IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

What is intuitive eating and can it help you lose weight?

The first rule of intuitive eating is to reject the diet mentality, but its principles can still support healthy weight management. A dietitian explains how.

Diet trends can be really tempting. Whether you want to lose weight, boost your energy or just feel a little healthier, it can be difficult to resist the urge to jump on the latest viral diet plan. The problem is that fad diets just don't work. In fact, the whole idea of "dieting" is flawed.

According to the Endocrine Society, about 80% of people who lose weight will ultimately gain it back again. Regaining those pounds, particularly in a yo-yo dieting mode, not only interferes with your ability to maintain a healthy weight, it can take a toll on your physical and emotional health. One way to avoid these pitfalls is to ease up on traditional dieting and take a different tack. Intuitive eating is a realistic and reasonable approach to eating that eschews trends and encourages you to pay attention to what your body needs.

What is intuitive eating?

Intuitive eating is a non-diet approach designed to help people who want to lose weight or change their relationship to food move beyond dieting and enjoy better health. The approach was designed by registered dietitian Evelyn Tribole and nutrition therapist Elyse Resch, who coined the phrase, "intuitive eating" in their 1995 book of that name.

Intuitive eating is basically the opposite of most diets, which have rules or limits and general require dieters to measure or count their weight — or what they eat — using various scales and metrics. Instead, intuitive eating is guided by 10 basic principles that encourage honoring hunger, respecting the body and making peace with food. There are no restrictions on what you can or can't eat — or how much of it. Instead, intuitive eaters try to develop a healthy relationship with their bodies, what they eat and how they move.

A beautiful woman examines her skin in a bathroom mirror.
Intuitive eating is guided by 10 basic principles including respecting the body. Getty Images

The 10 principles of intuitive eating

Intuitive eating is based on a set of ten guiding principles that help you think about your relationship to your body, food and exercise in new ways.

Principle #1: Reject the diet mentality

If weight loss feels stressful or punitive, or prevents you from practicing healthier behaviors or if you find yourself engaging in any form of disordered behavior around food or exercise, then it may be a good idea to reject the notion of weight loss entirely. This principle encourages you to get mad and rethink all the diet books and magazine articles that have made you feel crappy and the constant cultural pressure to get thin.

But the truth is that rejecting diet culture isn't easy, so you aren't likely to instantly let go of cultural ideals. Instead it becomes a practice. “Rejecting diet mentality is an ongoing lifetime habit,” said Willow Jarosh, a registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor. But, as with all the guiding principles of intuitive eating, there's no measuring stick and no deadline, so you can take your time removing yourself from diet culture.

Principle #2: Honor your hunger

When you’re paying attention to your body, you can decide if you’re hungry for a meal or snack, how big or small a plate of food you need and when you’ve eaten a sufficient amount. Though we’re all born knowing when we’re hungry and full, external cues urging you to “eat another bite” or “clean your plate” can get in the way. As adults, we sometimes have to re-learn how to rely on — and honor —our internal cues and practice more mindful eating.

Your level of hunger will change at various points, depending on your activity level, hormones and other factors. Over time, a day of heavier eating is offset by days when you have a lighter appetite. Discovering these nuances and combining them with nutrition practices can help you better manage hunger — and your weight.

Principle #3: Make peace with food

If you're giving up diet culture, you're going to have to give up a lot of ideas that go along with it. One of those ideas is that some foods are "good" and some are "bad." You don't need to make an enemy of the food that sustains you. Instead, the idea is to make friends with food and enjoy it. The truth is that we are biologically wired to enjoy eating, so this principle involves more undoing than doing.

Principle #4: Challenge the food police

Many of us have people in our lives that try to keep us on the diet train. Those people may love us and they may have only the best intentions. These are the friends and family who ask you if you "should really eat that" or remind you how many calories are in ice cream. This principle encourages you to stand up to those people and tell them that you have your own ideas.

Making new boundaries with people in your life is never easy, especially when they think they're trying to help you. But, as Brené Brown is constantly reiterating, making boundaries is worth it. You may have to start out by explaining to the people that you care about that you are trying to change how you think about food and invite them not to police your eating habits.

Principle #5: Discover the satisfaction factor

This principle is a reminder that food is inherently nourishing and that we feel a sense satisfaction when we are full or when we taste something delicious. Many of us have been tamping down those feelings of satisfaction so long in service to diet culture and the food police that we've all but forgotten them. This principle encourages your to get back in touch with the pleasure of eating and to notice when you've had enough, not according to some prescribed methodology, but because you feel an internal sense of satisfaction.

Principle #6: Feel your fullness

Sometimes we get so concerned with the idea of eating that we don't even notice how it feels. Have you ever found yourself staring down the empty bottom of a tub of ice cream and wondered how you got there? That's because we spend a lot of time checked out from the signals that our bodies are sending us — signals that tell us when we're enjoying something (see #5) and when we've had enough.

This principle is all about pausing while we eat to check in with how full we are. Some of us have taught our bodies to ignore the feeling of fullness because we associate it with doing something wrong. But once we let go of the idea that being full is bad or wrong, we can start to tap into the pleasure of it — and the natural limits of our appetites.

