Intuitive Eating: The 10 principles I practice and preach as a dietitian

Have you ever wondered if it’s possible to eat without an external diet plan? As a dietitian who preaches body attunement and food autonomy, I can speak from experience, personally and professionally, that there is another way. A well known term for this is intuitive eating: a concept that encourages nourishing our body with foods that make us feel good, while also finding satisfaction in food, and eating when we are hungry, stopping when full, eating without food rules, and practicing an unconditional permission to eat any time of day, all the foods. 

The History Behind Intuitive Eating

Intuitive eating was coined by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elise Resch in the 1990s, with the first version of their intuitive eating written in 1995. The approach consists of ten principles, each geared towards becoming an intuitive eater. Since then, several peer reviewed articles have been conducted, supporting intuitive eating as an evidenced based approach to developing overall health and wellbeing, for the general population and also different disease states. Per Tribole’s website, The Original Intuitive Eating Pro, there are at least 90 studies claiming its efficacy and a full assessment to guide an individual in working through this weight neutral approach to health (What is Intuitive Eating? - Evelyn Tribole).

The 10 Principles of Intuitive EatingIntuitive Eating consists of 10 principles, with each guiding an individual one step closer towards reaching body attunement vs requiring an external diet regimen. It’s beneficial to work through the principles beginning to end, but also appropriate to start with certain principles first, skip around, and still end up in the end as an intuitive eater. For example, someone in treatment for a restrictive eating disorder with a weight restoration meal plan would not benefit from truly honoring their hunger and feeling their fullness– it’s more appropriate to encourage distractions at meals and take the focus off of the food vs encouraging mindful-type practices. On the flip side, an individual not requiring a focus on weight restoration as part of their treatment may not need a highly-structured meal plan, so it would be appropriate to work through principles two and six in chronological order. Below are these principles as listed on The Original Intuitive Eating Pro’s site:

1. Reject the Diet Mentality

The first step of IE encourages getting rid of external dieting tools, such as counting calories, food tracking apps, the weight watcher’s points system, macro logging, obsessive use of the scale, diet pills and cleanses, and more. It’s a stand against diet culture: an industry that deems each new diet is the best we’ve ever known, but in reality is just another way for the multibillion dollar industry to keep individuals hooked. The reality is that only ~ 5% of individuals can follow a diet and actually sustain it or maintain the lost weight after a few years. This does not mean that the individuals are failing, but rather the dieting system is a mess, and our bodies do everything they can to avoid famine.

2. Honor Your Hunger

This step is one of my favorites to explore with my clients. That’s because there is more to noticing our hunger than just listening for our growling stomach– which likely means someone has not tuned into earlier signs of hunger an hour or more prior. Individual hunger cues can be unique but also similar amongst people. Honoring our hunger encourages eating at our subtle, comfortable hunger cues vs routinely starting to eat at ravenous hunger. 

3. Make Peace with Food

The term unconditional permission to eat all foods, whenever and in amounts that feel good to the individual, is a well known point of IE. This principle instructs us to break our food rules and shift away from the forbidden food mindset. Through making peace with food, individuals get one step closer to feeling in control with food vs out of control and always thinking about food. I always remind my clients that tackling this principle takes lots of practice and patience, as habits take time to develop so hence will take time to break. 

4. Challenge the Food Police 

Principle number four builds onto number three with a framework to help eliminate the good vs bad food thinking. This principle also takes lots of exploration of one’s individual food rules and restrictions. 

5. Discover the Satisfaction Factor

Here is the gateway to unlearning the external approaches to determine our individual nutritional needs, and accepting our body’s cravings and feelings of satisfaction instead. Yes, there is another way to determine the portions of each meal and snack we eat that feels good to us. Food is meant to bring us joy, connect loved ones, bring communities together, and taste delicious– so instead of fighting it and fearing a lack of control around food, it helps to notice and celebrate food consumed. 

6. Feel Your Fullness

Feel your fullness is similar to principle number two in the way that body attunement is encouraged and understanding those individual cues. Fullness ranges on a spectrum, and the idea of being an intuitive eater is finding one’s comfortable fullness, but also normalizing that sometimes a slight overfullness or a slight under fullness may happen and that’s okay. (If someone struggles to feel satisfied most of the time, or regularly feels full once the point of sickness is reached, this is different. Principle six, plus those prior, can help explore why this is happening.)

7. Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness

Here explores how food may be connected to handling emotions. This principle addresses turning to food to cope with emotions, and exploring each type of emotion, but also emphasizes that some individuals turn away from food and also is not a healthy coping skill. To note, the idea of emotional eating is not morally wrong and if it’s a rare occasion someone can still be an intuitive eater. This principle is meant for someone that uses food regularly as a means of control, such as someone diagnosed with binge eating disorder or anorexia nervosa, and could improve on finding other healthier coping skills.

8. Respect Your Body

The idea with respecting our body is to unlearn that weight, body size and shape defines a person, because personal values and personality are what make someone who they are. Wanting weight loss plus exploring intuitive eating is unrealistic: if we nit-pick our bodies or focus on weight to drive eating habits, then it’s very difficult to build trust in bodies and feel in control with food.

9. Movement– Feel the Difference

Numerous studies conducted to understand treatment approaches for physical and mental wellbeing point to the importance of exercise. For many reasons, incorporating movement regularly multiple times per week is very health promoting. Seeking movement for enjoyment, feeling energized, socializing, building strength and stamina are reasons IE encourages us to move vs for weight loss or solely for changing one’s physique.

10. Honor Your Health– Gentle Nutrition

Lastly, IE hones in on sustainable nutrition: the first 9 principles come together with the balance of eating all the food groups, macronutrients, and micronutrients. The idea is that all foods fit, but it’s also appropriate to make conscious decisions about food eaten knowing that one food may provide more nutrients compared to the other. I approach this principle with my clients early on, in line with the education of tuning into one’s healthy self vs eating disorder/disordered eating/diet mentality voice when building meals and snacks. If this principle is sought out too quickly, and food rules and thoughts around good vs bad foods are not addressed, it’s difficult to truly find intuitive eating and make peace with food.

As described above, the 10 principles of IE are used as tools to improve body trust and develop a healthy relationship with food and one’s body. Seeking out IE can look different for everyone, where sometimes one principle takes longer than another, or one or more steps may not be appropriate to consider at the present moment in someone’s eating recovery. I remind individuals all the time that exploring IE takes time, patience, grace, lots of habit breaking and unlearning. The point of IE is to make the journey to developing peace with food and body your own. 

Curious to learn more? Want to work with a dietitian that practices and preaches these 10 principles? Reach out to us at Enhance Nutrition as we’d love to help you explore this method of health and wellbeing.