I first encountered the phrase “intuitive eating” on Instagram, and my first assumption was that it was another list of dieting rules wrapped in a pretty package of empowerment and self-care. Then I noticed the bagels. And the cupcakes. And the glasses of wine. Having struggled with my own sometimes disordered relationship with food, I recoiled a little at what appeared to be a free pass to eat whatever you wanted and declare yourself an intuitive eater.
As I kept scrolling, I learned that intuitive eating is neither a fad diet nor a licence to binge. But it took a little more digging to find out what it is, and why it seems to be everywhere on social media.
What intuitive eating is — and isn’t
The term comes from an eponymous book originally published in 1995 by two registered dietitians named Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. After working for years with people suffering from eating disorders, they wanted to impress upon anyone who felt they kept “failing” at diets that the problem wasn’t them, it was the diet. They argued that diets fail because they set impossible expectations and ignore the way the body actually works.
“Also,” Resch told me, “the power of deprivation when on a diet and the rebellion that comes with being told what to do/eat will cause the diet to fail.”
This kind of assertion is often met with claims that people whose diets “fail” simply aren’t trying hard enough or aren’t choosing the right diet. But Tribole and Resch’s work has been backed up by a significant amount of research. Most prominent is probably the work of social and health psychologist Traci Mann, whose studies have found that neurological, hormonal and biological changes that happen when we diet tend to make our bodies do the opposite of what we are trying to achieve — crave more food, feel less full, and slow our metabolism. Intuitive eating suggests rejecting diets altogether, giving yourself permission to eat without labelling some foods “good” and others “bad”, acknowledging when you’re eating your feelings and accepting the body you have.
Tribole and Resch laid out 10 principles of intuitive eating to make this a little easier. The most important is rejecting the diet mentality, as described above.
One of the most controversial is principle 3 — make peace with food. “Give yourself unconditional permission to eat,” the principle states, and to someone used to controlling their food choices that can seem like an outrageous suggestion. I admit I raised my eyebrows at this on first reading. But then I thought about the Oreos in my pantry, my stash of “bad,” calorie-laden treats that I was having a hard time not scarfing down by the handful. Tribole and Resch call this binge that occurs when we finally give in to our cravings the “Last Supper” mentality, and they rightly describe the aftermath: “overeating and overwhelming guilt.” Making peace with food, they argue, doesn’t mean giving in to every craving; it means getting rid of the idea of “giving in” to “bad foods” altogether. Eat the Oreo when you want it, Principle 3 suggests, without any negative emotion attached, and you won’t feel like you need to eat the whole bag as one last hurrah before swearing off cookies forever.
Principle 5 — Respect Your Fullness — is the key complement to principle 3. “Listen for the body signals that tell you that you are no longer hungry,” it suggests. This can be surprisingly hard to do when you’re so focused on the moral weight of the food you’re eating. And it often takes people learning to practice intuitive eating a bit of time to figure out what kind — and amount — of food is actually right for their body.
Learning how to separate the food and the feeling
Tribole and Resch talk about the importance of honouring your hunger. But what if that hunger feels uncontrollable? This is a common concern for people recovering from eating disorders and even those who don’t have a diagnosis but find themselves thinking obsessively about the moral weight of food.
Aaron Flores, a registered dietitian in Los Angeles who teaches intuitive eating, says that sometimes his clients will in fact overdo it on previously forbidden foods once they allow themselves to stop seeing them as evil. His solution is to focus on removing the judgment, and he said this always helps lead to a happy medium.
“What I tell my clients is that I never want to argue nutritional quality of food,” he said. “Different foods have different nutritional qualities, that’s a given, but I really want to sit with the emotional value of a food.”
He used the example of someone who loves fried chicken but feels guilty for eating it. They struggle with periods of avoiding it like the plague and then bingeing on it and feeling guilty afterward. Flores said would ask such a client to think about what their emotional connection is to this food, why it’s so satisfying, and then just observe the process of eating it without judgment.
