What is Intuitive Eating? This self-care eating framework will normalize and heal your relationship with food and your body. Get an overview of the 10 principles here, plus 10 action steps you can take today to start practicing!
Have you heard of Intuitive Eating and wondered what the heck it is?
In this post, I’m sharing an overview of the 10 Intuitive Eating Principles, plus an action step you can take today to start implementing each one!
The original Intuitive Eating book was first published in 1995 by Elysh Resch and Evelyn Tribole (both MS, RDN, CEDRD-S), who came up with this framework based on their own empirical evidence with their clients. Since then, there have been over 120 scientific studies to date on Intuitive Eating!
Intuitive Eating is an evidence-based, self-care eating framework that encourages us to reconnect to our own internal wisdom about eating. Essentially, it’s unlearning most things we’ve been taught externally and, instead, developing our own self-trust and healing our relationship with food and our body.
This creates peace around food, a healthy body image, and a life of wellness and freedom (instead of spending time worrying, obsessing, or disconnected from your body and life)! Intuitive Eating provides a new way of eating that is ultimately struggle-free and healthy for your mind, body and spirit. It is a process that unleashes the shackles of dieting (which can only lead to deprivation, rebellion, and rebound weight gain).
Intuitive Eating treats all bodies with dignity and respect (meaning, it’s aligned with Health At Every Size and is not focused on weight loss as a goal. Anyone out there promoting Intuitive Eating as a weight-loss tool has co-opted the principles and changed the whole foundation of Intuitive Eating–don’t fall for it! Focusing on your weight immediately introduces an external factor, creating a wedge between your inner wisdom and eating choices, sabotaging your healing process. We need to take weight loss off the table in order to truly learn Intuitive Eating.)
Diets (a.k.a. anything with a goal of intentional weight-loss) just don’t work. Not only do up to 95% of people regain as much as two-thirds of the weight they lost within one year and almost all of it within five years (source), but up to two-thirds of dieters gain back significantly MORE weight than they initially lost in the two to five years after being on a weight-loss program. (source)
To understand more about this, read 7 Reasons Why Diets Don’t Work here.
Intuitive Eating means getting back to your roots—trusting your body and your signals. It will not only change your relationship with food and your body; it will change your life! Through trusting this process, you’ll reclaim your power and autonomy, your time, your energy, your happiness, and your freedom.
That might sound lofty, but as a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, I’ve seen this to be true for both myself, my clients, and others who have embraced Intuitive Eating.
Fortunately, we all possess the natural Intuitive Eating ability, it’s just often suppressed by dieting, wellness culture, and the mainstream health and beauty industries.
The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating
Alright, ready to get into it?!
Please keep in mind that these principles are not ‘rules’ to turn into a new diet, but guidelines to help you normalize and heal your relationship with food and your body.
Here are the 10 Intuitive Eating Principles (click the links to jump straight to that section if you want!):
- 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
Once your eyes are open to both the research and your personal experience about how all the dieting and lifestyle apps, programs, influencers, books, and potentially even health professionals have continued to offer you false hope of losing weight quickly, easily, and permanently, it’s likely you’re going to get angry at ‘Diet Culture’, and also feel a sense of loss.
Dieting offers short-term thrills and excitements, promising that we’ll turn into our fantasy body and, somehow as a result, all our dreams will come true. In order to move towards acceptance and a new way of relating to food and our bodies, we have to first let go of dieting, which includes grieving the perceived loss of never getting and/or maintaining our ‘ideal body’.
The idea of letting go of food rules and dieting is scary for most people, and may make you feel panicky. You probably have a ton of fears coming up like, “I will be out of control,” or, “If I stop dieting, I won’t stop eating,” or “I don’t know how to eat when I’m not dieting or following an eating plan.”
This is what we call “hitting diet rock bottom”: when you know deep down that you can’t subject yourself to yet another failing diet, yet feel paralyzed and caught between two conflicting fears: “If I continue dieting, I’ll continue to feel like a failure”, and “if I stop dieting, I’ll feel lost.”
