An In-Depth Look at Intuitive Eating

An In-Depth Look at Intuitive Eating

By Paige Doyle, Certified Nutritionist and Dietetics Student at UNC

Reviewed by Jinan Banna, PhD, RD

Have you ever gone on a restrictive diet but proceeded to gain weight in the long run? Well, you are not alone. An estimated 45 million Americans go on a diet each year. Yet, the majority of dieters fail. Some experts report that only about 5% of those on a diet keep the weight off long term. Diet culture instills false hope that we will lose weight quickly, easily, and permanently. But there is no perfect diet, and most diets go against what is best for your body. What if there was another way to maintain a healthy weight? This is where intuitive eating can come in. Instead of constant calorie-counting, intuitive eating is about getting back in touch with our bodies’ needs, eating and making food choices without guilt, honoring hunger, respecting fullness, and enjoying the pleasure of eating. 

What is Intuitive Eating

Intuitive Eating is a term created by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995. It is a mind-body health approach to eating, which incorporates 10 principles:

  1. Reject the Diet Mentality: do not get caught up in the yo-yo dieting game, along with the false claims diet culture promises!
  2. Honor Your Hunger: keep your body well-fed and energized (check out the Hunger Scale below!)
  3. Make Peace with Food: give yourself permission to eat what you want, when you want.
  4. Challenge the Food Police: there are no “good” or “bad” foods. Food is like Switzerland — it is neutral! 
  5. Discover the Satisfaction Factor: find pleasure and satisfaction in the eating experience. 
  6. Feel Your Fullness: observe your fullness cues. Take a pause in the middle of eating to discover where you are at with your hunger level.
  7. Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness: emotional eating will not fix your feelings of loneliness, anxiety, boredom, or sadness. Dealing with the source of your emotions, and finding healthy outlets for these emotions, is your best way forward. 
  8. Respect Your Body: do not be overly critical of your body size or shape. Love your body for what it is, not what it is not.
  9. Movement – Feel the Difference: get your body moving in ways that feel good, instead of focusing on exercises to burn calories. Try to incorporate the 3 Ws – Why, What, and When – for exercise to be enjoyable. Why do you want to exercise? (Appearance should not be the primary goal because there will always be work to do, which will leave you constantly dissatisfied.) What do you enjoy doing? When will you do it?
  10. Honor Your Health – Gentle Nutrition: eat foods that make your mind and body feel good. Don’t beat yourself up if you choose to eat an unhealthy snack or meal. Give yourself permission to move on. Know that you can always choose more healthy, nourishing foods at your next meal.

How Intuitive Eating Works

Eating intuitively encourages a return to the innate wisdom we had as babies — about when to stop eating, what tastes good, and how it makes our bodies feel. Eating intuitively can seem scary at first. Perhaps you are afraid you will gain weight, overeat, or overindulge in foods you deem “unhealthy.” But we were born intuitive eaters and along the way we lost this primal instinct.  When we don’t deprive ourselves of food, we stop thinking about it and move on. Intuitive eating allows you to have what you want when you want it. 

Intuitive eating is not simply a green light to solely eat junk food. It is important to note here that we crave what we eat. If you continue to eat sugary treats or fast food, your body will continue to crave it. If you eat mostly nutritionally dense foods, you will crave those foods more. Talking with a dietitian or nutritionist can help get you on track for a healthy intuitive eating mindset. They can help ensure you are getting enough healthy fats, protein, and fiber in your diet to support optimal health. Our dietary requirements throughout our lifetimes are dynamic; our bodies crave different things at different life stages (i.e. – growth spurts, athletic performances, trauma, illness, pregnancy, breastfeeding, aging). Diets do not give us much wiggle room to eat according to what our bodies need at the moment. 

Certified Nutritionist Katie Garces has a wonderful in-depth program that goes over her 9 fundamentals of eating intuitively, which include: ditching food “morality”, making friends with food, seeking pleasure, learning your body’s cues on hunger and satiation, identifying potential emotional cues of eating, learning how to eat in the parasympathetic (rest and digest) mode, discovering for yourself how you want to feel, and reframing perfection. In her popular audio program, she also teaches you how to make peace with your body and mind, as well as your relationship with food. Katie’s journaling prompts and other exercises help gradually shift your mindset from dieting to mindful eating. 

The benefits of intuitive eating seem endless: lose weight naturally, focus less on food, trust your body more, become more present in the moment, instill feelings of happiness, free up energy that was once focused on obsessing over diet… these all sound great to me! 

Intuitive Eating and Weight Loss

In a cross-sectional study involving over 400 women, researchers found a significant association between intuitive eating and BMI decrease after bariatric surgery. They found that the more these women used intuitive eating behaviors, the greater their weight loss was post-surgery. 

In one longitudinal study, young adults were evaluated to determine long-term associations between intuitive eating and weight status. Over the course of 5 years, intuitive eaters had a lower prevalence of becoming overweight or obese, as well as binge eating. This study suggests intuitive eating may have potential long-term benefits, such as decreasing the prevalence of unhealthy weight control behaviors and binge eating. 

