Want to stop tracking every morsel that you ingest, set aside all the rules you’ve memorized about what to eat or avoid, and develop a healthy, sustainable relationship with food? Intuitive eating, a non-diet approach to nutrition, may help you learn to interact positively with food while maintaining a healthy weight, without stress or food guilt. The key is becoming attuned to your body’s hunger and satiation signals, rather than eating on a set schedule or following a specific diet.
“We are all born intuitive eaters—babies and young children will typically eat when they are hungry and stop eating when they are full,” says Vandana Sheth, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a California-based registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in intuitive eating. “As we get older, we go through experiences of food rules, restrictions, distractions, and gradually may get away from paying attention to our body’s signals.”
Should you consider this non-diet approach to eating? Here’s what to expect:
How to eat intuitively
Many adults eat just because it’s mealtime, they’ve met a friend for coffee, someone baked their favorite dessert, or they’re bored, tired, or upset. They may continue eating after they’re full because they don’t recognize feelings of fullness, they’re accustomed to finishing everything on their plate, they don’t want to rudely leave homemade food unfinished, or they’re enjoying something that they normally don’t allow themselves to have.
With intuitive eating, you only eat when you’re hungry, and you stop when you’re satisfied. You can eat any food any time of the day: No foods are considered better or worse than others, even those you’d previously considered “bad.”
“Eating intuitively is definitely different than the typical diet strategies that we often use,” says Natalie Keirns, an intuitive eating researcher and clinical psychology doctoral candidate at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. “Because of that, it could be difficult to adjust or adapt to and require a bit of a recalibration of how we think about food.”
An adjustment period
If you’re having trouble recognizing your hunger and satiation signals or you’re plagued by deeply ingrained feelings of food guilt, it may take a while to embrace intuitive eating.
“When we have avoided/banned specific foods from our diets for a long time and you suddenly are open to it, there may be a period where you overindulge,” Sheth says. “The long-term deprivation is what often leads to uncontrollable cravings and guilt that goes with overeating. [But] once you make peace with food, knowing that you can have it anytime, you will be able to truly listen to your body’s signals for hunger, satiety, and satisfaction.”
You’ll learn to recognize the difference between hunger and cravings. “If you are only hungry for one specific food, that might be a craving,” Keirns says. “Also, cravings tend to rise and fall over a relatively short period, so if you’re experiencing a craving, try distracting yourself for 10 to 15 minutes and see whether that food is still on your mind.”
You’ll also learn to incorporate joyful movement (enjoyable regular physical activity) into your lifestyle and get better at coming up with kinder ways to manage your emotions and side-step non-hungry eating.
Research has shown that traditional dieting may be harmful, and it’s often ineffective. But intuitive eating is not a diet, and recognizing your internal cues for hunger and fullness may be a better option. Research has shown that intuitive eating is associated with a more positive body image, greater body appreciation, and higher self-esteem.
“My work has found that higher levels of intuitive eating are most strongly associated with more positive body image in those with a BMI in the normal range,” says Keirns, an author of the body-image study. “I have found that eating intuitively is typically associated with lower BMI levels, [and] my research suggests that individuals who eat intuitively may be less likely to develop overweight or obesity and may be more likely to feel good about their bodies.”
Other research has shown that people who practice intuitive eating are more likely to maintain a stable weight, as opposed to gaining, losing, or weight-cycling.
“This finding likely does not include individuals who transfer from a restrictive approach to intuitive eating,” says study author Tracy Tylka, PhD, professor of psychology at the Ohio State University in Columbus and Marion. “For the general person, we cannot predict whether their weight will increase, decrease, or stay the same when they transition to intuitive eating. It depends on a lot of biological, psychological, and environmental factors.”
Intuitive eating is a healthy mind-body approach to nutrition, and it may help you to change your relationship with food. Some people may lose weight by eating intuitively, but it’s not intended as a weight-loss method. “Intuitive eating is not a weight-focused approach,” Tylka says. “Benefits of transitioning to intuitive eating are for well-being rather than weight change/maintenance/loss.”
“People who are obese may experience dysregulated hunger and satiety signals, which may make intuitive eating difficult,” Keirns says. But with practice, the more you learn to stop, breathe, slow down, and listen to your body, the easier it will get.
In the Fitbit app tap Discover, and under the Guided Programs tap the Eat Healthy filter at the top, and you’ll find the Mindful Eating program. It’s a seven-day program in which you get daily audio guidance from a mindful eating coach, and learn how to eat intuitively one meal and one bite at a time. If you need further assistance, consider meeting with a registered dietitian who’s trained and certified in intuitive eating.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.