Intuitive eating may sound like yet another fad diet but in reality, it is the exact opposite.
It is an anti-diet. It doesn’t impose strict guidelines of what and when to eat, nor does it give you a list of foods to avoid. Instead, intuitive eating teaches you to listen to your body and understand its hunger signals.
While the idea behind intuitive eating is simple – eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full – there are 10 key principles that will transform your relationship with food and guide your eating.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the 10 principles of intuitive eating which are:
- Reject the Diet Mentality
- Honor Your Hunger
- Make Peace with Food
- Challenge the Food Police
- Respect Your Fullness
- Discover the Satisfaction Factor
- Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food
- Respect Your Body
- Exercise—Feel the Difference
- Honor Your Health
1. Reject the Diet Mentality
Rejecting the diet mentality is the most important thing when it comes to transforming your relationship with food. The key here is to notice the way your body reacts to a diet, the cravings, the fatigue and crazy thoughts that occur when you severely cut calories or eliminate entire food groups.
Start by answering some of these questions:
- How many diets, strict eating plans, detoxes, and cleanses have you tried to lose weight?
- Have any of them had actual long term benefits?
- Did you feel good adding up calories, measuring your food, counting down the time until your next meal?
As soon as you realize that diets don’t work in the long term, you can start to take a gentler approach to food and nutrition.
2. Honor Your Hunger
Your body has a very impressive hormone system that lets you know when it needs fuel:
At first, you’ll feel a small twinge in the stomach that’s telling you you’re getting hungry. Then, the twinge gets stronger and stronger, until your stomach is gurgling loudly and you feel actual physical hunger.
When you ignore these signals of hunger, the hormones start messing with your brain. You may feel like you can’t focus anymore or you’ll get a small headache. Some people get very moody (hangry) and lash out for no apparent reason.
That’s when you usually run into trouble. When you let yourself get THIS hungry, you’re almost 100% sure to make an unhealthy meal decision. Even worse, you’re probably going to eat way too much as you fork down the food at lightning speed without giving your brain the chance to signal that you’re full.
That’s when the second principle of intuitive eating comes in: by honoring your hunger, you are responding to the early signals of hunger and ensuring you are able to make rational decisions about what and how much you eat.
Following this principle also means trusting your body and giving yourself permission to eat whenever you’re hungry. You have to trust your body’s ability to let you know when it needs fuel. It doesn’t matter if you just ate an hour ago or what time it is. When you feel hungry, have a small healthy snack and see if it satisfies your hunger.
3. Make Peace with Food
The third principle is about letting go of all the previous food rules you have heard. Forget the idea that there are good foods and bad foods, that certain foods are “off limits” or that you shouldn’t have treats in the house.
Instead, ask yourself:
- What food do I feel like eating right now?
- What food would nourish my body?
- What food would make my body feel good?
If the answer is chocolate, have chocolate. If the answer is pizza, eat pizza. The goal of making peace with food is to eliminate feelings of guilt, shame, and disappointment. And you do that by eating what you want.
The explanation for why it works is simple:
Think of all the times you were dieting and restricting foods that were “off limits.” Now think of how you felt the moment your diet was over. These same foods probably went back to your menu soon after? Then, after binging on your favorite foods and gaining weight once again, you felt shame and guilt which threw you into another cycle of dieting?
Now imagine eating what you want without feelings of guilt and shame. You’ll soon realize that you can have any food anytime you want! And what happens when you do? You will lose the desire to eat those foods – remove the rule and you remove the desire.
So let’s pause for a second. We just learned the three first principles for Intuitive Eaters to follow:
- Rejecting the Diet Mentality
- Honoring Your Hunger
- Making Peace with Food
So now let’s cover some of the other principles that go hand in hand with the first three.
4. Challenge the Food Police
“Challenge the Food Police” is the fourth principle of Intuitive Eating as described in Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch’s book “Intuitive Eating. A Revolutionary Program that Works.
“Food Police” is that voice in your head criticizing your food choices, saying you’re “bad” for eating a chocolate cookie or “good” for eating a salad for lunch. It’s that internal monologue you hear that labels all foods as “good” or “bad” and that puts certain rules around food.
It’s thoughts like this:
- You shouldn’t eat after 6 PM
- Forget dessert, you already had too much for lunch
- Potatoes are not good for you, etc.
Food Police dictate what kind of foods you can or can not eat – and that means you’re still not free from the diet mentality. According to Intuitive Eating, it’s time to challenge these inner thoughts! This philosophy will teach you to stand up to that voice and make it go away. It won’t be easy, especially if you’ve been dieting all your life, but it is possible to change your thoughts.
Every time you hear that voice telling you what to do – challenge it!
5. Respect Your Fullness
This is one of the principles that may be difficult to follow at first. After all the years of dieting, suppressing your hunger, following strict rules, and then bingeing as a result, you may not even know what feeling full is like.
Just like with principle number 2 (honoring your hunger), it’s important to listen to your body. As you’re eating, listen for the signals that tell you you’re getting comfortably full. It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe as it is highly individual, but as you start getting more in touch with yourself, you’ll soon learn to recognize it.
