Could a different approach to how we eat help us rethink our relationship with food? From the principles to the benefits, experts provide their thoughts

Eat three meals a day, avoid snacking and always clear your plate – those are the food rules to live by, right? Maybe not. There’s a reason why food sometimes doesn’t make us feel satisfied and it turns out diet culture may be responsible for the disconnect that can arise between ourselves and our bodies, our intuition and our hunger and fullness cues.

Enter the intuitive eating movement, the principles of which are all about paying attention to our body’s signals, honouring our hunger, stopping eating when we feel comfortably full and removing any restrictions we have about the types of foods we eat (unless for medical reasons).

Here, we ask a registered dietitian and a psychologist nutritionist to break down the basics of intuitive eating for us and how it may help recalibrate our relationship with food. Read on for our guide to what it is, its key principles, how it compares to other related approaches, such as mindful eating, and how to give it a try if you’d like to.

What is intuitive eating?

"Intuitive eating is a way of eating that encourages us to become more in tune with our body’s natural cues and hunger signals," explains Uxshely Carcamo, psychotherapist and nutritionist at The Food Therapy Clinic.

"It's an eating philosophy that rejects “diet culture” and strict food rules, and instead encourages making peace with food. No food is off limits and no food is strictly categorised as 'good' or 'bad'. Instead, individuals are encouraged to listen to what their body wants and to respond to fullness cues.

"However, intuitive eating isn’t just about eating whatever you crave and living off cupcakes and chocolate – it encourages gentle nutrition principles and making food choices that honour your health and overall wellbeing without labelling food as good or bad.

"Intuitive eating principles also promote movement that makes your body feel good and respects your body. It recognises that many people turn to food as a coping mechanism, too, and instead suggests using other, more helpful ways to deal with emotions."

"There are 10 principles of intuitive eating," says Katherine Kimber, BDA spokesperson, registered dietitian, certified intuitive eating counsellor and founder of Nude Nutrition.

Katherine highlights the below as a starting point on how to eat intuitively. The principles include:

1. Saying 'no' to diet mentality

Forgo fad diets of the past that encourage a restriction mindset. Instead, intuitive eating encourages us to make food decisions that tap into our body’s personal cues.

2. Honouring our hunger

Intuitive eating is all about building trust in our body’s signals and hunger cues, fuelling it accordingly and appreciating that intentions of moderation are likely to go out the window when we continually ignore them (such as when we’re excessively hungry, we’re more likely to overeat).

3. Giving ourselves permission to eat

There’s no such thing as 'good' or 'bad' foods according to the intuitive eating approach as this can have a negative effect on our relationship with what we eat.

4. Challenging the 'Food Police'

Calorie counting, guilt and telling ourselves what we should and shouldn’t eat is off the table.

5. Respecting our fullness

As we tune into what our body really needs, it’s thought this may help us build trust in our body’s signals, such as when it’s comfortably full.

6. Learning where our 'satisfaction factor' is

By finding the pleasure and satisfaction there is to be had in eating what we really want and when – and trusting our body will let us know when it’s had enough – the hope is we’re more likely to feel satiated and content.

7. Honouring our feelings without using food

In times of low mood, boredom or pressure, many of us look to food for comfort. Intuitive eating encourages addressing the root cause, rather than using food as a quick fix.

8. Embracing our body

We’re all built differently and so intuitive eating shifts the focus to respecting our bodies and their unique shapes.

9. Getting active

The same approach applies to fitness and centres around how being active makes us feel, instead of concentrating solely on calories burned.

10. Honouring our health with gentle nutrition

The crux of intuitive eating? Moving away from strict rules and the notion of eating 'perfectly'. There’s no such thing as 'slipping up'. Instead, the approach encourages us to make food choices that respect our health and taste buds.

What may be some of the benefits of intuitive eating?

"There are a number of studies that support intuitive eating benefits," says Katherine. She highlights that researchers have found intuitive eaters may have higher:

• Self-esteem

• Wellbeing and optimism

• Variety of foods eaten

• Body appreciation and acceptance

• Interoceptive awareness (our ability to perceive and process bodily signals)

• Pleasure from eating 

And they may have lower:

• Cholesterol levels 

• Blood pressure

Studies also suggest that it may help support weight maintenance (although losing weight is not the goal).

