If you’re tired of the endless dieting cycle – go on diet, lose weight, fall off the diet wagon, gain weight, go on diet, and so on– then it’s time you learn about the 10 Intuitive Eating Principles.
This comprehensive article will tell you exactly what Intuitive Eating is and go through each of the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating one by one so you can start incorporating them into your life.
You’ll also learn about the benefits of Intuitive Eating as well as some common myths you may have heard.
Ready to get started? Let’s dive in!
What is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive Eating is a way of eating that cultivates connecting to your body and listening to internal cues about what and how much to eat. It fosters self-care and love for yourself and your body, practicing gentle nutrition, and learning to find joy in movement. It is not about rigid diet rules, guilt, or policing yourself around food.
The Intuitive Eating framework was originally created by two registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, in 1995. There have been over a hundred studies showing the benefits of Intuitive Eating.
What Are the Benefits of Intuitive Eating?
Some of the benefits of Intuitive Eating include:
- Lower blood pressure
- Improved cholesterol levels
- Decreased inflammation markers
- Higher self-esteem
- Better body image
- General life satisfaction
- Increased fruit and vegetable intake
- Fewer cravings
- Improved relationship with food
4 Common Intuitive Eating Myths
There are a number of misconceptions about Intuitive Eating. Even I believed some of these myths when I first heard about eating intuitively! I’m glad I decided to dig in and do more research before giving up on the concept of Intuitive Eating as pure rubbish.
Here are some common Intuitive Eating myths you may have heard of:
Myth #1: Intuitive Eating has no regard for health. You just eat whatever you’re craving, even if it’s only junk food.
While Intuitive Eating teaches that no food is off limits, that doesn’t mean it endorses living off of only cookies for the rest of your life. In fact, one principle is devoted to good nutrition and another principle is all about getting your body moving. You’ll learn more about these principles below.
Myth #2: I’ll gain weight with Intuitive Eating.
The truth is, you may gain weight with Intuitive Eating.
You might also lose weight.
Intuitive Eating teaches you to nourish your body with what you need. Intuitive Eating isn’t about the number on the scale – which normally fluctuates from day to day – but about your health and well-being from a physical, mental, and emotional standpoint.
Myth #3: Intuitive Eating is a diet.
There are people who are co-opting Intuitive Eating into dieting, but that’s NOT what Intuitive Eating is or is supposed to be about. If someone is suggesting you can eat intuitively while also measuring out every morsel of food so you can lose weight, that’s NOT Intuitive Eating!
Myth #4: You can’t practice Intuitive Eating if you have a health condition like diabetes or PCOS.
As mentioned before, one Intuitive Eating principle is focused solely on nutrition. It is completely possible to manage your medical condition with a combination of clinical nutrition guidelines while also practicing Intuitive Eating.
Contact a registered dietitian, such as myself, to get personalized guidance on how to do this.
The 10 Intuitive Eating Principles
Think of the 10 Intuitive Eating principles as a guide to Intuitive Eating. Together, these principles help you let go of harmful dieting behaviors to heal your relationship with food, your body, and yourself.
Principle 1: Reject the Diet Mentality
The first principle of Intuitive Eating is one that many of my clients find the hardest: reject the diet mentality. Dieting is a way of life for many people, and it starts young. Headlines in recent years have warned us that 25% of children have dieted by age 7.
New diet plans are arising on a daily basis, each one promising to be better than the last, the one that truly will get you the body of your dreams. Once you’ve achieved that, your life will be a picture of perfection and you’ll finally be happy.
Except, it never works out, does it?
The problem isn’t you or your lack of discipline. The problem is the diets themselves and the almost $80-billion per year diet industry behind them.
Rejecting the diet mentality is scary. Without a diet and food rules, you may worry that you’ll be out of control and overeat.
The truth is that by rejecting dieting, you’ll learn to start trusting your body again and how to nourish yourself appropriately.
