10 Tips for Practicing Intuitive Eating

Black woman in Eating Disorder Treatment Specifically for Women and bringing honesty in eating disorder recovery

Intuitive Eating is a self-care eating framework, which integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought. It was created by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, in 1995 and is currently on its fourth iteration. [1]

The Intuitive Eating framework is often used in recovery from disordered eating, as it is an approach that was developed to help people heal from the side effects of chronic dieting and diet culture — both of which are two common precipitating factors to disordered eating. It is a weight-inclusive, evidence-based model with a validated assessment scale and over 100 studies to date. [1]

Intuitive Eating is a personal and dynamic process, which includes 10 principles: [3]

  • Reject the Diet Mentality
  • Honor Your Hunger
  • Make Peace with Food
  • Challenge the Food Police
  • Discover the Satisfaction Factor
  • Feel Your Fullness
  • Respect Your Body
  • Movement — Feel the Difference
  • Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition

According to Tribole and Resch, the principles work in two key ways: [1, 3]

1) By helping you cultivate attunement to the physical sensations that arise from within your body to get both your biological and psychological needs met and

2) Removing the obstacles and disruptors to attunement, which usually come from the mind in the form of rules, beliefs, and thoughts.

Ten tips for practicing intuitive eating

1. Ditch diet culture. First things first — when practicing intuitive eating, it’s important that we are committed to ditching diet culture. I appreciate anti-diet dietitian Christy Harrison’s definition of diet culture.

She says, “Diet culture doesn’t just mean ‘being on a diet,’ because you don’t have to follow any sort of official diet to be caught up in the culture of dieting.” We can think of diet culture as the societal system of beliefs, messages, and behaviors that place value on a person’s weight and appearance, rather than their well-being or health status.

Unfortunately, diet culture is so ubiquitous that disordered eating is quite normalized in our society, and diet culture’s values become engrained in many, if not all, of us. Ditching diet culture means giving up the system of beliefs that values weight, size, and shape over health and well-being.

It means giving up the thin ideal and the notion that thinness equates to health, moral virtue, and/or status. It is understanding that all bodies deserve dignity and respect. We can only truly move toward intuitive eating if we develop a conscious awareness of diet culture and actively reject it. [1, 2, 3]

2. Replace what we’ve learned from diet culture with accurate education. Despite what diet culture teaches us, it’s important to know that diets don’t work. In fact, 95% of all dieters will regain their lost weight in 1-5 years, and dieting for weight loss is often associated with weight gain (this is due to the increased incidence of binge-eating).

Woman thinking about intuitive eatingDieting also increases risks of developing disordered eating — 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting (i.e., disordered eating patterns). Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full syndrome eating disorders.

Adolescent girls who diet are at 324% (yes, 324%… that is not a typo) greater risk for obesity than those who do not diet. The pursuit of intentional weight loss is a failed paradigm, which creates health problems, including weight stigma, weight cycling, and eating disorders.

The fact is, all bodies deserve dignity and respect. Understanding the facts about dieting can help us move away from dieting behavior and toward intuitive eating.

In fact, research has shown that intuitive eating results in the following benefits: greater body appreciation and satisfaction, positive emotional functioning, greater well-being, better life satisfaction, greater motivation to exercise, lower BMI, lower internalized cultural thin ideal, lower triglycerides and higher HDL or “good” cholesterol, and lower disordered eating patterns — just to name a few. Reminding ourselves of these facts will be helpful when we face setbacks towards intuitive eating. [1, 3-7]

3. Know Intuitive Eating takes practice. The scientific mechanism behind intuitive eating is called “interoceptive awareness,” or the ability to perceive physical sensations that arise within the body. These bodily sensations include hunger and fullness cues.

The Intuitive Eating principles increase interoceptive awareness by helping us with the following practices: honoring our hunger, respecting our fullness, discovering the satisfaction factor of eating, and experiencing joyful movement. These practices are often refined by personal insights and honed with repetition.

It’s important to know that since Intuitive Eating is a practice, it takes practice. This is where being patient with yourself and using lots of self-compassion can be helpful (see Tips #4 and #5 below). [3]

4. Practice self-compassion. Self-compassion is self-kindness and self-validation. It’s like being a loving friend or loving parent to yourself. Practicing Intuitive Eating will require holding lots of compassion for yourself. At times it may be holding compassion for the desire to lose weight, given you’ve grown up in diet culture.

At other times it may be accepting that moving toward Intuitive Eating and then away from it and then back toward it again is a normal part of the process. Self-compassion is what will allow you to continue to move forward without feeling like a failure — like you are backsliding or not making progress. [3]

5. Be patient. Many people who turn to Intuitive Eating as a way to heal from disordered eating often ask, “How long will this process take?” Understand progress towards intuitive eating is not measured in time.

Rather, it’s measured in the ability to listen to the messages your body gives you about hunger, fullness, and satisfaction and honoring those messages along with respecting your body and treating your body with great care. This process looks different for everyone — for some, it may take only a month or two of consistent practice to return to Intuitive Eating, while, for others, it may take years (and years).

