What is intuitive eating? Experts explain the anti-diet diet

Isabel Calkins
·7 min read

Listening to your gut is the key to intuitive eating, an anti-diet diet.

What is intuitive eating?

Intuitive eating — a term coined in the late ’90s by Evelyn Tribole, an award-winning registered dietitian and best-selling author, and Elyse Resch, a nutrition therapist in private practice in Beverly Hills, Calif. — is defined as a “dynamic mind-body integration of instinct, emotion and rational thought.” Or, as Tribole explains to Yahoo Life, it’s “a way of life that focuses on self-connection.”

But what does that mean, exactly? Rather than being characterized as a traditional diet, it is an anti-diet approach to eating that honors your health by paying attention to what your body is telling you in order to meet your physical and emotional needs. In simpler terms, intuitive eating is about understanding that you are the only one to know your hunger and what food or meal will satisfy you, “something no diet plan or health guru could possibly know,” Tribole says.

What are the benefits of intuitive eating?

What makes intuitive eating so different from other health approaches is that the results of it aren’t tied to a certain outcome or weight. Leah Kern, a clinical “non-diet” dietician at Lenox Hill, says that it is for this reason that intuitive eating is seen as radical. “Since people began profiting off of the diet industry, it has been ingrained in our heads that we as humans can not be trusted to eat whatever we want, otherwise we will gain weight or be unhealthy.”

Additionally, in a recent meta-analysis review of 24 studies published between 2006 and 2015, intuitive eating was shown to positively impact emotions, life satisfaction, self-regard and optimism. Greater motivation to exercise when the focus is on enjoyment rather than guilt or appearance was also reported.

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

How does it work?

According to Tribole, there are ten key principles of intuitive eating that act as guidelines to this way of life. In her book, Intuitive Eating, 4th Edition: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach, she breaks down the principles and separates them into two categories: things that help attune your body, meaning the ability to hear and respond to what your body is feeling (like knowing when you are hungry or full) and things that help to remove the obstacles that get in the way of this body attunement. “Both of these things are necessary in order to gain the benefits of intuitive eating,” Tribole says.

So, what are the 10 principles? Let’s break them down.

  1. Reject the diet mentality: The first step of intuitive eating is understanding the influence that diet-culture has played in your perception of health. “We are being fed the idea that health and weight are synonymous,” Tribole explains. Do you regularly see juice cleanse ads saying you will be healthy and trim if you drink this one thing? Before and after images of a new workout mentioning a better life? Weight loss tea sold by influencers?All of these things contribute to the idea that your body and worth is directly related to how you look, when that is anything but true. Tribole notes that examining your dieting history and dieting thoughts will take a lot of unlearning, but it is okay to be in a place of cognitive dissonance. “You are in this place that doesn’t feel good because you know it’s true,” she says, adding that it’s an ongoing practice that will take patience and strength.

  2. Honor your hunger: In the second principle, your body attunement comes into play. “When you diet, you outsource your food decisions to someone who doesn’t even know you,” Tribole states. “Unless they follow you around every single day watching you, they really can’t have any way of knowing your actual health.”This step is about giving that power back to yourself. When working through this principle, you learn to identify your body's cues for hunger, as well as respecting them. It can be as simple as eating when you feel hungry, as well as identifying what exactly you are hungry for.

  3. Make peace with food: If you ever judged yourself for indulging in ice cream after dinner or wanting a snack before lunch, this step is for you. “It is the process of making our food choices emotionally equal, without placing shame or judgment on them, whether you are eating junk food or broccoli,” Tribole says. When you give yourself permission to eat what you want, and enjoy it, it allows you to deepen the relationship you have with your food and yourself.

  4. Challenge the ‘Food Police’: The food rules that have been internalized due to diet culture is what Tribole likes to call “the Food Police.” The goal of this principle is to challenge the idea that food is moralistic. For example, describing foods as “decadent, sinful, tempting or bad” are examples of how language can dictate whether or not something is OK to eat. Challenging these ideas and developing non-judgmental awareness of your thoughts is one way to get rid of the food police forever and create a new relationship with food, this time based on respect.

  5. Feel your fullness: Tribole puts this principle plainly, saying “listen for your body’s signals that tell you that you are no longer hungry. Observe the signs that you’re comfortably full” and respect them. If you can understand your biometric signals and you listen to them, then you are one step closer to reclaiming what diet culture has taken from you.

  6. Discover satisfaction: Food is meant to satisfy and nourish you. But nowadays people are so focused on whether or not something is “healthy” that they actually forget what it means to enjoy food. In this principle, you ask yourself, ‘What food brings you joy, deep into your core? What does it feel like to eat and enjoy it without guilt?’ Once you ask these questions and observe your answer, you understand the satisfaction factor.

  7. Cope with your feelings without using food: There’s a reason ice cream and breakups go together perfectly. But believe it or not, there are other ways to comfort, nurture, distract and resolve issues that have nothing to do with food. While comfort food might feel like a solution temporarily, it’s not a practice that will sustain you in the long run.

  8. Respect your body: More often than not, a chronic dieter has disdain for their body. Respecting your body means treating it with dignity and kindness, as well as meeting its basic needs. An easy way to practice this is by thinking of your body as a friend. Would you say these hurtful things to someone you love? The answer might give you a hint.

  9. Exercise: feel the difference: It’s common knowledge that there is a direct link between exercise and feeling good. So if you eliminate the desire to exercise for the aesthetic result, what’s left is the desire to exercise because of how it feels. In this principle, you simply observe how your body reacts to different workouts and go from there. If your body wants to move, it will tell you. No pressure either way.

  10. Honor your health: gentle nutrition: The final principle of intuitive eating is one that people commonly think should be the first one — nutrition. According to Tribole, it’s the final step because “a focus on nutrition in the beginning of your food journey might sabotage your ability to challenge the idea of “good” and “bad” foods. Now that foods are viewed as emotionally equivalent, you can move forward to understand which foods give you the best benefit of health.”

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