Erm, so what is intuitive eating and how do you do it?

intuitive eating
So, what is intuitive eating and how do you do it?Maskot Bildbyrå - Getty Images

From the (sometimes-useful, sometimes-not) health and fitness hacks that frequently take over our TikTok feed to the all-too-familiar 'how to get your summer body' adverts that return to TV screens every spring, it's hard not to be sucked into the mentality that you need to go on a diet for diet's sake – often made all the harder when celebrities are promoting weight loss left, right and centre.

It's why so many experts are urging people to let go of toxic diet culture and embrace healthier lifestyle choices, like intuitive eating. And thankfully, this seems to be catching on – in fact, the intuitive eating hashtag on TikTok currently has 1.8 billion views, and counting.

So, what actually is intuitive eating? What are the benefits of intuitive eating? And, most importantly, how the heck do you do it? To find out the answers to those very questions, we spoke to Lisa Simon, a registered dietitian who works with the NHS, the Care Quality Commission and Plant Based Health Professionals.

What is intuitive eating?

"Intuitive eating is an anti-diet approach to eating which focuses on listening to your body's hunger cues and honouring what your body wants to eat without worrying about whether that particular food is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, thereby eating without guilt," explains Simon.

What are the main principles of intuitive eating?

Honour hunger

"Unlike the traditional 'diet', intuitive eating is about listening to your body's hunger and fullness cues rather than restricting, which can lead to urges to overeat," the expert tells us. "It steps away from labelling foods as 'good' or 'bad' and encourages you to eat what your body is telling you it needs."

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Recognise fullness

"This is [just] as important as honouring hunger as it helps you realise when you are satisfied," says Simon. "Paying attention to how you are feeling as you are eating, how the food is tasting and assessing your current hunger levels will help you to recognise when you are full."

She adds: "The commonly stated 'you need to clear your plate' goes against this principle and teaches you to continue to eat even when you are full. This is not intuitive eating."

Reject diet mentality

"Intuitive eating teaches you to eat what your body needs in the moment, rather than purposely rejecting what it needs because you are worried about the food's perceived effects on your body, how many calories it contains and whether it is 'healthy'," Simon explains. "Intuitive eating encourages you to really listen to your body and make food choices based on hunger and what you actually feel like eating rather than what you think you should eat."

Make peace with food

"So often, many foods are demonised," the expert notes. "Intuitive eating teaches that no food is out of bounds and that all food can be enjoyed with unconditional permission. This is a really important principle as seeing all food as equal removes the moral value."

Discover the satisfaction factor

"Eating should be a pleasurable and joyful experience and food is so much more than fuel," the expert emphasises. "It is a way of celebrating, of getting together with friends and family, of reviving childhood nostalgia. Recognising food as having all of these really positive attachments means recognising the enjoyment and fun that food brings."

What are the benefits of intuitive eating?

"There are many health benefits to intuitive eating," Simon tells us.

One such benefit is improved digestion and management of gastrointestinal conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome. "This is because you learn to eat when you are hungry so avoiding long gaps in-between meals which can exacerbate symptoms such as bloating and flatulence," she notes. "You also learn to recognise fullness so you avoid overeating which again exacerbates symptoms."

intuitive eating what is intuitive eating and how do you do it
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Another health benefit of intuitive eating is reduced stress levels. "When you practice intuitive eating you are focusing on enjoying your food and practicing mindful eating rather than focusing on calories and what you perceive to be negative effects on your body," Simon says. "You are not over-analysing every time you eat and this results in a calmer approach to meal times, reduced anxiety and a happier mind and body. This then leads to improved self-esteem and awareness of your body."

Are there any downsides to intuitive eating?

"Some people can really struggle with intuitive eating initially, especially if they have been following mainstream diets for a long time where they have become used to completely overriding their hunger and fullness cues," Simon points out. "I would advise anyone who is new to intuitive eating to see a registered dietitian who has experience in the area for some initial support and guidance."

Can intuitive eating help you lose weight?

"[Intuitive eating] can help you to lose weight but this is not what intuitive eating is all about," stresses Simon. "Rather, it is a weight-neutral approach to health which means that instead of focusing on calories and numbers on the scales it focuses on healthy behaviours."

Focussing on these healthy behaviours "is what promotes health, not a specific weight," Simon says. "[This] is why intuitive eating is never about achieving a target weight."

"After all we do not know what weight we are supposed to be as we are all different," she adds. "So aiming for a specific number is not helpful. What is helpful is trusting your body to regulate and eat what it needs."

How to eat intuitively

The first step when it comes to intuitive eating is getting in tune with your body. "Listen to your hunger cues and eat when you feel hungry, but importantly eat what you really feel like eating rather than what you think you should eat," Simon advises.

"For example, you may really feel like eating a slice of cake but your head is telling you to eat an apple because this is 'healthier'. However, you are unlikely to feel satisfied because your body did not want an apple, it wanted cake. Conversely if your body is telling you it wants a crunchy apple or a delicious salad then go ahead and eat those foods."

To that end, Simon says: "Try to avoid seeing foods in a positive or negative light. Food is food and all is equal. Removing these labels creates a more positive relationship with food and reduces the risk of a disordered relationship with food."

intuitive eating what is intuitive eating and how do you do it

As well as this, Simon says it's important to "distinguish physical hunger from negative emotions."

"It is very common to try and numb emotions with food and while this is okay every now and then, it is not something that will benefit us long-term," she explains. "It can be really challenging to recognise our feelings and try to work through them and much easier to ignore them and stick our heads in the sand while using food as a way of coping with those emotions. However, this can lead to negative relationships with food and poor self-esteem and body image."

As for how to tell the difference, she says: "You can recognise physical hunger from cues such as a grumbling stomach, low energy and irritability. Emotional hunger is influenced by negative emotions such as loneliness, boredom and stress where food provides temporary comfort."

What if all I want to eat is crisps and chocolate?

Simon explains that one of the "biggest criticisms" of intuitive eating is that those following it will just "keep reaching for foods high in saturated fat, sugar and salt which will have detrimental effects on their health."

"Initially, this may be the case," she says, "especially if you have been following a restricted way of eating for some time and then have total freedom over your food choices."

However, Simon notes that "once previously 'banned' foods have their 'bad' labels removed and you know that you can include them in your diet whenever you want to, they become no more alluring than any other food."

"For most people, deprivation is what creates the cravings for those foods and when you give yourself permission to stop avoiding them they become less irresistible," she tells us.

"You may need a lot of support initially when you start practicing intuitive eating, especially if you are experiencing what you perceive to be out of control cravings for certain foods," she adds. "[But] with the right support you can learn how to provide your body with all the nutrients it needs, which can include foods such as biscuits and chocolate."

intuitive eating what is intuitive eating and how do you do it
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"Although those latter foods are not off limits, we know that if we just eat those foods our energy levels will be less than optimum and long-term we would start to see negative effects on our health," she explains. "Honouring your health with gentle nutrition is learning how to provide your body with foods such as fruits, vegetables and good quality protein sources to enable it to move and function well while still including foods like biscuits and cakes."

What next?

Before embarking on your intuitive eating journey, Simon advises speaking to a health professional. "Intuitive eating may not be appropriate for everyone so you should always talk to your doctor if you are thinking of practicing intuitive eating [especially if you] have a medical condition where you need to follow a specific diet," she says. "For example, if you have liver cirrhosis it is important to eat every three hours, eat a high protein and carbohydrate diet and include a carbohydrate counted bedtime snack even if you are not feeling hungry."

Happy eating!

This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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