Experts say the practice of intuitive eating can repair our guilt-ridden relationships with food and our bodies.

By Sharon Holbrook
December 30, 2019
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What if we told you that you can eat whatever you want and still be healthy? 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 Intuitive Eating ($8; 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 ($18; amazon.com). “It’s less work, you give yourself permission to eat a range of foods, and you free yourself from weight-loss expectations.”

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How It Works

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 ($15; amazon.com). “But health is really about well-being.”

This 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.

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Be kind to your body.

It can be challenging to treat yourself well (and feel good about doing so) if you’ve long considered your weight to be the first and best measure of your health, says Scritchfield. “Well-being is a blend of physical and mental health, and we’re better off when we don’t use weight as a measure,” she says. It’s normal to doubt that you will ever let go of weight ideals and accept your body. But if you succeed, an afternoon walk becomes about taking a break to clear your head and reboot your energy, rather than about burning a certain number of calories.

Try this: Scritchfield suggests focusing on three aspects of body kindness: love, connection, and care. Love means choosing to love yourself even if you wish your body were different. Connection means being on the same team as your body; like a friend, you pay attention to what your body needs. Care means making choices based on that love and connection. For example, you can think about exercise in the following way: “I love my body, and while I may feel out of shape, I appreciate that it carries me through each day.” Or “I connect with my body when I hear it tell me that it’s hard to get up from the floor and that exercise might make me stronger, more flexible, and energized.” Or “I care for my body by trying a YouTube yoga flow. Not because I need to whip my body into shape, but because I want to give it what it needs to feel good.” By starting with body kindness, says Scritchfield, you’ll reach a point when you make healthy physical and emotional choices that align with your goals.

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Listen to your body’s signals.

The next step is noticing and responding to hunger and feelings of fullness—which are truly at the heart of intuitive eating. Many of us are used to suppressing our bodies’ messages, and not just about food. We work through lunchtime because we need to get a task done or want to lose weight. We watch yet another show on Netflix, not acknowledging that our bodies and brains are exhausted and it’s time to sleep. We don’t take a walk after sitting for hours at our desks, because we haven’t stopped to think about how stiff and sluggish we are from a sedentary day.

Try this: Set an alarm for every few hours and check in with your body. Give yourself credit for easy wins, like noticing whether you are warm or cold or need to use the restroom. This is what Tribole and Resch call “cultivating attunement.” When you eat, remove distractions (turn off the TV, put away your phone) so you free up mental space to stay connected to your body, says Anna Lutz, a registered dietitian in Raleigh, North Carolina. Mindful eating—listening, without judgment, to your body’s hunger, fullness, and satisfaction signals—is an important part of the intuitive eating approach. Consider, “Did that last bite of steak taste as good as the first, or am I getting full?” “Would I find this broccoli more satisfying with a little salt or butter, or am I choking it down to check veggies off my list?”

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Eat joyfully.

Eating is meant to feel good. Food is comforting, it’s communal, and it’s delicious. “Taking unapologetic joy in food, especially in the foods we’ve been socialized to think are bad, is absolutely counter-cultural, radical—and really freaking fun,” says Sole-Smith. When we freely allow ourselves to eat certain foods, they become more satiating than when we sneak them in during the trip home from work. Eating shouldn’t just be about filling our bellies. Ideally, we should be able to say, “Mmm, I’m satisfied!”

Try this: First give yourself permission to enjoy a variety of foods without guilt. Let this be your mantra: “There are no good or bad foods. I can eat whatever I want. If I listen to my body’s signals, I will eat the right foods for me.” When you have a couple of bites of pie and realize there will always be more pie, you don’t feel the need to eat until you’re stuffed. “One of the most beautiful things I see with people who go through the intuitive eating process is that they don’t crave the thing they once binged on, because now it’s always allowed,” says Stefani Reinold, MD, MPH, a psychiatrist and the host of the podcast It’s Not About the Food.

Second, make meals sensory events. Practice eating with a chef’s mindset, suggests Murray. “Chefs would be devastated if they spent hours preparing a meal and knew that as you sat down to eat it, you overanalyzed every single calorie and milligram of salt or just scarfed it down—didn’t even savor it,” she says. “Sit down, taste it, and enjoy it.”

Consider adding treats for your other senses: Set out flowers and put on relaxing music, says Scritchfield. Not every meal has to be candlelit, of course. A pit stop for a mediocre burger and fries is just one meal of thousands you’ll eat in your lifetime, so you don’t have to feel bad about it. Mindful, enjoyable eating is a goal, not a guilt trap.

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Take a gentle approach to nutrition.

With intuitive eating, nutrition is important, but don’t think of it as a scolding taskmaster—merely a guide to what will keep your body feeling good. As you grow accustomed to intuitive eating, you can decide whether it’s time for carrots...or carrot cake, says Scritchfield. During a relaxing dinner out with her daughters, she explains, she might savor that piece of cake. But between client appointments during the workday, she might choose energy-boosting carrots and hummus. The key: While there is a nutritional difference to these carrot foods, there is not a moral difference.

Try this: To boost nutrition, think about what foods you can add rather than subtract, says Murray. Increasing your intake of water, fruit, or vegetables is good for your health and doesn’t require banning anything. And feel free to prepare vegetables however you like—yes, even with butter or oil or ranch dressing. Nutrient-packed foods should satisfy the palate too.

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Be patient with yourself.

Don’t expect to drop all your food and weight baggage right away; the timing is different for everyone who explores intuitive eating. Many people fear that without food rules, they’ll immediately gain weight. And you might, if you were seriously restrictive before, says Reinold—but you may lose weight if you habitually kept eating after you were full. Either way, it’s OK: Weight fluctuates, and pregnancies, age, and menopause will affect your body as well. “Acknowledging that can be uncomfortable at first,” says Reinold. “But the result is freedom.”

Try this: To take the power (or panic) out of weight fluctuations, stop weighing yourself. Focus on more meaningful measures of health. For example, do you feel more energetic? Are you having fewer uncontrollable cravings? “I encourage people to try intuitive eating for three months just to get acquainted with it,” says Murray. “It can definitely take a year to feel truly comfortable practicing it. It is very hard to move from the dieting mindset to the intuitive eating mindset.” Be kind to yourself, no matter how long it takes. As Scritchfield puts it, “how much time do you think you’re worth?”

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The Skeptic’s Guide to Intuitive Eating

Will intuitive eating really help me think about food less?

It sounds like I’d need to think about food and eating more to listen to my body. It may seem like that at first, but learning to eat intuitively means devoting more thought to your body and less to food. The real shift is moving away from external cues (weight, looks, dietary restrictions) and toward internal cues (hunger, fullness, satisfaction, emotion, energy). It’s about transitioning from an attitude of negativity and restriction to one of kindness and care for your body.

If I’m supposed to eat only when I’m hungry, how can I stick to my work hours or regular family meals?

Rational thought is part of intuitive eating. If you’re hungry at 5 and dinner isn’t until 7, you could have a snack to take the edge off or just eat dinner earlier. The choice depends on your thoughts and values. Similarly, if you know you’ll be starving after a two-hour midday work meeting, have a bigger breakfast, eat lunch earlier, or bring a snack to avoid becoming ravenous.

Is intuitive eating for kids too? I worry they’d just eat snacks all day.

Intuitive eating dietitians often suggest parents be responsible for the “what,” “when,” and “where” of eating (for example, when it’s time to eat dinner and what is served). Kids can be responsible for the “which” and “how much” (which part of their lunch to eat first, how much to leave on their plate).

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