The goal here is to feel completely satisfied, not hungry and not too full – just comfortably in-between. Like with the previous steps, you’ll have ups and downs. There will be times when you respect your fullness completely and times when you overindulge. But that’s OKAY!
That’s what Intuitive Eating is all about – listening to your body, taking it day by day, meal by meal. And not letting restrictive thoughts creep in after a day of enjoying your favorite foods.
6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Discovering the satisfaction factor is all about learning what kind of foods you actually enjoy eating. And learning about your food preferences is very important in helping you follow some of the principles we’ve already talked about:
Getting out of the diet trap – following meal plans and eating (low-calorie) foods that you don’t especially like won’t make you feel satisfied. Feeling deprived leads to breaking your diet and overeating. On the other hand, eating foods that taste good will make you feel satisfied and less likely to overindulge, thus, less likely to start another cycle of dieting.
Making peace with food – according to most diets, “good” foods are those that are low in calories, carbs, and fat. Eating “good” foods may pacify the Food Police but is highly unlikely to satisfy your taste buds or your hunger. Learning to accept that nothing is off limits goes hand in hand with discovering the satisfaction factor – you’re only going to eat foods that you enjoy and you’re going to be OKAY with it.
Respecting your fullness – it’s hard to respect your fullness if the food on your plate is not that appealing to you. You’ll either undereat because you don’t enjoy what you’re eating or end up overeating, searching for that satisfaction factor. When you make eating a pleasurable experience, you will learn exactly how much food it takes to satisfy you.
These are the principles 4-6 that further help you become an Intuitive Eater. The next principles will teach us to respect our bodies, deal with our emotions, and honor our health.
7. Deal with Your Feelings Without Using Food
This principle is probably one of the most difficult ones to follow as you can’t just turn off your emotions.
We eat for a variety of reasons and for many people, hunger is the last one on that list. We use food to celebrate our happiest moments or to fill the void when we’re sad. We eat out of boredom, anger, stress, or just because the food is there.
Emotional eating is why all diets fail – if you don’t deal with the emotions that cause you to overeat, you will never make peace with food.
Following principle number 7 is all about dealing with your feelings without using food. It’s about analyzing yourself, recognizing the signs of emotional eating and working through your issues. The key here is to allow yourself to feel and to find alternative ways to cope with these feelings.
If you’re bored – call friends or family; if you’re sad – write down your feelings; if you’re feeling stressed – go for a short walk or run.
8. Respect Your Body
Many people who turn to Intuitive Eating do so with just one goal in mind – to lose weight. They are tired of looking the way they do, many of them hate their bodies, and they just can’t wait to change their looks. But this is the reason why many of them fail when it comes to adopting these principles – when you are in the weight-loss mindset, you’re also in the diet mindset.
Instead of using Intuitive Eating as another tool to lose weight, you should first learn to accept your body the way it is NOW. It’s still OK to want to change it, but you need to adopt a positive attitude about your looks.
Why? Instead of answering that question, I’ll ask another: How likely are you going to take care of yourself if you don’t respect yourself? I guess not likely at all.
See, Intuitive Eating is all about respect – respecting your cravings, respecting your feelings, and thus respecting yourself the way you are.
Finding body positivity is hard to do, but it’s definitely something you should aim for.
9. Exercise to Feel the Difference
A diet mentality often comes with an “all or nothing” exercise mentality. The day you decide to go on a diet is usually the day you decide to start exercising seven times a week. But because you link diet and exercise, when one part of your new lifestyle fails, the other fails too.
It’s true that exercising is a necessary part of the equation of weight loss. However, there are more benefits to regular workouts than just burning calories: a stronger cardiovascular system, lower blood pressure, stronger bones, and joints, etc. But most importantly, exercise helps to relieve stress and makes us feel good!
You should try it for yourself:
If you’re not regularly exercising yet, try making low-impact workouts like swimming or walking a regular part of your life. Note how you feel before and after each exercise session. I can bet you’ll feel more energized, less stressed, happier and even healthier than before!
Physical exercise should be a way to reward your body not a way to punish it.
10. Honor Your Health
You may be surprised to find that the principles of Intuitive Eating don’t give you any guidance on what to eat or what to avoid. There’s a very good reason for it: as soon as you hear specific recommendations, you’ll fall back into the diet mentality.
The first nine principles have all been about getting to know yourself – what you like, what you don’t like, what triggers cravings, etc. You have learned to respect your thoughts, your body, yourself.
And only now are you ready to honor your health.
Honoring your health means eating foods that are nutritious but also taste good. Considering nutrition is only for guidance, and it shouldn’t dictate your food choices. Remember, as soon as you start counting calories or grams of fat, you’re back in the diet mentality. Also, remember that you don’t need to eat perfectly all the time to be healthy.
The basics of good nutrition are:
- Eat lots of fruits and vegetables every day
- Eat a variety of foods
- Drink plenty of water or super drinks
- Try to eat only whole, unprocessed foods
- You need fats – good fats come from avocados, nuts, seeds, fish, and eggs
I hope these three articles in my ‘Principles of Intuitive Eating’ series helped you see some light. It IS possible to (potentially) lose weight healthily and naturally. All you need to do is learn to listen to your body!
Based on the book “Intuitive Eating. A Revolutionary Program that Works” by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.