Here’s the truth: you are not a failure. Dieting has failed you. It doesn’t work, and it’s not because there’s anything wrong or bad about YOU as a person, or how you’ve gone about it. It’s because Diet Culture is based on a system of misinformation (remember: the research is very clear that intentional weight loss fails 95% of the time).
If you allow even one small hope to linger that a new and better diet or food plan might be waiting for you around the corner, it will prevent you from being free to rediscover Intuitive Eating. It’s time to make a firm commitment to give up dieting for the rest of your life.
ACTION STEP: When you’re exposed to a blog post, Instagram story, TV commercial, magazine article, conversation, or ANYTHING talking about dieting or the newest fad lifestyle, avoid getting drawn into the excitement you might feel. This is an old pattern, and it’s time to protect your boundaries and learn how to have compassion for yourself. Simply take a deep breath, gently affirm to yourself that you’re committed to a new way of thinking, feeling, and acting, and disengage from the content.
BONUS STEP: Unfollow all the social media accounts, and unsubscribe from all the email lists, that promote dieting, weight loss, or anything that makes you feel bad about yourself. Instead, follow those who promote Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size so you can see positive inspiration when you’re on social media or in your inbox.
Principle 2: Honor Your Hunger
If you’re recovering from dieting, it’s likely that your body is in a starved state. It’s imperative that you work towards keeping your body nourished and biologically fed with energy (this includes foods that you may currently be avoiding, like carbs).
If you don’t keep your body fed, it can trigger a primal drive to overeat, where you’re eating more than what feels good in your body. Why? Because you’re starting at a deficit. Think about a starving child who finally gets something to eat and can’t consume that food fast enough. That’s essentially what’s happening in your body when you don’t eat enough—you get ravenous.
A lot of us call this feeling “hangry”, when we get so hungry that we start to get angry and irritable. This is called “primal hunger”, and we want to aim to eat BEFORE we get to this state.
Learning how to honor your first signs of hunger sets the stage for rebuilding trust with yourself and food.
ACTION STEP: Start getting familiar with how hunger feels in YOUR body. Many of us think of hunger only being in our stomachs, when we feel hunger pangs or hear grumbles. But hunger can be a range of bodily sensations and moods, like a slight headache, brain fog, irritability, low energy, and so on. When you first notice a sign of hunger, eat.
Principle 3: Make Peace with Food
This principle is all about giving yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods, and making all foods emotionally equivalent, where foods aren’t labeled as ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
For example, once you’ve made peace with food, you’ll feel emotionally neutral when choosing between a piece of fruit or a dessert, and you’ll know that your choice doesn’t reflect your morality or character (meaning, you’re not a “bad” person for choosing apple cobbler or a “good” person for choosing the apple). You are allowed to eat what you want, and you are just as good as a person regardless of your decision.
For chronic dieters, this principle is one of the toughest, and takes a lot of unlearning and trust to truly make peace with food.
But we all know what happens when we tell ourselves that we’re “not allowed to” have or “shouldn’t” have a particular food: it often leads to extreme feelings of deprivation (and perhaps rebellion), which in turn, leads into uncontrollable cravings and often bingeing.
Then, we feel enormously guilty during and after eating (whether because of the type of food and/or the amount of foods you eventually succumbed to eating), and once again, tell ourselves that we’re a failure for not having “willpower” (which reinforces the belief that we can’t be trusted around food).
This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It looks like this: “I’m a failure (because my diet didn’t work)”. ➡️ “Better not eat XYZ foods to keep me in check.” ➡️ *feelings of deprivation and/or rebellion arise* ➡️ bingeing or ‘out-of-control’ feelings around food ➡️ guilt and/or shame arises ➡️ “I’m a failure and can’t be trusted around food.”
Here’s what’s really going on: psychologically, we want what we can’t have. Not only do we give added value to forbidden foods, but the deprivation itself actually heightens your desire for that very thing!
