What is Intuitive Eating? And how to start

Intuitive Eating is a framework designed based on the evidence that dieting does not work for the majority of people. It’s a self-care framework that helps people reconnect to their own body so they can take care of themselves in a way that truly aligns with them.

Intuitive Eating is something we draw from at Ease Nutrition Therapy. All of our clinicians are trained in Intuitive Eating – and truly practice what we preach. But Intuitive Eating has grown in popularity in recent years.

Our founder of Ease Nutrition Therapy, Shannon, has created this blog all about what Intuitive Eating is, what it isn’t, and how to start practicing Intuitive Eating.

Intuitive Eating isn’t super complicated, but there’s often a lot of nuance missed when it’s usually written about online. This article will shed some light on the grey areas to help bring you clarity.

Next stop – Intuitive Eating town…

What is Intuitive Eating?

Simply put, it’s a framework created in 1995. Two Dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Reach, looked to the weight science research and their own expereince working with people’s relationships to food, and noticed that weight loss is rarely maintained.

They knew that ”dieting” didn’t work, so they starting working more flexible. Still based on curated meal plans but with ‘free food’ options meant their clients lost weight. However, the clients kept returning to their clinics. When left to their own devices they believed they had no self-control and entered back into the cycle of guilt.

Tribole and Resch then worked together to create Intuitive Eating. This focused on rejecting diet culture and tuning back in with the body’s natural signals by repairing the relationship to the body.

Since then 1995, there are almost 220 research studies looking at the Intuitive Eating framework. In fact, there’s been 15 studies published in 2022 alone.

The principles of Intuitive Eating

Intuitive Eating is made up of 10 principles. I like to think of these as little stepping stones on the pond that is your relationship to food. Once you jump off the final stepping stone, you’re on solid ground and you have a healthy relationship to food.

The principles are based off the areas that people often struggle with in their relationship to food. Below is a picture of the 10 principles. Now, it’s easy to read the names and think “Yes, I totally get it. Great, that’s what I’m going to do.”

But like most things, it’s a lot more complicated and nuanced than this. The principles are more for the ease of naming different areas to work on. A skilled Intuitive Eating clinician has their own tools to help you with each of these.

  • Reject the Diet Mentality
  • Honour Your Hunger
  • Make Peace With Food
  • Challenge the Food Police
  • Discover the Satisfaction Factor
  • Feel Your Fullness
  • Cope With Your Emotions With Kindness
  • Respect Your Body
  • Movement: Feel the Difference
  • Honour Your Health: Gentle Nutrition

How is Intuitive Eating different from just eating?

Why follow a framework at all?

This is something I’ve been asked in the past. But remember, Intuitive Eating isn’t designed for people who are in a healthy and happy place with food. It’s for people who might have been dieting for years, have disordered eating, or are struggling with an eating disorder.

The hope with Intuitive Eating is to give a sort of path towards a healthy relationship to food. It’s not rules or anything like a diet plan – it’s more bringing a tiny bit of structure.

Something we hear from our 1-1 clients is that they’ve tried so many times to heal their disordered eating, but they had no clue how to go about it. Intuitive Eating gives that ”plan” element. Which is why we really enjoy using it in our practice.

As for how Intuitive Eating is different from just eating; that’s a good question. The funny thing about Intuitive Eating is that it truly is just ”normal eating.” It’s not a diet plan or a meal guide you eat like for life – it’s also not fully all about food.

But what we know is that most people don’t ”eat normally.”

Most people in the world eat in some sort of disordered eating. In fact, around 75% of women in the UK are estimated to have disordered eating. That’s based on the statistic that at one time, around 75% of women are on a ”strict” diet.

We are often asked ”what even is normal eating!?” – below is a table to give you an idea of what is normal vs. what is disordered.

The key thing to remember is that disordered eating is often normalised and expected in our society. In fact, often times disordered eating is encouraged under the guise of ”health.”

