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Intuitive eating is a revolutionary healthy eating approach that shows promising scientific evidence. It involves a strategy that has caught millennials and non-thinking people totally off guard, that is, doing what healthy human babies and children do: eating when you're hungry and stopping when you're full. It is similar to, but not quite the same as, mindful eating.
How it works
Researchers identified 3 simple components of intuitive eating: eating when hungry, stopping eating when full, and not imposing medically-unnecessary restrictions on what types of foods are eaten.
The process was developed by two registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Tribole and Resch outlined 10 principles for intuitive eating, though some of the principles are actually about self-compassion, mindfulness, and healthy exercise.
Dozens of studies have found benefits of intuitive eating.
A 2013 literature review of 26 articles found that intuitive eating is correlated with lower BMI, better mental health, and possible better eating habits (though not with higher exercise). The review also found that people who used intuitive eating tend to maintain their weight better and may have better physical health indicators aside from BMI (like cholesterol levels and blood pressure).
A 2016 review of adult women's behavior found that intuitive eating was correlated with reduced dieting and disordered eating habits. It was also associated with improved body image and emotional functioning.
A 2017 review noted that while observational studies showed unanimously positive associations with intuitive eating, it is still an "emerging topic" and further research should more carefully analyze how it impacts behavior.
The approach has a few minor limitations.
Eating too quickly may result in someone not realizing that they are full, and thus they may accidentally overeat.
How to eat, not what to eat
Intuitive eating encourages you to eat when you need to, but it doesn't say what part of the fridge you should look at. It doesn't offer much guidance about what to eat (besides perhaps the common sense feeling "if you're craving a certain nutrient such as salt or protein, it might mean that you're low on it").
Deciding what to eat when you're hungry should be based on:
- What you enjoy eating
- Any changes you want to make (like eating more vegetables)
- Common sense
- Your doctor's advice
Intuitive eating doesn't offer much guidance here, so rely on good sense and what your doctor tells you.[note 1]
Food quality does affect appetite
According to research, feeling full isn't just affected by how much you ate, but whether you've gotten quality nutrients. Thus, you can go through a whole bag of chips and still feel hungry, because your body hasn't gotten enough decent nutrients.
If you want to practice healthy eating habits, we recommend that you pair intuitive eating practices with nutritious food choices. Talk to a doctor if you have questions or concerns.
People with conditions that impair interoception[note 2] may not be able to accurately sense hunger and fullness. For example, one autistic young woman reported that she once accidentally became underweight and would experience health problems because she couldn't always recognize when she needed to eat. Intuitive eating doesn't work if your "intuition" is broken.
People in earlier stages of eating disorder recovery may also struggle with interoception and thus might not be ready for complete intuitive eating yet.
In cases of impaired interoception, it may be necessary to develop common-sense habits like following a meal routine even if the person doesn't notice any hunger and calculating portions so that they are large enough.
Since people with eating disorders may struggle with interoception problems in addition to disordered habits, they are typically started with a structured meal plan and then eased into intuitive eating once they are ready for it.
- When in doubt, we recommend eating your favorite vegetable. (Not your least favorite vegetable.)
- "Interoception" is the ability to interpret bodily cues like hunger, sleepiness, and need to use the restroom.
- Size Acceptance and Intuitive Eating Improve Health for Obese, Female Chronic Dieters
- Review Article Relationships between intuitive eating and health indicators: Literature review by Nina Van Dyke (2003) Public Health Nutrition 17(08):1-10. doi:10.1017/S1368980013002139.
- Intuitive Eating in Eating Disorder Recovery - Eating Disorder Hope
- About Us Intuitive Eating Pros.
- 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating
- Intuitive Eating Studies Intuitive Eating Pros.
- A systematic review of the psychosocial correlates of intuitive eating among adult women
- A structured literature review on the role of mindfulness, mindful eating and intuitive eating in changing eating behaviours: effectiveness and associated potential mechanisms
- Ultra-processed foods appear to cause overeating and weight gain, Harvard
- Ultra-Processed foods delay satiety, increase food intake and weight gain
- Here's Why You Don't Feel Full After Eating Junk Food, Huffington Post
- Counterintuitive Eating - Autistic Dreams
- The Application of Intuitive Eating Principles in Eating Disorder Recovery
- Intuitive eating in eating disorder recovery - Rachael Hartley