Over the last year, we’ve seen an uptick in the number of people looking to ditch traditional dieting and take a more long-term approach to healthy eating. The concept of intuitive eating has gained popularity and lots of media attention with articles in The New York Times and The Atlantic going viral. For anyone who’s tried a diet (or 10), the concept of giving up rules around food may seem a little foreign or even scary. Intuitive eating was introduced by two registered dietitians in the mid-90s amidst the low-fat diet craze, though it didn’t gain much traction until recently. Over the last 25 years, there have been hundreds of studies to test out whether intuitive eating can actually lead to healthier eating patterns.
What exactly is intuitive eating? According to the founders, it’s a mind-body approach that focuses on honoring your health by listening to and responding to your body’s signals to meet your physical and psychological needs. It’s not a diet or a set of rules, but instead a framework to help you learn to make food decisions based on what best serves your body.
Though it may seem new to many of us, we are actually born intuitive eaters. If you’ve ever watched a toddler leave half a cookie on a plate or choose a vegetable over a French fry (yes, this can happen), you’ve seen intuitive eating in real life. But somewhere along the way, many of us lose that innate ability to trust our body’s signals and turn to food rules and diets to help us stay on track.
Intuitive eating is based on 10 principles that teach you how to give up dieting and instead tune into your hunger and fullness cues while also learning what food will satisfy you. All foods are on the table with intuitive eating — yes, you can have your cake and eat it too. With intuitive eating, there are no “good” or “bad” foods or rigid rules around what and when you can eat. If you’re thinking, “this sounds too good to be true,” you’re not alone. The concept of letting yourself eat whatever you want may seem totally foreign. But giving yourself full permission to eat has actually been shown to stop the restrict and binge cycle for some.
Research suggests that there are physical and mental health benefits from intuitive eating. Intuitive eaters tend to have a lower body mass index (but intuitive eating will not necessarily help you lose weight), improved insulin sensitivity, a lower risk of disordered eating, better body image, and a healthier overall diet intake. While it may feel like giving yourself permission to eat pizza whenever you want will result in pizza all day every day, intuitive eaters will tell you otherwise, and so does the research. Part of the process of intuitive eating is also learning what foods give you the most energy and help you feel your best.
The first several tenets focus on giving up the dieting mentality, trusting your body, and learning to cope with emotions without resorting to comfort food. But, nutrition isn’t forgotten. The 10th and final principle of intuitive eating, called “honor your health through gentle nutrition,” is about knowing that any one meal or day will not define your health, but the foods you choose to eat on a regular basis will. Choosing foods that are nutritionally balanced feeds the other principles of honoring your hunger, fullness, and satisfaction, since we know that foods that offer more nutrients such as protein, fiber, and healthy fat also keep us satisfied and energized.
Intuitive eating doesn’t happen overnight. It’s an ever-evolving process. It won’t be a quick fix to help you lose 10 pounds, but it may be a lifelong approach to eating if you’re tired of jumping on and off the diet train. To further explore intuitive eating, read more about it or find a certified intuitive eating counselor in your area.