If you’ve ever heard of intuitive eating, you might assume that it’s just another diet trend — but you’d be wrong. In a world full of fad diets, this eating philosophy offers something completely different. Something kinder, gentler and more sustainable.
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Psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD, explains what intuitive eating is, what it can do for you and how to begin working its philosophies into your life.
“Intuitive eating is the polar opposite of dieting,” Dr. Albers says. “Instead of following rules and restricting what you eat, you trust your internal hunger, fullness and satiety cues to help you decide what and how much to eat. No food is off the table.”
Registered dietitian Evelyn Tribole and nutrition therapist Elyse Resch coined the term in their 1995 book Intuitive Eating, which took into account research and clinical work done by others before them.
More than 125 studies explore intuitive eating. A review of 97 of them found that it’s associated with:
“Intuitive eating is about making peace with food,” Dr. Albers says. “It’s about learning how to listen to your body and how to honor your hunger.”
Intuitive eating asks you to unlearn the negative messages about food and eating that society has taught you to believe. “We all have an internal eater in us, but it’s buried under diet culture,” Dr. Albers says. “With dieting, you follow rules; with intuitive eating, you listen to your hunger cues.”
If you’ve spent years dieting and following self-imposed food rules, it can be a challenge to learn to identify and trust your hunger cues. Rather than trying to start all at once, Dr. Albers suggests trying a 10-day challenge.
“Each day, focus on one of the principles,” she suggests. “Notice how it comes up, how you can put it into practice, some of your challenges and struggles, and how it improves your life.”
She explains the principles of intuitive eating and how to incorporate them into your life.
Have you ever noticed all of the messages you receive about food and dieting? From social media, advertisements and even chit-chat among friends, talk about the latest trendy diets and diet products is everywhere.
“Rejecting diet mentality means letting go of everything related to dieting,” Dr. Albers explains. “It’s recognizing and actively rejecting diet culture and everything it stands for that is harmful to your body.”
Example: You see an advertisement that indicates peanut butter is fattening. You recognize this as diet culture and continue to eat peanut butter because you love it.
Put it into action: Try to identify and recognize when you’re being influenced by diet culture. Dr. Albers recommends an activity she calls “I Spy Diet Culture.” Notice how often you see diet ads, articles about unhealthy eating styles and even language that celebrates weight loss, like “skinny jeans.”
“You’ll be amazed how often it pops up, seemingly everywhere you look,” she says.
Longtime dieting teaches us to ignore our hunger cues. But hunger is a biological response, and you wouldn’t ignore your body’s other biological responses, would you? You don’t try to suppress breathing, blinking or your urge to pee — yet we try to ignore our hunger all the time.
“Hunger is not your enemy or something to be avoided,” Dr. Albers says. “Intuitive eating is about listening to your hunger and learning to respond to what it needs.”
Example: You know you have a tendency to get hangry, so you put some mixed nuts in your purse to eat when you start to feel cranky.
Put it into action: Dr. Albers explains, “The key to living this principle is to ask yourself: What are you hungry for? And what is your hunger telling you that you need or want?” As simple as it sounds, practice eating when you’re hungry and trying to figure out what food your body is asking for.
Maybe you haven’t eaten bread for years, or you never eat after 7 p.m. This principle asks you to start breaking those rules and doing away with them entirely.
“To make peace with food is to stop fighting with food,” Dr. Albers says. “This includes putting an end to language that indicates that you’re at war with food, like, ‘I can’t eat that,’ or ‘I shouldn’t have this.’”
Example: You have a hard-and-fast rule about only eating brown rice, even though you love the taste of white rice. Recognizing that your overall pattern of eating impacts your health more than any one meal, you start to occasionally swap in white rice.
Put it into action: It’s time to start saying “I can” instead of “I could never.” Be gentle with yourself as you try to recognize and do away with judgmental, guilt-ridden thoughts.
“This can be a radical shift for people who avoid certain foods out of shame or guilt,” Dr. Albers notes.
Have you ever had a slice of cake at a birthday party and then beat yourself up about how “bad” you were? Or eaten a salad for lunch and praised yourself for being “good”?
If so, you’re well-acquainted with the food police — the voice in your head that criticizes and judges what you eat. “These food rules aren’t laws, but they can feel very punitive if you don’t follow them,” Dr. Albers says. “Food isn’t good or bad, but this is a shift in language if you grew up thinking about it that way.”
Example: You’re craving chocolate, so you buy a small chocolate bar and enjoy every bite. You feel happy and satisfied instead of guilty or ashamed.
Put it into action: Try to identify where the voice of the food police comes from. Sometimes, it’s your own internal judgment; other times, it’s an external voice, like a partner or parent making critical comments about your size.
Once you identify these rules, you can begin to dismantle them. “You have to ask: Why are you creating these food rules? And importantly, are these rules helpful to you or not?” Dr. Albers says. “Often, they’re unhelpful and arbitrary.”
Do you eat what you feel like you’re supposed to eat, or do you eat what will satisfy you? For many of us, it’s the former. And while eating is a biological requirement, the foods you choose should also bring you some joy.
“Eating should be an enjoyable experience,” Dr. Albers says. “This includes tasting pleasurable foods.” If you’re eating something that just isn’t satisfying you, it’s probably a sign that you’re not eating what’s right for you in the moment.
Example: You’re in the mood for something crunchy and healthy, so you aim to find a snack to satisfy that taste — maybe celery with peanut butter or carrots with hummus.
