Intuitive eating - the basics

31 May 2019

What is intuitive eating?

Because I always like to start with a good definition, let’s get one for intuitive eating by one of its creators:

“Intuitive Eating is an evidenced-based, mind-body health approach, comprised of 10 Principles and created by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995. It is a weight-neutral model with a validated assessment scale and over 90 studies to date (Tribole 2017)… Intuitive Eating is a dynamic integration between mind and body.  The principles work by either cultivating or removing obstacles to body awareness, a process known as interoceptive awareness.  Essentially, Intuitive Eating is a personal process of honoring health by listening and responding to the direct messages of the body in order to meet your physical and psychological needs.”

There’s only one way to do intuitive eating wrong – to turn it into a diet. The hunger and fullness diet is a common way you see the principles of intuitive eating co-opted by diet culture. In the hunger and fullness diet you should only eat when you’re hungry and stop eating when you’re full. Intuitive eating works somewhat the same except that there are no hard and fast rules, no restrictions, no shoulds and should nots. Just principles to guide and support your individual journey to improve your relationship with food.

That means sometimes you’re going to eat when you’re not that hungry – our hectic lives often dictate narrow timeframes for eating that don’t quite match with our internal signals. Sometimes you’ll eat past comfortable fullness; parties are a good example. Intuitive eaters recognise that that’s OKAY. There’s no ‘falling off the wagon’ or ‘cheat days’ when you eat intuitively.

Relearning intuitive eating

We all have the ability to eat in accordance with our internal signals. When we are weaning as babies we eat when we’re hungry and stop eating when we’re full. When offered a range of different foods we try them all and choose those that will nourish us most at each moment.

Years and years of living in a society of rules, restrictions, judgments and fear-mongering about food and our bodies means that we ignore and push away the simple signals from our body that can help regulate how much and which foods serve us. Serial dieting can take us so far away from our bodies that it can feel like our internal signals aren’t there anymore, leading to distrust and fear of over-eating or being ‘out of control’ around certain foods. Intuitive eating can help to reconnect us to our bodies and normalise our eating behaviours. 


But what does ‘normal’ eating even look like? An amazing definition, which encapsulates exactly where intuitive eating can take you is from Ellyn Satter, a Registered Dietitian who helps families to create joyful and healthful eating experiences:

“Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it—not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.

In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.”

Counter culture

Intuitive eating fights against the mainstream diets, wellness and lifestyle plans that dominate. It moves the focus of health and wellbeing back inside your body and nurtures skills to enable you to listen to internal signals and act on them. This isn’t always easy to do when diet culture is so pervasive but it’s so much easier to turn a blind eye and see marketing and patriarchal nonsense for what it is when you trust your instincts and respect your body.

From my own personal experience with intuitive eating I’ve found that I’ve gotten so much of my life back. Time and energy that I used to dedicate to what I truly believed was the route to making my body look like those I saw on TV and also make me healthier. 

What I didn’t allow myself to realise was that my body was never going to look like anyone else’s body, because it’s mine; but that’s a good thing. And, that to have a truly healthy diet you need a healthy relationship with food AND a wide variety of balanced foods. I had neither, but I’d been conned to think my restrictive, punishing diet was the only way. This is just not the case; intuitive eating offers another way with the chance to ditch diets for good.

"When a craving doesn't come from hunger, eating probably won't satisfy it" - Michelle May MD