Intuitive Eating

Last Updated: August 31, 2023

Intuitive eating is an eating strategy that involves using the body’s physiological hunger and satiety cues, as opposed to emotional or societal cues, to guide food intake.

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What is intuitive eating?

The intuitive eating (IE) approach was invented in 1995 by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, who defined intuitive eating and its principles in their first book.[1]

IE is a weight-neutral self-care framework that includes an approach to eating that focuses on becoming attuned to the body’s physical and emotional sensations, particularly related to hunger, fullness, and eating behaviors. IE is based on the idea that eating in alignment with the body’s needs and internal cues, rather than following restrictive diets or being overly cautious with food choices, will naturally lead to a healthier and positive relationship with food.[1]

Tribole and Resch believe that diet culture, defined as a set of beliefs that prioritize achieving specific body shapes and sizes through rigid eating over physical and mental health, is detrimental to both the body (due to the constant yo-yo weight fluctuations between diets) and the mind (due to the feelings of guilt associated with eating certain foods), among other issues. They explain that the IE approach works by helping people become less strict and feel less guilty or anxious when making food choices.[1]

What are intuitive eating’s main benefits?

IE appears to be positively associated with positive body image, self-esteem, and overall well-being and inversely associated with body weight, disordered eating behaviors, eating disorder psychopathology, and symptoms of anxiety and depression. However, no significant association with stress has been noted.[2]

The IE approach has shown mixed results for reducing BMI and weight in people with obesity, potentially due to the heterogeneity of the study designs and methodologies employed, as well as the low compliance rate.[3][4]

Furthermore, a meta-analysis reported positive scores on the intuitive eating scale (IES) after IE interventions. Preliminary evidence also suggests that IE interventions may have positive effects on various mental health outcomes, including improvements in quality of life, body image, and body appreciation.[5]

Various IE studies also revealed that diet quality appears to be either maintained or improved after the intervention.[6]

What are intuitive eating’s main drawbacks?

According to one systematic review and meta-analysis, negative outcomes were not reported when evaluating the outcomes of the IE approach.[5]

It’s important to note that IE is not suitable for people affected by anorexia nervosa who are following a mechanical eating (or structured eating) approach as part of their treatment for weight restoration. This is because their hunger and fullness cues are often altered due to disordered eating. In this case, a more structured eating schedule may be more appropriate.[7]

How does intuitive eating work?

According to the research, IE works by promoting body appreciation and respect for body diversity. IE encourages a shift from self-criticism to heightened self-esteem, self-compassion, and body acceptance. This process enhances body-image flexibility (the ability to manage body-related thoughts and feelings without impulsive action) and reduces body dissatisfaction. As a consequence, the drive to diet for specific goals (e.g., weight loss) diminishes, rigid restraints lessen, and unconditional permission to eat grows. IE also works by training people’s interoceptive awareness (attunement to internal cues) and uses emotional regulation strategies to promote eating based on physical needs, rather than emotional needs, which leads to decreased symptoms of anxiety and depression.[2][5]

Furthermore, the IE approach does not impose the requirement to eat specific foods that are deemed healthy (e.g., fruits, vegetables, fish). Instead, it provides nutritional education, support, and guidance regarding the health benefits of trying out new foods and encourages the practice of gentle nutrition. This incorporates nutrition knowledge with experience based on how foods make people feel both physically and emotionally.[1]

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Update History
  1. ^Evelyn Tribole et al.Intuitive Eating, 4th Edition: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach(2020)
  2. ^Jake Linardon, Tracy L Tylka, Matthew Fuller-TyszkiewiczIntuitive eating and its psychological correlates: A meta-analysisInt J Eat Disord.(2021 Jul)
  3. ^Campos MB, Menezes IHCF, Peixoto MDRG, Schincaglia RMIntuitive eating in general aspects of eating behaviors in individuals with obesity: Randomized clinical trial.Clin Nutr ESPEN.(2022-Aug)
  4. ^Nina Van Dyke, Eric J DrinkwaterRelationships between intuitive eating and health indicators: literature reviewPublic Health Nutr.(2014 Aug)
  5. ^Babbott KM, Cavadino A, Brenton-Peters J, Consedine NS, Roberts MOutcomes of intuitive eating interventions: a systematic review and meta-analysis.Eat Disord.(2023)
  6. ^Hensley-Hackett K, Bosker J, Keefe A, Reidlinger D, Warner M, D'Arcy A, Utter JIntuitive Eating Intervention and Diet Quality in Adults: A Systematic Literature Review.J Nutr Educ Behav.(2022-Dec)
  7. ^Tribole E.xxxperspectives.(2010)
  8. ^Burnette CB, Mazzeo SEAn uncontrolled pilot feasibility trial of an intuitive eating intervention for college women with disordered eating delivered through group and guided self-help modalities.Int J Eat Disord.(2020-Sep)
  9. ^Robison JHealth at every size: toward a new paradigm of weight and health.MedGenMed.(2005-Jul-12)
  10. ^Quansah DY, Schenk S, Gilbert L, Arhab A, Gross J, Marques-Vidal PM, Gonzalez Rodriguez E, Hans D, Horsch A, Puder JJIntuitive Eating Behavior, Diet Quality and Metabolic Health in the Postpartum in Women with Gestational Diabetes.Nutrients.(2022-Oct-13)
  11. ^How to Have a Healthy Relationship with Food(2018-08-02)