science of us

What Does Intuitive Eating Even Mean?

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Recently, the New York Times published an op-ed about the wellness industry and its function as a cover for restrictive dieting and extreme fitness. It soon went viral, and many readers empathized with the author, novelist Jessica Knoll, who lamented her recent interactions with successful, strong women who nonetheless remained obsessed with the size and shape of their bodies. Knoll chronicled her own past with “wellness”-focused endeavors, most of which amounted to calorie restriction, under the assumption that to be thin is to be healthy. The latter half of the essay is largely devoted to Knoll’s discovery of “intuitive eating,” which she describes as “a return to the innate wisdom we had as babies — about when to stop eating, what tastes good and how it makes our bodies feel.”

Intuitive eating, as Knoll writes, is a philosophy founded by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, who published Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works way back in 1995. Marketed as a recovery book for chronic dieters and disordered eaters, Intuitive Eating proposed ten essential principles: 1. Reject the Diet Mentality; 2. Honor Your Hunger; 3. Make Peace With Food; 4. Challenge the Food Police; 5. Respect Your Fullness; 6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor; 7. Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food; 8. Respect Your Body; 9. Exercise — Feel the Difference; and 10. Honor Your Health.

Like many wellness-adjacent terms, though, the way “intuitive eating” is defined varies from source to source, and it isn’t always used correctly. Here is a dietitian-approved guide to what intuitive eating (or IE) really entails, what it looks like in practice, and how the term gets misused.

Is intuitive eating a diet?

That’s an emphatic no.

Intuitive eating is a response to diets and diet culture, and is not meant to tie adherents to any specific set of eating rules, says Heather Caplan, a registered dietitian with a private practice in Washington, D.C. Even the list of principles isn’t meant to be taken step-by-step, necessarily — it’s more about recognizing the food rules we already apply to our eating habits, and working to undo them. For this reason, Caplan says she generally tells clients to start with step one and ditch the diet mentality. This step alone (which may involve things like reallowing oneself to eat carbs, or sweets, or eliminating “cheat days”) is difficult, and Caplan says it can take people months or even years. “We’ve probably had some of these food rules since we were kids,” she says. “A lot of the work initially is unlearning those rules and challenging them. I always tell people, pick one rule to start with, and stick with that as long as you need to.” Once you’re reliably able to “break” your old rule, you can start working on breaking another. Diets create food rules. Intuitive eating is the anti-diet.

What are the signs I’m doing intuitive eating wrong?

If you’re acting like you’re on a diet, you’re probably not eating intuitively.

Because intuitive eating is meant to dismantle dieting behavior, it shouldn’t be as restrictive or as black-and-white as a diet, says Evelyn Tribole, co-author of Intuitive Eating. “If you find that you’re counting things, that’s not intuitive eating,” she says. “If there’s something called a cheat day, that’s not intuitive eating. If someone’s promising weight loss, that’s not intuitive eating.” While diets are typically marked by success in the form of weight loss, or failure in weight gain, intuitive eating operates outside the pass–fail framework. “It’s all discovery,” says Tribole. Intuitive eating is an ongoing process, and many people have absorbed so many food rules and restrictions that they’ll never really be “done” unlearning them. This might be an overwhelming prospect to anyone drawn to 30-day diets, but intuitive eating is as forgiving as it is long-term. Says Tribole, “If you see guilt coming up, it’s an opportunity to ask, ooh, what rule do I have that needs to get dismantled?”

Does intuitive eating work?

It depends what we mean by “work.”

When it comes to eating, says Caplan, “Success is usually tied to weight loss. It’s hardly ever actually related to health improvements.” People think that if a way of eating isn’t proven to make them lose weight, it doesn’t “work,” but here’s the thing: Diets themselves don’t work. “Research shows that over 90 percent of diets are unsustainable and don’t work beyond a two- to three-year time frame,” says Caplan. While intuitive eating may not result in weight loss (and may, especially for those who’ve been calorie restricting, result in weight gain), it can make you healthier and happier all around — research shows intuitive eating is associated with better mental health, better metabolic-health outcomes, and lower risk for both eating disorders and obesity.

What if I still want to lose weight?

Then intuitive eating may (or may not) be for you.

Intuitive eating is a philosophy that encourages us to listen to our bodies for hunger and satisfaction cues — to eat when we’re hungry and to stop when we’re full. But some registered dietitians find intuitive eating “rigid in its permissiveness,” says Abby Langer, an RD based in Canada. According to Langer, there is something of a backlash against intuitive eating in the nutrition community, largely based on the perception that it actually stigmatizes the desire to lose weight. “[Intuitive eating] works for some people and not for others,” she says. “Some people want to lose weight, and I think that’s fine too.”

Where intuitive eating thrives, says Langer, is in people who feel trapped between endless diets. “I always say to people, would you rather weigh five pounds less and be miserable on a diet rollercoaster, or would you rather be happy and be able to live your best life?” she adds. With intuitive eating, your body might change, and it might change in ways you’ve been conditioned to think are bad. (In her essay, Knoll writes, “I might have sought [intuitive eating] out sooner if not for the part where you learn to accept how your body looks once you stop restricting food, even if that version of your body is larger than you would like.”) But part of the intuitive eating philosophy is reexamining those assumptions, and redefining what healthy looks and feels like.

Intuitive eating isn’t just “eating whatever you want,” though eating things you want to eat is absolutely part of it; it’s also allowing your body to relearn the basic survival (and satisfaction) instincts we’re born with, says Tribole. “It’s a very self-empowering model: You’re in charge. It’s about you connecting to your body,” she explains. “Instead of listening to all the outside experts and all these trends and things, it’s about ‘How does my body feel? What does hunger feel like? What is satisfaction? How does it feel to move my body?’” These aren’t easy questions to answer, but proponents of intuitive eating argue they’re well worth asking.

What Does Intuitive Eating Even Mean?