Think about it: when you’re on a low carb diet, your crave bread, pasta, and all the starchy carbs you can’t have. When you’re avoiding sugar, you crave sweetness. If you’ve ever done a food elimination diet, you start to dream about and crave the foods you cut out. What would you crave if ALL foods were on the table as an option, at all times? What does your body really want?
Even just the perception that food might become off-limits can trigger overeating. Have you ever told yourself, “I’m starting XYZ diet on Monday and am going to be 100% committed and perfect, so this weekend, I’m going to eat whatever I want!”?
Because you fear never having those upcoming “off-limits” foods ever again, you proceed to eat fill in the blank foods [carbs/sugar/fats/processed foods/grains/etc.], even if you’re not hungry, and often in large amounts. We call this “last supper eating”.
The good news: this kind of panicky eating lessens and will likely disappear entirely once you give yourself full permission to eat all foods, at any time, no longer depriving yourself. Food just becomes food, without all the charge and fear, where it’s simply a source of nourishment, energy, and-—dare I say—pleasure!
Some people worry that encouraging people to eat whatever they want will result in poor nutrition, but studies on Intuitive Eating show that it’s associated with improved nutrient intake, eating a wider variety of foods (which is great for microbiome health), and reduced eating disorder symptomatology. (source)
When you remove the overlay of guilt and morality from eating, it allows a stronger connection to your physical body, which in turn leads us to, overall, making nutritious choices for our body.
ACTION STEP: Pick one food that you currently label as “bad” or “off-limits” that sounds really appealing to you. Give yourself permission to eat it, and then go buy it or order it at a restaurant. As you eat it, notice how it really tastes, and how much you genuinely enjoy it (or not). Continue to give yourself permission to eat this food as often as you like. Eventually, you’ll truly know that you have permission to eat this food whenever you want it. In turn, that particular food loses its power (this is called habituation), where it becomes just one option out of many of the buffet that you can choose to eat if and when you want it—but the choice will NOT be driven from a place of deprivation or rebellion.
Principle 4: Challenge the Food Police
Eating is a normal activity that we all have to do regularly to survive–and yet our society has turned it into something deemed “good” or “bad”, “right” and “wrong”.
The food police is the sum of all your dieting rules and food beliefs that get stronger with each diet, with each ‘rule’ or message you see in the media, or with messages from family and friends. These thoughts can be very damaging and keep food and your body at war.
In a world where diets, lifestyles, detoxes, cleanses, and all kinds of “wellness” protocols are parading around us constantly, it’s no wonder that we have deeply embedded ideas about food. (Examples: I can only eat between the hours of noon and 6pm. XYZ is bad for you. XYZ will make me gain weight. I can only eat extra carbs if I’ve worked out. etc.)
The food police exist both as a cultural collective and inside our own heads, monitoring the unreasonable thoughts that Diet Culture has created and making us feel guilty at every turn. A food fundamentalism has taken over our country, where we’re over-identified with what we eat and start to buy into pressurized food ideologies–instead of realizing that food is simply meant to keep us nourished (we’ll revisit this again with Principle 10) and that it’s OUR body, and we don’t have to follow anyone else’s rules.
By contrast, our inner Intuitive Eater honors our gut reactions (whether they are based on biological, satisfaction, or self-protective needs) and is a team player. Your Intuitive Eater observes your eating neutrally, holds you with supportive statements while quelling the negative ones, and is able to go with the flow vs. trying to control everything.
You were born with this voice, and it gives you messages and answers about your eating that ONLY YOU can know. It also helps you make decisions that ONLY YOU have the right to make.
When you hear the food police sirens come wailing, start practicing the muscle of creating boundaries and standing in your own value and knowingness. Challenge the thoughts (or, in some cases, other people) and practice cheerleading yourself through tough situations when these voices arise.
ACTION STEP: Change your food reality. When you have an irrational or food police thought, replace it with something nurturing or objective.
