What are the 10 principles of intuitive eating?
Intuitive eating is gaining traction rapidly right now, which is great! With so many people talking about it, it can get confusing, particularly if they seem to be contradicting each other.
Although intuitive eating looks different for everyone, there are some core principles that are important to bear in mind. These all come from the dieticians who coined the term Intuitive Eating and wrote a book of the same name, which you can purchase here.
1. Reject the diet mentality
The first principle is ditching the diet mentality, which means making a commitment to stop dieting. This is because you can’t work on your relationship with food, exercise, and your body whilst trying to lose weight. The cool thing is that once you go through the process, you no longer want to change your body because you’re in a happy and healthy place where you feel awesome as you are. Making an internal commitment is important but it’s also essential to change your environment to support your goal. This means getting rid of dieting tools (Myfitnesspal, Fitbits, books, etc), which gives you a sense of freedom to be able to explore the principles of intuitive eating. ⠀ You also need to clear out your wardrobe of clothes that no longer fit you. Although some people lose weight when they go through the process of intuitive eating, this isn’t the goal. Having clothes that don’t fit can be triggering because it reinforces the idea that your body is not okay as it is right now. It’s also just a bit of a buzzkill when you decide what to wear. Give the clothes away to friends, faintly or charity and make room for new stuff that makes you feel great. It’s also important to modify your online world to remove dieting triggers. Although it’s had to avoid them completely, it is worth unfollowing (or at least muting) anyone that doesn’t make you feel good and is promoting dieting. This includes any type of restrictive eating, including fasting, cleansing, detoxing, etc, which are often promoted under the guise of health.
2. Honour your hunger
Eating according to hunger cues means getting in touch with what you’re feeling. Hunger doesn’t just mean your stomach rumbling, it can be low energy, a sense of being light-headed, a lack of concentration and feeling irritable. If you have a long history of eating according to a meal plan or tracking calories/macros then you may struggle with recognising these indications, particularly the more subtle ones. However, with practice, you will come to notice all of these as signs of hunger. ⠀
As well as recognising hunger, it’s also important not to judge it. Maybe you ate breakfast an hour ago so think you shouldn’t be hungry yet. It’s easy to ignore this hunger but it’s so important to acknowledge it and eat regardless of how recently you ate. If you don’t, you’re likely to become hangry which makes the next time you eat a lot less enjoyable. ⠀ Eating sufficient amounts to satisfy hunger is also important. Trying to eat as little as possible will leave you perpetually hungry and feeling deprived. Contextual factors can come into play here though. For example, if you’re going out to dinner at a restaurant in an hour or two, you might opt for a small snack rather than a large one so that you can enjoy both the snack and your dinner. Eat enough throughout the day and you’ll be happier, more energised and much more able to concentrate on your activities.
3. Make peace with food
The food you put off-limits is the food you are most likely to eventually eat in large quantities. Food becomes a lot more appealing when you tell yourself you can’t have it. We know this anecdotally as well as from research. Studies on restrained eaters (those with rules about food) eat much more of a ‘bad’ food after being presented with it in a research study than those without rules around food. Researchers told participants it was a taste test and then let them eat as much as they wanted afterward. Restrained eaters think they have ‘messed up’ their eating if they eat something ‘bad’ and go onto eat large quantities regardless of satiety levels. This is known disinhibition or the ‘what the hell effect’. You’ve probably noticed this phenomenon anecdotally too.⠀ It’s important to be honest with yourself about the foods you actually like. You can easily condition yourself to think that we only like ‘clean foods’ but that’s rarely the case. Rather than eating in a way to minimise guilt and anxiety, work on actively challenge the thoughts and beliefs you have around those foods.⠀ The final aspect of this is giving yourself permission. This is where people tend to have the most fear that they will ‘lose control.’ To be clear, if you have been restricting amounts of types of food then you may go through a period of eating certain foods in large amounts but this doesn’t last. ⠀ If you allow yourself to eat all foods, they become neutral and you can eat them in an amount that feels good for you, rather than feeling compelled to eat them in large amounts following a period of restriction. We know this from research too, it’s known as habituation. ⠀ When you don’t have anxiety, guilt or judgment about it, eating becomes a lot more enjoyable.
