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Intuitive Eating 101: How to break up with diet culture

Let’s talk about intuitive eating. (Never heard of it? Jump over to this article on what intuitive eating is and then come back.) Now that you know the basics, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty of how to incorporate it into your lifestyle. Intuitive Eating is broken down into 10 guiding principles, plus some other chapters that touch on kiddos and eating disorders. These principles are very helpful in starting your intuitive eating journey.

I just want to make this clear that these are not rules, but base foundations to help you unlearn all that society has taught you about food, nutrition, health and body image. Intuitive Eating is extremely nuanced and individualized, so use these principles as guidance—not as laws or restrictions.

Disclaimer: Intuitive Eating may not be appropriate if you are currently seeking eating disorder treatment or have an eating disorder. Intuitive eating components can be introduced during eating disorder recovery at the discretion of an eating disorder dietitian’s counseling method.

The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating  

1. Reject the diet mentality.

Intuitive Eating is not a diet, but a way of life. In order to move toward a more balanced and healthy relationship with food, we have to stop dieting.

Most adults and even kids have dieted at some point in their lives. Today, let’s stop and think about how those diets have made you feel—how they have failed you and made you feel worse about yourself. Start working toward seeing all forms of diet or restriction as unhelpful and unhealthy (the exception to this rule are those who have properly diagnosed food allergies, celiac disease, etc.). 95% of diets fail. This isn’t because of the people doing them, but because diets simply aren’t sustainable.

2. Honor your hunger.

I think this is one of the more challenging principles because there are so many opinions out there on how to decrease your hunger or ignore it. Hunger is a biological cue, but it’s treated more like a made up one. Without hunger, we wouldn’t survive because we wouldn’t eat. So why are there so many rules around hunger? Why not work on honoring it instead?

If you are hungry an hour after a meal, maybe that’s a sign you didn’t eat enough. If you are hungry at 9 p.m., maybe that’s because your body needs more energy. We also recognize that sometimes we aren’t feeling hunger, but we know we need to eat in order to nourish our bodies. Sometimes we also eat without hunger because of social cues or time constraints. These are all accepted versions ways of honoring your hunger.

3. Make peace with food.

This is where we start incorporating the all foods fit mentality. Begin to truly give yourself permission to eat those foods that you’ve been restricting due to society food rules or fears. Intuitive eaters do not label foods as “good” or “bad.” Instead, we work toward making food more neutral.

It can be really hard to accept this idea of 24/7 permission of foods, but the opposite of this spectrum—restriction—is far worse for your health when you break it down. When we constantly restrict foods we want, eventually we give in and eat these foods again. When this happens, the last supper mentality often overcomes you. Leading you to overeat those restricted foods and causing you to fall off whatever diet you were on. If this has happened to you, you know the guilt and shame many people feel for “messing up.”

This continues going on in a cycle of binge and restrict. Why is yo-yo dieting so bad for you? Physically, research shows it can put you at risk for chronic health conditions and higher mortality risk down the line. Mentally, it stresses you out and lowers your body image and self-esteem.

By focusing on allowing yourself to eat cookies or chips or whatever food you’ve been afraid of, you’ll get used to having them around and eventually find a balance with them over time. This will help you maintain better physical and mental health because your body won’t be yo-yoing. Keep in mind this balance doesn’t happen overnight; it takes time to figure out.

4. Challenge the food police.

The food police is the voice in your head (and also the voices of those around you) who tell you how you should eat and feel about food. These are the rules that say you should just drink water when you’re hungry instead of eating, you should feel bad about eating a doughnut or you should always be striving to be in a smaller size.

It can be really hard to eat intuitively when you have those voices and rules deep in your brain telling you “no.” Start to challenge them! Start to get curious why we believe those arbitrary food rules and why we don’t question them more.

5. Discover the satisfaction factor.

Did you know that we are biologically wired to enjoy food? Yep, we have hormones like serotonin that are released when we eat foods we love for a reason. If we didn’t enjoy food to some degree, we wouldn’t prioritize eating and then the human race would starve.

It’s important to enjoy what you eat for biological reasons and emotional reasons. Fullness and satisfaction are not the same. You can be full but not satisfied. Often when people ignore cravings or preferences, they’ll find that they are still searching for a certain flavor after eating a meal. This can cause you to overeat until you meet that craving. Creating a meal where you not only fill up your belly, but also hit that satisfaction factor will help you feel truly done with your meal.

6. Feel your fullness.

Just to preface this principle, there is no need to feel like you always have to achieve a perfect level of fullness every time you eat. Our society pushes the idea of “perfect portions” or “clean your plate” mentality. Neither of these apply here. There will be times you finish eating and you didn’t eat enough, and there will be other times you eat a little too much.

This step is all about being aware of when you feel those fullness cues. Every day will look different, so there is no daily rule for where to stop eating. Take time to explore this. If you worry about wasting food, remember that leftovers are a thing, or try taking less food at first and then go back for seconds if you want.

7. Cope with your emotions with kindness.

Eating food for more than just biological cues is a completely normal thing, so why are we taught the opposite? Every human emotionally eats. Any time you eat something you love or hate, you experience an emotion. Humans aren’t robots. So, it’s time we start remembering and acknowledging that when we use food to cope with our emotions, it is completely normal to do so.

Emotional eating can be a great tool; however, it is a short-term fix. Eating to cope won’t fix anything in the long term. Practice giving yourself grace and understanding if you eat often for comfort. Start exploring a variety of ways to cope with your emotions.

Also keep in mind that you have to process your emotions in order to move on. All the coping mechanisms in the world won’t fix your trauma; this might resonate with you and be your road block in finding variety in your coping mechanisms. You may need to work with a weight neutral dietitian and therapist to work toward finding a variety of coping mechanisms and work through your traumas.

8. Respect your body.

This is the principle where the body image work comes in hot. In order to have a healthy relationship with food, you must work toward a healthy relationship with your body. Body respect is about noticing and believing in your self-worth—believing that you deserve proper care and that you are allowed to take up space in this world.

Respecting your body can take many different forms. Here are a few ideas to get you thinking:

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Giving thanks to your body for doing basic tasks
  • Adequately feeding your body
  • Having clothes that fit and make you feel good
  • Positive or neutral self-talk
  • Stretching

Body respect does not mean body love and the two do not have to coexist. You may find it is hard to practice body respect and that is 100% okay because it takes time to process and grow.

9. Movement: Feel the difference.

In our society, exercise is usually seen as something we have to do in order to be healthy, burn off our food and/or lose weight. Because of this viewpoint, it is extremely hard for people to enjoy exercise and have a consistent practice.

Instead of focusing only on weight, what if you focused on the other benefits of exercise that personally effect you? Maybe exercise helps you sleep better or reduces your stress levels. Maybe it’s a way for you to be social. Maybe it helps your digestion or it sparks your appetite. Find reasons for exercise that aren’t weight focused.

Along with this comes the importance of listening to your body. Know when you need to take a step back and rest. When we don’t take breaks from strenuous exercise, this leads to injury and often poorer mental health. By being aware of these things, you can develop an intuitive relationship with exercise.

10. Honor your health with gentle nutrition.

There is a reason that the nutrition piece of intuitive eating is at the end of the book. This is because in order to be able to understand the nuances of intuitive nutrition, you have to build a proper understanding of intuitive eating. Healthy eating is not synonymous with perfect eating. In fact, it’s impossible for anyone to eat perfectly forever.

Instead of putting all that pressure on yourself, aim to incorporate a variety of foods into your daily diet. How can we incorporate cookies, gummy worms, kale and bananas into our lifestyle? How can we incorporate our culture into our lifestyle? Gentle nutrition is all about what we can add into our lives instead of take away, and how can we eat consistently throughout the day. This especially applies to those who have chronic conditions. If you are struggling with how to manage this, think about working with a weight neutral dietitian!

Now that you have the gist of intuitive eating (and assuming you like what you see), I encourage you to consult a weight inclusive dietitian and therapist to help you with any questions you have along your journey. Intuitive eating is very different from anything else out there. If you are sick of all the physical, mental and social stress that dieting brings, consider Intuitive Eating to help you work toward peace with food and your body.

Ready to get started? Connect with a registered dietitian today.

About the author

Alessandra Stasnopolis, RDN, LDN
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Alessandra Stasnopolis, RDN, LDN, is a clinical dietitian and wellness coordinator in the Baylor Scott & White Health wellness department.

Intuitive Eating 101: How to break up with diet culture