when it comes to health, that’s going to look different for each person. For some people, it might benefit them to add more fiber to their eating to help with digestion; or for others it might help to pair carbs with protein to help with blood sugar. For people with high cholesterol they might try to include more oils and things like fish. My point here is that the things that will support your health are going to depend on your actual body’s health needs. And adding stress to your eating by pressuring yourself to eat certain things or to avoid certain things in the name of “health” isn’t what we are aiming for here at all.
Gentle nutrition has nothing to do with reducing calories or losing weight – those are diet mentality and remember that was principle #1 of intuitive eating to ditch the diet mentality.
With gentle nutrition we are simply considering things that will support your health, and strategies with food that will help your body feel and function better – while still honoring all the other principles of intuitive eating.
So there you have it. We covered all 10 principles of intuitive eating.
I hope you can see how they all fit together like a jigsaw puzzle and work synergistically to cultivate peace and freedom with food and compassion towards your body.
This is a LOT to soak in, so don’t pressure yourself to do it all at once. In fact, I’d encourage you to just pick 1-2 of these to focus on, and then come back and listen to this episode again later and pick another one to focus on. Remember that IE is a practice – kind of like yoga – and there’s no finish line or destination. It’s about learning a new way of thinking, feeling and relating to food and your body. It’s a new way of being in this world. So embrace the journey, and be patient with yourself. There’s no such thing as perfection when it comes to intuitive eating, and you’ll probably find that you learn a lot about yourself along the way.
Did you know you can listen to all this information about the principles of intuitive eating?
I covered it all in episode 29 of the Rebuilding Trust With Your Body Podcast!
LISTEN TO THE EPISODE NOW:
Search for episode 29 – Intuitive Eating 101 The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating and How to Apply Them
Here’s a glance at this episode…
[00:01 – 07:49]
- Intuitive eating as a weight-inclusive approach to eating that helps us to get our biological and psychological needs met
- How the principles of intuitive eating work by helping to cultivate attunement to the physical sensations that arise from within our body
- The benefits of intuitive eating, including improvements in mental and physical health
[07:50 – 37:08]
- Breakdown of each of the 10 principles of intuitive eating
- Action steps provided for each principle
[26:48 – 31:59]
- It’s important to stop judging the food and to remember that you are not doing the tug of war anymore
- Challenging the food police is a way to notice and break internal food rules that have been influencing your eating decisions
- Satisfaction is one of the most overlooked parts of our relationship with food, and it should be taken into consideration alongside nutrition
- Intuitive eating is about connecting with emotions and viewing them as messages from our soul
- This is one of the hardest parts of intuitive eating
- Why we should work within ourselves to treat our own bodies with kindness and respect by making the commitment to step away from dieting to actively choose to no longer pursue behaviors in the name of weight loss
[32:00 – 44:06] Wrapping up!
- The last two principles of intuitive eating
- Movement can look different for each person based on their own health needs
- Gentle nutrition includes making food choices that honor your health and taste buds while making you feel good
“Intuitive eating is a self-care eating framework that integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought.” – Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, intuitiveeating.org
“I would highly encourage you to journal about what came up for you, and to consider what movement could look like in your life. And to think of it as an experiment to see what feels good to you and to your body when we remove the pressure and expectation of doing a certain amount of movement for a certain number of days a week, or to burn a certain number of calories.” – Katy Harvey
Resources mentioned in this episode:
- Book: Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach
- Episode #4: “How to handle weight gain (or the fear of it) with intuitive eating
- Episode #20: “Want to lose weight? Here’s why there is no best diet for weight loss (and what to try instead)
- Episode #28 with Jenna Kutcher talking about body image
Rate, Review, & Follow!
“What I didn’t know I needed! This podcast really helped me understand intuitive eating and how to incorporate it in my life. Katy’s approach to helping us understand and trust our bodies is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
If that sounds like you, please consider rating and reviewing my show! This helps me support more people — just like you — move toward healing their relationship with food and their body image.
Also, if you haven’t done so already, make sure you follow the Rebuilding Trust with Your Body podcast. If you’re not following, there’s a good chance you’ll miss out on value-packed episodes each week.
Let’s get connected!
Looking for more support on your journey to food freedom and body acceptance?
- Join my Facebook group & community “Intuitive Eating Made Easy”
- Take my FREE quiz “What’s Your Unique Path to Food Freedom?”
- Save $120 on HelloFresh, my fav food delivery service!
- Check out my course, Non-Diet Academy