Tips for rejecting the diet mentality:
- Dieters often put too much weight into what the scale says (excuse the pun!). The number on the scale should not make or break your day! Unless you have a medical condition that requires daily weighing, such as heart failure, consider getting rid of your scale altogether.
- Challenge your thoughts. If your reason for exercising is only to burn calories, try to focus on other benefits like stress relief and enjoying how the movement makes you feel.
- If you are experiencing obsessive thoughts about your weight or appearance, repeat to yourself that your weight does not define who you are and you’re learning to trust your body and yourself with food.
- When it’s time to eat, don’t start calculating whether you “deserve” it or categorize everything on a menu as either good or bad. Ask yourself if you’re hungry, what sounds good to you, and remind yourself that “guilt” is not a food group.
Principle 2: Honor Your Hunger
The second Intuitive Eating principle is to honor your hunger. If you’re a chronic dieter, you’re used to ignoring (or trying to ignore) your physical hunger.
Ignoring your hunger isn’t always related to dieting, however. You might also ignore your hunger because of stress or a chaotic schedule. Whatever the reason, in order to normalize your relationship with food you need to start recognizing and honoring your hunger.
Depriving yourself of food when your body needs it will set you up for overeating later. It can also result in a slower metabolism, obsessive thoughts about food and recipes, irritability, moodiness, and difficulty focusing.
Honoring your hunger means that you eat when your body signals to you that you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. Sounds easy, but it’s often easier said than done! Using a tool like the Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale can be a helpful first step toward honoring your hunger.
Tips for honoring your hunger:
- Learn to recognize what hunger feels like to you. Is it a slight gnawing at your stomach? Can you hear your stomach growling? Is it simply an empty feeling? Do you begin to feel a bit irritable?
- Give yourself unconditional permission to eat when you’re hungry, regardless of how long it’s been since you’ve last eaten.
- Print out the Intuitive Eating Hunger Fullness Scale and use it to check in with your hunger and fullness cues throughout the day.
Principle 3: Make Peace with Food
Have you ever thought of food as the enemy?
That was before I made peace with food.
Once upon a time, I divided food into “good” and “bad” categories. There was no in-between. And if I gave in to my cravings and ate “bad” food (high in calories/fat/sugar), then I felt like I was bad. I felt guilty, ashamed, and like I had zero self-control.
Can you relate?
Making peace with food is the third Intuitive Eating principle. Making peace with food means giving yourself unconditional permission to eat. No food is off-limits.
Research shows that deprivation only sets you up for stronger cravings. It typically also results in eating more of the forbidden food.
Even the anticipation of deprivation (such as starting a new diet the next day) causes overeating – AKA “last supper eating.” Eat as much as you can, while you can, regardless of whether you’re actually hungry, because this is the last time you’re going to be able to enjoy those soon-to-be forbidden foods.
Tips for making peace with food:
- Stop assigning moral values like “good” or “bad” to food.
- Give yourself permission to eat your forbidden foods. When you’re allowed to eat it all the time, you stop giving such power to the food.
- Eat slowly, mindfully, and without distraction. Take time to notice the taste and texture of the food in your mouth.
- Repeat the exposure to your forbidden food several times before moving on to another forbidden food on your list. Repeated exposure decreases the excitement and novelty of the experience.
Principle 4: Challenge the Food Police
You know that voice in your head that analyzes and criticizes every food choice you make?
That’s the food police.
Usually, the food police pretend to help you, by making you “healthier” or helping you “stick to your diet.”
In reality, the food police give you a lot of black-and-white rules that can never be broken without feeling guilty and ashamed.
Some examples of what the food police might tell you:
- Don’t eat anything with sugar – it’s unhealthy.
- You shouldn’t eat now – it’s after 6.
- You’d better go work out now if you want to eat something other than salad for dinner.
- French fries are bad – get steamed vegetables instead.
- You need to count and track every calorie you eat.
While good nutrition does play a role in Intuitive Eating (see Principle 10), it shouldn’t come at the expense of satisfaction. The food police don’t care about your satisfaction, however. Instead, the food police are all about deprivation and diet rules. They make it impossible to learn to eat intuitively and trust your body’s cues.
