What Does Intuitive Eating Really Mean?

Jenny Weinar breaks down the increasingly popular approach to food.

intuitive eating

Intuitive eating has become a popular food framework lately. Body-positive therapist Jenny Weinar explains what it entails. / Photograph courtesy of Getty Images

Jenny Weinar is a Philly-based body positive psychotherapist and certified yoga teacher who’s passionate about helping clients struggling with disordered eating, chronic dieting, over-exercising and weight preoccupation find their way home to their bodies. This is the eighth of a series of posts that will (hopefully!) help our readers do the same. Read Weinar on Be Well every other Tuesday.

With a $72 billion weight loss industry, there’s no shortage of diet plans to fuel our cultural obsession with thinness. And, in the age of social media, it’s easier than ever to share and spread information on the latest nutritional fad. Despite the reality that the majority of dieters will regain weight lost and research suggesting weight cycling itself might have adverse health effects, dieting has become a way of life for many. It’s not too surprising, therefore, that the intuitive eating movement has gotten some attention — and what I believe to be misinterpretation — with its reemergence in recent years.

Intuitive eating is comprised of 10 principles, outlined in the eponymous book by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, which is now in its third edition. One of the most common misconceptions around intuitive eating is that it’s just another diet. In fact, the very first principle is “reject the diet mentality.” As such, the framework adamantly rejects intentional weight loss and food rules. (I’m looking at you, Whole30). The other principles, including “make peace with food,” “honor your hunger,” and “discover the satisfaction factor,” offer a pathway to tune in to one’s own bodily sensations and tastes. 

I spoke with Diana Marlin, an “anti-diet” dietitian based in Center City, who helps clients ditch dieting and cultivate a peaceful relationship with food based on their own internal cues and personal preferences. Marlin, who employs the intuitive eating approach, often prompts clients to ask themselves, “How would I eat if instead of focusing on the number on the scale, I shifted my focus to gently nourishing myself both physically and emotionally?” “When we make that shift, it’s amazing how our relationship with food changes,” she says. “Instead of food being the enemy, it becomes a valuable tool for self-care.” Marlin also supports many clients diagnosed with a medical condition and prescribed dietary restrictions in learning to incorporate the principles of intuitive eating alongside those medically necessary dietary modifications.

Embracing both the nutritive and emotional qualities of food is integral to this practice. That’s right, emotional eating isn’t demonized with this approach. Dalina Soto, another Philly-area dietitian who eschews diet culture, explains, “Food is so much more than just calories—it is pleasurable and nostalgic. We celebrate with food and we mourn with food. There isn’t a culture that does not have foods for all life events.” It’s when food becomes our only tool to cope with unwanted or negative emotions that this signals an underlying issue.

While the Intuitive Eating principles do incorporate the concepts of hunger and fullness, its proponents are clear that this isn’t the “hunger/fullness diet.” Within this framework, it’s OK to eat when you aren’t hungry. Maybe you take an early lunch knowing that you won’t have time to eat later in the day, at which point you’ll be starving. Or perhaps you feel satisfied with your dinner but have been wanting ice cream all day, so instead of trying to push down that craving, which will likely only intensify it, you enjoy a cone of your favorite flavor and go on with your life. 

Sometimes you also might intentionally not eat to the point of fullness, which is fine so long as this doesn’t come from a restrictive mindset. If your dinner reservation is at 7 but you’re feeling peckish at 5:30, you might have a snack that takes the edge off without filling you up entirely so you can still enjoy your meal. Furthermore, the simplistic concept of eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full ignores the reality of food scarcity and is unrealistic for large segments of the population.

Intuitive eating promotes experimentation with food and a letting go of expectations about what, when, how, or why we “should” eat. This includes breaking some of wellness culture’s biggest rules. Soto, who grew up in a Dominican home, says, “For me, brown rice is not a substitution for white rice. Brown rice doesn’t remind me of my family and our dishes wouldn’t be the same with it. It’s just not worth the substitution for an extra gram of fiber.” For many of her clients, and many of those I work with on healing their relationship to food and body who have come to take these “healthy” food rules as gospel, this permission to eat for pleasure (or just to eat, period) is radical.

The most common fear expressed by people trying out intuitive eating for the first time is that they will start eating their “forbidden” foods and never stop. Often, this is code for a fear of weight gain rooted in fatphobia. But given that a diet consisting solely of any one food would be unhealthy — be it cake or kale — it’s worth noting that this fear of binging on certain foods isn’t the experience of most intuitive eaters. In the beginning you might gravitate toward those foods and eat them in larger quantities. But with consistent, unconditional permission to eat anything, you will eventually rebuild your body’s trust that it won’t be restricted again and likely settle in to a more balanced way of eating. True, your body might change in the process. Weight gain might be a sign you were maintaining an artificially low weight for your body. You’ll have to determine that for yourself.

The key is to remember that you always have a choice and to remove the moral associations with food. By inviting curiosity rather than judgment throughout the process, you can begin to get in tune with how certain foods feel for your body and soul and choose accordingly. Not only will intuitive eating look different for everyone, but it will vary day to day based on your body’s unique and changing needs. If you’re interested in exploring intuitive eating and healing your relationship with food, you might consider working with a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor or other Health at Every Size professional.