Your Guide to Intuitive Eating: Principles from a Dietitian

August 14, 2020
Nutrition

Diets can be trouble. Intuitive eating can help.

We tend to think of diets and meal plans as the IKEA furniture instruction manuals to healthy eating: a little complicated, but worth the effort. But humans are not like furniture. We’re subject to changing schedules, fluctuating metabolisms, variable emotions, unpredictable circumstances, and countless other factors that might necessitate deviation from our diet “instructions.” 

In fact, regimented diet plans can easily drive you into a bad cycle: adhering to strict food rules leads to accidental slip-ups or purposeful rebellions that rear their ugly heads through overeating or feeling out-of-control with food. After a binge, the typical response is a resolution to double down on portioning and avoiding certain “binge” or “addictive” foods. But the idea that you can fix your out-of-control eating with more restriction only exacerbates the issue rather than getting at the root cause. 

Drop the Diet

There is a way to address overeating at night, binging, and feeling out of control with food, and it doesn’t involve doubling down on your diet or cutting out an entire food group. It’s called Intuitive Eating, a particular philosophy developed by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole in their book by the same name. Intuitive Eating is an approach to nourishing our minds and bodies for the long haul. 

Intuitive Eating involves learning to tune out diet talk about “good” and “bad” foods, while fostering your ability to perceive and trust internal cues, such as hunger, fullness, and satisfaction. Studies have shown that dietary restraint is associated with a higher body mass index (BMI) and disordered eating, whereas practicing Intuitive Eating is linked with a lower BMI and less disordered eating.

One fear I often hear from people moving away from diets is that without any guardrails, they won’t be able to portion control—instead of a slice, they’ll eat the whole cake. It’s a valid concern, but not to worry! Research shows that individuals who practice Intuitive Eating can learn to be in tune with their internal hunger cues and eat to meet physical and nutritional needs

When you embark on your Intuitive Eating journey, you may start off with more indulgences, but the forbidden allure of those foods will lose its shine when you fully allow yourself permission to eat. Research shows that Intuitive Eating is associated with reduced disordered eating, such as restriction, binge eating, compensatory behaviors. A new study even found that the use of the Intuitive Eating Workbook (developed by Resch and Tribole) reduced both disordered eating behaviors and body dissatisfaction, while improving body appreciation.

So where do I start?

With Intuitive Eating, there really is no universal first step for everyone. Instead, there are 10 Principles to Intuitive Eating. To reduce overwhelm and make these ideas more actionable, I’ve sorted them into 3 categories. These principles shape the behaviors you’ll constantly apply in order to practice intuitive eating. 

1. Self-reflection on hunger, fullness, satisfaction, and your emotional reasons for eating

Self-reflection involves being mindful of your emotions and actions in the moment. It’s also about setting aside time to look back on your day. As a dietitian, I help clients develop their self-reflection through one-on-one counseling, food logs, journaling, and worksheets. You can start your own self-reflection through keeping a food log and answering the questions posed at the end of my last post.

2. Identifying and challenging food judgments from diet culture, food police, and food guilt

Once you’ve reflected on your food intake using a food log, you should have an easier time identifying your food rules or “shoulds.”

Here are some examples of “shoulds”:

  • I should avoid eating ________. It’s fattening.
  • I should eat more vegetables.
  • I should limit myself to only one portion, as indicated on the box.
  • I shouldn’t eat dinner today because I snacked all day.
  • I should never eat after 7pm.

Let yourself identify what your food rules are. We call these rules the Food Police. 

Then, challenge the veracity of those food rules using facts and experience. Ask yourself: Is that really true? And is it always true? When has that not been true for me? For example, the food rule that you should never eat after 7 or 8 PM is a complete myth! A late dinner or snack is often an unavoidable part of someone’s schedule if they worked late or exercised in the evening. 

Finally, give yourself permission. Here’s an example of how that might sound: “I give myself permission to eat this food/portion/meal because _______ (it’s delicious, I enjoy it, my body needs more iron, etc.).” This step is hard because it means letting go of your food rules and learning more about the nutrition myths that supported them. But when you do let go, it’s incredibly freeing.

3. Respecting your body with gentle nutrition, joyful movement, and self-compassion

Respecting your body isn’t just an idea, it’s also an action and a habit you can build with time. Here are three ways you can actively respect your body every day:

  • Gentle nutrition involves meeting your body’s needs with adequate energy and nutrients. My baseline recommendation is to eat 3 meals a day and 2-3 snacks, aiming to eat every 4 hours when you are awake. 
  • Joyful movement is a less prescriptive phrase for exercise, incorporating the ideas that there are many unique and creative ways to move our bodies and that movement should be enjoyable, not miserable.

Self-compassion is a tool for emotional resilience. Disrespect for yourself often rears its ugly head in the form of negative self-talk. You know that nasty internal voice that says, “You are such a cow. I can’t believe you ate that,” or “You are so lazy for skipping the gym today.” Instead of berating yourself for falling back on old habits, practice self-compassion for any perceived “slip-ups” or days that just didn’t go according to plan. For more on self-compassion, Kristen Neff’s TED Talk is an excellent starting point.

As you start to practice each of these steps, you’ll see that there is a cyclical relationship between self-reflection, food judgments, and respecting your body. Keep working through the cycle and remember that Intuitive Eating is iterative, it’s not a one-time process. Be curious—reflect on your thoughts and actions; identify and challenge your food beliefs; and respect yourself, mind and body.


Chelsea is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and a Certified Personal Trainer. She received her Master's in Food Policy and Applied Nutrition from Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Her interest in food and nutrition began while studying the relationship between agriculture and climate change, and she received her B.S. in Environmental Science and International Agriculture at Cornell University.

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