Tips for challenging the food police:
- Practice speaking to yourself with compassion. Instead of the food police saying that you’re bad for eating that slice of cake, remind yourself that it’s okay to have cake sometimes.
- If speaking to yourself with compassion is too hard at first, focus on making neutral observations instead. Only state the facts. “I ate a slice of cake” – full stop. No need to snowball into whether eating the cake makes you “good” or “bad.”
- Tell the food police in your life – whether it be a weight-focused family member or friend – that you’d rather they not comment on the food you eat or how your body looks.
Principle 5: Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Eating is not only about providing our bodies with enough nutrients to live. Eating should also be enjoyable, and that’s why the 5th principle of Intuitive Eating is to discover the satisfaction factor.
In Brazil, one of the steps of their national food guide is to make eating a pleasurable experience: “Make the preparation and eating of meals privileged times of conviviality and pleasure.”
This is an ideal that many Americans have forgotten.
Part of it is because diet culture and the food police tell you to eat foods that you don’t really want. How many times have you been craving an ice cream cone on a hot summer day only to force yourself to eat an apple instead?
As mentioned above, deprivation often serves to just make your cravings stronger. When that apple doesn’t satisfy you the way you wanted (since you really crave ice cream), you’ll turn to another “healthy food” and another in search of fulfillment, eventually consuming more than you would have if you’d just let yourself have that darn ice cream cone to begin with.
You may also feel guilty for enjoying your food. Some people are afraid that liking food and eating makes them weak. The deprivation, discipline, and sacrifice that are normal parts of dieting don’t allow for pleasure. After all, what if actually enjoying your meals makes you “out of control” around food?
The truth is, when you truly learn to really experience pleasure with food and stop making certain foods off-limits, you’ll no longer feel deprived or out of control.
Tips for discovering the satisfaction factor:
- Ask yourself what you truly want to eat. Not what you “should” eat but what would taste good to you.
- Eat without distraction. You can’t properly savor your food if your mind is elsewhere, like on your phone, computer screen, or the latest Netflix hit series.
- Use all of your senses. What nuances do you notice in the aroma of your food? Is your meal visually appealing? Chew your food slowly and notice how the flavors change in your mouth. What is the texture like on your tongue? Making use of all five senses will keep you in the moment and eating mindfully.
- Sit down at a nicely set table. Enjoying food isn’t as easy if you’re eating at a cluttered desk. Aim for a pleasant atmosphere whenever possible.
- Give yourself adequate time to eat. It’s impossible to savor food when you only give yourself five minutes to down a meal!
Principle 6: Feel Your Fullness
The 6th principle of Intuitive Eating is to feel your fullness.
Like honoring your hunger, it’s also important that you learn to honor and respect your fullness. During childhood, you might have been taught to ignore your fullness because you were expected to clean your plate at meals, a habit that can continue throughout adulthood.
Certain diet methods also encourage people to eat past the point of fullness. For example, I knew someone who followed a very strict diet for most of the week but had a cheat day once a week. On that one day a week, he would stuff himself with multiple full-size pizzas and large ice cream sundaes because he knew he wouldn’t be able to eat them again for another six days. This one day a week was essentially a nonstop eating marathon and had nothing to do with physical hunger or fullness levels.
How many times have you sat on the couch with a bag of popcorn or chips, watching TV when suddenly you realize your hand is at the bottom of the bag and you don’t even remember eating it all? You’re not the only one.
Tips for honoring your fullness:
- Eat mindfully, without distraction. It’s impossible to tune into your satiety cues when your mind is focused elsewhere (that email you’re composing for work, the Instagram posts you’re scrolling through, etc.).
- Don’t rush through meals. Your brain doesn’t immediately recognize when your stomach is full, particularly if you’re eating as if you’re a contestant in a competitive eating competition!
- Pause halfway through your meal or snack to check in with how you’re feeling. Are you already full? Just starting to feel full? It will take some time before you learn the nuances of your different levels of satiety. Using the hunger-fullness scale can help.