“See what the experience is like if you take away the rule that you’re not allowed to have it,” he said. “Yes, you might eat more of it as you give yourself permission, and you might leave the table full and uncomfortable, and that’s OK. Over time, through that non-judgmental place, your inner voice becomes more of an ally voice.”
You might gain — or lose — weight, but that’s not the point
Flores also emphasises that he has no idea what will happen with his patients’ weight — some may lose, some will gain, and some might not see any change at all. Dietitians who work with intuitive eating often talk about the “set point” – the range (sometimes as wide as 10-20 lbs) of weight that your body naturally leans toward over time, whatever you do. You might diet and lose weight only to gain it back, or binge and gain weight only to fall back to the previous number on the scale. Research into this theory is ongoing, and experts believe that genetics, environmental factors and brain activity may all play a role.
This can be frustrating for people who turn to intuitive eating to recover from an eating disorder.
Maggie Bailey, a grad student who turned to intuitive eating in 2016 when she realised her obsession with “clean eating” and Whole 30 was unhealthy, told me her weight fluctuated back and forth as she settled into the new mindset. Now, she says her body has settled at a lower weight than where she started with intuitive eating, even as she gave herself permission to eat bread and doughnuts again. But that’s not why she keeps it up.
“I am able to eat each day without thinking about how what I ate today will impact my ability to eat whatever my body needs tomorrow,” she said. “In a lot of ways, food used to be my worst enemy — because of intuitive eating it has become so much more joyful.”
Flores pointed out to me that the phrase intuitive eating is not trademarked, so it has been co-opted by some self-described health coaches and nutritionists on social media. The tell, he said, is any mention of intuitive eating as a way to manage weight.
“It’s about learning how to challenge your food rules and give yourself permission to eat when you’re hungry,” he said. “Intuitive eating means learning the difference between what is eating for emotional need versus physical need, and also really understanding that foods can be emotionally equal.”
Intuitive eating on social media vs. reality
While consensus has grown around the beneficial nature of these ideas in recent years, diet culture — our Western system of beliefs about weight — is still alive and thriving, especially on social media. That may be why young Instagram-savvy dietitians and body positivity advocates have started to take up Tribole and Resch’s mantle of intuitive eating.
When Bailey decided to stop obsessing about food, she tried a different kind of restriction: She purged her Instagram follow list of every Whole 30, paleo, and otherwise diet-related account. The only food-centric accounts she kept were those that seemed to portray a more realistic way of eating. A pattern quickly emerged: Those realistic accounts mostly belonged to registered dietitians, and they were all using the phrase “intuitive eating.”
Colleen Christensen is one of those Instagram-savvy dietitians. After going through recovery from her own eating disorder a few years ago, she found herself feeling adrift as to what a healthy relationship with food actually looked like.
“I was not ‘sick enough’ anymore and I looked healthy, but I still had these obsessive thoughts,” she said.
When she read Intuitive Eating, something started to click. Now she uses the framework in her work as well as in her life, which she catalogues in detail on Instagram. A common post takes the “silly” vs. “smart” construction widely used by diet accounts to make low-calorie food suggestions, and instead gives examples for how to move from harmful thinking about food to intuitive food thoughts. One recent post showed Christensen on the left with a mouth full of cookies and the text “Dieting: ‘blew it’ by eating a cookie, might as well have five” and smiling with a plate of cookies on the right with the text “Intuitive Eating: enjoyed a cookie, can have more another time.”
This highlights the biggest sticking point people have with intuitive eating. To search the hashtag on Instagram, it might look like it’s all about eating as many cookies, brownies and cupcakes as you want, damn the calories, sugar, and cavities.
“I get why people think that, because those are the foods that are hardest for people to allow themselves to eat, so that’s what a lot of people will show on social media,” Christensen said.
But she tries to show her followers that intuitive eating — and what she calls “food freedom” — means it’s also OK to choose a salad, or to skip the cake someone left in the break room.
“It’s about understanding what foods your body feels best eating, and how to make your own food choices based on your own hunger and fullness,” Christensen said.