The term “intuitive eating” has entered the mainstream, and it’s easy to find influencers and self-proclaimed experts on social media touting its benefits. As explained on, say, TikTok, the idea is pretty straightforward: you eat exactly what and how much you feel like eating, listening to your body’s hunger and fullness cues as well as its cravings. But in reality, intuitive eating is much more complex—especially for those who have struggled with an eating disorder. Read on to learn the definition of intuitive eating, its risks and benefits, how it relates to eating disorder recovery, and more.
So, what is intuitive eating exactly?
Often when people learn about intuitive eating for the first time, their response is something like this: “But if I allow myself to eat whatever I want, I’ll just eat donuts and French fries all day.” Indeed, there’s a common fear that without the structure of a diet plan or food rules, eating will start to feel out of control, and you’ll only choose “junk foods.” But while intuitive eating does emphasize giving yourself permission to eat a wide variety of foods, including the fun foods you love, this doesn’t mean saying “screw it” and never eating a fruit or veggie again.
“Intuitive eating is a framework that helps people improve their relationship with food,” says registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor Jen Baswick. “Intuitive eating is all about unlearning and letting go of the external ‘rules’ taught to us by diet culture and re-learning your natural internal cues to let them guide your eating habits.”
Listening to and honoring your body’s cues instead of a diet (or eating disorder voice) is a foundational aspect of intuitive eating, but it’s not simply about eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full—it’s a lot more nuanced than that. “Intuitive eating includes how and why we eat what we eat—preferences, nutrition, access, nervous system and health function—as well as our emotional relationship to food and even how we view physical activity,” shares eating disorder dietitian Tracy Brown, RD.
Developed in the 1990s by dietitians Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole, intuitive eating includes ten principles. These ten principles are:
- Honoring hunger and fullness cues
- Breaking up with diet culture
- Challenging the inner “food police”
- Giving yourself unconditional permission to eat
- Finding satisfaction at meals
- Learning to feel your fullness
- Developing healthy coping strategies for emotions
- Body acceptance
- Joyful movement
- Balancing eating for health and pleasure (AKA “gentle nutrition”)
The risks and benefits of intuitive eating
Intuitive eating is a practice that can have a powerful and positive domino effect in your relationships with food as well as life beyond the plate. In my own practice as a dietitian, I observe clients of all genders, ages, body sizes and diagnoses reaping numerous benefits of intuitive eating, and my colleagues in the space report seeing similar changes.
“Some of the benefits of intuitive eating include fostering more self-compassion, higher self-esteem, and more optimism,” Baswick says. “It’s also associated with a decrease in disordered eating, preoccupation with food, food-related anxiety, and binge eating.” Research shows associations between intuitive eating and better body image and self-esteem, increased metabolic health, weight stability, and higher fruit and vegetable intake.
However, intuitive eating can be a risk for people who struggle with eating disorders and try to go all in before they’re ready, or for those who don’t have the right support (like a dietitian and therapist) in place.
“Sometimes, people can jump right into intuitive eating without understanding that as soon as the container of their ‘diet’ is lifted, often big emotions can arise that they aren't prepared for, and a ‘whack-o-mole’ situation can happen,” explains Brown. “Like ‘if I’m not restricting, then I over-exercise.’” There are a number of different ways this might show up, but people should be on alert for compensatory behaviors—like compulsively working out—that arise once the restriction is gone.
For this reason and others, it’s critical that those in eating disorder recovery take baby steps toward intuitive eating. Doing this allows time for organ systems to heal, for the eating disorder voice to quiet, and for a person to become reconnected with their body.
There’s one more risk that merits a mention: the risk of intuitive eating getting warped by the forces of diet culture. I often catch this in my own practice, when intuitive eating starts to morph into a perfectionistic hunger-fullness diet. “The wellness and diet industry has now co-opted the term intuitive eating and uses it in a restrictive way surrounding weight loss, which it is not meant for,” Baswick says.
Who is intuitive eating for (and not for)?
Generally, intuitive eating is meant for every human, since we come out of the womb connected to our hunger and fullness cues. However, diet culture, disordered eating, or eating disorders can often sever our connections to our bodies and require us to re-learn how to get in touch with them through professional support.
