One of the hottest dieting trends right now? Not dieting at all.
Intuitive eating, a non-diet approach that’s all about trusting internal bodily cues over any external rules, has been gaining more and more traction over the past few years.
This rapid rise in popularity has also led to a lot of confusion - scrolling through #intuitiveeating on socials, you're likely to see mixed messages on what intuitive eating is, and what it in fact isn’t.
Our Move With Us dietitians are to the rescue with their lowdown on the key intuitive eating principles, who can benefit from this approach, and whether it’s the best fit for everyone.
Intuitive eating 101
To best understand the basic premise of intuitive eating, think of how babies eat when they’re just born - they don’t know any rules, all they have is their body’s in-built cues. They cry when hungry, stop when full - and repeat the process again and again. There is no schedule involved; one day they eat more, the next day - less, but generally it all averages out over time (provided they’re in good health, of course).
This natural reliance on internal bodily cues, as opposed to any diet rules, is the essence of intuitive eating.
Despite recently skyrocketing in popularity through mainstream media, the concept of intuitive eating isn’t actually new. It’s been around for a couple of decades, with the Intuitive Eating book by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch first published in 1995.
10 principles of intuitive eating
Intuitive eating is easily misconstrued as “just eating piles of donuts and ice cream when you feel like it” however, it’s much more nuanced than that.
Being an intuitive eater means fully embracing the 10 core principles:
Reject the Diet Mentality. Throw away any promises of “quick fixes” and “magic diets” that only leave you feeling like a failure if you don’t comply.
Honour Your Hunger. Nourish your body with adequate energy and nutrients when you are experiencing hunger.
Make Peace With Food. Embrace an unconditional permission to eat - there is nothing you “shouldn’t” have.
Challenge The Food Police. Reject the notion of labelling foods as “good” or “bad” - there is no moral value attached to it.
Discover The Satisfaction Factor. Food is not just a combination of nutrients - it’s also a source of pleasure, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Feel Your Fullness. Just like honouring your hunger, don’t be afraid to pause and honour your fullness. You don’t have to polish a plate unless you want to!
Cope With Your Emotions With Kindness. Be kind to your mind, while remembering that indulging in food is not a long-term answer to any of your problems or feelings.
Respect Your Body. Just like you wouldn’t wear size 4 shoes if you have size 8 feet, you don’t need to conform to any expectations of your body shape and size. Respect and love your body now.
Movement - Feel The Difference. Exercise doesn’t have to be torturous and punishing - find activities that feel good and move your body in ways that leave you feeling strong and energised regardless of how many calories they burn.
- Honour Your Health - Gentle Nutrition. Your plate doesn’t need to be a perfect picture of health - but it’s important to learn to make food choices that honour your needs.
If you would like a deeper dive into these principles, head over to the official intuitive eating website.
As you can see, contrary to its name, intuitive eating is not something that can be grasped quite intuitively, it can be a lot to work through! So now, the burning question - is intuitive eating the right approach for you?
Reasons to embrace intuitive eating
If you’re someone who is feeling lost in the endless ocean of yo-yo dieting, preoccupation with food and the way your body responds to it, and if you are finding yourself out of tune with your bodily cues - intuitive eating can be a great alternative to following rigid, structured nutrition frameworks.
When we completely disconnect from our bodies and only rely on external rules about what, how much, and when to eat, the aftermath can be very damaging for both physical and emotional health, and even lead to disordered eating behaviours.
In contrast, intuitive eating can help establish a healthy relationship with food while providing benefits such as:
- Lower likelihood of developing eating disorders
- Lower prevalence of emotional/”stress” eating
- Positive body image
- Increased self-esteem
- More general satisfaction with life
- And even improved health metrics!
Unlike other diets, aiming for fat loss or any specific body composition changes is not at all the focus here. Instead, intuitive eating provides a myriad of other positive outcomes to rave about, and can become a sustainable “forever” lifestyle.
Why it may not be for everyone
Don’t get us wrong, intuitive eating is an incredible framework that can do absolute wonders when applied correctly! However, just like any approach, it may not be the answer for every situation.
For instance, embracing your natural hunger and fullness cues can be incredibly difficult for many people, especially those who’ve been living with eating disorders. This is not to say these natural signals can’t be restored and honoured - but in these circumstances, it may be best to work with a health professional such as a dietitian first, as opposed to trying to decipher intuitive eating on your own.
Also, while physicality should not be the sole focus of one’s entire lifetime, there are times where a very structured approach to nutrition may be necessary to achieve results in the healthiest way possible; even if it’s only implemented temporarily. For example, for someone preparing for a major athletic event or aiming to increase lean muscle mass, following evidence-based guidelines around timing and content of the meals can be crucial for optimal performance and efficient recovery.
Although it's often neglected or demonised for being 'too strict', learning about the nutritional content of different foods and understanding calories and macros is not something to be fearful of. If you’re someone who genuinely thrives off hard, cold data and enjoys crunching the numbers without being negatively triggered by the process, who is to say tracking can’t be a valuable tool to understand the difference between an apple and a piece of mudcake?
Intuitive eating is an incredible approach to non-dieting that can help establish a healthy relationship with food and positive body image - but it’s not the only way to get there.
Knowledge is power, so we highly encourage you to analyse your goals, obstacles and needs (and don’t be afraid to ask for professional advice either). At every step of your journey, it’s important to reflect and honestly evaluate whether your current approach serves you, or triggers negative emotions and behaviours.
Eventually, you'll find your own perfect way to navigate the world of nutrition, whether this means fully embracing intuitive eating - or something different that suits you. All that matters is that you’re feeling happy, healthy and content!