If you have spent most of your life following the new and next best diet or restricting certain food groups to lose weight, you may feel like you’re eternally stuck in a vicious cycle of good and bad when it comes to what’s on your plate.
Chronic dieting can make us feel pretty negative about our bodies and our relationship to food. Not to mention yo-yo dieting—which can lead to continuous fluctuations in weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar—may actually put you at a greater risk for heart attacks and strokes .
So what’s an eating plan that will work and make you feel good? Intuitive eating may just be the key to healing these relationships and finding freedom from the dreaded diet cycle for good. Intuitive eating takes all the rules of dieting and throws it out the window. This non-diet approach to health and wellness was founded in the 1990’s by Evelyn Tribole, RD, and Elyse Resch, RDN, and focuses on ditching the diet mentality, learning to tune into your body signals to make foods choices, and healing your relationship with food and your body.
Intuitive eating is the freedom to eat whatever your body is craving. It is not based on restricting food groups, weight loss, or food rules. Intuitive eaters give themselves full permission to eat whatever they want without feeling shame or guilt. They listen to internal cues of hunger and satiety to choose what to eat, how much to eat, and when to eat it.
And as it turns out, most research shows this mindful approach to eating works , helping people address binge eating, emotional eating, eating in response to external cues, and preventing weight gain.
While there are no food rules or calorie counting, intuitive eating doesn’t mean an all-out free-for-all! These are some of our favorite intuitive eating principles that can help you find your way back to your internal hunger signals and mindfully make healthful choices. Let’s dive in and find out what this food philosophy is really about.
The problem with weight-loss diets is a big one: they don’t work! Research suggests that 95% of people who lose weight by dieting will regain it in 1-5 years. The deprivation of restrictive diets often leads to periods of binge eating and can increase the risk of disordered eating. This cycle of restriction and bingeing creates what is called weight cycling, or the yo-yo effect. This can affect metabolism, making it harder each time to lose weight. So, the first principle of intuitive eating is to throw away all of your diet books and dump the scale for good.
Traditional "dieting" teaches you to use external cues to eat, like rules and time, instead of listening to your own internal cues to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full.
Using your innate ability to regulate hunger and fullness can be tricky at first, especially if you’re used to feeling physically hungry from chronically dieting. Once you learn to recognize your own hunger and fullness signals, you can trust your instincts and begin to repair unhealthy relationships with food.
Those voices in your head telling you that you “should” be eating salad or that it’s bad to have dessert? Don’t listen! These messages can cause us to have lowered self esteem, negative body image, and anxiety and worry around food. To eat intuitively, you’ve got to break free from rules and make peace with food.
One consequence of a dieting mentality is food labeling or "food fear." If you’ve ever restricted certain foods to lose weight, you may see those foods as forbidden or bad and feel pretty guilty if you slip up and eat them. This is the root of developing an unhealthy relationship to food, and the backlash to these feelings of guilt and shame can lead to binge eating the exact foods you fear.
But a pretty magical thing happens when you allow yourself total freedom in food choices—you’re able to tune in and ask yourself the right questions. “Do I really want this food now?” and, “Will I feel good when I am finished eating this?”
Respecting your body is just as important as finding food peace. Finding acceptance for your body and genetic makeup can be life changing and is the first step toward body positivity.
Emotional eating is not a bad thing. We instinctively use food to comfort, just as we did when we were babies. However, if eating is the only coping mechanism we are implementing when feeling bored, stressed, anxious, lonely, or sad, it can make it difficult to truly eat out of hunger. Getting to the root of these emotions and finding other positive ways to resolve them is an important step to eating intuitively. Daily mindfulness practices, like journaling, or practicing meditation are both health-promoting ways to work through stress and negative feelings.
Move your body in a way that feels good and brings you joy to you can also help to lower stress. Exercise should be a celebration of what your body can do, rather than a punishment for what you put into it.
There is a common misconception that intuitive eating throws out all principles of healthy eating . While this plan does encourage eating lots of nutrient dense fruits, veggies, proteins and fats, it focuses on the other principles first so that these food choices come more naturally or instinctually.
Food should be satisfying! Learning what truly feels good in your body and what doesn’t is an amazing tool to eat more intuitively. Carve some time out for your meal, eat without distraction and bring awareness to the food on your plate. How does the first bite taste? The middle? How about the end? Get started by trying this at one meal each day.
Eating intuitively can take a little work at first, but once you’ve mastered these principles you’re on your way to a healthy relationship with food and positive body image. Oh, and of course freedom from a lifetime of dieting. Are you ready to reject the diet mentality and get started?
Kris (she/her) is a Brooklyn-based Master Nutrition Therapist and Senior Health Coach with seven years of functional nutrition and health experience. She is a certified Health Coach through the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, earned her Master Nutrition Therapy certification through the Nutrition Therapy Institute of Denver, CO, and is trained in Intuitive Eating. Kris is HAES-aligned and passionate about weight-neutral approaches to health, supporting folks to heal from disordered eating/eating disorders, and body liberation.