Principle 5: Discover the Satisfaction Factor
While satisfaction is its own principle, it’s also the one principle that influences all others. Think of it like a wheel with 10 spokes, and at the hub is satisfaction.
Simply put: if we’re not satisfied, we’re not happy. Finding satisfaction in eating is the driving force of Intuitive Eating. Think about what your days would look like if the majority of the food you ate felt SATISFYING!
How many times have you eaten celery when you really wanted chips? How many times have you eaten a pseudo-diet dessert when you really wanted the real thing? This is called chasing your “phantom food”, when you try to fill the void created by denying yourself the satisfaction from the food you originally wanted to eat with other, less satisfying foods.
If you are unsatisfied, you will likely eat more and be on the prowl for more food, regardless of your satiety level.
Our society is based is strong puritanical roots that taught us we have to make sacrifices and settle for less, so to even think about food being satisfying–or going a step further and saying PLEASURABLE–can make some people feel guilty and wrong. But if you settle for food that doesn’t match what you desire, it will often leave you wanting.
Counter to what you probably think, letting yourself enjoy food will actually result in a natural self-limiting, rather than out-of-control, eating–because it’s the deprivation (not pleasure) that leads to backlash eating.
Here’s what this principle looks like in action:
When you eat what you really want in an inviting environment ➡️ the more pleasurable your food is ➡️ the more satisfied and content you’ll feel ➡️ the more you’ll eat just what you need.
Did you know the Japanese promote pleasure as one of their goals of healthy eating? It’s actually one of their dietary guidelines to “make all activities pertaining to food and eating pleasurable ones.” Time to take a page out of their book!
ACTION STEP: How can you create an enjoyable eating environment? Are you often on the run, eating at your desk, or waiting until you’re ravenous to eat?
- Try to eat when you’re gently hungry instead of overly hungry. (Remember Principle 2 here and Honoring Your Hunger.)
- Sit down to eat undistracted, take several deep breaths before you dive in, make time to appreciate your food, and savor it.
- What can you do to make your environment aesthetically pleasing? Do you have plates you love, placements, a tablecloth? Do you want to light a candle, put flowers on the table, or play classical music? Have fun with it!
Principle 6: Feel Your Fullness
In order to honor your fullness, you need to trust that you will give yourself the foods that you desire.
This goes back to Principle 3: Make Peace with Food. Respecting fullness–which means the ability to stop eating because you’ve had enough to eat biologically–critically hinges on giving yourself unconditional permission to eat. If you believe you won’t be able to eat that particular food again, or that you won’t let yourself eat when you’re hungry again (Principle 2: Honor Your Hunger), then you won’t be able to respect your fullness.
Part of this process is getting to know what comfortable satiety feels like to you. A lot of chronic dieters are familiar with feeling overstuffed, but what about comfortable satiety? Start listening for the body signals that tell you you’re no longer hungry, and observe the signs that show you’re comfortably full.
ACTION STEP: Pause in the middle of your meal to check your fullness level. (This is NOT a commitment to stop eating; it’s a commitment to check in with your body and taste buds.) Ask yourself:
- How does this food taste?
- Is it satisfying my taste buds?
- What is my current level of fullness?
- Am I still hungry?
- Do I feel insatiable?
Principle 7: Cope With Your Emotions With Kindness
Learning to be gentle and compassionate with yourself, and letting go of guilt and shame, is a hugely important part of this process.
We’ve all had difficult times in life, and we all have different ways of coping. For some of us, we learned to cope with food. It’s important not to make that wrong, as it may have been the only way we knew to get through hard times. But, it’s now time to add more tools to our toolbox since coping with food is a short-term comforting solution that doesn’t solve the problem or get to the root of our emotions.
As we talked about earlier, dieting/food restriction itself (both physically and mentally) can, in and of itself, trigger loss of control, which can feel like emotional eating. What many people have labeled as “emotional eating” is simply a psychological and biological consequence of food restriction.
