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11th February, 20214 min read

What is intuitive eating and how does it work?

Medical reviewer: Dr Adiele Hoffman
Author: Libby Williams
Last reviewed: 10/02/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

There are lots of diets out there, which promise to help you lose weight, feel better and be healthier. It can be difficult, if not impossible, to know which ones really work – and what’s safe and healthy to try.

Sometimes referred to as the ‘anti-diet’, intuitive eating is a different way of looking at food and body image. Read on to find out what it is, what the possible benefits are and how to try it for yourself.

What is intuitive eating?

The term ‘intuitive eating’ was first used in 1995 in the US by 2 registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.

The basic idea is that you stop dieting and start listening to ‘hunger cues’ from your body instead – so you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full.

It’s about making healthy eating a conscious decision – to eat what makes you feel good.

How does it work?

Intuitive eating is the opposite of a traditional diet and doesn’t have ‘rules’ about eating. Instead, it’s based on 10 principles.

The 10 principles of intuitive eating

  1. Reject the diet mentality.
  2. Honour your hunger.
  3. Make peace with food.
  4. Challenge the food police.
  5. Feel your fullness.
  6. Discover the satisfaction factor.
  7. Cope with your emotions with kindness.
  8. Respect your body.
  9. Movement – feel the difference.
  10. Honour your health – gentle nutrition.

These intuitive eating principles were created to guide you to feed your body when it’s hungry and take exercise when you feel like your body needs it.

The thinking is that, over time, this will give you a healthier, more positive attitude to food and body image.

The benefits of intuitive eating

Since the idea of intuitive eating was developed, research has looked into its effects, including how it might improve how we think and feel (psychological benefits).

A review of several studies found that people who tried intuitive eating showed improvements in their psychological health, including increased self-esteem and body image, as well as less depression or anxiety and a better quality of life.

Other research has linked intuitive eating to having a lower body mass index (BMI) and maintaining (though not losing) weight.

While these studies are promising, however, more research is needed before we can be sure of the benefits of intuitive eating.

How to eat intuitively

Anyone can try intuitive eating. If you’ve had enough of diets and the way they make you feel, it might be a way to help you change your attitude to food and your body.

To begin eating intuitively, you need to learn to tell the difference between ‘physical’ hunger and ‘emotional’ hunger.

When you’re physically hungry, your body sends you signals to tell you to give it nutrients. These signs can include a growling, rumbling tummy, a drop in energy levels and feelings of irritability – and they’ll go away after you’ve eaten.

Emotional hunger, on the other hand, is a craving for food that’s caused by emotions, such as boredom, sadness and other negative feelings. It often makes you want comfort food, and can leave you feeling bad after you’ve eaten.

The key is to listen to your body. When you feel physical hunger, this is the time to eat. Don’t wait until you’re excessively hungry, as this can cause you to overeat or eat too quickly – making it harder to notice when you’re full. Once you get that comfortably full feeling, stop eating.

Remember, intuitive eating isn’t a diet. There aren’t any rules about what you can and can’t eat – it’s not about judgement or counting calories. Intuitive eating encourages eating a wide variety of foods, for a healthy balance.

Dos and don'ts of intuitive eating

Do

  • eat when you feel hungry
  • stop eating when you feel full
  • eat a variety of foods

Don’t

  • wait until you’re starving to eat
  • eat because of emotional hunger
  • count calories
  • judge yourself because of what you’re eating

It’s always a good idea to consult your doctor or a registered dietitian before making changes to your diet or the way you eat.

Key points

  • intuitive eating is about having a healthy attitude to food and body image
  • it’s based on 10 principles – but there are no ‘rules’
  • it involves listening to your body so that you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full
  • more research is needed to prove the benefits
  • anyone can try intuitive eating, but it’s best to speak to your doctor before making changes to the way you eat
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