How to practice the principles of intuitive eating
Maybe you’ve heard that the answer to your seemingly unending, impossible, frustrating quest for sustained weight loss is actually something called Intuitive Eating. Maybe a friend recommended you check it out, or a doctor (please tell me your doctor’s name if that is the case!), or maybe you are just sick of dieting and obsessing about food and so you stumbled across the concept on the internet. You know that continuing your weight loss journey has GOT to change. Learning about intuitive eating and how to practice all 10 principles can improve your relationship with food, your body, and yourself.
Maybe you came across someone’s page on social media that called themselves “anti-diet” and introduced the concept to you. However, you got here, welcome. You are in a good place, an accepting place, an inclusive place, a place of healing and self-love.
What Is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating is a style of eating, of living really, that includes listening to your body – your body alone – to figure out what, when, and how much to eat. This helps you take the worry out of your food choices and places that brain space back in your control to do with what you please.
Eating intuitively is the opposite of dieting for weight loss – or most elimination diets, and is very much in favor of health. The difference is that intuitive eating also honors your mental health, your emotional health, and your desire to live a life fully attuned with your uniqueness. This method and framework was created by the brilliant and dynamic duo of Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, both certified eating disorder dietitians with tons of experience working with individuals to heal their relationship with food. The wonderful book is in its 4th edition and has been changing lives for 26 years.
Will intuitive eating work for me?
Intuitive eating is most helpful for people who are sick of going on diet after diet and finding themselves disappointed, hungry, disconnected, and disliking their bodies. Intuitive eating helps you unlearn what society has taught you about how to treat your body and relearn how to honor yourself. No more whipping yourself into submission with shame, guilt, and celery juice. There are 10 principles of intuitive eating to work through in order to reconnect with your body’s hunger and fullness signals, heal and manage emotional eating, move your body in a way that feels good for you, and find respect for your body as it is now.
It gives you back the time and money that dieting has taken from you. It frees you up to think about more important things. It liberates and uplifts all people in all bodies. It is equitable and compassionate. It can be deep and difficult work, but will seriously change your life for the better. And it is accessible to many people, but not everyone. At least not everyone at any time.
Intuitive eating isn’t enough for everyone.
Intuitive Eating is a healing framework and is where I try to get all of my clients to eventually. It is a solid set of principles that helps you reject dieting and trust your body, once again. But it is a bit of a privilege to be able to do intuitive eating, and the ten principles of intuitive eating are not ENOUGH for every person.
Some people need a zoomed out approach, and one tailored to their specific circumstances and life experience. Folks with significant trauma history will have a really hard time listening to their body. They can be extremely disconnected, and so will likely need trauma therapy to go alongside with the intuitive eating work.
Neurodivergent people will also have a hard time feeling and connecting with their bodies, using interoceptive awareness. It’s true that things need to be tailored to these people specifically, but that does not mean it will not work.
Practicing intuitive eating also takes time, and not everyone has that. Many critics will say that it is absurd to expect someone to be able to take time out and eat mindfully. And I understand. Someone working 2 jobs, who then comes home to kids who need to eat before doing homework may not have time to sit quietly and eat. So true.
With all of these circumstances, intuitive eating can just be part of a way to reconnect with hunger and fullness, find food choices that fit into your life, your day, as it is. So yes, it may need to be tailored, but it is also helpful if we look at intuitive eating, and the principles as guides, not rules.
Remember that is the OPPOSITE of a diet, which means it does not need, nor should it be, following exactly. It’s meant to move with you.
Will intuitive eating make me lose weight?
There is no simple answer to this. If you are currently eating more than your body needs or have suppressed your metabolism, there is a chance you’ll lose weight – in time – with intuitive eating. But bodies are not machines and chronic dieting can change your metabolism, so it’s really hard to say what will happen. But, if you stick with intuitive eating and practice all ten principles consistently and with self-compassion, you can find your set-point weight.
Your setpoint weight is your body’s homeostasis. This means – when you’re eating when you’re hungry, stopping when you’re full, moving your body regularly, getting enough sleep – and all the other things you can find by healing your relationship with food – your body will land at a weight that you can sustain easily.
What Are The 10 Steps Of Intuitive Eating?
1. Ditch Dieting For Good
This means no more Whole 30, Noom, moralistic clean eating, or going gluten-free for no reason. What a relief!! These are all diets and all have damaging effects on your ability to listen and respond to your body. This step includes understanding the truth about how weight does not equal health and why intentional weight loss can be so damaging. It includes learning to stop weighing yourself obsessively, to delete My Fitness Pal, and to enjoy all the food you enjoy. It can be hard at first to truly embody this concept, but it is absolutely essential.
I also believe taking a good, hard look at our culture at large and the way we treat women and womens’ bodies is an essential part of this first principle of intuitive eating. In my small group program, The Love Food Again Program, we focus on beauty ideals, intersectional feminism, and how women have been socialized as people pleasers and perfectionists. We do this at the beginning of the program to help you build a solid foundation for your relationship with food to transform.
2. Honor Your Hunger and Tune Into Your Body
Dieting often makes it impossible to hear what your body is telling you. When you were dieting, you weren’t supposed to honor your hunger. You were supposed to constantly question it and suppress it. When you’re only supposed to eat a small amount, or certain types of food, or at certain times, you grow accustomed to ignoring your hunger. Through intuitive eating, you will learn to decipher hunger from boredom from emotional eating. You will learn how to take the worry out of eating because you gain trust that your hunger is safe and smart.