4. Challenge the food police
This is all about challenging your internalised ideas about food. Although we like to think of ourselves as autonomous beings who are not influenced by the world around us, that just isn’t the reality. The messages about food, exercise and our bodies from friends, family and media do get internalised, even if we’re not aware of it. These are not always overt, quite often they are subtle, such as the constant exposure to a certain body type. We are bombarded with messages on a daily basis about what, when and how much we should eat, how our bodies should look and what our exercise routines should look like. This can occur even if we’re trying to avoid them, which is why it’s so important to have the tools to challenge them. You are not a bad person for having negative thoughts about food, exercise and your body. Try to approach these with curiosity, rather than beating yourself up about them. There is a huge amount of money that is put behind these messages and they continue to be a source of profit when people believe them. .⠀ When you do the work to challenge these ideas, you make room to tune into your own values, thoughts, and beliefs. You start to experience less guilt, judgment, and anxiety about your choices and begin to feel empowered.
5. Discover the satisfaction factor
It’s important to remember that food is not just fuel. Food is a form of self-care and it should be enjoyable. You deserve to treat yourself and that refers to what, how and where you’re eating. Figuring out what you really want is important. Rather than trying to have the ‘healthy’ version of what you’re craving (which rarely hits the spot), try having what you actually want. You’ll find it a lot more satisfying. When you consistently allow yourself to do this, you will be much more able to eat an amount that feels good, rather than feeling compelled to eat a large amount because you have deprived yourself. It’s also helpful to make your environment chilled. This looks different for everyone but try to ensure that you feel calm and comfortable when eating. Of course, this isn’t always possible but when you can do this, it makes eating much more enjoyable and satisfying. Make sure your food tastes good. This might mean trying a few bites first and seeing what you might want to add in. When I tracked macros I always thought sauces were a ‘waste of calories’ which meant that my food was often dry and relatively tasteless. Make your food nice to eat and it will be a lot more enjoyable.
6. Feel you fullness
This is about getting in touch with your satiety cues. Just as a note that if you are currently in the early stages of recovery from an eating disorder, you may not be ready to implement this principle yet as your body is working to re-establish your hunger and fullness cues. That is okay, you can still learn about the idea and then revisit it when you’re further along in your road to recovery. ⠀ ⠀ For those without eating disorders but who have been eating according to a meal plan, tracking calories or macros, you may well be out of touch with your fullness. You might feel confident in knowing when you’re really full, like after a large meal but you might not be able to recognise all the subtle points before that. Tuning in before, during and after a meal or snack can help to identify these cues.⠀ .⠀ To be clear, there is nothing wrong with feeling really full sometimes, like if you’re celebrating a special occasion, but it doesn’t feel great to eat that way all of the time so it is inherently self-limiting. Because intuitive eating doesn’t put any rules around food, eating past fullness is a lot less frequent than when you’re restricting amounts, types or timing of foods. You have the freedom to choose how you want to feel in your body, rather than feeling compelled to eat large amounts of foods because you feel deprived.⠀ If you do eat past fullness, you haven’t messed up, you can just move on and see how you feel later on. Your body is amazingly good at regulating itself if you get out of its way. You might find yourself moving around a little more because you have more energy and feeling less hungry for the rest of the day, for example. However, if you consciously restrict, this can easily become a vicious cycle where you alternate between dieting and eating large amounts in a way that feels out of control.⠀
7. Cope with your emotions with kindness
To be clear there is nothing wrong with eating emotionally sometimes, it’s fun to celebrate with a cake on a birthday or cheer ourselves up with some chocolate when we’re feeling a bit down. What is important is that we have a range of tools to deal with our emotions. This might include a pamper session, whatever that looks like for you. It might mean the traditional bath and face mask or something totally different. Whatever feels nourishing for you. Make sure you also schedule time for having fun. It’ hugely valuable but so underrated. Look at activities that you can get involved in within your local area, there might be something you already love or maybe something you’ve always wanted to try. Don’t be afraid to go on your own, you’ll meet lots of new like-minded people there. Also, ensure that you set aside time for chilling out. Society can make you feel that you need to be constantly doing something but that just isn’t healthy, that’s a recipe for burnout. Rest matters. Schedule time to relax otherwise it won’t happen. It will make such a difference in how you feel, mentally and physically.
