Are you tired of diets that don’t work? Do you instinctively label foods as good or bad and feel guilty when you “give in” to those bad foods? If so, you’re not alone in feeling this way.
For most of us, diet culture has harmed our physical and mental health by imposing strict food rules that leave us feeling awful about our bodies and food choices.
Enter intuitive eating.
Intuitive eating is an approach to health and nutrition that has nothing to do with dieting, calorie counting, or food rules. Instead, the 10 principles of intuitive eating teach you to ditch the diet mentality and reconnect with your body’s natural cues like hunger and fullness.
This unique framework also helps you trust your body again and listen to your gut when it comes to food.
Are you interested in intuitive eating but aren’t sure where to begin? Here you’ll find the ultimate intuitive eating guide with descriptions of each principle and tips to help you get started on your intuitive eating journey.
Table of Contents
What Is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating was created in 1995 by two registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, as a guide to breaking the diet cycle. It consists of ten principles that promote a healthy body image and relationship with food.
The 10 principles of intuitive eating are:
- Reject the Diet Mentality
- Honor Your Hunger
- Make Peace with Food
- Challenge the Food Police
- Feel Your Fullness
- Discover the Satisfaction Factor
- Cope With Your Emotions Without Using Food
- Respect Your Body
- Exercise- Feel the Difference
- Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition
Before publishing their book, Tribole and Resch worked in private nutrition practice. During that time, the pair noticed that many of their clients would begin a new meal plan with fresh enthusiasm and motivation, only to feel defeated when the weight did not stay off permanently.
Tribole and Resch also observed that many of their clients experienced what they coined as “symptoms of diet backlash.” These symptoms or side-effects of dieting include:
- Intense cravings for “off-limits” foods, such as ice cream, cookies, sweets, and so on
- Social withdrawal, since it’s hard to stay on a diet and go out to dinner at the same time
- Slower metabolism as the body adjusts to surviving on fewer calories
- Feelings of fatigue and exhaustion
- Higher likelihood of binge eating, especially on foods that are restricted
- Intense feelings of guilt after eating
- Higher rates of disordered eating
After seeing this pattern play out repeatedly, Tribole and Resch set out to create a new health framework that would eventually become the 10 principles of intuitive eating.
Unlike most wellness plans, intuitive eating is not a weight loss diet or food plan. It’s also not about eating whatever you want as long as it’s in moderation. Instead, intuitive eating is a dynamic process that emphasizes enjoyment of food and movement, gentle nutrition, rejecting the diet mentality, and respecting your body.
Ultimately, the end goal of intuitive eating is to help you improve your relationship with food and your body by breaking free of the diet cycle.
The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating
It’s important to understand each intuitive eating principle and how they work together to become an intuitive eater.
Keep in mind that the intuitive eating journey is a personal process. You can think of these principles as a framework versus a rigid set of rules, and you can follow the principles in any order that makes sense.
Principle 1. Reject the Diet Mentality
Think about the last time that you were on a diet. Did you lose weight? Perhaps the answer is yes, as many diet programs are good at short-term success. Did the weight stay off permanently? For most, the answer is no.
The problem with diets is insidious. Often, a new diet program brings renewed optimism and may even feel effortless at first. However, these good feelings don’t last, and we are often left with hunger and food cravings, causing us to “break” the diet.
It shouldn’t be surprising that most diets fail (1, 2).
The worst part is that many of us return to dieting because we believe that we failed and not that dieting itself is fruitless. We blame ourselves for lack of willpower or not eating perfectly. In reality, diets set us up to fail, which keeps us coming back again and again. Each time we fall off the wagon, the diet industry is there to sell us the next diet program, book, app, or supplement.
A crucial (and challenging!) first step toward intuitive eating is to reject the diet mentality. Even one small hope that the next diet could work can prevent you from becoming an intuitive eater.
Intuitive eating tip to reject the diet mentality
Recognize that diet programs set you up for failure and may also damage your health. Once you have identified the diet mentality, you can take steps to remove diets from your life. These actions may include throwing away old diet books, unfollowing social media accounts that advocate for weight loss, or challenging diet talk when you hear it in conversations.
Key takeaways: The first intuitive eating step is to accept that weight-loss diets don’t work. By rejecting the diet mentality, you can break free from the cycle of dieting.
