How to eat in a healthier and happier way with the principles of intuitive eating

How to Eat Healthier and Happier: 10 Basic Principles of Intuitive Eating

Meagan McCrary
Updated: 
November 12, 2020

Intuitive eating is a philosophy, and evidence-based approach to eating that makes you the expert of your own body, helping you get back in touch with your body’s natural signals around food. 

Developed by two dieticians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, in 1995, intuitive eating has recently gained mainstream popularity as the “anti-diet”—a proven happier and healthier way to eat (backed by more than 100 studies to date). Rather than promoting the endless pursuit of thinness, the program focuses on lifestyle changes and self-care, teaching people how to accept and respect their bodies while developing a healthy relationship with food. 

Learning to return to eating intuitively—as you did during babyhood—is a deeply personal and dynamic journey. The 10 basic principles of intuitive eating are meant to serve as a framework, gently guiding you back to a natural way of eating. 

Taken at your own pace, the principles (not rules!) work in concert together, helping you re-establish a trusting relationship with your body as you begin to let go of all of the dieting tips, tricks, and rules you’ve picked up along the way.

How to Eat Intuitively: 10 Core Principles 

1. Reject the Diet Mentality 

The first and founding principle of intuitive eating is to reject the diet mentality—i.e., the mindset that if you could just find and stick to the “right” diet, then you would finally be able to lose weight easily and keep it off. While dieting tends to work short term, research has shown that dieting isn’t sustainable and that the weight lost (plus some) comes back within two to five years. The paradigm is inherently flawed. 

Diet mentality traps you in cycles of weight loss and gains that all too often lead to feelings of guilt and shame. Rather than holding onto the belief and hope that the next diet will be the one that works for you, intuitive eating is about wholly rejecting the diet mentality along with society’s toxic diet culture that tirelessly promotes weight loss and the endless pursuit to be thin.  

2. Honor Your Hunger

The principles of intuitive eating to honor your body's biological hunger cues

This principle is about learning how to keep your body fed and fueled with adequate energy and carbohydrates throughout the day. Not only does your body deserve and need to be fed sufficiently to function at its best, but ignoring your body’s biological hunger signals and limiting your food intake can also trigger a primal drive to overeat and make more impulsive choices around food. 

Learning to honor your hunger is also about getting back in touch with your body’s unique and subtler hunger cues after years of suppressing hunger through dieting and food restrictions. Giving your body what it needs when it needs it is the foundation for rebuilding a healthy, trusting relationship with your body and food.  

3. Make Peace with Food 

Making peace means no more “bad” foods, no more restrictions, and, ultimately, no more binges. The third principle of intuitive eating is about giving yourself unconditional permission to eat (and enjoy!) any and all foods. 

Forbidding certain foods often triggers intense feelings of deprivation that amplify into stronger, often uncontrollable cravings until all you want and can think about is the food you can’t have. So you binge, emotionally overeating while hardly enjoying it, followed by feelings of guilt and shame, and the promise to never do it again. Only to do it again. 

Learning how to make peace with food helps take away the emotional charge associated with once forbidden foods, helping curb binges. It allows you to truly enjoy whatever you’re eating when you’re eating it without feeling guilty after. 

4. Challenge the Food Police 

It’s time to rebel against that nagging internal voice constantly monitoring what you’re eating, deeming you “good” when you eat certain “acceptable” foods and “bad” when you eat junk food/dessert/sugar/carbs/etc. The food police lurk in your subconscious, overseeing all of the unreasonable dieting rules you’ve internalized over the years, shouting negative, hopeless comments and guilt-provoking criticisms when you’ve broken one. It’s nearly impossible to have a normal, healthy relationship with food when the food police are present on the scene. They’ve got to go. 

5. Discover the Satisfaction Factor 

How to eat intuitively whatever you most desire in order to be satisfied and enjoy your food

When we don’t allow ourselves to eat what we desire, we end up eating more, regardless of how full we actually are. More often than not, we end up binging on the foods that we weren’t “supposed” to eat while experiencing varying degrees of guilt and shame. 

