What Is Intuitive Eating? A Beginner’s Guide to the ‘Anti-Diet’

Dieting can be disappointing. Fad diets in particular offer up big promises. They convince you that you’ll not only lose weight, but that doing it their way will lead to better health and even a better life. Rarely is this so, and more often they can direct you down a path of yo-yo dieting that’s dangerous and may even lead you to gain more weight than when you started.

Intuitive eating, on the other hand, has been gaining traction lately. We’ll call it IE for short, and it’s the complete opposite of dieting, but experts say that it really does help you live a more well-rounded life.

What Is Intuitive Eating and How Exactly Did It Step Onto the Diet Scene?

You might call IE the anti-diet. Unlike meal plans that mark certain food groups or macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fat) as bad, and are rooted in telling yourself “no,” IE is all about treating your body with kindness. “IE is a self-care eating framework where you’re the expert on your body,” says Evelyn Tribole, RDN, who is in private practice in Newport Beach, California. She, along with Elyse Resch, RD, coined the term “intuitive eating” in 1995 and authored the groundbreaking book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works. Their newest book, The Intuitive Eating Workbook: Ten Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship With Food, is regularly cited by the new wave of registered dietitians who are moving toward a non-diet approach in their practices. 

How Does It Work — and How Does It Compare With Popular Diet Plans?

Before diving into how it works, it’s important to clear up something: IE is absolutely not a diet. IE may have been around for nearly 25 years, but because it’s gaining popularity now, “diet culture is co-opting it as a diet, which is unfortunate,” says Tribole. IE is often called a “hunger-fullness” diet, but that puts constraints on the approach. IE is all about compassion.

We were born knowing how to eat. Tribole says that IE connects you once again to this superpower. IE is based on the idea of “interceptive awareness”; simply put, it’s a connection with or listening to the physical sensations of your body. What is your body saying it needs now? A snack? A meal? A bagel? A salad? You’ll eat when you feel hungry and stop when you feel full (regardless of how much is left on your plate). This is irrespective of what time it is during the day (many people eat by the clock and wait until they’re “allowed” to eat again), what you’ve already consumed earlier in the day or yesterday, or what your colleague, friend, or family member is or isn’t eating.

“It’s a practice about learning to listen to your own body’s signals when making decisions about foods, rather than taking direction from external sources, which is what people do when dieting,” says Bonnie Giller, RDN, author of Enjoying Food Peace: Recipes and Intuitive Eating Wisdom to Nourish Your Body and Mind and a dietitian based in West Hempstead, New York.

How Can an Intuitive-Eating Approach Benefit Your Body and Mind?

Get ready, because it’s big: It’s a restoration of your sanity, says Tribole. “Most people get stuck in dieting messages and have this constant background anxiety over what they’re eating: ‘Will this cure me? Will this kill me? Will this make me fat?’ Intuitive eating is a path toward body autonomy,” she says. When you give up dieting, you focus not on calorie counts or macros, but it frees you up to focus on your life’s purpose and the things that bring you joy.

In a review of 24 studies done between 2006 and 2015 on mostly university students, IE was associated with “less disordered eating, a more positive body image, [and] greater emotional functioning,” per an article published in January 2016 in the journal Appetite. (1) While research on a diverse population is needed, other studies support the idea that IE can be a healthy way to approach food. For example, a review published in July 2013 in the journal Public Health Nutrition specifically noted that IE was linked to better psychological well-being, more nutritious diets, and weight stability. (2)

Are There Any Downsides to Practicing Intuitive Eating in Lieu of a Traditional Diet?

If you’ve come from a dieting background, you might be hesitant to throw away all the comforting dieting rules that tell you what to eat and avoid. You may also find it nerve-wracking to move to IE because RDs cannot predict what will happen to your weight. “I tell people that we don’t really know what your body will do — only your body knows. You have a genetic blueprint of the shape, size, and weight nature intends for your body,” says Giller. In short, you might lose weight if you’re over that “set range,” gain it, or stay the same.

“A lot of people have the assumption that IE is about weight loss, or if you’re not losing weight, you’re not doing it right. I cannot stress enough that it’s not about weight loss,” says Tribole.

The idea that your body’s weight may restore to where it’s most comfortable isn’t a real downside, but it can feel like that if you’ve been a chronic dieter.

There’s also fear about how your eating habits will change once you stop following diet rules. Will you sit around and eat doughnuts and ice cream all day? “I tell people that it is possible that once you give yourself unconditional permission to eat, you will want to eat the foods you deemed “bad” before. But over time, this does normalize. Once you can have it whenever you want it, you won’t want to eat it every day,” says Giller.

Finally, IE doesn’t ignore nutrition. Rather, it’s ‘gentle’ nutrition. “I encourage people to use taste and nutrition to help guide food choices,” adds Giller.

How Do You Know if Intuitive Eating Is the Right Approach for You?

If you are tired of the roller coaster of dieting and attempts at weight loss are making you feel isolated or unhappy, turning to intuitive eating may benefit both your psychological and physical health. “I like to ask people [who are interested in starting IE], ‘What has your own experience with dieting shown you?’” says Tribole. When you’re restricting food, afraid to go to social events where there is food, or counting calories or macros, how does it make you feel?

How to Stop Dieting and Start Your Intuitive Eating Journey

If you’re ready for IE, you might start with Tribole’s book on the 10 principles — after all, it’s what other RDs use to help their clients break free of dieting. You can find more information at the website IntuitiveEating.org or follow her on Instagram at @evelyntribole. Filling your feed with dietitians who practice intuitive eating will help keep you focused on what matters when those dieting thoughts creep in or you begin to doubt the approach. Two we’re loving right now: @olive.eeeats and @theflexiblefoodie.

More on Macronutrients

Giller also recommends letting go of scales in your house, including those that measure your body weight or food, as well as any other “dieting” tool. But if that is too big of a jump and you’re not ready for that, it’s okay. A good place to start, says Tribole, is to aim for satisfaction when eating meals and snacks. What sustains you, brings you pleasure, and makes you feel good?

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The Bottom Line on Taking an Intuitive Eating Approach to Food

The non-diet approach to eating emphasizes food freedom and the practice of gentle nutrition, which is opposite of many people’s focus on restrictive diets. If diets have failed you physically and mentally in the past, or if you’ve ever felt deprived on one before, this approach to food may be worth a shot for you.

Article originally appeared on EveryDayHealth

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