Intuitive Eating Is a Happier and Healthier Way to Eat—Here's How to Begin
What if we told you that the practice of intuitive eating would finally let you eat whatever you want and still be healthy? And that there are no "good" or "bad" foods? That you never have to feel guilty about enjoying ice cream on a hot summer day or a slice of pie at a family gathering? You might think we were reporting on a new fad diet, but happily, the opposite is true. It was 25 years ago that two nutritionists unveiled a radical approach to food and health called intuitive eating—and it's now finally being embraced by the mainstream.
"People are tired of feeling at war with their own bodies," says Evelyn Tribole, RDN, who, with Elyse Resch, RDN, coauthored the book Intuitive Eating ($16; amazon.com), a 10-principle approach that includes back-to-seriously-basic stuff: Pay attention to signals of hunger and fullness, reject diet mentality and food rules, and adopt body-positive behaviors, like exercising and eating food that makes you feel good.
The time is right for this approach to take hold. Only about 20 percent of women feel "very" or "extremely" satisfied with their weight, according to recent research in the journal Body Image. But even as the focus on dieting to be thin has given way to an emphasis on eating "clean" to be healthy, the obesity levels in our country have risen. Restricting food doesn't seem to be working. Exercising without changing our diets isn't effective either. Intuitive eating just might be the answer.
"There's been a backlash to all the rules about eating clean, which has created a space for intuitive eating," says Virginia Sole-Smith, author of The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America ($14; amazon.com). "It's less work, you give yourself permission to eat a range of foods, and you free yourself from weight-loss expectations."
What exactly is intuitive eating? (Hint: It's not a diet).
Intuitive eating separates the idea of "healthy weight" from overall health. Research finds that people who engage in four habits—doing regular physical activity, eating at least five fruits and vegetables a day, not smoking, and consuming alcohol moderately—experience similar mortality rates, regardless of how much they weigh, says Kristen Murray, a registered dietitian in Cleveland, Ohio, who specializes in intuitive eating. Unlike dieting, which tends to be about restricting ourselves and trying to override our bodies' instincts, intuitive eating is about self-compassion and trusting our bodies, she says.
"I help people learn how to move away from the external cues telling them what, when, and how much to eat," she explains, "and get in touch with their internal cues telling them what, when, and how much to eat."
While it might sound too good to be true—permission to indulge in sugar whenever we feel like it?—there's evidence that intuitive eating works. As people reject restrictive food rules, they find that junk-food binges lose their rebellious appeal, and that nutritious foods (proteins, whole grains, vegetables) are satisfying and make their bodies feel better. "More than 100 studies show that intuitive eating offers a multitude of health benefits," says Tribole. People who scored high on an Intuitive Eating Scale had higher body and life satisfaction and better coping skills. (People with low scores reported more eating disorder symptoms and less satisfaction with their bodies.) Intuitive eating is also associated with increased optimism, psychological hardiness, and greater motivation to exercise for pleasure, a recent review of 24 studies found. "We tend to think, 'Health is physical, and it's about your weight,'" says Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN, author of Body Kindness ($14; amazon.com). "But health is really about well-being."
The intuitive eating approach could not be more natural, but it might take time and patience to fully get the hang of it. Or get the hang of it again. Babies are born knowing to eat when they're hungry and stop when they're full—but our culture distorts these cues. "They get drowned out by diet messages and food marketing messages and guilt and relationships and access and so many other reasons," says Sole-Smith. "I don't think it's easy, but I do believe it's possible to reconnect with your instincts."
The following pillars of intuitive eating offer a few expert-backed ways to begin.