Put it into action: As you begin a meal or while you’re eating, ask yourself: Is this the food I want? Does it make me feel satisfied? Is there anything that might better satisfy me?
If principle five is all about mental satisfaction, then principle six is about physical satisfaction. Is your body getting what it needs from the food you’re eating? “Your body gives you signals that it is hungry and full,” Dr. Albers says.
Example: You haven’t eaten everything on your plate, but you’re feeling full, so you stop eating instead of pressuring yourself to join the “clean plate club” of your youth.
Put it into action: “Check in with your body to listen for cues of fullness and whether you’re feeling physically satisfied,” Dr. Albers advises. “Does what you’re eating resonate with your body and your hunger?”
Using a scale from 1 to 10, ask yourself how you’d rate your hunger level in this moment. One is extremely hungry, and 10 is stuffed.
Here’s a mantra to remember: Food doesn’t fix feelings. But often, we eat because we’re bored, stressed, anxious or sad — in other words, for emotional reasons.
“Food and feelings are so intertwined with each other,” Dr. Albers says. “This principle is about finding kind ways to nurture, distract, comfort and cope with your feelings with activities that help you to reduce your stress rather than with food.”
Example: You’re feeling stressed and start to look for some candy. When you pause, though, you realize it’s not candy you need but a way to relax and destress. You do a meditation instead.
Put it into action: Make a list of other ways to respond to your emotions: yoga, reading a book, going for a walk, etc. Then, when you’re compelled to stress-eat, spend some time thinking about how you’re feeling.
“Instead of making a beeline for food, pause and ask, ‘What am I feeling? And what does this feeling need?’” Dr. Albers advises. This will help you differentiate between physical hunger cues and emotion-driven eating.
Oh, and by the way: Sometimes, the answer is food, and that’s all right, too. “A little bit of stress-eating now and then can be OK,” Dr. Albers reassures. “But when we turn to food over and over again to soothe or comfort our feelings, it becomes a bigger issue.”
While diet and exercise do play a big role in the size and shape of your body, there’s a lot more to it than that — including your genes.
“Everybody is different, and we are influenced heavily by our genetic blueprint,” Dr. Albers says. “We can’t diet our way into a body that is not made for us.”
Intuitive eating recognizes and respects size diversity and the idea that all bodies are worthy of celebration.
Example: Some of your clothes no longer fit. Instead of holding onto them and hoping you’re eventually small enough to wear them again, you donate them. Then, you fill your closet with clothes that fit and make you feel good.
Put it into action: If body positivity seems too far-fetched for you, work toward body neutrality. “Because of diet culture, jumping right into loving your body can be so difficult for people,” Dr. Albers says. “Instead, it might be easier to start with accepting your body as it is — what it does for you, how it helps you.”
If you equate movement with exercise — and subsequently, with dread — you can probably blame diet culture. But there’s another way. Rather than exercising to burn calories, this principle recognizes that it feels good to move.
“Intuitive eating encourages you to do movements that bring you joy,” Dr. Albers explains. “And notice that it’s about movement, not exercise because sometimes exercise makes people think, ‘I’ve got to sweat and lose calories.’”
Example: You decide to go for a walk instead of running. You know running burns more calories, but you can’t stand doing it, whereas walking makes you happy.
Put it into action: Explore ways to move that you enjoy and that make you feel strong and energized, whether it’s dancing, walking your dog, surfing or playing tennis. “Notice how your body feels when it’s active,” adds Dr. Albers.
The other nine principles are about tuning in to your internal needs, but intuitive eating isn’t asking you to forget everything you’ve been taught about nutrition. This principle asks you to turn to science to understand your body’s needs.
“Food science informs us about how certain foods impact our appetite, health and fullness,” Dr. Albers says.
Example: You notice that whenever you have toast for breakfast, you become hungry almost immediately afterward. You start putting peanut butter on your morning toast, which keeps you fuller for longer.
Put it into action: Work on melding the internal (how you feel about what you eat) with the external (food science) to figure out what food choices will satisfy your overlapping needs.
There’s a lot of overlap between intuitive eating and mindful eating, which encourages awareness of your internal and external experiences related to food. Mindful eating means paying attention to every experience related to eating, including taste, emotions, thoughts and how your body responds to the food you eat.
The main difference between the two is that intuitive eating has 10 principles and specifically calls for the rejection of diet culture.
“They both aim to help people honor, hear and respond to their hunger in conscious ways,” Dr. Albers says. “You can be eating intuitively and mindfully at the same time.”
If you’re looking to intuitive eating for weight loss, you may not initially like this answer: “The goal of intuitive eating is not weight loss,” Dr. Albers says. “Weight loss is part of diet culture. It pushes you into shame and guilt in a way that focusing on improving your health and your joy around food do not.”
Some people, she says, do lose weight because they’re able to stop unhealthy behaviors like binge-eating. But other people gain weight, especially if they’ve been restricting or dieting for a long time.
“It comes down to the fact that your body will do whatever it needs to do,” Dr. Albers says. “That can be tough to wrap our minds around because it’s so different from the diet mentality that promises you’ll lose 10 pounds in 10 days.”
Intuitive eating doesn’t make those kinds of promises. But what it does promise is a better relationship with your body and with food — which actually sounds a lot healthier, happier and more sustainable, doesn’t it?
To learn more from Dr. Albers about intuitive eating, listen to the Health Essentials Podcast episode, “Understanding Intuitive Eating.” New episodes of the Health Essentials Podcast publish every Wednesday.