OK, What Does 'Intuitive Eating' Actually Mean?

Spend time scrolling through TikTok and Instagram, and you may find yourself getting whiplash. Just when it seemed like we were ditching diet culture and embracing all sizes, it seems like new weight loss "techniques" are popping up all over the place.

But in between discussions about Goop's latest tricks and fad diets, there might be some helpful advice.

Intuitive eating, coined in 1995, has more than 2 million hashtags on Instagram. Research has indicated that it can improve physical (lower cholesterol, weight maintenance but not necessarily loss) and mental health (more positive body image and self-esteem) outcomes.

But diet/eating/wellness terms are a dime a dozen. It's hard to keep track. So, what is intuitive eating? Let's dig in.

Intuitive Eating Meaning

As the term implies, intuitive eating means trusting your body when it tells you you're hungry and eating. You also trust yourself when you're full and stop, rejecting the idea that you must finish what you put on your plate. It's a stark departure from diets, which often emphasize "rules" and "restrictions." No food is off-limits when eating intuitively. It follows 10 principles:

  1. Reject diet mentality

  2. Honor your hunger

  3. Make peace with food

  4. Challenge the food police

  5. Discover satisfaction

  6. Feel your fullness

  7. Cope with your emotions with kindness

  8. Respect your body

  9. Movement

  10. Honor your health with gentle nutrition

Related: The Mediterranean Diet Could Lower Heart Disease Risk in Women, According to a New Study 

What Is an Example of Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive eating is an important topic, so we're going to give several practical examples.

  • Your partner is making you dinner—but it's running way late, and you are so hungry, you're "hangry." To satiate yourself, you grab an apple and peanut butter.

  • You went for a second helping of mashed potatoes guilt-free. Halfway through, you feel full. You stop eating. When Aunt Meryl reminds you to clean your plate, you tell her you're full and pivot to discussing the weather.

  • You generally eat a plant-based diet because it makes you feel good. But what's Thanksgiving without turkey? You gobble down the traditional bird with joy.

Where You Might Hear Intuitive Eating

Discussions of food and eating habits can happen anywhere. Some common places you might hear about intuitive eating:

  • Clinical settings. Given the many benefits, a doctor, dietician or therapist may suggest intuitive eating instead of a fad diet.

  • Research. For example, a 2021 meta-analysis found an association between intuitive eating and a positive body image and well-being.

  • Social media. Social media is a hub of advice on pretty much anything, for better or worse. Always discuss dietary/eating concerns with a licensed healthcare provider, be it for physical or mental health.

  • .Family and friends. Eating habits can seep into daily discussions with loved ones. Remember, you can always opt out of these discussions and set boundaries.

Related: 35 Phrases to Set Boundaries

Where Did Intuitive Eating Come From?

Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch coined the term in their 1995 book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach. Unfortunately, eating when you were hungry and respecting your body was considered radical in the 1990s, when "heroin chic" was (again, unfortunately) considered ideal.

Terms Similar to Intuitive Eating

Terms similar to or commonly used when discussing intuitive eating include:

  • Mindful eating. Sometimes confused with intuitive eating, which is more about eating when you're hungry, mindful eating involves using mindfulness techniques when eating. You want to minimize distractions (like a TV) and savor the food's taste and texture.

  • Anti-diet movement. Intuitive eating is considered a part of the anti-diet movement, which seeks to focus on a full person and not the number on the scale.

  • Diet culture. The idea the anti-diet movement is pushing back on. Diet culture is about restrictions and considers thinness ideal.

  • Binge eating. This term is used to describe chronic, uncontrolled eating. Binge Eating Disorder can interfere with a person's physical and mental well-being, and people struggling with it deserve compassionate care.

  • Intuitive fasting. This term got used in a Goop newsletter, and Tribole and Resch weren't fans of the idea. “I intuitively fast when I’m sleeping,” Resch quipped in a New York Times interview.

Next up: Can Intuitive Eating Work for Diabetes?