Principle 2. Honor Your Hunger
Hunger has a bad reputation in the diet world. There is plenty of social media content and articles touting strategies to suppress your hunger and appetite. However, feeling hungry is a normal biological process and a powerful one at that.
We’re all born intuitive eaters with strong hunger cues, but we learn to question and suppress these cues over time. We can become disconnected from our bodies for many reasons, including dieting, working through lunch, or emotional eating.
When we try to fight feelings of hunger, they may become so strong that they can trigger us to eat to the point of discomfort. Learning to recognize and honor hunger is one step you can take to repair your relationship with food and your body.
This principle of intuitive eating may sound easier than it is. Many of us are accustomed to ignoring our appetite, and it may be challenging to reconnect with the body’s hunger and fullness signals.
How to start honoring your hunger
If you have a history of chronic dieting, it might be tricky to recognize your hunger cues again.
The hunger-fullness scale is one tool you can use to become reacquainted with your biological hunger. The intuitive eating hunger scale is a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being completely famished and 10 being overly full, stuffed, or sick.
Before a meal or snack, try asking, “What number is my hunger on the scale?” Ideally, you’ll be between 3 and 4, where you are starting to feel hunger pangs but are not yet starving.
Then, halfway through your meal, pause for ten seconds to check your hunger. Again, you may use this as an opportunity to assess where you are on the scale. The goal is to eat until you reach about a 6 or 7, or comfortably full.
The hunger-fullness scale is one tool that you can use to begin honoring your hunger. Ultimately, these numbers are suggestions, and you can do what feels best for you.
Key takeaways: Keep your body fed with energy and nutrients by honoring your hunger. Otherwise, you may be prone to overeat in response. Learning to recognize and honor hunger helps repair your trust in your body.
Principle 3. Make Peace with Food
The third principle focuses on neutralizing foods, not defining foods as “good” or “bad,” and giving yourself unconditional permission to eat.
Have you ever noticed that when a particular food is “forbidden,” it can start to occupy your thoughts? When you limit or restrict foods in your diet, you give those foods power: the power to take up space in your mind, the power to make you feel guilty, and even the power to ruin your day.
Additionally, when you tell yourself that you should not or cannot have a particular food, it can lead to cravings and feelings of intense deprivation. These cravings can run rampant and even result in overeating or binge eating. This overeating then triggers guilt and a vow to do better next time, resulting in a neverending cycle of dieting, as illustrated below.
We can break the diet cycle by making peace with food. This includes giving yourself unconditional permission to eat, including previously off-limits foods.
Intuitive eating tip to make peace with food
Start small when making changes. Many people fear that they will “overdo” it if they suddenly have unlimited access to their favorite foods.
However, if all foods are allowed in the diet, you may be less likely to restrict, binge, or eat in secret because you’ll feel safe knowing that your favorite foods will always be there. You’ll likely find that those foods aren’t as powerful as you once believed.
Key takeaways: Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. All foods fit, and there are no more good, bad, or off-limits foods.
Principle 4. Challenge the Food Police
The fourth intuitive eating principle is challenging the food police. But who or what are the food police?
The food police are the loud, negative thoughts in your head that uphold the diet mentality, and their job is to enforce the strict food rules created by dieting. They are the thoughts that tell you foods are “good” or “bad” and that you are a “good” or “bad” person based on your food choices.
You might recognize them as the voice in your head that whispers, “You shouldn’t be eating that.”
While the food police reside in the back of your mind, they can also be awakened by diet programs, the media, family, and peers.
Identifying and rejecting these negative thoughts or food rules is essential to building a better relationship with food. Food is simply food, and you are not a bad person for eating.
Intuitive eating tip to challenge food police
We can rewire our brains to move away from the diet mentality, but first, we need to identify our food police. Some examples of the food police may include thoughts like:
- I can’t eat after 7 pm
- My stomach is rumbling, but I can’t eat anything until dinner
- I’m only going to eat salads for lunch
- I couldn’t possibly eat that brownie because I have sworn off sugar
- I have to run an extra mile today because I had a big dinner last night
Once we understand how our thoughts act as food police, we can begin to find new ways of thinking. Learn more about replacing unhelpful negative thinking using positive affirmations for health.
Key takeaways: The food police are the unhelpful, negative thoughts that uphold strict diet and food rules. Challenging the food police means learning to say no to these unhelpful voices in your head.