Intuitive Eating and Mental Health 

A long-term study looked at the emotional aspect of restrictive eating and dieting. Researchers reviewed dietary interventions aimed at weight loss, alongside intuitive eating. They saw significant improvements in eating habits, lifestyle, and body image when it came to participants that practiced intuitive eating. Those who engaged in intuitive eating also experienced improved psychological health as measured by emotions such as depression, anxiety, and self-esteem.

Postpartum women have been involved in several studies to date that examine intuitive eating. In one cross-sectional study, 419 post-pregnancy women who were classified with intuitive eating styles were more likely to have higher body image satisfaction, less disordered eating, and lower risk for depression. Since postpartum depression and anxiety affects thousands of women, intuitive eating principles certainly look promising for new mothers. 

Eating Intuitively for Type 2 Diabetes Management

An observational study of 179 adults used the Intuitive Eating Scale to measure how well type 2 diabetics control their blood sugar levels in association with eating intuitively. Diabetics routinely need to check their glycemic control to avoid adverse health conditions. Researchers found that those who practiced intuitive eating were significantly less likely to have poor glycemic control. 

Replacing Disordered Eating with Intuitive Eating

In a culture where thinness is prized as the epitome of beauty, it’s no surprise that most Americans experience an unhealthy preoccupation with food, weight, or appearance. According to the Eating Disorder Foundation, nearly half of girls age 9-11 have reported dieting. Additionally, over 50% of teenage girls report using unhealthy behaviors to control their weight, such as skipping meals, fasting, vomiting, and taking laxatives. 

In a systematic review examining the relationship between intuitive eating and disordered eating in adult women, intuitive eating correlated with less disordered eating and dieting practices in women. Researchers also found that intuitive eating was associated with a more positive body image. 

For those recovering from an eating disorder, a study found that intuitive eating can increase the odds of recovery and prevent relapsing. If you are currently struggling with an eating disorder, know that help is out there. Talk to a professional therapist or call ANAD’s (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders) hotline at (888)-375-7767. ANAD also offers free online peer support groups

The Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale

If you type “Hunger Scale” into a Google search, you will find there are dozens of hunger scales online. Regardless of the creator, hunger scales look at hunger and fullness cues. You can use this tool when practicing intuitive eating. The scale ranges from 1-10, and each number correlates to your level of hunger or fullness. When you feel like eating, attempt to rate your hunger level. A rating of a “1” indicates that you are extremely hungry, whereas a rating of “10” means that you are extremely full. Ideally, you would eat when your hunger is at a 4, 5, or 6. If you wait until your hunger is at a 1 or 2, all intentions of moderate, mindful eating fly out the window. Conversely, when your hunger is at a 9 or 10, acknowledge that you overate, but try not to feel ashamed or guilty. There will always be times where we eat for pleasure outside of these hunger cues, but the more mindful we can be of our hunger and fullness cues, the easier it is to eat intuitively. 

When looking at the Hunger Scale, it is important to recognize the difference between feelings and hunger. Are you hungry, or are you just bored, tired, sad, anxious, or stressed out? Why do we eat when we are not hungry? Chances are, we do it to fill a need. Emotional eating should not lead to guilt. Accept that you had an emotional eating experience, but don’t let it own you. Guilt leads to more emotional eating. We can’t turn off our emotions, but we can control how we act on our emotions. Be with your feelings and actually feel them! Seek out other forms of comfort; practice self-care and self-love routines. 

In order to get the most out of using the Hunger Scale, you need to be in tune with your hunger and fullness sensations. Allow yourself to sit with hunger for a few minutes to recognize its cues. Slow down, chew thoroughly, and take a few deep breaths before eating your meal. Pause in between bites to listen to fullness cues. Full does not mean cleaning your plate. You can always put leftovers in the fridge, and come pack for more later. Thirst can also mask hunger. Drink some water first before diving into food, especially in the summertime!

Use this scale modified from the University of California- Berkeley:

Hunger RatingDefinition
1Extremely hungry, starving, very weak, no energy
2Very hungry, low energy, weak
3Uncomfortably hungry, distracted, “hangry”
4Hungry, stomach starts to growl
5Starting to feel hungry
6Satisfied, a little full, but could eat more
7Full, but not uncomfortably so
8Overly full, uncomfortable
9Stuffed, very uncomfortable, stomach hurts
10Extremely full, nauseous, sick

The Bottom Line:

Eating has the potential to be a trustful, intimate connection between you and your body. Everyday, we are bombarded by hundreds of food choices. Diet culture tells us to ignore our hunger cues and restrict foods that we are craving. By shifting away from dieting and instead eating mindfully, you are choosing to honor your body and eat what feels good to you. By using the Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale and allowing food to satisfy your physical needs, rather than your emotional ones, you can build a healthy foundation around food that will last a lifetime.

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