I’ve written a lot of wellness articles in my day, but the topic of intuitive eating is my bread and butter. IMO, there is nothing as freeing, effective, universal, and even basic as eating intuitively. So what is it, and how do you achieve it? In order to describe it, I have to explain what it is not—with a scenario most of us will know all too well: It’s Thursday night after a busy day (nay, week), and you’re exhausted, stressed, and craving comfort. You open up the UberEats app (it is definitely not the night to cook that complicated recipe you had planned) and narrow it down to two options. You know you should order the kale quinoa bowl, but you want to order a Domino’s pizza, breadsticks, and an extra order of lava cakes (just in case).
Of course, there are a couple of different outcomes to this scenario. Maybe you order the Domino’s and feel guilty after eating until you’re way too stuffed or you get the kale bowl and feel unsatisfied, so you eat the entire carton of ice cream in the freezer. But there is another possibility that has nothing to do with what you should or shouldn’t eat (and it doesn’t result in dissatisfaction or guilt). Intuitive eating is basically the anti-diet, but it can yield similar results of healthier choices and improved health. Forget calorie counting, restrictive eating, and yo-yo dieting—here’s your comprehensive guide to tune in to what your body really needs.
What is “Intuitive Eating?”
Following your body’s hunger cues and listening to cravings should not be revolutionary, but alas, it’s pretty counterintuitive to what diet culture has taught us for decades. While human beings have been unintentionally eating this way for centuries, the phrase was originally coined by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, in the ’90s. Intuitive eating offers a framework that makes nutrition behavior-focused and personalized instead of restrictive or rule-focused. Just a reminder: We are born intuitive eaters. As infants, we cry to signal we’re hungry, eat as much as we need, and then stop eating when we’ve had enough. Intuitive eating is less of a diet and more about unlearning the food rules that have made us lose our intuition (instead of weight). How do we unlearn? Follow these core principles of healthy eating:
8 Steps to Practice Intuitive Eating
1. Identify engrained food rules
You are not the problem—your lack of willpower, intense cravings, or past failures are not the problem. The problem is diet culture and the engrained food rules that come with it. To start the process of listening to your body, notice where food rules show up for you. Do you still think some foods are good and some foods are bad? Do you believe carbs are unhealthy or fats make you fat? Do you think the serving size on a box knows what’s better for you than your own hunger cues? And do you think there are only certain times that you can eat (like three meals a day)? Get curious about what food rules you’ve believed to be fact, and start challenging them.
2. Realize hunger is a good thing
How many articles or “health tips” have you seen that are titled “Foods That Suppress Your Appetite” or “How to Reduce Hunger so You Can Finally Lose Weight?” Maybe you’ve thought to yourself, “I’m still hungry, but I already ate a full meal” or “I’m hungry, but I shouldn’t eat this late at night.” You might have even depended on a serving size to tell you how much to eat and felt mad at yourself when you were still hungry or relied on trendy fasting rules over your own hunger cues. It’s no surprise we’ve lost our ability to be intuitive; we’re taught to believe that the language in which our body communicates is not to be trusted. Bottom line: Physical hunger is your body’s way of telling you it needs nourishment. If you’re feeling hungry, allow yourself to eat. Hunger is one of the key tools we can use to keep our bodies healthy.
3. Give yourself permission to eat what you want
In a healthy diet, there is room for all foods. That’s right, I said “all.” Give yourself unconditional permission to eat anything you want—whether you worked out or ate healthy previously does not affect what you can and cannot eat. When you categorize foods as “good” or “bad,” restrict certain foods, or feel guilty about what you’re eating, you’re sending the signal to your mind that you won’t be eating this food again. Your mind then translates that restriction as a need to get that food now since you won’t get it in the future. Think about it: An increased appetite and cravings for the restricted foods would save your life in a famine, so it makes sense biologically. Therefore, any deprivation can lead to uncontrollable cravings and overeating. Trust me, when food is no longer off limits, it’s immediately less enticing. You are able to enjoy a small amount, stop when you’re satisfied, and crave a variety of healthy, nourishing foods.
