Why Health Experts Want You to Try Intuitive Eating

by Carla Henderson

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Chances are that most of us have been on a diet at some point in our lives. Whether it was a low-carb, low-fat or low-calorie diet, we tried it and restricted ourselves of many different foods. In the long run, that can create problems with our self-esteem and relationship with food . That’s why two dietitians decided it was time to stop the dieting and create a new approach called “intuitive eating.”

What Is Intuitive Eating?

Back in 1995, dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch created the concept of intuitive eating. The idea behind it was to create an eating pattern that included instinct, emotion and rational thought. Paula Freedman , Psy.D., clinical psychologist and certified intuitive eating counselor at HumanKind Psychological Services, describes it as a “self-care approach to eating.” 

“You’re basically taking your approach to eating and making it an inside job, which is what we’re born knowing how to do,” she explains. “It’s our default mode, or ‘factory settings’ if you think about it like getting a new cellphone.”

While diets have rules, intuitive eating has principles . The purpose of the principles is to get back to understanding physical sensations to meet your biological and psychological needs. This includes removing any barriers that stand in your way to finding that sense of harmony, such as rules, beliefs and thoughts around certain foods. 

For instance, think back to when your parents said, “Eat your vegetables, then you can have dessert.” That messaging taught you that eating certain foods was contingent on eating other foods, says Freedman — that some foods are just for fun and others you have to eat. Basically, you want to unlearn these rules around food while listening to and honoring internal cues.

What Intuitive Eating Isn’t

It’s important to note that intuitive eating isn’t a weight-loss approach — in fact, you may wind up gaining weight. “It’s such a process,” Freedman says. “I really try to encourage people to be patient with themselves and with their bodies and know that their body is going to land where it feels most comfortable.” 

The reason behind this potential gain is because you exit the restrictive side of dieting and enter a world where you have free rein. “There might be a period of initial weight gain, especially because a part of the process is getting rid of all the food rules and allowing yourself to eat everything that was formally off-limits or micromanaged,” Freedman adds.

That’s not always the case, though. One 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis published in Obesity Reviews found that intuitive eating can be just as effective when it comes to weight loss as other common diet programs.

How to Start Intuitive Eating

So you’re ready to break up with dieting? We don’t blame you! An ideal first step to starting intuitive eating is working with a professional, like a registered dietitian, who can guide and support you every step of the way. 

For example, Freedman tailors her services to the individual because “everybody has their own history with food, eating and body image,” she says. That’s why it’s necessary to start with unravelling and understanding where the disconnection from food came from, whether it was trauma, diets or food insecurities. 

“I like to unpack that stuff and help them gain some insight and awareness as to all the different things that have happened over the course of their life that have shaped and affected how they relate to eating,” Freedman says.

Along with kicking diet mentality to the curb, honoring your feelings, and becoming in tune to your hunger and fullness cues, there is a nutrition component to intuitive eating. Incorporating gentle nutrition helps you understand food choices that benefit your health and taste buds. “I leave the nutrition piece toward the end rather than starting off with it because if you start off too early, it can become rigid, and people tend to get distracted by it when it’s only one piece of the puzzle,” Freedman explains. 

Benefits of Intuitive Eating

While dieting may seem harmless, it can wind up affecting us physically and mentally. In worst-case scenarios, it may lead to eating disorders. Intuitive eating is quite the opposite, with a 2016 review published in Appetite stating that it was associated with the following:

  • Less disordered eating
  • Positive body image
  • Better emotional functioning  

Dieting also may cause us to lose a sense of our hunger and fullness cues, especially if we’re ignoring them to avoid going over set calories or other macronutrients. Intuitive eating encourages you to eat when you’re feeling hungry and stop when you’re full. In doing that, it can lead to healthier dietary intake, according to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Nutrition . This includes eating fewer calories, lower sweet and fatty food intake, and more whole-grain intake.

In the end, intuitive eating can improve your relationship with yourself and food so you never have to diet again. “The benefit of it is not that you have the body size that you want. The benefit of it is that you’re not stressing out and thinking about food all the time,” Freedman concludes. “You get to just live your life!”