Principle 5. Feel Your Fullness
Similar to how your body tells you when you are hungry, your body can also signal when you’re full and can stop eating. These are our natural satiety cues. However, a history of dieting can make it harder to listen to these internal signals.
Diet programs often tell you to eat at certain times, making it difficult to say no to food left on your plate. It is also nearly impossible to stop eating when you’re afraid that you will be hungry later.
Additionally, years of dieting may have left you feeling “out of control” around certain foods. When you deprive yourself of foods that you enjoy, you may be more likely to ignore your satiety signals when you have access to those foods. Therefore, part of feeling your fullness is also honoring your hunger and making peace with food.
Intuitive eating tip for feeling your fullness
The intuitive eating hunger scale can also help measure fullness. Try pausing at different points throughout a meal to ask, “where am I on the scale?” “What signs or signals tell me when I’m satisfied?” Ideally, you want to stop once you’ve reached a comfortable fullness.
Key takeaways: Learn to listen to the body cues that tell you when you are comfortably full. In order to stop when you’re full, your body must trust that it will have access to food in the future. Fear of deprivation can make it harder to stop eating when you are no longer hungry.
Principle 6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
This principle is about enjoying food again. Contrary to what diet culture tells us, it is normal and healthy to eat for reasons other than physical hunger. The adage “food is fuel” fails to consider the pleasure and satisfaction we derive from food.
Have you ever noticed that there are times when you are physically full but not satisfied? What happened? Perhaps you noticed that you are more likely to overeat after an unsatisfying meal?
When you permit yourself to eat foods you enjoy, you derive more pleasure from your meals. In turn, this will leave you feeling more satisfied and content.
The idea of permitting yourself to eat whatever you want may sound scary at first. Some individuals may be nervous that they will “lose control” around previously forbidden foods. However, when you feel more satisfied, you’ll be better able to tune into those natural hunger and fullness signals.
Intuitive eating tips to feel more satisfied
Try the following mindful eating tips and exercises to help discover the satisfaction factor at meals.
- Eat when you are just getting hungry rather than overly hungry. It can be harder to slow down and enjoy food when we feel extreme hunger.
- Enjoy your meals in an environment that is inviting and relaxing.
- Make time to appreciate your meal. How does the food taste? What is the texture (hard, crunchy, smooth, etc.)? What about this meal is appealing to you (the color, shape, temperature, etc.)?
- Sit down to eat without distraction.
- Try to eat slowly, taking moments to taste and savor each bite.
- Provide variety in your meals, including previously “forbidden foods.” How does each component of the meal make you feel?
- Check in with your hunger halfway through the meal. Where are you on the hunger scale?
For more mindful eating tips, check out the 7-day mindful eating challenge.
Key takeaways: Eating is a satisfying and fun part of life. You get more out of your meals when you enjoy food and the eating experience.
Principle 7. Cope With Your Emotions Without Using Food
You may not hear this often, but emotional eating is common and completely normal. It is natural to eat for reasons other than physical hunger, and you can temporarily use food to soothe an emotion like stress, boredom, anxiety, or sadness.
While food can lessen an uncomfortable feeling, it becomes a problem if eating is your only coping mechanism. Additionally, emotional eating does not address the underlying issue or stressor causing that emotion. Those issues will still be there once you’ve finished eating. So while it might be a temporary fix, emotional eating is not a long-term solution.
Emotional eating can also lead to binges or overeating if you attempt to numb a strong emotion with food. Overeating often results in feelings of guilt and physical discomfort, which may only leave you feeling worse.
Ultimately, emotional eating provides momentary relief, and eventually, you will need to confront your feelings. Developing constructive coping mechanisms to handle those emotions is key to becoming an intuitive eater.
Intuitive eating tips for handling emotions
Try asking the following questions to deal with emotions without using food:
- Begin by asking yourself if you are physically hungry? If the answer is yes, then eat!
- If you are eating for reasons other than hunger, take a moment to consider what you are feeling. Is it anxiety, anger, sadness, boredom, exhaustion, loneliness, etc.?
- Consider what may help address these emotions. Perhaps you need sleep, relaxation, or human connection; none of these needs can be appropriately satisfied by food.
Key takeaways: Food can temporarily numb an uncomfortable emotion, but it isn’t a long-term solution. Instead, try finding a variety of coping mechanisms that aren’t just about food or eating.