- Once you recognize that you’re comfortably satisfied, give yourself permission to stop eating, regardless of whether there is food still left on your plate.
Principle 7: Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness
The 7th of the 10 Intuitive Eating principles is to cope with your emotions with kindness.
Learning to use food to cope with emotions starts young. When babies, toddlers, and children cry, we often offer them food in an attempt to make things better.
You felt and scraped your knee? How about a cookie?!
No one understands why the two-year-old is crying? Give him a snack to distract him from his tears!
Straight As this semester? Let’s celebrate with some cake!
Whether emotions are positive (celebratory, love, etc.) or negative (boredom, anxiety, sadness, etc.), the quick response is to throw food at it.
As one of my clients put it, it’s easier and faster to grab chocolate to soothe herself when she’s stressed than to take the time to actually manage whatever is stressing her out, whether by delegating tasks to others or taking a few mindful breaths.
One study has found that dieters, both current and former, are more likely to emotionally eat than non-dieters.
Emotional eating has many different causes. Essentially, while this coping mechanism may offer you some relief in the moment, it doesn’t actually meet your needs or solve any problems.
Finding ways to cope with your emotions with kindness – not food – is an essential aspect of having a healthier relationship with food.
Tips for coping with your emotions with kindness:
- Learn to identify different types of hunger. Ask yourself if you’re actually physically hungry, in which case you should eat, or if you’re emotionally hungry – looking for something to soothe your feelings.
- Some people have trouble pinning down exactly why they’re reaching for food when they aren’t physically hungry. Possible reasons may include anger, frustration, depression, anxiety, stress, loneliness, boredom, excitement, fatigue, wanting to fit into a social situation, and even love. Do any of these feel relevant to you?
- Make a list of other ways you can cope with these feelings. If you’re angry or stressed, getting your heart rate up with exercise can help. Feeling lonely? Call a friend to catch up, take a class, or get out of the house to be around others. Boredom can be relieved by reading a book, drawing, playing with your pets, or taking up a new hobby.
- Don’t be afraid to seek counseling if you need it. Getting help to deal with your emotions is nothing to be ashamed of. You can find therapists in your area through Psychology Today’s network or even do therapy via an app like BetterHelp. Your job may also have special programs where you get discounted or free therapy for a certain number of sessions.
Principle 8: Respect Your Body
This is one of the hardest – if not THE hardest – Intuitive Eating principle for most women.
We all have an image in our heads of “the perfect body.” It’s hard to avoid when that image is coming at you from all angles – fashion, face-tuned social media images, ads for shrinking belly fat, “reality” TV, magazine covers lining the checkout in grocery stores, and even in healthcare.
Given how unrealistic the “ideal” body is for most women, it’s no wonder why nearly all of us are suffering from bad body image. Cue the chronic dieting!
Believe it or not, there are genetic components that influence your weight. Put ten women in a room who are all the same height and eating the same meals, and they still won’t have identical shapes and sizes.
Principle 8 – respect your body – means replacing the constant self-criticism about your body and how you look and instead replacing it with a healthy dose of body respect.
Tips for respecting your body:
- Don’t push off shopping for stylish clothes that fit until you lose those last few pounds. Wear clothes that make you feel good now.
- You deserve to eat when you’re hungry. No buts.
- Stop comparing your body to others and picking apart your appearance in every mirror you pass.
- Practice speaking to yourself with love. What do you like about your body? It doesn’t have to be about how you look, to start. For example, you can love how your arms can wrap around someone you love in a hug, or how your strong legs can take you anywhere you want to go in the world.
- Focus on health measures like lab values and your physical endurance, not the number on the scale or your BMI.
- Pamper your body with massages, bubble baths, and applying rich and indulgent body creams to your skin.
Principle 9: Movement – Feel the Difference
In the grand scheme of things, physical activity is a better predictor of health and longevity than weight.
Does that surprise you, given the amount of attention society gives to weight loss?