Are there negatives to intuitive eating?

"Intuitive eating is definitely not suitable for anyone with disordered eating patterns or perhaps with a history of dieting," explains Uxshely. "These things can skew your hunger and fullness signals and I find that these individuals really struggle to know what eating 'normally' should look like."

She adds: "Intuitive eating can feel as though it gives you too much freedom and people can feel lost as to what foods to choose, especially when they’ve been on lots of diets and relied on meal plans for guidance as to what to eat. These individuals may need more structured support before using intuitive eating as a tool."

What is mindful eating?

Mindful eating is a related approach that encourages us to be fully present in the moment when eating. It can be incorporated into an intuitive eating practice.

"Mindfulness is the capacity to bring full attention and awareness to one’s experience, in the moment, without judgement and mindful eating is paying attention to sensations, thoughts and emotions that arise during eating," explains Katherine.

"Typically, mindful eating involves eating without any distractions and in a way that allows you to really focus on the act of eating and enjoy your food," advises Uxshely. "It encourages chewing slowly and intentionally, and aiming to really savour and enjoy every mouthful.

"Mindful eating also allows us to be much more aware of our body’s natural cues, and fullness and hunger signals. It allows for a greater appreciation of food and to really enjoy the multisensory experience of eating, for example enjoying the tastes, colours, textures and aromas of food.

"This way of eating may help reduce guilt around food and eating, and allow us to determine whether we’re eating because we’re truly hungry or for other reasons."

Some studies suggest that the approach may help support emotional eating and binge eating, supporting a healthier relationship with food.

According to the Centre for Mindful Eating, its key principles are:

1. Being aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food choice and preparation by respecting our own inner wisdom.

2. Using all our senses in selecting food that’s satisfying and nourishing. 

3. Accepting responses to food (whether likes, dislikes or neutral ones) without judgement.

4. Being aware of hunger and fullness cues to guide our decisions to begin and finish eating. 

Is it for everyone? Similarly to intuitive eating, it may not be suitable for those with an active eating disorder, are recovering from one, or for those with disordered eating patterns as it may lead to justification of undereating.

What's the difference between mindful and intuitive eating?

Are mindful eating and intuitive eating the same thing? There is overlap, but Katherine explains that there are some distinctions: "Mindful eating is one tool to better understand your body and food preferences, whereas intuitive eating goes some steps further and provides more guidance about what to do with that information," she explains.

"It’s also a more holistic framework. Its principles are all key in helping you arrive at a place of being at peace with your body and in your relationship with food."

How can you get started?

"There is no single best step to take when it comes to learning intuitive eating," explains Katherine, but three of her tips include:

1. Gather more information. Nude Nutrition and are good places to start.

2. Recognise that it’s a process of unlearning and relearning. It can take time and feel uncomfortable. There’s no rush to the finish line, so take as long as you need to learn about what it is (and what it isn’t) before taking your first steps.

3. Reject diet mentality.

When it comes to mindful eating, "practise it when you’re not really hungry", says Katherine. "Allowing yourself to become excessively hungry triggers a natural intense desire to eat, often leading to unintended binge eating.

"So, approaching food non-judgmentally, in a state where you’re ravenous, is unlikely to bode well with being able to slow down and really pay attention. So, try it perhaps 30 minutes after a meal when you can really slow down and non-judgmentally taste, smell and practise mindfully eating the food.

"You could practise mindful eating with food that you feel a bit of guilt around eating. Chocolate is a common one, but it could be dried fruit or granola or something diet culture may have told you to avoid.

"When you’re in a place where you don’t feel too vulnerable (such as too tired, hungry, or alone if you feel triggered by this), notice the judgement and power that this food has held over you and identify where that has come from. Try and remove this judgement, and pretend you’re eating this food for the first time."

The takeaway

Intuitive and mindful eating approaches are long-term processes and, for some, may require a serious lifestyle change. But we advocate anything that encourages a more relaxed and positive relationship with food and we hope this has given you some helpful food for thought.