Principle 8. Respect Your Body
When was the last time that you were kind to your body? Perhaps it’s been a while.
Learning to respect your body is an important pillar of intuitive eating. It is hard to reject the diet mentality if you are critical of your body size and shape. Of course, this is easier said than done, and many people need to unlearn the toxic messages brought to us by diet culture.
Additionally, we all have self-doubt, and building a positive body image won’t happen overnight. Respecting your body doesn’t mean that you have to love every aspect of yourself because that isn’t always realistic. It also doesn’t mean that you will feel confident about your appearance every day.
Instead, respecting your body means treating it with care. This might include actions like eating nutrient-dense foods, taking rest days, or finding moments of gratitude for your body. It could also be a simple promise not to harm yourself by following an unsafe fad diet.
Ultimately, respecting your body means giving it the care and consideration we all deserve.
Intuitive eating tip for respecting your body
Begin by bringing awareness to your inner monologue. What negative things do you say about yourself in a day? Next, try reframing those negative or toxic thoughts. An example of this might look like:
- Negative thinking- My legs are too big.
- Reframing- My legs are strong, and they help me move through the world.
Check out these positive affirmations for health, body image, and self-worth for even more ideas.
Key Takeaways: It is hard to break free of the diet mentality when you are critical of your body. Instead, begin to believe that your worth and value are not dependent on your appearance.
Principle 9. Exercise- Feel the Difference
Many people exercise as a means to an end rather than for enjoyment. Intuitive eating encourages you to focus on movement that feels good instead of exercising to burn calories or achieve a “lean” body.
Exercise is a great way to relieve stress, increase energy, and build a better quality of life. Most importantly, it doesn’t have to be grueling to be effective.
Try focusing on how exercise makes you feel rather than how many calories you can burn during a workout. Ask yourself, how do you feel after a workout? Do you sleep better on days that you exercise? Do you have more energy? Or improved mood?
By reframing how you view exercise, you can begin to see it as a way to take care of yourself, cope with emotions, and prevent health problems later in life. Plus, when you make physical activity convenient and fun, you will be more likely to stick with a routine.
Key takeaways: Your body deserves to move in an engaging and fun way. Shift your focus to how exercise makes you feel versus how many calories you can burn in a workout.
Principle 10. Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition
Most of us understand that nutrition is vital for living a long and healthy life, separate from weight loss. However, many of us have also used nutrition knowledge to manipulate or change our bodies. The concept of gentle nutrition is the final principle of intuitive eating and helps bridge the divide between deprivation diets and free-for-alls.
Gentle nutrition means choosing foods that honor your hunger, taste buds, body, and health. This includes selecting foods based on both your desires and how these foods make you feel.
Being an intuitive eater does not mean that you throw nutrition information out the window. It also doesn’t mean eating whatever you want, just in moderation. Instead, intuitive eating means that you do not need to eat perfectly to be healthy. By practicing gentle nutrition, you allow yourself the flexibility to eat a variety of foods.
What makes gentle nutrition different from traditional diets is that you make food choices from a place that honors your health rather than from a diet mentality.
Intuitive eating tip to get started with gentle nutrition
Consider how certain foods make you feel in addition to how they taste. For example, you might feel like eating ice cream for dinner. However, your brain may remind you that you’ll likely be hungry in a few hours if you only have a bowl of ice cream.
Your nutrition knowledge reminds you that a balanced meal may be more satisfying. Perhaps you’ll follow that meal with some ice cream. In this case, your body and brain work together to determine what is best.
Key takeaways: Honor your body and health by practicing gentle nutrition. This means feeding your body what it wants and what it needs.
What Are the Benefits of Intuitive Eating?
Despite best efforts, weight loss diets frequently fail. In fact, scientific research suggests weight loss is unsustainable and that dieting for weight loss may result in weight gain (2, 3).
Additionally, worrying about weight can lead to body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, and symptoms of disordered eating.
Unlike most diets, the benefits of intuitive eating aren’t measured in pounds, inches, or calories. Instead, this framework improves your relationship with food and your body, which can tremendously enhance your physical, mental, and emotional health.
Intuitive eating has been studied extensively since the late 1990s, with over 125+ studies published to date and more evidence emerging every year.