The ninth Intuitive Eating principle is all about moving our bodies.
What it’s not about:
- Using exercise specifically to maintain a certain weight or lose weight
- Punishing yourself through exercise because you ate too much
- Earning future meals by pushing yourself on the treadmill
- Forcing yourself to work out when you don’t feel well
- Doing something you hate because you’re “supposed to” exercise
Most people learn to couple exercise with dieting efforts, which takes focus away from all of the wonderful benefits of exercise like improved physical endurance, stronger muscles and bones, decreased stress, happier mood, and improved memory and cognitive skills.
Tips for movement – feeling the difference:
- It might be helpful to reframe “exercise” as “movement.”
- Try to incorporate more activity into your daily life, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Make a point of finding ways to move your body that are fun. If you like to walk, listen to your favorite music or podcast at the same time. Join a team sport that you’ve always wanted to try, like kickball or tennis. Is dancing your thing? Sign up for a dance or Zumba class. If you absolutely hate running, there is no reason to force yourself to do it. There are plenty of other enjoyable ways to move your body.
- Delete any apps that track how many calories you burn while exercising.
- Remember that it’s not all or nothing. If you only have the time or energy to move for ten minutes today, that’s ok! Go for it!
Principle 10: Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition
The last of the 10 Intuitive Eating principles is to honor your health with gentle nutrition.
When I first heard of Intuitive Eating, I was certain that it was a bad idea. To me, it sounded like people would just eat whatever they want, whenever they wanted, without any regard to their health.
Turns out, this is a common misconception.
It’s best to choose a variety of foods in order to get all of the nutrients your body needs. The key is balance while avoiding guilt and anxiety about food selection. An obsession with eating only “healthy” foods isn’t healthy at all. Eating should be a pleasurable experience not based on nutrition facts alone!
The goal is to honor your health AND your taste preferences, without feeling guilty.
Tips for honoring your health with gentle nutrition:
- Choose to eat mostly whole grains, lean protein, fruits and vegetables, heart-healthy fats, and drink plenty of water.
- Whole grains include brown rice, whole wheat pasta, whole wheat bread/pita/tortillas/crackers, barley, whole oats, bulgur, quinoa, buckwheat, spelt, millet, etc.
- Protein foods include fish, beans, chicken, tofu, turkey, beef, tempeh, quinoa, eggs, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, lentils, nuts, seeds, etc.
- Heart-healthy fat can be found in nuts, avocado, seeds, olives, olive oil, flaxseed oil, etc.
- Relearn to love healthy foods that you used to associate only with dieting. For example, there are so many ways to enjoy veggies that have nothing to do with stuffing yourself full of celery sticks to curb your hunger! You can add vegetables to soups, stews, casseroles, smoothies, and sandwiches. Make stuffed peppers and ratatouille. Grill vegetables to top off burgers. The possibilities are endless.
- Remember to pay attention to the other principles of Intuitive Eating, like honoring your hunger and fullness cues.
- Don’t eat food that you don’t like the taste of, just because it’s “healthy.”
- Repeat to yourself: all foods can fit into a healthy diet.
Intuitive Eating is a framework for eating based on the intuitive cues your body sends you. It’s backed by over 100 studies that show how it promotes benefits that are not just physical but emotional as well.
The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating are ten guidelines for helping you have a healthier relationship with food that is based on your body’s innate hunger and fullness cues. To review, these principles are:
- Reject the diet mentality.
- Honor your hunger.
- Make peace with food.
- Challenge the food police.
- Discover the satisfaction factor.
- Feel your fullness.
- Cope with your emotions with kindness.
- Respect your body.
- Movement – feel the difference
- Honor your health with gentle nutrition.
The easiest way to start with Intuitive Eating is by working on one principle at a time. Use the tips for adopting each principle I’ve included in the article above. Once you feel like you’ve got one of the Intuitive Eating principles down, move on to the next one.
For a more personalized approach and ongoing support, contact a registered dietitian nutritionist such as myself for virtual nutrition coaching.