Fascinatingly, a study of more than 35,000 men and women found that former or current dieters have more ’emotional eating’ that those with no history of dieting! (source) So once you start to rebuild trust with yourself and nourish your body with food, you may find that your ’emotional eating’ will disappear along with the deprivation.
It’s important that we learn how to feel and process our emotions. We need to find ways to comfort, nurture, distract, and resolve. The first step in learning how to cope with your emotions with kindness is acknowledging that you are entitled to having your needs met.
ACTION STEP: When you find yourself reaching for food when you’re not biologically hungry, try pausing and asking yourself what you’re really feeling, and what you need. Maybe you need to be heard or understood. Maybe you need a hug. Maybe you need rest. Maybe you need creative stimulation. Maybe you need to do yoga. Try meeting your need without food and see how that feels!
Principle 8: Respect Your Body
All bodies deserve dignity and respect. Period.
Yet, it’s hard to escape the self-induced body torture game when the whole culture is playing it. Putting an end to body worry, vigilance, comparison, criticism, and loathing is no easy task.
But have repeated diets and negative attitudes toward your body ever helped? No, it always just makes you feel worse and perpetuates the cycle. The more you’ve focused on your body, the worse you’ve felt.
It’s time to accept our genetic blueprint and recognize that body size diversity is a real part of our DNA, just like race, eye color, or shoe size.
Respecting your body is a critical piece of Intuitive Eating. But what does this mean exactly? It means treating your body with dignity and holding the intention of meeting its basic needs (which include being adequately fed, getting good rest and sleep, making it comfortable, getting in gentle movement, and being kind, to name a few).
You don’t have to like every part of your body to respect it. You don’t even have to immediately accept where you body is right now in order to respect it.
ACTION STEP: Only wear clothes that make you feel comfortable–this includes underwear! Wearing uncomfortable, too tight clothing is a constant reminder that you’re “too big”, and you’re keeping yourself from feeling better right here and now. It is the job of the clothes to fir your body, not the other way around!
Get rid of any clothes that are too small (perhaps even sell them!), and have fun buying new clothes that fit your body and your style. (I recognize not everyone will have the budget to buy new clothes and underwear, but over time you can find ways to get new clothes that fit.) You’ll be amazed at how something so simple can make such a difference in feeling better about yourself.
Principle 9: Movement—Feel the Difference
For many chronic dieters, exercise can feel like a chore and burden. Working out has gone hand in hand with negative experiences of dieting and food plans, and thus some of us have learned not to enjoy exercise. Some people even abuse their bodies with too much exercise, which can lead to injury.
Intuitive Eating consciously uses the term “movement” instead of “exercise” to help decouple it from weight loss. It’s all about just getting active (even with simply walking or stretching) and FEELING the difference. When we focus on how movement makes us feel, it’s an entirely different motivator than focusing on calories burned or checking off a task from our to-do list.
You may be in a place where you don’t feel like starting or continuing with movement right now, and that’s okay. You may be burned out and healing from Diet Culture’s rules around exercise, so it’s important to wait until you’re ready.
Instead of focusing on movement as a way to shrink your body, think of it as a form of self-care. We all know exercise has many benefits, including protecting the body from damaging effects of chronic stress, increasing quality of life, and promoting health. What do you feel inspired to do when it comes from a place of self-care vs. weight loss?
A growing body of research shows that focusing on pleasure from exercise may be one of the most important factors in sustaining consistent activity, so how can you make it fun?
Notice if movement makes you feel less stressed, gives you more energy, increases your sense of well-being or empowerment, or helps you sleep better. If not and you find movement feels more draining than health-promoting, explore other ways movement can look that honors your body.
For example, maybe you’ve been running for years, but have used it as more of a punishment rather than actually enjoying it. Try new activities and see how you can make it fun! Invite a friend, play a sport, turn on your favorite music, and get rid of tracking apps that shift your focus towards numbers and away from enjoyment.
Principle 10: Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition
Think Intuitive Eating ignores nutrition? Think again!
