As babies, we’re all intuitive eaters. Babies cry when they feel hungry and eat until they’re full. As we age, feelings and rules placed around food start to govern our choices. We often learn that we have to finish everything on our plate and that dessert is a reward for finishing our dinner. We learn to perceive certain foods as good for us, while others are bad. In short, we lose our inner “intuitive eater.”
So what is intuitive eating? Intuitive eating isn’t a complicated diet that requires the “food police.” Instead, eating intuitively involves understanding your internal cues about when and what to eat. Intuitive eating often supports a healthy relationship with food and may support positive health outcomes, including weight loss and healthy blood pressure levels. (5)
Keep reading below to learn more about intuitive eating and its health benefits.
What is intuitive eating?
Intuitive eating gets you back in touch with the “inner wisdom” of youth. To eat intuitively involves making choices about when and how much to eat based on physical hunger and fullness cues rather than other influences, such as diet culture or body image. (5) Intuitive eating allows you to eat what your body needs and wants when you want, and it encourages you to feel emotionally, mentally, and physically good about it. (3)
5 Intuitive eating principles
Many restrictive diets focus on rules of eating and measurable outcomes, such as following a low-calorie diet with the goal of losing 20 pounds. This type of dieting is often unsustainable and may contribute to negative outcomes, including:
- Changes to body composition
- Disordered eating
- Low self-esteem
- Slowed metabolism
- Weight recycling (repetitive weight loss/gain) (5)
Intuitive eating is not a diet—it’s all about re-learning to eat mindfully, without guilt. In other words, it means being intentional about your dietary choices and appreciating, savoring, and enjoying the food you eat. (7) Intuitive eaters also follow the five principles below.
1. Reject the diet mentality
The underlying principle of intuitive eating is to stop dieting and challenge food rules that promise that restrictive diet plans can deliver lasting results. Placing restrictions on certain foods tends to make them even more tempting, which can lead to excessive cravings and often binge eating (overeating). (9)
Intuitive eaters don’t rely on calorie counting or numbers on the scale. Instead, intuitive eaters are anti-diet. They make peace with food by forgetting “forbidden foods” and focus on achieving a healthy body weight with inner wisdom rather than external rules. (5)
2. Know your hunger signals
Pay attention to your body’s physical hunger cues rather than emotional or psychological cues. When physically hungry, you may feel:
- Cramping or stomach pain
- Light-headed or shaky
- An empty feeling in your stomach
- Stomach growling (8)
Eating when your stomach is growling occasionally or feels empty is ideal with intuitive eating. Allowing yourself to become excessively hungry can trigger the urge to overeat. (4)
3. Listen to your fullness cues
Just as your body will tell you when it’s hungry, it will also tell you when it’s full. Eating mindfully is an important part of identifying fullness cues. (7) While you’re eating, put down your fork and check in with yourself. Think about how the food tastes and how hungry or full you are feeling. The goal is to stop eating when you’re satisfied but not stuffed. Eating in excess may cause you to feel bloated, fatigued, uncomfortable, or even physically sick. (8)
4. Avoid emotional eating
Intuitive eating involves learning how to put emotions aside when making decisions about your diet. Emotional eating is eating to cope with negative feelings, such as anger, sadness, or stress. Overeating and weight gain are common side effects of eating based on emotions. When we listen to emotional hunger, we ignore our own internal wisdom and physical hunger signs. Foods eaten based on emotional triggers also tend to be comfort foods, which may not make the body feel good when eaten in excess. (9)
Did you know? Restrictive dieting may increase your likelihood of emotional eating. (9)
It’s important to find ways to nurture yourself without turning to food. Talking with a friend, playing with a pet, taking a bubble bath, reading a good book, or engaging in an activity that you enjoy are just some ways to help overcome negative emotions. (6) If you are concerned about your emotional eating habits, talk to your healthcare provider.
5. Discover the satisfaction factor
In the hustle and bustle of our busy lives, we often overlook the simple pleasure and satisfaction that can be found in the eating experience. Instead, we scarf down food so as to not disrupt our hectic schedules.
Making time to eat without distraction and paying attention to different aspects of the food can bring joy back to eating. Ask yourself how the food looks, feels, smells, and tastes. Consider the journey it took to get this food to your plate. (7) By connecting with your food and taking the time to savor each bite, you may find yourself enjoying foods you may not have been satisfied with before. (2)
Benefits of intuitive eating
There are over 100 published research studies demonstrating the benefits of intuitive eating. (10) These studies report that intuitive eating is associated with benefits including a healthy weight, positive body images, and more.
1. Healthy body size
Intuitive eating is often recommended for addressing eating disorders and individuals trying to lose weight without the diet mentality. Whether it’s weight loss or weight gain, healthy eating habits can help you maintain a healthy weight. (5)
2. Positive body image
Regardless of weight, individuals who eat intuitively tend to be less concerned with body shape or weight. This is particularly related to the non-restrictive and mindful nature of intuitive eating. (1)
3. Other aspects of health
Along with supporting a healthy relationship with food, weight, and body image, intuitive eating may improve other indicators of health, including blood pressure and cholesterol levels. (11) The connection between intuitive eating and these health markers is not well understood, and more research is needed to learn more about the health benefits of intuitive eating.
The bottom line
Intuitive eating teaches you that you are the best person—and the only person—to decide what and when to eat. Letting your internal hunger and fullness cues guide your eating can help you to break the dieting cycle once and for all. Along with improving your relationship with food, intuitive eating may help support weight management and body positivity. To learn more about intuitive eating, contact your healthcare provider.
- Babbott, K. M., Cavadino, A., Brenton-Peters, J., Consedine, N. S., & Roberts, M. (2023). Outcomes of intuitive eating interventions: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Eating Disorders, 31(1), 33–63.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Lifestyle coach facilitation guide: Post-core. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/prevention/pdf/postcurriculum_session5.pdf
- Christoph, M. J., Hazzard, V. M., Järvelä-Reijonen, E., Hooper, L., Larson, N., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2021). Intuitive eating is associated with higher fruit and vegetable intake among adults. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 53(3), 240–245.
- Elran-Barak, R., Sztainer, M., Goldschmidt, A. B., Crow, S. J., Peterson, C. B., Hill, L. L., Crosby, R. D., … & Le Grange, D. (2015). Dietary restriction behaviors and binge eating in anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder: Trans-diagnostic examination of the restraint model. Eating Behaviors, 18, 192–196.
- Hawks, S., Merrill, R. M., & Madanat, H. N. (2004). The intuitive eating scale: Development and preliminary validation. American Journal of Health Education & American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, 35(2), 90–99.
- National Institutes of Health (NIH). (2022). Emotional wellness toolkit. https://www.nih.gov/health-information/emotional-wellness-toolkit
- Nelson, J. B. (2017). Mindful eating: The art of presence while you eat. Diabetes Spectrum: A Publication of the American Diabetes Association, 30(3), 171–174.
- Queensland Government. (2017). The hunger level scale. https://www.health.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/152812/wtmgt_hungerscale.pdf
- Reichenberger, J., Schnepper, R., Arend, A.-K., & Blechert, J. (2020). Emotional eating in healthy individuals and patients with an eating disorder: Evidence from psychometric, experimental and naturalistic studies. The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 79(3), 290–299.
- The Intuitive Eating Pros. (n.d.). Intuitive eating studies. The Original Intuitive Eating Pros. https://www.intuitiveeating.org/resources/studies/
- Van Dyke, N., & Drinkwater, E. J. (2014). Relationships between intuitive eating and health indicators: Literature review. Public Health Nutrition, 17(8), 1757–1766.