What Is Intuitive Eating?

November 19, 2019

Intuitive eating is a program designed by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, and Elyse Resch, MS, RD, to help people develop a healthier relationship with food. They found that many of their nutrition clients would reach their initial goals, only to later return having regained their weight. These clients had repeated weight loss and maintenance failures and would internalize these feelings, leading to a feeling of demoralization. This repeated weight cycling led to changes in the clients’ relationship with food. Certain foods were demonized, and if they ate them, they considered themselves “bad.” Trying to avoid eating these foods caused them to obsess about them more.

In their book, Intuitive Eating, published in 1995, Tribole and Resch write about the diet industry and the problems caused by the “diet mentality.” Stating the failures of diet cycling (yo-yo dieting), they decided to try an eating program which would be the opposite, allowing their clients to eat anything they wanted without tracking macronutrients or calories, whether the foods fell into their “good” or “bad” categories, and without regard to whether it resulted in a change in body weight gain or loss. They felt that an individual is the most knowledgeable about what, when, and how much to eat, based on their hunger and desires.

Their program teaches clients to listen to their body’s cues on hunger and desire for different foods, differentiate between physical and emotional hunger, reject the “diet culture,” and learn to accept their body habits. Once their clients realized that they could have any food at any time, food lost its importance, leading to less binging or overeating. Those following this program may lose weight, gain weight, or stay the same weight. This is not a weight loss program. It is a program to improve peoples’ relationship with food, self-esteem, mindfulness while eating, and overall health.

The intuitive eating program has 10 core principles:

  1. Reject the diet mentality. Make a commitment to give up dieting for the rest of your life and refuse to allow others to tell you when, what, and how much to eat.
  2. Honor your hunger. Start listening to the smallest hint of hunger, such as a growling stomach, lack of focus or irritability, and then eat right away. This will help you to avoid becoming over-hungry.
  3. Make peace with food. Allow yourself to eat anything you want, and do not feel guilty about it. This will make all foods emotionally equal.
  4. Challenge the food police. Identify the critical and judgmental thoughts in your head that say you are a “good” person for eating less or a “bad” person for having dessert. Banish these thoughts and replace them with more neutral observations. Replace negative self-talk with positive self-talk.
  5. Feel your fullness. Listen to your body’s signals of fullness. Take a pause when eating to assess how the food tastes and whether you are comfortably full.
  6. Discover the satisfaction factor. Try to take pleasure in eating your meals. Pay attention to flavors and textures. The more satisfied you are with the food, the less you will need to eat.
  7. Cope with your emotions without using food. Try to find ways to cope with your emotions without using food. Differentiate between biological hunger and emotional hunger.
  8. Respect your body. “Accept your genetic blueprint.” Be happy with your body. Don’t have unrealistic expectations about your body shape. Focus on the parts of your body that you like.
  9. Exercise and feel the difference. Exercise to feel good and be active, not to burn calories.
  10. Honor your health. Choose foods that are healthy and make you feel good, but also allow some “play foods” to increase your overall satisfaction.

The authors felt that the “dieting industry” and public policy’s war on obesity has caused fear and anxiety when eating. That this “fearmongering” has “triggered the perception that we are one bite away from a disaster,” and that this has led to an increase in eating disorders, preoccupation with food and appearance, weight stigmatization, and poor self-esteem.

The first Intuitive Eating book was published in 1995, and edited editions were published in 2003 and 2012. There have been about 60 clinical studies on this program since when it was first introduced, which show health benefits such as improved well-being, lower risk of eating disorders, and improved biomarkers (cholesterol, blood sugar). The program has been adopted by some state public health departments and college student health programs. In some universities, Integrative Eating is a required text in their nutrition, psychology, and health education curriculum. This program is also being used in eating disorder treatment centers.