In this post, I’m going to share the principles of Intuitive Eating. They are based on the book/workbook of the same name, written by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. This will be brief, in comparison to the book. I will be condensing what I have learned into one post. But, I hope it gives you a taste (no pun intended) of what Intuitive Eating is all about. I encourage you to read the book and/or workbook if you want to learn more. In a separate post, I share a little more about my path to Intuitive Eating and how I was looking for it without even realizing it.
Intuitive Eating is not to be viewed as rigid rules—the whole point of Intuitive Eating is to let go of the rigidity around eating and tune in to our bodies. The principles are meant to be embraced with flexibility, and self-compassion/grace. It is also a process, a process that takes time. There are moments you may not be able to “perfectly follow” the principles, which I will talk about, and that is ok. Intuitive Eating isn’t a new concept—we were born knowing how to eat intuitively. The more eating rules we picked up, the less trust we placed on our bodies’ natural cues. Intuitive Eating is all about restoring this connection.
The Principles of Intuitive Eating
Principle #1 Reject the Diet Mentality
Rebecca Scritchfield, in her book Body Kindness, defines dieting as “any plan that promises weight loss as an outcome, usually by attempting to exert control over behaviors, cutting calories, and restricting foods.”
Diets promise false hope—“quick weight loss,” “easy weight loss,” “permanent weight loss”—and these claims rarely deliver long term, leaving you feeling guilty and ashamed. It isn’t your fault—our bodies were designed to resist this type of manipulation.
I don’t want to promote fear of weight gain—you can pursue health at any size by tuning in and focusing on self-care behaviors—but dieting can actually cause weight gain in the long run. If weight gain is to be feared, dieting is not the way to prevent it. Your body often responds to dieting with rebound weight gain, often more weight than previously lost for many people. Being on this roller coaster also causes psychological distress and anxiety.
The best thing to do is get off the roller coaster. Embrace tuning in, which is what Intuitive Eating is all about, and let your weight settle where it wants to be. This is referred to as your “set point range” and varies for everyone, depending on your own genetic blueprint. God created our bodies different for a reason—we were not all meant to look the same. Dieting keeps us from living free.
Principle #2 Honor Your Hunger
This principle is all about letting your body tell you when it needs nourishment. The more you follow outside food rules, telling you when and how much to eat, the less you listen to your body. Intuitive Eating is all about restoring this connection. The workbook has some great exercises to help you really get in tune with your body.
Our bodies tell us when it needs fluids (through thirst), when we need to go to the bathroom, etc. It is easy for us to trust those signals, but when it comes to eating, we often think our bodies cannot be trusted. This principle is all about relearning how to listen to your cues in order to best nourish your body.
Disclaimer: There are certain times these cues may be “off”—when recovering from an eating disorder, as we age, if you struggle with certain GI conditions that make you nauseated, etc. There are times it may be important to eat, motivated by self-care, even if you don’t feel like it.
Principle #3 Make Peace with Food
This principle is all about giving yourself unconditional permission to eat, and I will tell you why.
From my experiences so far, I believe this to be the most misunderstood principle. To be honest, I had the hardest time embracing this principle myself, for a variety of reasons. I had the same fears many others have when they hear it—“if you give yourself unconditional permission to eat, won’t you just eat candy bars and chips all day??” I also worked in dialysis. It brings up concerns for me in this population. Eating certain foods, like foods high in potassium, can cause harm for those with kidney failure because their kidneys are not able to excrete the excess.
Because I have struggled the most with this principle, I have spent more time working through this one than many of the others.