When you give yourself permission to eat whatever you want and truly enjoy it, the pleasure and satisfaction derived from the experience leave you feeling more content, as if you’ve had “enough” sooner. The more content you are, the less likely you’ll be to overindulge. Discovering the satisfaction factor is about allowing yourself to enjoy one of life’s main pleasures, ultimately transforming your experience of eating and relationship to food. 

6. Feel Your Fullness

A large part of intuitive eating is getting back in touch with your body’s unique hunger and satiation cues, giving yourself permission to eat as desired, and honoring your fullness in return. It’s easier to honor your fullness when you trust that you will honor your hunger when it’s time and no longer deprive yourself of the foods you desire.  

To honor your fullness, you’ve got to become aware of when you feel full. While eating, pay attention to the way your body feels. Listen for physical signals and sensations that indicate you’re approaching fullness, as well as when you feel full and satisfied. Allow direct feedback to determine when you choose to stop eating. 

7. Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness—Not Food 

The majority of us can relate to emotional eating (i.e., comforting, distracting, or numbing ourselves with food when uncomfortable emotions arise). Whether bored, lonely, angry, sad, stressed, or upset, it’s not uncommon to eat when you’re not physically hungry. 

And while emotional eating isn’t inherently bad, it isn’t always helpful, especially if it’s the only coping mechanism you have. To make matters worse, emotional eating often elicits feelings of guilt and shame, triggering more emotional eating. We’ve got to be kinder to ourselves. Developing a variety of positive coping skills, and finding healthy ways to process and address difficult emotions is an important part of intuitive eating.  

8. Respect Your Body 

Learning to accept and respect your body is a fundamental tenet of intuitive eating, which can be difficult when immersed in a diet culture that attributes thinness to worthiness. Truth be told, we all have different bone structures and body shapes, and shouldn’t force ourselves to fit into a mold that doesn’t belong to us. 

Treat your body with the dignity all bodies deserve. Stop rejecting and abusing your body for not being the size and shape it’s not meant to be. Respecting your body is about learning to accept and appreciate the body that you have and all of the wonderful things it does for you. 

9. Practice Exercise and Yoga: Feel the Difference 

Tips for practicing yoga in Warrior II pose (Virabhadrasana II) and all exercise mindfully

Stop forcing yourself to adhere to militant exercise and grueling workout routines to burn calories. Start moving because it feels good. Movement nourishes the body (and mind), making you feel better. It is meant to be enjoyed. Practicing yoga is an excellent way to move your body, and calm your mind. Start doing more of the activities you enjoy and notice the difference in how you feel. Shift your focus away from losing weight, and incorporate more physical activity for the sake of feeling good. 

10. Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition 

Gentle nutrition is all about being flexible, permissive, and forgiving rather than rigid and restrictive. You don’t have to eat perfectly to be healthy. It’s about balance, taking a look at the larger picture of what you’re eating over time. This means focusing not on one snack, one meal, or even one day, but the consistency of what you eat overall. In the end, you want to eat foods that are tasty, satisfying, and make you feel good. 

 

Julie Gudmestad, Yoga teacher, Yoga therapist, practicing safe inversions in yoga, Yoga and Anatomy, Yoga and Anatomy-based alignment

Read this companion article also from Megan McCrary - Yogic Wisdom: How to Make Peace with Food.

Meagan McCraryMeagan McCrary is an experienced yoga teacher and writer with a passion for helping people find more comfort, clarity, compassion, and joy on the mat and in their lives. She is the author of Pick Your Yoga Practice: Exploring and Understanding Different Styles of Yoga a comprehensive encyclopedia of prominent yoga styles, including each system’s teaching methodology, elements of practice, philosophical and spiritual underpinnings, class structure, physical exertion, and personal attention. Currently living in Los Angeles, Meagan teaches at the various Equinox Sports Clubs, works privately with clients, and leads retreats internationally. You can find her blog, teaching schedule, and latest offerings at www.MeaganMcCrary.com.