3. Make Peace With Food
The third principle of intuitive eating is the one where you give yourself permission to eat what you want. Here, you’ll learn to stop the fight in your head about what, when, and how to eat. You’ll learn that your body can be trusted to eat the right amount and types of food without you micromanaging it. This all starts with giving yourself unconditional permission to eat. Here’s where you’ll figure out that you are not actually addicted to food, since that’s impossible (even though it can totally feel like it sometimes). This can be a really scary concept for some folks, and if it is, it’s really helpful to have a professional alongside to support you and guide you.
4. Challenge The Food Police
This is where we end the guilt game. No more food shame. No more “good” and “bad” foods. No more moral superiority for eating organic or vegan or hemp seeds with every meal. This has gotten out of control in our thin-obsessed culture where morality is all caught up in how we eat. These messages that you hear when you try to choose foods become deeply ingrained in your psyche after years of being subject to diet culture. It takes time to turn them off, but with some work, you can learn to quiet these voices and uplift the ones that will actually serve you to become more uniquely you.
5. Discover Satisfaction
Food can and should be pleasurable. But dieting often sucks all the joy out of it. Allowing pleasure to be your guide, especially at the beginning of this journey, is an important and exciting concept to tune into. Here we also work through the eating environment and talk about distracted eating, the tendency of past dieters to eat quickly. This is also the section where mindful eating comes into play. In principle five of intuitive eating, we’re using mindful eating to amp up the pleasure you get from eating. You’ll find that focusing on pleasure, and allowing yourself to experience it, will show you the path to be satisfied with what your body needs.
6. Feel Your Fullness
Fullness can be such a difficult body sensation to sense and honor when you’ve been dieting for years. Since most diets cause you to restrict calories so much, when it is finally time to eat, not eating everything on your plate isn’t even an option. Not to mention the fact that so many of us grew up with parents who basically forced us to finish out plates, no wonder it’s hard to notice fullness and respond to it appropriately. This is often one of the last principles of intuitive eating that feels natural. It is a tough one, but with kindness, you can definitely get there.
7. Cope With Your Emotions With Kindness
Here, you learn to figure out why you’re eating. You learn to tell if you’re eating is due to hunger or because of other reasons, like sadness, stress, or boredom. The first step in dealing with emotional eating is learning to tell when the eating you think is emotional is actually due to body states. Then you can learn to tell what you need in the moment when you’re reaching for that bag of chips after dinner, when you know you’re not hungry. This process also allows you to find real comfort in food sometimes, which we all need. Where would we be without a soothing bowl of soup on a rainy day, or a hotdog at a baseball game, or ice cream at the end of of a hot summer day?
8. Respect Your Body
Your body deserves respect NO MATTER WHAT. It can be hard to embody this principle when you’ve been told for years that the way to health and happiness is by losing weight. But trust me, that is not the way to happiness and comfort in your body. Learning to honor and respect your “here and now” body is what the ninth principle of intuitive eating is all about.
This concept encompasses so much! Body diversity is just a matter of fact. Just like every other kind of beautiful and joyful diversity in the human race, we were not all meant to be the same size and shape. But when only thin, white, able-bodies are represented in the media, it’s no wonder so much body shame and weight stigma exist. Here, we work through body image, body comparison, and coming to respect your natural set-point weight.
9. Reclaim Intuitive Movement
If you’ve been dieting your whole life, it’s quite possible you have come to see exercise as a means to be thin or to remain thin. This is a pretty poor motivator for most of us. And in reality, research shows that exercise doesn’t produce lasting weight loss (or weight loss at all, more than a couple pounds). Exercise can, however, improve your health. If your relationship to exercise feels out of whack, either because you are resistant to it, or you feel extreme guilt or anxiety if you skip a day, intuitive eating could be what you need.
10. Gentle Nutrition
You don’t have to eat perfectly to be healthy. We are inundated with articles telling us what key ingredient could save your life. But the truth is that the minutiae of your diet matters WAY less than you think. I am not saying it doesn’t matter at all, just in a much broader sense than you may think. We save this principle for last for a reason – it can be counterproductive to focus too much on nutrition while going through this process. Once you’ve worked through all of the above steps, you can learn to make nutritious choices that honor your health without making you fall back into the diet trap.
Intuitive Eating is a practice, not a destination
The ten principles of intuitive eating are here for you to explore and experience. There is no one right way to do intuitive eating, but you can find a practice that works for you. Please be very careful not to turn intuitive eating into a diet. It is not a tool for weight loss, but is a tool to regulate and calm down your eating. Take it slow, and keep at it. Intuitive eating is a practice, not a destination.
If you are on your intuitive eating path, or you are curious if it may be right for you, please reach out to me. I work with individuals one-on-one on and in a transformative group program, to help them work through the process and tune into themselves. To read more about how I do this, check out my services or sign up for my biweekly newsletter, Lunch & Liberation.
Emily Van Eck, MS, RDN specializes in intuitive eating, mindfulness-based eating practices, embodiment with food and movement, and healing from years of weight-bias and disordered eating. She helps womxn find balance, consistency, and peace with their eating habits so they can feel confident to get outta their heads and into their bodies. Emily is a registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor with a master’s degree in nutrition science. Read more about her here.