When you diet, and follow anything in the media regarding nutrition, it is easy to view certain foods as forbidden, often demonizing them out of fear. We also tend to demonize foods we feel “out of control” around. When you forbid certain foods, it can cause psychological changes in how we approach the food, actually giving it control over us. When we create these feelings of deprivation around certain foods, it triggers a protective response in our brain, because we naturally fight what threatens our autonomy. Because of these feelings of deprivation, it can actually cause us to become fixated on these foods. When we do eat them, because we feel deprived and don’t know when we will allow ourselves to eat them again, we feel out of control around them and tend to eat more in one sitting. For some people, if it does not adversely affect your health, it may take eating certain forbidden foods (one at a time) in order to remove the control it has over you, if you feel out of control around them. It is a process, one that is discussed in more detail in the book and workbook, and one I believe requires support for many people.
This principle is all about letting go of classifying foods as good or bad, putting some foods on a pedestal and making others forbidden, which is common in dieting. It means letting go of the notion of being “good” if you ate this food and “bad” if you ate that food.
Embracing this principle does not mean dismissing the nutritional effects of certain foods (we will get to this in a later principle), or denying that some foods may not react well in your body, for different reasons. But, it means not demonizing one food over another. I see it as a mental approach to eating, knowing you have permission to eat whatever you want, when you want, but you may choose to make certain choices out of self-care (which is different than fear). I want to feel good, and I want to support my body’s attempts to take care of me, so this is often the case for me. The whole point of Intuitive Eating is self-care, motivated by self-compassion, and approaching self-care with flexibility. All foods may not fit for you all the time for different reasons, but embracing this principle means knowing, deep down, you are in the driver’s seat when it comes to eating, and your worth does not depend on what you eat on any given day.
Principle #4 Challenge the Food Police
This principle is one of my favorite principles. As I discussed previously, I never wanted to be viewed as the “food police” in my career. I have seen the negative effects of letting the food police dictate your food choices.
The food police refers to creating unreasonable rules around eating, often rules we pick up from dieting. These rules can create black and white thinking around food, and promote feelings of guilt, shame, and hopelessness.
There is a lot to this principle, but it is all about removing the judgment around eating, and also learning to deal with others who may be operating in your life as the food police. It digs deep into why you may believe certain things about eating (food rules), and works to reframe these thoughts, promoting more positive self-talk. It means letting nutrition be more of an ally instead of a dictator, and embracing self-care in a more compassionate way.
Principle #5 Feel Your Fullness
This principle is similar to “honor your hunger” in that it promotes listening to your body’s cues. This principle, along with “honor your hunger,” can easily be turned into another set of strict rules for some people, so it is important to remember that Intuitive Eating does not require perfection.
This principle promotes really savoring your food, slowing down, eating more mindfully, and tuning into how you feel while you are eating. It means learning to eat without distractions (like eating on the run, while driving, while working, etc.) so you can really enjoy your meal, and feel satisfied.
As I mentioned previously, when we feel deprived, or if we restrict through the day, it is easier to eat to the point of feeling uncomfortable later. When we don’t honor hunger by eating consistently, or don’t eat enough throughout the day, we may feel ravenous hunger when we do sit down to eat, and eat to the point of feeling sick.
When we do overeat, because we all do, it is important to view it as an observer, instead of feeling like a failure. (Again, Intuitive Eating does not require perfection.) When you stop to think about why you ate too much, it can inform your choices for the next time you eat.
Principle #6 Discover the Satisfaction Factor
This is another one of my favorite principles. We were created to enjoy eating. If we didn’t, we would likely starve to death.
Have you ever craved a certain food item, such as chocolate, then tried to find an adequate substitute that never satisfies the craving? We may end up eating 10 different things to curb the craving, instead of eating what we were truly craving to begin with. When you eat what you truly want, and savor it, you are less likely to overindulge and feel out of control.
When we diet, we often force ourselves to eat things we don’t really want, and feel deprived. Then, we believe the only way to enjoy what we are eating is to eat the foods we deem forbidden (see principle #3). We are meant to enjoy eating. Eating for health and eating for enjoyment are meant to go together, not live on opposite extremes.
Prepare foods in a way that you enjoy. For example, if you want to eat more vegetables, but don’t like the way they taste alone, experiment with cooking them in different dishes, instead of forcing down carrots and celery sticks.