8. Respect your body
It’s important to acknowledge that everyone is different. Body diversity is real and that should be celebrated. We have ample evidence of this is the scientific literature, look at any study that provided a dietary and/or exercise intervention and you’ll see that not everyone responds in the same way. The same is true with intuitive eating, your body will find out where it is happy and healthy. The best thing you can do is get out of its way. It also really helps to wear clothes that are comfortable. Get rid of any clothes that no longer fit you. They only serve as reinforcing the idea that your body is wrong and needs to be ‘fixed.’ This doesn’t have to mean spending a lot of money, but preloved clothes or host a clothes swapping event with friends. Wear clothes that make you feel good. Forget fashion rules and wear what you want. . One of the goals of intuitive eating is shifting the focus away from how your body looks to how it feels and what it can do. I know that this can easily become ableist but I don’t see this as meaning physical performance necessarily. I mean anything that your body does to help to keep you alive. Your body is awesome so be sure to give it the credit it deserves.
9. Movement - feel the difference
This is about exercising for fun, rather than as an attempt to change your body. Exercising for fun isn’t always easy. You might have a history of difficult experiences with exercise, have body shame or beliefs about yourself that are holding you back. However, I believe that everyone can find a way to move that is fun, even if it takes a lot of trial and error.⠀ There isn’t one way to do fitness. Maybe you enjoy the gym, maybe yoga is your jam or maybe you love dancing. Or maybe you haven’t found that you like yet, that’s okay too!⠀ ⠀ If you’re trying to discover (or rediscover) an enjoyment of exercise, start by ditching the numbers. Whilst some metrics of performance might be useful in certain contexts, I don’t think they’re helpful at the start. They can get in the way of tuning in to how your body wants to move. Don’t be afraid to try something new. It’s easy for all of us to get stuck in a routine but it can be really refreshing to mix it up. You might even surprise yourself with what you enjoy. This doesn’t necessarily have to come at a high cost either, look to see if there are free exercises in your area. ⠀ Grab a friend to go with you if you’re nervous to go alone. It can be a fun way to connect whilst getting a workout in. Don’t worry about going on your own though, you’ll meet new people there who might become your new besties!⠀
10. Honour your health - gentle nutrition
There is a huge misconception that intuitive eating is anti-health and that just isn’t the case. Foods have different nutritional properties but rather than spending lots of time and energy ensuring that you eat ‘healthy foods’ and restrict ‘non-healthy foods’, you can be driven by how you feel. Nobody feels great eating loads of one food for an extended period. Food is self-limiting. The key is giving yourself permission and remembering that it is the big picture that counts. Health is not a binary decision between a doughnut and an apple. It’s complex, nuanced and influenced by a huge number of factors, most of which are unrelated to nutrition and often out of our conscious control. Variety is always beneficial. When you don’t have rules around food and aren’t worried about trying to shoehorn things into your macros, you have a lot more freedom to explore different foods. This is not only a really enjoyable way to eat because you get to experience a lot of different flavours and textures but is also a great way of ensuring you’re meeting your micronutrient needs without obsessing about it. Flexibility is key. Intuitive eating allows you to choose how what and when you eat for yourself, rather than this being dictated by an external source. This will look different for everyone and might change day to day, depending on a host of different factors. It also allows you to be spontaneous, like having a piece of cake if you fancy it, without judgement, anxiety or guilt.