Based on scientific research, some of the main benefits of intuitive eating are:
- Better body image
- Higher self-esteem
- Improved cholesterol levels
- Lower levels of stress and anxiety
- Improved metabolism
- Increased satisfaction with life
- Decreased risk of disordered eating
- Reduced risk of emotional eating
- Better emotional awareness and healthier coping skills
Not to mention the amount of time, money, and aggravation that you’ll save by not following the latest fad diet. So are you ready to get started?
How Do I Start Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating is a journey that takes time and practice. It might feel daunting to adopt an entirely new philosophy about food and health. Here are some ideas and resources if you’re ready to start intuitive eating but aren’t sure where to begin:
- Grab a copy of The Intuitive Eating Book. Registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch created and wrote the book on intuitive eating after realizing that traditional diets don’t work. It was initially published in 1995 but remains popular to this day. The book contains 350+ pages and is an excellent resource for anyone interested in intuitive eating.
- Check out the Original Intuitive Eating Pro Website. There are tons of great articles and information on this site.
- A great place to start is with Principle 1: Ditching the diet mentality. Consider all of the ways that diets have failed you in the past. Accepting that diets don’t work is a significant first step toward becoming an intuitive eater.
- Evaluate your current relationship with food. Bringing awareness to where you are now can help you determine where you would like to go. Try asking: What foods do I label as “good” or “bad”? What foods am I afraid to keep in the house, and why? How might my life be different if I had a better relationship with food?
- Start bringing awareness to your hunger and fullness signals using the intuitive eating hunger scale. A big part of intuitive eating is becoming better attuned to your hunger cues.
- Consider speaking with a registered dietitian who specializes in intuitive eating.
FAQs About Intuitive Eating
1. Can I use intuitive eating for weight loss?
Wanting to lose weight is a natural result of growing up within the diet industry and is something we’re taught is a worthwhile pursuit, no matter the cost. Therefore, it makes sense that many people come to intuitive eating for weight loss.
However, intuitive eating is not a weight loss diet, and using it as a diet runs in opposition to the 10 principles of intuitive eating. Instead of weight loss, intuitive eating aims to help you break free of the diet cycle.
For some, this may mean settling into a set weight after years of yo-yo dieting. That might result in weight loss, weight gain, or remaining the same weight. However, once you become an intuitive eater, that number on the scale won’t hold as much power, and you can finally feel free to step off the weight loss treadmill.I
2. Is intuitive eating for everyone?
Yes, intuitive eating is for everyone.
At it’s core, intuitive eating is about ditching the diet mentality. That said, some individuals may need to follow medical diets to help control a health condition, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. Additionally, some may have to eliminate certain foods from their diet due to allergies or sensitivities. In that case, you can’t exactly ditch your diet.
However, following a medical diet is very different than following a diet that upholds Western beauty standards.
Intuitive eating is for everyone because it promotes self-care and health practices from a place of acceptance and respect, not from the pursuit of weight loss. Respecting your body does not mean that you will ignore a medical diagnosis, and you can still follow the 10 principles of intuitive eating while making necessary adjustments for health.
Of course, you should always check with your doctor before making any changes to your current diet.
3. Can intuitive eating help stop overeating?
Yes, you may find that intuitive eating helps you stop overeating.
There is a misconception that intuitive eating means that you can eat whatever you want, whenever you want. Many fear that this could result in unrestrained or binge eating.
However, the opposite is usually true. In fact, the number one predictor of binge eating is restriction.
If you tell yourself that you can’t have a particular food, it can lead to feelings of deprivation, resulting in intense cravings and overeating. On the other hand, when you give yourself unconditional permission to eat, you’ll likely find that you’ll have a more balanced diet and be less prone to overeating.
If you never deprive yourself of your favorite foods again, you’ll notice that you don’t have the urge to overdo it because you can trust that those foods will always be there.
Intuitive eating is a non-diet approach to health that helps you reconnect with your natural hunger signals. Beyond that, the 10 principles of intuitive eating provide you with the necessary tools to fight back against weight-obsessed culture. It is a framework that encourages a healthy relationship with food, exercise, and the body.
With practice, intuitive eating can boost your self-esteem, improve your body image, and help you break free of the diet cycle.
As with most things, eating intuitively is a process, and most of us can’t unlearn harmful diet messages overnight. Be sure to give yourself plenty of grace and patience as you embark on this next chapter.
What do you think? Leave a comment below if you’re on an intuitive eating journey, and don’t forget to share this with your friends!