What is intuitive eating?
The so-called 'no diet' diet is all about trusting your body and avoiding emotional eating. Find out about its history and the guiding principles
Intuitive eating is a theory that was developed in the US for creating a healthy attitude to body image as well as food. There are no set rules about what you should and shouldn’t eat; according to its founders, foods should not be labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and it is not a diet. Instead, they say, it is about learning to listen to your body.
The theory of intuitive eating
The term ‘intuitive eating’ was coined relatively recently, but its concepts have been around for several decades.
Back in the early 1970s, Thelma Wayler developed a weight-management programme based on the idea that diets don’t work, but that long-term lifestyle changes are more likely to improve health. Then, in 1978, this was expanded on by Susie Orbach in her book Fat is a Feminist Issue, bringing together intuitive eating and positive body image, while rejecting dieting and societal pressures about body shape. Since the early 1980s, author Geenen Roth has been writing about emotional eating, which is a core feature of intuitive eating.
However, it was in 1995 that two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, developed the theory of intuitive eating, including its core principles.
How do you practise intuitive eating?
Intuitive eating is said to be about “you making the best choice for you”; to eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full. The behaviour of babies is used as an example, as they instinctively cry when they need to eat. Advocates of intuitive eating insist that hunger should also be an intuitive response for adults, and they draw a line of distinction between physical hunger and emotional hunger.
- Physical hunger can be experienced by signs such as a growling stomach, tiredness, or irritability. These then pass when food is consumed.
- Emotional hunger, on the other hand, is described as being influenced by negative emotions that create cravings for food or are soothed by food, such as sadness, loneliness, boredom and stress.
It is argued that, by eating intuitively, you learn to trust your body, and identify when it is a physical or emotional hunger, then make better choices about what to eat..
What are the 10 principles of intuitive eating?
According to American nutritionists Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, who founded the theory of intuitive eating, these are the guiding principles to guarding against dysfunctional eating habits:
1. Reject diet mentality
Forget the idea that dieting or restricting the foods you eat in any way will result in quick, easy or permanent weight loss. Intuitive eating is the opposite of a diet – it is about learning to trust your body to choose what it needs.
2. Honour your hunger
Learn to feed your body when you experience the early signs of hunger. If you leave it too long and feel too hungry, you are more likely to make poor food choices and overeat. Listening to your body and its biological signals sets the stage for rebuilding trust in both yourself and food. Read more on how to stop binge-eating and how you can manage your appetite.
3. Avoid categorising food
Instead of thinking about different kinds of food as 'good' or 'bad', learn to listen to what your body needs. It may make you less likely to crave ‘forbidden’ food or binge eat.
4. Challenge negative thought processes
Question negative thoughts or comments that you may have that affect the food choices you make. For example, telling yourself you’ve been ‘good’ if you didn’t go over your calorie goal for the day, or feeling ‘bad’ because you ate chocolate.
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5. Make the most of mealtimes
Enjoying eating – both the food and the environment you’re in – will help you to feel content and satisfied. When you eat what you really want, and you enjoy the experience, you may find that you need less food to satisfy you.
6. Stop when you're full
Listen for your body's cues that you are comfortably full, just as it gives you the physical signs when it is hungry.
7. Learn to manage emotional eating
Food can’t fix feelings. It offers a short-term solution to distract or numb them, which is why people often turn to emotional eating. Become aware of those times when you may be emotionally eating, and find ways to help you cope that don't involve food, such as walking, journaling or meditating. Read 6 tools to manage stress and 10 diet and lifestyle tips to help manage stress.
8. Respect your body
Learn to accept and respect your body whatever its shape or size. Read more in weight and body fat – the facts.
9. Move more
Get active and pay attention to how it feels to move your body, rather than tracking how many calories you may have burned.
10. Balance nutrition with enjoyment
You don’t have to eat perfectly to be healthy. Make food choices that take both your health and your taste buds into account, while making you feel good. You won’t become unhealthy or nutrient-deficient from one snack, one meal or one day of eating. It is about progress, not perfection.
Can you lose weight by eating intuitively?
Intuitive eating is not pitched as an approach to weight loss, but reducing emotional food consumption, or eating more in tune with your body's hunger and fullness cues. Its founders say it can help create more ordered eating, which could result in weight loss, but they insist that being overly concerned with calorie counting or consciously choosing low-fat foods is contrary to the principles of intuitive eating.
If you’re interested in trying intuitive eating, note that it is a long-term approach based on changing the way you think about food and becoming better attuned to the physical cues for hunger. There aren’t any plans or recipes to follow, just a series of behaviours that are intended to redefine your relationship with food.
Interested in trying intuitive eating? Why not let us know how it goes in the comments below?
Nicola Shubrook is a qualified nutritionist registered with the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). Find out more at urbanwellness.co.uk.
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