4. Learn the difference between “full” and “satisfied”
PSA: “Full” and “satisfied” are two different things. It’s possible for you to feel full but not satisfied. You might feel “stuffed” and still keep picking on the food in front of you or go to the kitchen for dessert because you’re not yet satisfied. Fullness is the physical feeling of eating enough and satisfaction is the mental or emotional feeling of eating enough. The way you get your physical fullness and mental satisfaction to line up is to eat food that both tastes good and makes your body feel good. Your meals should be delicious, nutrient-dense, and based on what you’re craving. If you’re still finding yourself snacking when you’re not hungry, your body is likely craving nourishment in other ways, whether it’s in the form of comfort or to fix boredom or stress. Identify that emotion to satisfy the craving in ways that will actually fix it long term.
5. Feel when you’re full
One tidbit that diet culture has gotten right is that we often overeat. But what it did not get right is the way to fix it. Overeating does not stop with under-eating, restriction, or serving sizes (that’s what causes it in the first place). Every body needs different serving sizes and nutrients, so listen to what you need. To start, feel OK if you’re not in the clean plate club. Limit food waste by saving leftovers for later (even if it’s just a little bit), and make every meal or snack an opportunity to get to know your body better. Pause partway through every meal to check in with how you feel. How is the food making you feel? What’s going on in the body? How does the food taste? Chew thoroughly and eat mindfully to give your stomach a chance to signal that it’s had enough, and stop when you’re no longer hungry but before you start feeling too full or “stuffed.”
6. Respect your body
Eating intuitively means you listen to your body and trust that your body knows what’s best. But it’s kind of hard to trust or listen to your body if you don’t love it, right? Even if you don’t love everything about your body or feel as body-confident as Lizzo, you can still acknowledge your worthiness and understand that your body is not the enemy. Besides, loving your body doesn’t have to start with loving the way it looks. Instead, self-love and body acceptance starts when you realize its wisdom and your inherent worth as a human being.
That means treating yourself with kindness, first and foremost. Approach cravings, feelings, and symptoms from a place of curiosity and compassion instead of judgment and resentment. It’s OK (and normal!) to struggle with this part of intuitive eating, but focus on turning attention away from comparison or how your body is “wrong” and instead focus on all it does right. Know that your body is not trying to sabotage you; everything from cravings to low energy to symptoms is how your body communicates its needs so you can be as healthy as possible.
7. Practice intuitive movement too
While exercise does not typically correlate with nutrition, intuitive eating is a lifestyle, not a diet. That means changing every area that might not be serving your body. Working out is another manifestation of diet culture; we know what we need to be healthy (moving our bodies and eating fruits and vegetables), but rules and restrictions make it hard. Just like healthy eating, exercise has become something we dread, avoid, or force ourselves to do.
To heal your body holistically, apply intuitive eating principles to exercise. Forget about calorie burn or what trends say is the best workout for weight loss. Instead, focus on how you feel during workouts. Are you having fun? Do you feel less stressed? Do you feel more energized? Exercise can be challenging, but it should always be enjoyable. Listen to your body to decide what kind of exercise feels best for you, and you’ll start craving movement instead of resisting it.
8. Think of food as self-care
Nutrition should not be all-or-nothing, and being “perfect” does not mean healthy. Instead of seeing food as an enemy or a reward, think of food as self-care. Caring for yourself means giving the body foods that you know make you feel energized, nourished, and happy. Sometimes, caring for yourself will also mean eating a delicious dessert or enjoying a glass of wine, and that’s OK! There’s not only room for both definitions of self-care, but it also wouldn’t be self-care without the balance between the two. When you listen to what your body wants and get rid of restrictions, you’ll realize you’re no longer craving chicken nuggets or ice cream sundaes all the time. Instead, you’ll crave leafy greens, a variety of whole foods, and, yes, the occasional rich meal or delicious dessert that you deserve to enjoy, guilt-free.