What is normal eating?What is disordered eating?
No feelings of guilt or shame associated with food​Feeling guilty after eating
​Flexible, balanced, and varied eating​Rigid, set ways of eating. Repetitive
​Overeating sometimes and under-eating others – not intentionally​Eating the same amount in a regulated way – e.g. “I should eat x amount of calories per day”
​Social eating, eating out at unplanned meals and times​Only eating pre-set and planned meals
​Eating is a part of your life – sometimes you alter your eating patterns to accommodate life​Your life revolves around what and how you eat

You were born an intuitive eater, every diet chips away at your intuitive self

Children will let you know when they’re hungry. And when they’re full. But once this child goes on a diet (or is put on a diet by an adult), they start to lose the connection to their own body cues. They no longer feel intuitively connecting to their hunger and fullness signals. This is exactly what Intuitive Eating hopes to repair – your connection to yourself.

Most of my clients would say that they have no real idea when they’re hungry or full. They know when it’s extreme – when they’re ravenous or stuffed. But not when they’re slightly either. It might not sound like a huge deal to you, but these subtle signs are actually a big part of normal eating.

Think about it – if you can’t trust your body cues, how can you trust your body with food?

Benefits of Intuitive Eating

It sounds great, right? Well, it doesn’t just sound great – the science backs it!

Intuitive Eating has been associated with:

  • Lower levels of the following: depression, self-esteem issues, body dissatisfaction, unhealthy or extreme weight control behaviours and even binge eating.
  • Increased self-esteem, body acceptance, and interoceptive awareness
  • Increased pleasure from eating and variety of foods consumed
  • Better proactive coping and psychological hardiness
  • Lower blood fats and blood pressure

And as intuitive eating is inherently anti-diet it negates the negative effects of dieting.

These include:

  • Increased emotional eating and binge eating. Coupled with loss of self-trust and confidence
  • Rebound weight gain
  • Slowed down metabolism and a loss of muscle mass
  • Body preoccupation, with distraction from other personal goals

Dieting has been linked with increased risk of depression and disordered eating behaviours.

What our clients say about Intuitive Eating

  • “I have so much more headspace now that I’m not thinking about food 24/7.”
  • ”I now actually enjoy food, and never feel like I should restrict myself.”
  • “I feel really in tune with my body and really care for myself. I’ve even be promoted at work, but without killing myself in the process.”
  • “My friends have even said they like me more this way. I have to agree with them!”
  • “I can really taste food now – I used to shovel it in to get it gone ASAP.”

Common questions we’re asked about Intuitive Eating

1. Will you lose weight with Intuitive Eating?

Truthfully, there’s no way of knowing how your body will change as you practice Intuitive Eating.

Stepping away from restrictive eating, your body wants to eat more and so you may naturally gain weight. Equally, after leaving a more regimented style of eating you may lose weight. Our clients often find that once they stop hopping on and off diets, they don’t binge anymore.

We have a whole blog dedicated to weight loss and Intuitive Eating.

2. Is Intuitive Eating only for people with eating disorders?

Anyone can practice intuitive eating; it is returning to a natural pattern of eating. Intuitive Eating was not created as a treatment for those with an eating disorder but as a response to dieting and health. Anyone who has experienced diet culture, restrictive eating or who wants to work on their relationship with their body can practice Intuitive Eating.

In fact, a study on teenagers in America found that teenagers who scored higher on a scale of Intuitive Eating had lower rates of eating disorder behaviours and a 74% reduced chance of binge eating. So, intuitive eating may be best used as an intervention before an eating disorder develops.

With our eating disorder clients, we implement more structure in the early stages of support. Our blog on “RAVES” will give you an idea of what comes ”before” Intuitive Eating.

3. Can you practice Intuitive Eating if you have an eating disorder?

Intuitive Eating wasn’t made specifically for those with an eating disorder. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be beneficial as part of a rounded treatment programme.

A 2017 study found that adding an Intuitive Eating approach into treatment programmes was associated with positive treatment outcomes. Remember, Intuitive Eating is normal, natural eating so developing this in recovery can be so powerful.

There are some reasons that Intuitive Eating doesn’t make sence in eating disorder recovery. These include:

  • Meal plans may be needed for weight restoration. This may mean that eating is initially more structured, but the other principles can be explored and ”natural hunger” can’t be trusted. You still start to notice hunger cues and satisfaction, as well as reframe how you think about food.
  • Exercise can be difficult in recovery.

Evelyn Tribole, the co-founder Intuitive Eating, wrote this article about Intuitive Eating and eating disorder recovery.