Principle #7: Cope with your emotions with kindness

Eating can be emotional. Sometimes we try to feed our feelings with food, and sometimes we beat ourselves up for how we relate to food and hunger. This principle encourages us to be kinder to ourselves on both counts. It’s natural to turn to food when you’ve had a rough day or feel burnt out, but it’s important to examine the reasons why you may be doing this.

Emotional eating can keep you from reaching a healthier weight — and it can also keep you unhappy because eating doesn't actually change the complexity of our lives. It’s important to recognize that eating because you’re bored, depressed, anxious or stressed won’t help you fix the things that are actually causing those feelings.

To identify the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger, it can be helpful to pause and ask yourself questions like “Am I hungry?” or “What am I asking food to do for me?” Once you understand the motivation driving you to eat, you can find ways to address the real problem. Calling a friend, listening to music or going for a walk may end up being better solutions. Above all else, be kind to yourself.

Mature couple dancing in living room.
Exercise and movement are one of our most natural and innate sources of joy.Getty Images

Principle #8: Respect your body

In our appearance-obsessed world, it's hard not to try to cobble together self-esteem based on what other people think of us and how well we think we conform to beauty ideals. But that's not a respectful way to treat our bodies. No matter how we look, our bodies literally carry us through our lives, and that is worth our respect.

Our bodies are inherently valuable and this principle requires us to look past what society values — in this case, thinness — and develop a sense of gratitude for all our bodies do for us. They may appear to us as imperfect, but all bodies deserve our respect, and we owe it to ourselves to offer it.

Principle #9: Movement — Feel the difference

Exercise and movement are one of our most natural and innate sources of joy. That's not hyperbole — exercising instructs our bodies to make the hormones and neurotransmitters that make us feel happy. Even a little bit of movement can improve our mood — but only if we're paying attention. This principle invites us to notice the affects of movement on how we feel instead of zoning out and mindlessly counting steps without feeling them.

Principle #10: Honor your health with gentle nutrition

This principle encourages us to take a gentle approach to the idea of nutrition. Instead of setting unrealistic health goals — like cutting whole food groups out of your diet — a gentle approach to nutrition allows for both luxuries and missteps. Of course we all need to meet our bodies' daily nutritional requirements, but none of us does it perfectly and expecting perfection sets us up for disappointment. Instead we can allow for flexibility and change in our eating and strive to meet our nutritional goals without a punitive attitude.

Can intuitive eating help you lose weight?

What if you want to enjoy this healthy and flexible relationship with food and your body — and lose weight? Can intuitive eating help? The answer is a firm maybe.

In a recent study, researchers looked at 10 studies that tracked the eating habits of 1,491 participants. Some of the participants used intuitive eating principles and some followed traditional diets. What the researchers found was that intuitive eaters lost about the same amount of weight as people on other diets. But, participants who ate intuitively did lose more weight than individuals who didn’t change their eating habits at all.

Basically, intuitive eating does not necessarily lead to weight loss, but it can. That makes sense, since weight loss isn’t the goal of intuitive eating. And to boot, researchers have found a lot of other benefits associated with intuitive eating.

Benefits of intuitive eating

One of the biggest benefits of intuitive eating is the mindset shift. Proponents of intuitive eating believe that the very idea of dieting traps you into a pattern of all-or-nothing thinking — you’re either on a diet or off, ate well or ate poorly, were good for going to the gym or bad for skipping it. These thought patterns are pervasive and, according to Jarosh, we all live with diet culture in our atmosphere.

“We’re told we need to look a certain way to be valuable in society,” said Jarosh. “There’s a whole lot of pressure put on us on a daily basis.” Instead, intuitive eating strongly discourages efforts to lose weight. It’s about respecting the body you have and trying to feel good about yourself at any size, shape or weight.

If you believe that healthy weight management is different from dieting — as I do — intuitive eating principles may be helpful. Healthy weight management is about finding a sane and sustainable weight and establishing a healthy relationship with food and your body. This involves learning a set of skills to help guide decisions around your eating and lifestyle habits.

And there is solid clinical evidence that those who practice intuitive eating do develop healthy psychological characteristics. One recent study determined that intuitive eating is correlated with better mental health and a reduced risk of disordered eating. Some of the benefits that another study found were: positive body image, increased self esteem and a greater sense of wellbeing.

It’s worth noting that those kind of mental health boons can really make an impact on a person’s quality of life. In fact, some studies suggest that body image is a major part of overall life satisfaction.

The bottom line

Whether or not you can use intuitive eating principles to lose weight really boils down to what impact it would have on your emotional health. “If your goal is totally related to your weight,” said Jarosh, “then it can prevent you from exploring sustainable ways to be healthier.”

If weight loss feels stressful or punitive, or prevents you from practicing healthier behaviors — even when they don’t produce weight loss — or if you find yourself engaging in any form of disordered behavior around food or exercise, then it may be a good idea to go with the traditional intuitive eating mindset and reject the notion of weight loss entirely. 

If you can get with the notion that healthy weight management isn’t about producing eye-popping results, then the skills you gain from intuitive eating may be able to help you reach a healthier weight — whatever that may be for your individual body. Instead of being either on or off of a diet, managing your weight means taking care of yourself by developing healthy habits — including eating well —but also enjoying certain foods just because you like them.