Usually, when you begin your Intuitive Eating journey, we focus on all the other principles for awhile before introducing Gentle Nutrition, so you can truly get in touch with your intuitive eater.
But, of course a healthy approach to eating would also include nutrition. The reason it’s the 10th principle is because, first, we must heal our relationship to food and our body before we can truly embrace nutrition from a healthy place–where nutrition doesn’t once again become another form of dieting, restriction, or rule, or something that causes added stress or obsession.
There is so much food worry and fear-mongering when it comes to food choices these days. In fact, some research shows that the negative impacts of worry and stress about healthy eating may have a more profound effect on health than the actual food consumed. (source) Meaning: your thoughts and feelings ABOUT the food–not the food itself–causes you stress, which triggers biological assaults in our bodies and leads to harmful health outcomes.
There are so many places where you can get nutrition guidance that I’m not going to go into details here of WHAT to eat. Instead, I want to point out other hugely important factors that influence our health that get less attention in the media than food and nutrition.
While the role of nutrition in preventing chronic disease is established in the scientific community, there are still many other significant factors that affect health and longevity even more.
Did you know that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that genes, biology, and health behaviors together only account for about 25% of population health? (source)
- Social connection: the quality of your relationships, degree of loneliness, and feeling socially connected to the people in your life; social connection is associated with a decreased risk in all-cause mortality, as well as a range of diseases! (source)
- Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs: traumatic events like domestic abuse or living with a parent with substance abuse; the CDC says at least 5 of the top 10 leading causes of death are associated with ACEs
- Social determinants of health: economic and social conditions that influence the health of people, including poverty, racism, where you live, having access to healthcare and clean water, as examples (source)
The point I want to make here is that yes, nutrition is important. But, health is about so much more than what we eat. It’s about our relationships, our environment, our neighborhoods, our families, our movement, our genes, and how we respond to stress, to name a few.
In a nation that worries so much about food–without really looking at all the other facets of health–I want to remind you that you don’t have to eat “perfectly” to be healthy. Eating cake on your birthday won’t make you unhealthy. It’s more about what you eat consistently over time that matters. It’s all about progress, not perfection!
ACTION STEP: Get off the food pedestal. You don’t have to be perfect. Honor your health, your taste buds, and your humanness. Allow for a variety of foods including fruits, vegetables, protein, fat, carbohydrates, whole grains, and “play foods” (those that may not have a strong nutritional profile but that give simple pleasure and satisfaction, like birthday cake!).
What is ‘Healthy Eating’ in Intuitive Eating? Putting it all Together
In Intuitive Eating, we define healthy eating as having a healthy balance of foods AND having a healthy relationship WITH food, which we’ve talked about at length above.
Intuitive Eating defines “authentic health” as a process of dynamic integration of your inner world (your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and physical sensations arising from within your body–principles 1-8) and the external world of health guidelines, which include exercise and nutrition (principles 9-10).
You get to decide what from the external world you’d like to integrate, be it philosophical preferences (like eating kosher, or eating local, or vegetarianism) or health policy–but please, check yourself that you’re staying in touch with your inner cues first and aren’t embracing another new set of rules to adhere to when you integrate these preferences.
The bottom line: trust your gut. Nourish your body. Use what feels right and discard the rest. Use your intuition to feel comfortable with eating, and to release yourself from the shackles of dieting and restriction.
There’s a lot to unpack when you start going down the Intuitive Eating path, and I recommend working with a professional who is trained by the Official Intuitive Eating Organization (like me!) to help you. If you want to learn more about my coaching services, go here!
Want to know where you currently stand on the Intuitive Eating Scale? Take this quick assessment to see what’s holding you back from becoming an intuitive eater, and where you can start with this process!
You can also join our free Facebook group here! This safe, supportive community is where I share free resources, tips, and education to help guide your journey to body respect, intuitive eating, food freedom, and self liberation. Join to connect with other like-minded women who are embracing the non-diet path and reclaiming their inner wisdom!