“Some people will need guidance as anyone who has struggled with emotional under- or overeating has been disembodied for months or years,” Brown says, “and they’ll likely progress more efficiently and with less guessing and stress with someone offering feedback and a safe relationship.”.
According to Baswick, there are a few populations that may have a harder time practicing intuitive eating, such as those who are food insecure or have food allergies. “Using intuitive eating with populations who may have a more complicated relationship with food is not impossible, but should always be approached on a case-by-case individualized basis.”
Intuitive eating could also be a risk for someone with a metabolic condition, like diabetes or hypertension. “If someone who has diabetes wants to practice intuitive eating, they should get the support of a dietitian to help them understand how to use the principles of intuitive eating while also understanding how to keep their blood sugar managed well,” says Baswick.
Can intuitive eating fit into eating disorder recovery?
Research says yes. One study shows a link between using intuitive eating principles on college campuses and improved eating disorder symptoms among students, versus using self-weighing and calorie counting. Another study evaluated an intuitive eating program in an eating disorder treatment center, finding an association with intuitive eating abilities and positive treatment outcomes.
In my clinical opinion, intuitive eating can be successfully and effectively used at any part of the eating disorder recovery process, as long as it's done so consciously and carefully. For example, I’ve had clients who are still weight-restoring, disconnected from internal cues, and still need to mechanically eat and follow meal plans closely; however, they can start to learn to practice permission with food (a foundational part of intuitive eating), within the structure of their plans. I’ve also had clients simply start to notice hunger and fullness cues (another critical step in intuitive eating) before and after meals without necessarily letting these cues guide eating habits yet. For clients further along in recovery, we work to move them away from meal plans and into alignment with their bodies.
“I believe that aspects of intuitive eating can be very complementary to eating disorder recovery, especially rejecting the diet mentality, making peace with food, and body respect, to name a few,” adds Baswick.
However, Brown, Baswick and I all agree that honoring hunger and fullness are two of the trickier intuitive treatment principles to follow early on in recovery. “It takes time to develop accurate interoception, or feeling hunger and fullness separated from emotions or trauma body memories,” Brown says. “People can and do get signals back, but accuracy builds as physical, emotional, and mental healing occurs.”
Baswick adds that gastroparesis (slowed stomach motility) and feelings of early fullness despite needing more food (which is common in anorexia) can complicate things. She also points out that the rigid thinking common in eating disorders can make the looser framework of intuitive eating tricky. “One danger is if a patient turns following their hunger and fullness cues into another restrictive pattern to follow,” she says. “This is why it's so important to work with a dietitian that specializes in eating disorder recovery and knows intuitive eating well to support people along their recovery journey.”
Whether you are in eating disorder recovery or are simply working on your relationship to food and body, intuitive eating offers a liberating alternative to the rigid, black-and-white thinking of diet culture and eating disorders. A departure from eating and living with self-control, judgment, and punishment, intuitive eating provides a nuanced, compassionate way of nourishing yourself from an embodied place of self-care, self-trust, and self-respect.
- Linardon, Jake et al. “Intuitive eating and its psychological correlates: A meta-analysis.” The International journal of eating disorders vol. 54,7 (2021): 1073-1098. doi:10.1002/eat.23509
- Hayashi, Lauren C et al. “Intuitive and mindful eating to improve physiological health parameters: a short narrative review of intervention studies.” Journal of complementary & integrative medicine, 10.1515/jcim-2021-0294. 16 Dec. 2021, doi:10.1515/jcim-2021-0294
- Tylka, Tracy L et al. “Intuitive eating is connected to self-reported weight stability in community women and men.” Eating disorders vol. 28,3 (2020): 256-264. doi:10.1080/10640266.2019.1580126
- Romano, Kelly A et al. “Helpful or harmful? The comparative value of self-weighing and calorie counting versus intuitive eating on the eating disorder symptomology of college students.” Eating and weight disorders : EWD vol. 23,6 (2018): 841-848. doi:10.1007/s40519-018-0562-6
- Richards, P Scott et al. “Can patients with eating disorders learn to eat intuitively? A 2-year pilot study.” Eating disorders vol. 25,2 (2017): 99-113. doi:10.1080/10640266.2017.1279907