We did an overview of why diets don’t work and a little taste of what intuitive eating is. Let’s take a deeper dive into what it’s all about. Intuitive eating is a non-diet approach to health and wellness – specifically food and nutrition. Instead of counting calories, intuitive eating encourages us to use our body’s wisdom to determine what, when, and how much to eat. At it’s core, intuitive eating is about trusting your body and responding to its cues.
For so many of us, that skill has been compromised by the many convoluted rules of diet culture. This has overridden our connection to our body’s wisdom. Intuitive eating is something that we all started off with as babies. We are born with the inherent ability to know when we’re hungry and when we’re full.
Diet culture tells us that certain foods are “good” while others are “bad”. It tells us to cut out the “bad” foods and workout extra when we eat something we “shouldn’t”. It idealizes certain body types and ways of eating that don’t work for every individual. And the crazy thing is that dieting doesn’t work!
While you may feel out of touch with this ability, your body’s wisdom is still there and it’s possible to have it guide you as an intuitive eater once more.
What we’ll cover:
Intuitive eating has 10 principles that make up the overall framework. This isn’t a step-by-step system where you start at number one and work your way through to the end. People come to intuitive eating starting at different places. Each principle can be used to help reconnect you to your body’s wisdom in a flexible and meaningful way.
Diet culture dishes out rules on how to eat and exercise that undermines your innate wisdom. Diet culture will also have you believe that you’re the reason why “you failed” the diet. The truth is the diet failed you. You might feel angry with diet culture for leading you astray from yourself. Leaving dieting behind can be scary, uncomfortable, and can take some time.
This principle is about making sure your body is adequately nourished. When your body sends you a hunger cue and you respond by eating, that’s honoring your hunger. It can be challenging to trust your hunger cues when diet mentality shows up and questions it. Trusting your body and providing it consistent nourishment can help restore this sense of trust.
Making peace with food is giving yourself unconditional permission to eat any food. No more foods that you “can’t have” or “shouldn’t eat” (unless you have an allergy or intolerance to something, of course). A common fear that people have is that they won’t be able to stop eating that forbidden food. It’s actually this deprivation of that food that leads to the uncontrollable binging of it. Normalizing these foods allows you to figure out what foods you truly enjoy and what you actually want to eat.
The food police enforces the rules of diet culture. It’s the inner critic voice in your head that tells you what foods are “good”, “bad”, “healthy”, or “junk”. It also judges you for how much and when you eat (“I shouldn’t be hungry, I just ate lunch an hour ago”). This voice ensures those external rules continue to drive how you eat and exercise. Calling those thoughts out as diet mentality and reframing them can help you make your own food choices.
Food is a beautiful thing – it brings pleasure and joy. This principle is about finding that pleasure and satisfaction in food. Eating the food you actually want helps you feel more satisfied. For example, have you ever wanted to eat ice cream, but chose something “healthier” instead? Chances are that alternative didn’t satisfy your want for ice cream and you continued to eat other things even though you weren’t physically hungry anymore. Satisfaction is a key part of eating and reminds us there can be joy in eating.
Part of this principle is about finding what comfortable fullness feels like for you. It’s a bit of an experiment. Some days you might feel hungrier than others and eating the same amount of food won’t make you feel full. Understanding your hunger and what foods are actually going to satisfy that hunger are important precursors to understanding fullness.
For some, food has been the antidote for stressful, scary, sad, anxious moments that come up. And that’s okay! There isn’t anything wrong with emotional eating. Food can be soothing and comforting. Sometimes it makes you feel better and sometimes it won’t. Intuitive eating encourages us to examine if food is our only coping mechanism. If it is, then it might be worthwhile expanding your options by working with an intuitive eating dietitian and/or a therapist. Regardless of how many coping tools you currently have, remember to be compassionate towards yourself.
Respecting your body is feeling worthy as you are right now. This doesn’t mean you have to love your body or feel super positive about it. For some, working towards body neutrality, appreciation, and respect is more achievable. Cultivating respect for your body means speaking to yourself in a more kind and compassionate way and responding to its signals (hunger, satisfaction, fullness, the need for rest or movement).
Diet culture makes us think we “have to” exercise and it only “counts” if you break a sweat. It shifts the focus of exercise to arbitrary physical goals based on the “thin ideal” rather than prioritizing movement that makes your body feel good. This can cause you to feel like a failure when you’re not “seeing the results”. Movement can be fun and can help you feel more energized, reduce stress, and improve sleep. Intuitive eating asks us to engage in exercise that is mindful of what brings us joy and feels good for our bodies (including rest days).
Gentle nutrition encourages us to make food choices that not only taste good, but also honor your health and make you feel good. This principle comes last because it’s difficult to incorporate nutrition when diet mentality is still entrenched in your beliefs. We have to unlearn those dieting rules, reframe the food police, and relearn how to tune into our inner wisdom. It’s important to work through some of the other principles before getting to gentle nutrition. Some people find this principle to be challenging because they associate certain foods (mainly fruits, vegetables, whole grains) with diet culture, and that’s totally understandable! It can take time to reclaim those foods from diet culture and get excited about them again. It is possible though!
These are the 10 principles of intuitive eating! It’s important to note that this is a framework and not a diet or set of rules that need to be followed to a T. Some of these principles will resonate with you more than others. Intuitive eating is about flexibility, attunement, and self-compassion.
Dieting and restricting may cause your body not to trust you. It can even make you not trust your own body. Part of the intuitive eating journey is building back body trust. Interoceptive awareness is the ability to notice and understand physical and emotional sensations that happen in your body. These sensations are like signals your body sends to you to communicate something. Some examples include: feeling thirsty, needing to go to the bathroom, feeling sad, needing to eat, etc. Interoceptive awareness is a key component to intuitive eating.
We can build body trust by acknowledging and responding to these signals. For example, my body sends me a signal that it feels cold. I respond by putting on a jacket. This action tells my body, “I hear you.” My action sends a signal back to my body, which overtime can build body trust – it’s a feedback loop! At first, it might be hard to pick up certain signals, like hunger and fullness. Cultivating a mindfulness practice is one way to be more in tune with your body’s needs. There are a number of ways to practice mindfulness – meditation, slowing down, or focusing on one thing at a time.
For some, interoceptive awareness can be more challenging and sometimes even unsafe. If you’ve experienced trauma, it may feel more stressful to be connected to your body. Dissociating from your body may be a way to cope and protect yourself – and that’s okay. Stress or mental health conditions, like anxiety, can also make it more challenging to be attuned with hunger/fullness signals. And that’s also okay. Intuitive eating is a journey and there are ways to learn how it will work for you. Working with an intuitive eating aligned therapist and dietitian can also be helpful.
There are many physical, mental, and emotional benefits to intuitive eating that have been studied extensively (in addition to the body of research that shows the ineffectiveness of dieting). These include:
The food freedom that comes with using an intuitive eating approach is calming and opens up so much space to focus on other things that are important to you.
For more in-depth reading, check out our resources page.
This article was written and reviewed by Jasmine Hormati, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. She specializes in eating disorder recovery, healing from chronic dieting, and body image work using a weight-inclusive and intuitive eating approach. Jasmine earned her Bachelors of Science in Conservation and Resource Studies form University of California, Berkeley and her Master of Science in Nutrition and Public Health from Teachers College, Columbia University.
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