This is because everyone’s body is unique, and everyone has their own unique experiences that shape their ability to eat intuitively — experiences such as prior or current chronic hunger and food scarcity or cultural expectations around food and eating. Experiences such as these may make Intuitive Eating quite difficult. [3]

6. Make space for emotions. Intuitive Eating requires making space for emotions. It’s important to know that unwanted emotions like anxiety, loneliness, boredom, anger, shame, guilt, and sadness are universal, meaning they are experienced by all humans.

Unwanted emotions can often be closely related to disordered eating patterns — whether they lead to restriction or “emotional eating” or feeling out of control with eating. It’s important that we are able to check in with our emotions and, with intention, find kind ways to comfort, nurture, distract, honor, or act on our emotions in a way that feels good to us. [3]

7. Know that it’s okay to cope with food. Eating intuitively, in part, is understanding that it is human to comfort ourselves with food. When feeling down, we may find peace and comfort in making a traditional family recipe from scratch and enjoying it. Or unwinding with friends over pizza and beer.

Part of intuitive eating is reducing judgments around food and letting go of the guilt we’ve experienced in the past around food. Savoring foods we choose, enjoying a meal in an inviting environment, and honoring our biological hunger are all a part of intuitive eating and can be immensely satisfying, comforting, and a healthy way to take care of ourselves.

Relying only on food to cope is what sets us up for an unhealthy relationship with food. Thinking that food will “fix” our emotions or using food to numb, distract, or punish is often referred to as “emotional eating.” If we find ourselves using food to cope or engaging in “emotional eating,” it’s often a good sign that we need to check-in and reevaluate how we are taking care of ourselves. [3]

Woman on beach suffering from the Recurrence of Anorexia8. Disconnect food from movement. Due to diet culture, many of our brains are trained to associate food with movement — often in a “calories in, calories out” kind of way. This association between food and movement only takes us further away from our ability to eat intuitively.

Rather than exercising for reasons related to weight or appearance, try engaging in some sort of movement that brings you joy. Focus on how it feels to move your body, rather than the calorie-burning effect of exercise. [3]

9. Make peace with your body. Making peace with your body may mean making peace with the fact that others may not get it. You may find that other people won’t understand Intuitive Eating or its principles. Some people may even be outright judgmental.

This can be incredibly challenging, but it’s important to remember that this is an intuitive process. As such, there will be moments where you are just feeling your way through the struggle (including the struggle with the people around you) as you gain more and more security in your own inherent knowledge (read: you’ll need the approval of others less).

Making peace with the fact that others may not get it is so important in finding peace with food and your body. In other words, you do you, boo. [3]

10. Cultivate a supportive environment. Building off of Tip #8 above, it is important to find people who do get it and to intentionally build an environment that will support your Intuitive Eating journey. Perhaps it’s joining a formal group that is committed to practicing Intuitive Eating or working with a therapist or dietitian who helps folx with reconnecting to intuitive eating.

You can also do things like curate your social media — unfollow or unsubscribe to those who are invested in diet culture and follow those who are living their life intuitively — or get rid of fitness trackers and apps. This may also mean setting boundaries with other people who do not support your journey.

Whatever this looks like for you, cultivating a supportive environment can encourage a healthy relationship with food and your body.


Sources:

1. Tribole, E. (July 17, 2019). Definition of Intuitive Eating. Retrieved from https://www.intuitiveeating.org/definition-of-intuitive-eating/ on July 17, 2020.

2. Harrison, C. (nd) What is diet culture? Retrieved from https://christyharrison.com/blog/what-is-diet-culture on July 17, 2020.

3. Tribole, E. & Resch, E. (2020). Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach. Fourth Edition. St. Martin’s Publishing Group: NY, NY

4. Field, A. E., Austin, S. B., Taylor, C. B., Malpeis, S., Rosner, B., Rockett, H. R., Gillman, M. W. & Colditz, G. A. (2003). Relation between dieting and weight change among preadolescents and adolescents. Pediatrics, 112(4), 900-906.

5. Grodstein, F., Levine, R., Spencer, T., Colditz, G. A., &Stampfer, M. J. (1996). Three-year follow-up of participants in a commercial weight loss program: Can you keep it off? Archives of Internal Medicine 156(12), 1302.

6. Shisslak, C.M., Crago, M., & Estes, L.S. (1995). The spectrum of eating disturbances. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 18 (3), 209-219.

7. Stice, Cameron, R. P., Killen, J. D., Hayward, C. & Taylor, C. B. (1999). Naturalistic weight-reduction efforts prospectively predict growth in relative weight and onset of obesity among female adolescents. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 67, 967-974.


About the Author:

Chelsea Fielder-Jenks PhotoChelsea Fielder-Jenks is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice in Austin, Texas. Chelsea works with individuals, families, and groups primarily from a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) framework.

She has extensive experience working with adolescents, families, and adults who struggle with eating, substance use, and various co-occurring mental health disorders. You can learn more about Chelsea and her private practice at ThriveCounselingAustin.com.


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published July 30, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on July 30, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.