Eat when hungry and stop when full. That's intuitive eating in a nutshell.
And yes, there's wisdom in keeping things simple and listening to your body. Fewer restrictions can mean a more relaxed relationship with food.
But intuitive eating isn't ideal for everyone. For instance, should you ignore calories and carbs if you want to benefit from a Keto diet? Probably not.
We'll drill into the pros and cons of intuitive eating soon. But first, let's cover the basics.
What Is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating means listening to your body to guide dietary choices. When you practice intuitive eating, you scorn the concept of "dieting" and simply eat your fill.
Beyond minding your appetite, you don't restrict yourself. You eat when peckish and stop when comfortably full.
Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch coined the term in their 1995 book, Intuitive Eating. We'll be discussing the construal of this eating pattern today.
Intuitive Eating Principles
In their book, Tribole and Resch offer ten principles for intuitive eating. Here are those principles, paraphrased:
- Eschew diets. Reject the notion that dieting can help you achieve your health goals.
- Eat when moderately hungry. Waiting until you're ravenous prompts overeating.
- Don't restrict foods. Permit yourself to eat what you want.
- Don't moralize eating habits. No food is "wrong" to eat. Reject these thoughts.
- Take pleasure in food. You don't need massive portions to feel rewarded.
- Stop when full. Monitor your satiety while eating and put down the fork when hunger dissipates.
- Food won't fix emotions. Deal with emotional issues separately.
- Accept your body. You only have one body, and it needn't conform to a societal stereotype.
- Stay active. Keep moving all day, but don't stress over exercise routines.
- Eat what makes you feel good. Eat foods you enjoy and don't worry if junk food occasionally creeps in.
To condense intuitive eating to three principles: eat when hungry, stop when full, and don't restrict yourself. There you have it.
Potential Benefits of Intuitive Eating
Whether or not you subscribe to the complete doctrine of Tribole and Resch, it's hard to argue against listening to your body.
Respecting hunger and fullness makes sense. These are crucial signals that your body needs (or doesn't need) nutrition.
Hormones regulate this system. When you eat, hunger hormones like ghrelin fall, and satiety hormones like leptin rise.[*] These hormonal shifts help prevent overeating.
People also find it easy to practice intuitive eating.[*] After all, there are zero dietary restrictions.
But do people actually benefit from intuitive eating? Let's see what the research says.
In one review, researchers analyzed 26 studies on intuitive eating.[*] (Eight of these studies were randomized controlled trials (RCTs), the gold standard of science.) The RCTs suggested intuitive eating may help with:
- Weight maintenance
- Mental health
- Health markers like blood pressure and cholesterol
- Food regulation (i.e., less overeating)
Some Problems With Intuitive Eating
It's hard to argue against listening to your body, but perhaps it's not the only principle you need when seeking health.
Take hunger. Hunger is a physical urge—yes—but it's also a psychological one.
You might get hungry because you're stressed. Or because you smell something yummy. Or because you see a commercial with french fries.
Tribole and Resch suggest fixing emotions separately, but good luck with that when there’s a pint of ice cream in the freezer after a frantic day of work.
In fact, your body may lead you astray. Why do you think snack food companies pay millions to food scientists? They're paid to create the most hyper-palatable frankenfood possible.
When To Follow a More Structured Approach
Intuitive eating won't work for everyone. If you have specific health goals or considerations, you may struggle with this laissez-faire approach to dieting.
There is evidence, however, that tracking food intake leads to significantly more weight loss than the alternative.[*] (Two times more!) No special diet required.
Then you have the Keto diet, an eating pattern well-documented to promote weight loss in obese populations and those with type 2 diabetes.[*][*][*] Success on Keto requires systematically limiting your carbs. It breaks at least three intuitive eating commandments.
If you want the potential benefits of ketosis (weight loss, hunger management, mental clarity, etc.), you need to mind your macros. And if you're following Keto for therapeutic reasons (epilepsy, cancer, autism, neurodegenerative disease), limiting your carbs is even more critical.
Whether or not you dabble with Keto, tracking meals provides motivation and accountability to eat better. When you know you have to log that second piece of cake, you'll settle for one piece instead.
Should You Practice Intuitive Eating?
Listening to your body is a solid life strategy. It's always wise to mind your satiety signals.
But should you roundly reject diets? Should you be unconditionally permissive towards food?
It depends. Intuitive eating might work if you get proper nutrition through whole foods and are comfortable with health maintenance. But if you have specific health goals—to lose weight, to improve your digestion, to manage certain health conditions—you may benefit from more structure.
And remember: even if you pursue a structured diet, don't neglect the wisdom of the body. Find a balance between structure and intuition. That's the path to sustainable success.