Remember, Intuitive eating is a set of tools, rather than a set plan. There is no obligation to be by the book to practice Intuitive Eating. This is why it can be so helpful to seek out professionals trained in Intuitive Eating like us at Ease Nutrition Therapy.

4. Is Intuitive Eating just eating when you’re hungry?

Intuitive Eating has 10 principles, and only a few of which relate to food and hunger cues.

Intuitive Eating is about honouring your health and the food you consume making you feel good. As well as tuning in to eating when you’re hungry or full. A part of Intuitive Eating is giving yourself unconditional permission to eat, with non-judgement in a way that allows you to feel safe around all foods.

And sometimes food might be emotional, or social. You might not be feeling great and so eat food that feels comforting to you, checking in with yourself and knowing that is what you need. This is followed by non-judgement, even if you’re not super hungry. Intuitive Eating acknowledges what we need as a whole, and honouring that.

6. Will Intuitive Eating work if you have a health condition?

Often when you have a health condition you are put on a strict diet to manage symptoms. But, such restriction has an effect on your mental and physical health. Examples of health conditions we commonly support people with include PCOS, IBS, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol.

There are just some things to consider:

  • Certain foods may trigger symptoms in your condition, try and take note of any patterns you see – this is true of conditions such as IBS where a lot of individuals have anecdotal evidence for what food works for them
  • Some medications may mask natural hunger cues, or increase hunger
  • ADHD, neurodivergency and mental health conditions may mean you cannot tune into your internal hunger cues.
  • Adults with ADHD are rarely mindful of the aspects of eating and may struggle with impulse control so require a quick stimulus of food and may not be aware of what they’re eating and how it is making them feel
  • Some neurodivergent individuals, especially those with ADHD may have periods of hyperfocus or fixation on what they’re doing – this may mean doing this instead of eating, and often the body’s signals are lost in this period of focus
  • Those experiencing any of the above might have trouble with time management so meals may be skipped in order to go about the rest of their day
  • Having a history of disorder eating, or even an eating disorder will have an effect on how you tune into your body’s cues, especially if they have been ignored for a long time. The process may take longer, require more support and a focus on mindset.

Intuitive Eating focuses on what your body needs, whether physically or mentally or emotionally. For example, many individuals who are lactose intolerant they may consume certain foods at a social gathering because that’s what they need at that moment, even if mild symptoms are triggered. Equally it may be skipping these foods at social events.

If you are worried about practising intuitive eating with your current condition consult with your GP and work with a nutritionist or dietician that can help you in this area. Support networks may be made of more than one health practitioner, and this ensures you get the best level of care.

7. Does Intuitive Eating improve your health?

First, I ask you, what is health? According to the World Health Organisation health is the state of complete mental, physical and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Intuitive eating works on your self image and mental wellbeing as you move away from diet culture, as well as working on your social wellbeing. And listening to your internal cues, as well as working on joyful movement, will contribute to your physical health.

Notice that none of the above definition involves a specific body weight measurement, or body type. Or is that just what we assume to be healthy? When you think of yourself being healthy do you imagine a diet strictly regimented, achieving a certain body size via gruelling workouts or do you imagine yourself in a space where you listen to your body and feel satisfied with what you eat and how your body helps facilitate your lifestyle.

Intuitive Eating has been linked with many beneficial health markers including improved cholesterol levels, blood pressure and reduced inflammation so can it be said to be anti-health just because it is an anti-diet approach?

How to start Intuitive Eating

  1. First off, it’s one thing to understand Intuitive Eating. But it’s a whole other thing to practice it. That’s why you can read the books, listen to the podcasts. But ultimately most people would benefit from Intuitive Eating counselling.
  2. Cultivate your social media feeds. There’s a lot of accounts out there educating on Intuitive Eating (ours is @ease_nutritiontherapy). Equally unfollowing accounts that talk about burning calories, good and bad foods and give restrictive food advice will be super helpful in avoiding triggering messages.
  3. Get your hands on the Intuitive Eating book (*), 4th edition for some light reading straight from the creators of Intuitive Eating itself.
  4. Reach out to us at Ease Nutrition Therapy to work with our disordered eating and Intuitive Eating specialists.

Team ENT x

(*) This is an affiliate link. I learn a small commission when you buy using this link, at no cost to you

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