Overeating and poor nutrition can cause fatigue, digestive issues, and other life-long health problems. On the other hand, restrictive diets are unpleasant, ineffective in the long term, and can be dangerous.
Intuitive eating is an evidence-based alternative to habitual or restricted eating. The practice focuses on helping people form a healthy relationship with food and recognize their own hunger and fullness cues. While there are barriers and misinformation around intuitive eating, research suggests this approach may carry a wealth of health and self-esteem benefits for some people.
Intuitive eating is based on the notion that people should look to their own body cues to decide what, when, and how much to eat. No food is off-limits. The practice actually recommends against labeling foods as wholesome or "empty calories," good or bad. The approach is similarly not focused on weight loss. Rather, intuitive eating encourages people to eat when they are hungry and to eat foods that make them feel satisfied.
A common misconception is that a person who can eat whatever they're craving will eat mainly sugar or processed food. However, there is research indicating that judgment and food restriction actually make people more vulnerable to unhealthy eating habits. Intuitive eating teaches people to let go of the guilt and anxiety that can increase unhealthy habits and pay attention to their body's cues for when to start and stop eating.
Internal cues that someone practicing intuitive eating looks for include stomach rumbling, low energy, irritability, and the feeling of hunger. People are encouraged to eat when they experience these feelings, even if it's not during traditional mealtimes.
Eating while watching television or doing other distracting activities is discouraged. The idea is that by removing distractions when eating, they can notice how the food tastes and whether they're satisfied and pinpoint when they begin to feel full.
The principles of intuitive eating were developed by Evelyn Tribole, a registered dietician and former national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and Elyse Resch, a nutrition therapist. The pair published their first book on intuitive eating in 1995 as a response to their concerns with diet trends and attitudes around food.
Part of the recent interest in intuitive eating comes from movements to highlight and stop food shaming and stigmas around weight. The Health At Every Size movement is one such reaction against these often detrimental judgements. Intuitive eating encourages healthy practices without focusing on weight loss. Others don't necessarily agree with the Health At Every Size approach but are burned out on fad diets and food trends.
Intuitive eating's growing popularity is likely also due in part to the growing body of research that indicates many potential benefits.
A review of studies around intuitive eating found positive results. People who followed intuitive eating reported an improvement in habits and body image. They were less likely to experience depression and disordered eating patterns. Studies also show that not only do participants in intuitive eating programs tend to develop healthier habits, but they maintain those habits longer.
The lack of structure around intuitive eating can make it challenging for people who prefer more guidance. One study focusing on middle-aged women found that many struggle to let go of judgment around eating and to balance their own food needs with the needs of their family. Social events, such as birthday dinners or holiday celebrations, can also be challenging.
Intuitive eating isn't right for everyone. A person with diabetes, for example, needs a more structured diet to maintain their blood sugar.
For others, the full process of intuitive eating is simply not accessible. A person with a limited food budget or restrictive work schedule may not have the resources to eat when and what they want.
Mindful eating is a similar process to intuitive eating. A person practicing mindful eating may sit down to a meal and consider what foods they're choosing, where those foods came from, how they feel, taste, and smell. They may meditate before or after the meal. The goal is to pay attention while eating and take in these sensations without judgment. Mindful eating also encourages people to consider how their food choices affect the local and global environment.
A person who's interested in learning more about intuitive eating can visit the intuitive eating website. The ten principles are listed in more detail, as well as links to blog posts, further studies, and reference materials. A person with past or existing dietary-related issues should talk to their doctor or dietician before undertaking intuitive eating.
This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.