What Is Intuitive Eating? How To Follow The Intuitive Eating Diet

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Intuitive eating is essentially an “anti-diet” compared to traditional weight loss diets.

It is more of a philosophy surrounding how you approach your eating, suggesting that you simply take cues from your body to guide what you should eat and when you should eat.

But does intuitive eating work? Is intuitive eating for weight loss something you should try?

In this article, we will answer your question, “what is intuitive eating?” by providing the intuitive eating definition, and then we will delve into the intuitive eating principles and whether it works for weight loss.

We will cover: 

  • What Is Intuitive Eating?
  • Benefits of Intuitive Eating
  • How to Follow the Intuitive Eating Diet
  • Intuitive Eating Principles

Let’s dive in! 

A person preparing a salad.

What Is Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive eating is sometimes considered a specific diet, but the intuitive eating definition more accurately encompasses a philosophy or approach to eating and dieting rather than a specific diet with delineated guidelines and rules.

Essentially, intuitive eating puts you, the dieter, in the driver’s seat.

Rather than taking direction from outside sources and weight loss diet rules about what you should and shouldn’t eat and when you should and shouldn’t eat, intuitive eating stresses the importance of listening to your own hunger cues and making your own decisions about what you should eat and when you should eat.

The purpose of intuitive eating is to connect you back to your body, honoring the biological cues your body naturally produces about appetite and satiety.

Ultimately, the basic tenet of intuitive eating is that you should eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full. You should eat nourishing foods, but should honor your cravings and listen to the signals from your body about the specific foods your body wants.

The words: Follow Your Intuition.

Benefits of Intuitive Eating

Proponents of the intuitive eating style suggested that trusting your body‘s intuition will help you find the balance and healthy weight that your body should be. In this way, intuitive eating can also help promote a healthy body image and relationship with food.

No foods are “banned” or “good” or “bad,” and there isn’t any implicit stigma about how much you need to weigh or how to control your portions. This has been shown to increase dietary adherence. 

Flexibility and an open attitude towards food can also help decrease the risk of eating disorders.

Additionally, although not necessarily indicative that intuitive eating leads to weight loss, studies have found an association between intuitive eating and a lower BMI and better markers of health.

So, does intuitive eating work? If you can learn to follow the guidelines, it could work for you!

A person smiling while eating.

How to Follow the Intuitive Eating Diet

The intuitive eating philosophy is that as long as you are listening to your hunger signals and stopping when you are full, your diet is exactly what your body wants and needs.

The main challenge that people have with the intuitive eating diet or intuitive eating approach is that most of us are no longer conditioned or in touch with our hunger and fullness cues.

Diet books, diet culture in general, and conventional meal timing (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) have pulled us away from actually paying attention to our appetite and what and when we want to eat.

In order to eat intuitively, you have to retrain your brain and body to communicate with one another so that you can detect your hunger cues and understand when you are full.

This is not only a physical process but an emotional one as well. Many people who adopt intuitive eating for weight loss have trepidation about trusting their appetite and intuition.

For example, if you are trying to lose weight, it can be “scary“ when you are following intuitive eating for weight loss, and your body seems to be craving chocolate or some other “taboo food“ that you have long considered to be not diet-compliant.

A person smiling, eating a salad.

Additionally, particularly at first, when you switch from a conventional diet to intuitive eating for weight loss, it can be really difficult to distinguish physical hunger from emotional hunger.

Most people eat for multiple reasons, governed not just by a rumbling stomach that needs to be satiated with food but also by emotional voids or feelings that want to be comforted or celebrated with food.

For instance, many people eat when they are sad, lonely, anxious, depressed, or bored, foods, particularly carbohydrate-rich foods with sugar, cause an increase in dopamine in the brain. This elicits a feel-good, pleasurable response that can help temporarily take us out of a state of emotional discomfort or pain.

Often overlooked is the other side of the spectrum in which we eat when we are joyful. Food is often a centerpiece of celebratory experiences, whether indulging in a holiday feast or treating someone to ice cream or a favorite snack as a reward for something well done.

In any of these scenarios, we are eating for emotional hunger rather than eating for physical hunger.

The key to successfully losing weight with intuitive eating is to retrain your body to only send hunger signals when true physical hunger is present.

People eating noodle dishes.

From a biological perspective, food provides nourishment and nutrients for the body. The fact that we derive emotional pleasure or comfort from eating is a secondary offshoot that is essentially a survival mechanism that helps ensure that we eat to survive. 

As a species, if eating food caused a reaction in the brain that resulted in extreme pain and sadness, humans would not be inclined to continue eating. Because a certain amount of eating and caloric intake is necessary for survival, a significant detriment to eating could cause the species to die out. 

Therefore, although there are biological benefits to the mood boost we feel from food that makes eating an enjoyable experience, with the now readily-accessible nature of calories for most people around the world, this is less of a mandatory survival mechanism.

All of this is to say that we are often seeking out specific foods or eating at times when we are not necessarily physically hungry in order to satisfy a pang of emotional hunger. Learning how to separate true physical hunger from emotional hunger can be quite challenging and may take quite some time when you first start trying to eat intuitively.

Here are a couple of tips to help you distinguish physical hunger from emotional hunger:

With physical hunger, you may experience any number of physical sensations, such as a feeling of emptiness in your stomach, a rumbling or growling stomach, weakness or low energy, irritability, and difficulty focusing. 

A bowl of pasta.

The intensity of these sensations will likely increase up to a point and then may cease altogether if you do not honor the biological urge to eat. What you should notice is that if you do eat when you have physical hunger, all of the physical sensations should soon subside. 

Furthermore, when you are experiencing true physical hunger, almost any type of food (except for foods you always hate) will likely sound at least somewhat appealing. 

There might be certain foods or meals that feel like they would really “hit the spot,“ but if you are experiencing actual physical hunger, even the thought of consuming a large garden salad, an apple, or a hard-boiled egg should sound appealing. 

True physical hunger is your body’s biological urge to obtain nutrients, so the potential list of appealing choices, including many healthy options, is often longer and more liberal than with emotional eating.

With emotional hunger, there is often a mood state for distinct emotions that you are experiencing at the time the hunger comes on. You might be sad, lonely, bored, anxious, or bummed out. Although not always the case, you might particularly crave very sweet foods such as chocolate or cookies or fried or salty foods. 

The thought of eating a steamed head of broccoli or boiled skinless chicken breast may not be particularly appealing when you are experiencing emotional hunger. 

When you indulge in response to emotional hunger rather than feeling satisfied and “better“afterward, you might feel guilty, disappointed, or even more forlorn.

A person eating broccoli.

Intuitive Eating Principles

The intuitive eating principles are mostly pulled from Intuitive Eating, a book written by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995. Although the concept of intuitive eating had been applied in various diet and health circles prior to this date, this book is when the term was officially coined.

There are 10 main intuitive eating principles outlined in the book, although some subsequent iterations of the diet and proponents of intuitive eating modify or add some additional principles. 

The main principles of intuitive eating are essentially to reject the diet mentality, honor your hunger, honor your feelings in ways other than food, learn your fullness signals, make peace with food, and respect your body.

If you’re ready to reject diet culture and try something else, consider giving intuitive eating a try. You know your body best!

If you aren’t quite ready for intuitive hunger and feel you may need a bit more structure, check out some of our other diet guides:

Intermittent Fasting & Keto Guides

Whole 30 Rules: Here’s Everything You Can Eat (And What To Avoid)

The Best Popular Diets For Runners: 3 Healthy Choices

A variety of healthy fruits and vegetables.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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