When we eat slowly, without distraction, and really savor what we are eating, we can banish the feelings of deprivation around food. It’s important to create a pleasant environment when you eat to allow for a truly satisfying experience.
Principle #7 Cope with Your Feelings Without Using Food
It’s important to remember—I will say it 1,000x—Intuitive Eating is not meant to be rigid, or followed perfectly.
This principle does not mean you don’t have emotional experiences with food (we were meant to), or can never use food to cope with difficult feelings. This principle is all about recognizing the role food may play in dealing with your difficult emotions, and exploring different ways to cope with them.
Dealing with emotional pain can be very difficult. Some people may turn to things like alcohol. Some may veg out in front of the TV. And some people turn to food. Food (and other things we choose to numb with) can distract us from our problems, but it cannot solve whatever we may be dealing with. Whenever the difficult feelings return, we may also feel guilty for how we chose to cope with them—for many, this may mean dealing with the guilt of eating to numb, which leads to exacerbation of our negative feelings.
This principle acknowledges the importance of recognizing your emotional triggers, and learning to cope with your feelings in ways that don’t lead to self-defeat. This may often require counseling or seeking out a trusted friend.
Principle #8 Respect Your Body
This may be one of the hardest principles for many—accepting your body and how you were created to be—but so vitally important. Our culture does not support this principle very well. It is hard to escape the pressure of feeling like we always need to change ourselves. We take better care of ourselves when we accept ourselves.
This principle is all about letting go of being so critical of our body, learning to view it in a more neutral way and truly care for it. You may not love 100% of your body, 100% of the time, but we can find freedom in practicing gratitude for our body and what it does for us. We can be kind to our body and give it what it needs. We can stop comparing our body to other bodies and find peace in accepting the way we were created.
Principle #9 Exercise: Feel the Difference
This principle is all about focusing on how you feel when you move, instead of focusing on burning calories. Exercise has so many “feel good” benefits, and can positively affect health markers, but often gets muddled in diet culture. Exercise is often associated with misery and punishment when used to change our body size or punish ourselves for how we ate, instead of being the joyful experience it was meant to be.
This principle encourages a new approach to moving–truly finding joy in it by doing what you enjoy and are able to do, and focusing on how it makes you feel. It encourages moving your body regularly, in a way that is sustainable and enjoyable for you, but also listening to your body—resting when it is exhausted, injured, or sick.
Principle #10 Honor Your Health: Gentle Nutrition
Intuitive Eating embraces nutrition, and taking care of your body. Within this principle, we can also learn how different foods may affect whatever health issues we may be dealing with.
In order for nutrition to be an ally, it is important to work through the other principles first. We need to let go of using food to manipulate our body size (Principle #1), truly nourish our body (#2), not use food to determine our worth (#3), reject rigid food rules (#4), pay attention to how we feel while eating (#5), find satisfaction in eating (#6), recognize our emotional triggers (#7), have gratitude for our body (#8), and not use exercise to punish ourselves for what we eat (#9) in order to approach nutrition in a way that promotes self-care, not punishment and self-defeat.
Eating healthy is meant to be flexible, not rigid. It does not require perfection. It is what we eat overall that matters, not one meal or snack. Food gives us the fuel we need to live our lives.
In conclusion, Intuitive Eating is a process used to help you restore your mind/body connection when it comes to eating—using our internal cues and our wisdom—so we can remove the stress around eating and just live our lives. It helps us find peace around food, and move in a way that brings us joy, in order to feel good, not to punish ourselves. It does not require perfection—depending on where you are in life or what you may be dealing with, you may not be able to 100% embrace all the principles, 100% of the time, and that is 100% okay. Intuitive Eating honors how we were created and is meant to be embraced while giving yourself compassion, and grace, on this journey. After all, seeking after health is really all about feeling good in the body we are in so we can live the life we were called to live, and this looks different for everyone.Follow me on social media: