What Is Intuitive Eating?

It's pretty much the opposite of dieting.

Diet culture lurks everywhere—from J.Lo and her no-carb, no-sugar diet on the Today Show to friends on Facebook selling supplements and diet plans. Diets, and especially chronic dieting, can be physically and mentally exhausting, not to mention expensive (the U.S. diet industry is currently worth $66 billion). Most diets don’t work. If they did, the diet industry would cease to exist.

Maybe it’s time to step away from diets and try a kinder, gentler alternative—one that respects your body, puts you more in tune with your natural cues, and makes eating about health, and not weight. The approach is called intuitive eating and it’s gaining popularity as people grow more frustrated with the empty promises and punishing philosophy of diets.

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What is intuitive eating?

IE isn’t a diet; rather, it’s an approach that focuses on creating a healthy relationship with food, our mind and body. It’s supposed to break the cycle of chronic dieting by removing the power that diet culture holds over our lives.

Alida Finnie, a registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counsellor, says it’s all about giving your body what it needs by focusing on your hunger and fullness cues “It also uses mindfulness strategies to help you know what food you need with the goal of maximizing satisfaction,” she says.

We’re all born as intuitive eaters. Babies and small children tend to eat when they’re hungry, and stop when they’re full. They don’t understand outside food and diet cues such as advertising, skinny jeans, or how good the burgers look on the Food Network. They just know “hungry” and “satisfied.”

If you’re a chronic dieter, it can be very freeing to release diet behaviour and food restrictions and instead, shift your focus to what your body is telling you.

How to start eating intuitively

Intuitive eating has 10 principles, which are outlined in more detail on the intuitive eating website. They include: rejecting diet culture (meaning getting rid of diet books and anything that makes you believe that diets are the answer) and honouring your hunger (eating when you’re hungry and not withholding food from yourself, as this can cause overeating later).

Another principle of IE is making peace with food, or giving yourself unconditional permission to eat. Forbidden foods often cause feelings of deprivation that lead to cravings, and IE aims to overcome those feelings and by virtue of doing that, create a more balanced approach to food and eating.

Getting started with IE can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be all change, all at once. Finnie says to start small. She explains, “For dinner tonight, ask yourself what you’d love to eat more than anything. Now, go get it and take the time to savour it. Notice the scent, temperature, texture and taste. After the meal, ask yourself: do you feel good (physically) after eating? Would you choose that experience again? How soon? Keep experimenting, and with time you’ll be more confident on what works for you and you’ll worry less that you’ll take too much. A little support on the process can’t hurt either, check around for an expert that can help.”

chocolate cake recipe with decorative icing

Photo, Erik Putz.

Does this mean I can eat Cheetos and cake all day?

The most common misconception about IE is that it’s permission to eat however much of whatever you want, all day long. While IE is permissive in that it doesn’t have “rules” about what you can and can not eat, it’s important to remember the tenth principle, which is to “honour your health.” While the term “healthy food” is subjective, choosing nourishing foods is important. If you crave Cheetos, for example, by IE principles it is fine to have some. But eat them mindfully, and stop when you’re satisfied.

Eating what you feel like eating is a foreign concept for many chronic dieters who are used to restricting food, or overeating. IE offers a balance that may take some time to get accustomed to, but it regulates itself in time for the majority of people.

Will I gain weight with intuitive eating?

You might.

If you have been restricting food and are not at your natural weight, IE may result in weight gain to your body’s set point. This can be a frightening thought. To help dieters over this hurdle, I tell them to list the benefits versus the costs of remaining in the vortex of dieting. What have diets been costing you emotionally, socially, physically and financially for all these years? Are they working for you, or against you? Are they worth it? What have you been missing out on while you’ve been dieting?

“The research tells us that intuitive eaters maintain their weight long term while those who diet are likely to see it yo-yo,” says Finnie. “It’s a lot tougher on your body and your health to go through big swings up and down on the regular, not to mention what it does to your self esteem. In the end, it’s your body and your life so you get to pick how you want to live it.”

Originally published February 2019; Updated January 2020.

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