What is intuitive eating? Experts explain misconceptions about this 'anti-diet' lifestyle

Close up of woman enjoying freshly served traditional Japanese seafood donburi with chopsticks in a restaurant
Experts explain what intuitive eating is, and how it isn't about weight loss or dieting. (Photo: Getty Creative)

There's a good chance that your holiday dinner conversations this year included chatter about the latest trendy diet. Maybe it's your uncle who swears that keto has given him the best body of his life, or the cousin who insists that a pricey juice cleanse is the perfect reset to shed holiday weight in the new year. Or, maybe, it's your social media feed that inundates you with diet talk instead, with everyone from celebrities to your high school friends swearing that they have found the ideal way to eat.

This is all an example of diet culture, a permeating condition of today's American society, which places a significant value on thinness and the appearance of one's body — usually with the sacrifice of mental and physical wellness. It can be insidious: While certain diets may purport to be about health, few can honestly say they separate weight loss from well-being. Enter intuitive eating, which asks people to shut down diet culture entirely, and focus on honoring their hunger cues, eating foods that make them feel good, and not worrying about the number on the scale.

The concept of intuitive eating was coined by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. It has 10 principles, but they all come down to the idea that people should eat in ways that make them feel physically and mentally well, listen to their body's natural cues, and shut down any preconceived notions about how they should eat or look.

Registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor Christy Harrison, who is the author of Anti-Diet and co-author of The Making Peace with Food Card Deck, tells Yahoo Life: "I often say intuitive eating is the 'default mode.' It's the way we're born knowing how to eat, to recognize hunger cues, to stop when we're satisfied and to know that food will be available when we want to eat it again. These are the instincts we are born with. So many things, unfortunately, can interfere with those instincts. Diet culture is a huge one. Being told that we need to lose weight, eating less, policing our appetite, eating different kinds of food. That also includes food insecurity, which can interfere with our ability to know that food is going to be available again when we need it."

In practice, intuitive eating isn't just about eating when you're hungry and stopping when you're full. It's also about allowing all foods that are safe to consume in your life, and understanding that it's OK to enjoy food because of emotional satisfaction instead of just physical hunger. It means removing the guidelines put in place by diet culture, either explicitly or implicitly.

That can be scary for some people, who worry that if they eat whatever they want they will turn to binging on foods like candy, pizza or other demonized foods whenever they want. Harrison says in her experience, that's simply not true.

"I think people tend to overestimate how much they will eat when the breaks are off. People assume, 'Oh, if I can eat what I want, whenever I want, then I'm going to eat nothing but Snickers bars for the rest of my life,'" she explains. "You might have a honeymoon phase with a particular food, which was all you wanted when you were dieting. Your brain may need to understand that you will have access to these foods again, that it's not a trick and this isn't another diet. You are allowed to have them forever, but proving that to yourself can take some time."

Harrison adds: "The honeymoon phase also lasts a lot shorter than most people think it will. A lot of people will find themselves realizing they're sick of Snickers bars, or whatever food it is, and they're ready for something more balanced or sustaining."

Dietitian Kara Lydon, the author of Nourish Your Namaste and creator of the blog The Foodie Dietitian, tells Yahoo Life that for people wrapped up in diet culture, it can be hard to break old habits, even when practicing intuitive eating. That's because it can be hard for many people to wrap their heads around the idea that the purpose of eating isn't to make themselves smaller.

"Many of my clients who find their way to intuitive eating after decades of dieting may find themselves unintentionally turning intuitive eating into a diet, which I refer to as the hunger fullness diet," Lydon explains. "Essentially, it's taking the two principles around honoring hunger and fullness and applying black-and-white thinking to it. This might look like someone saying, 'I can only eat when I'm physically hungry' or 'I must always stop eating when I'm perfectly full.' This then becomes a set of rules instead of embracing the nuance of eating as a human being — there are other reasons to eat beyond physical hunger, including having a taste for something specific or emotional satisfaction."

Ultimately, intuitive eating means letting go of ideas about what idealized eating looks like, and what one's body should look like, in order to have true freedom over food. For some people — though not everyone — that means gaining weight as their body adjusts to the state where it is most naturally comfortable.

"People don't even realize that they're technically dieting when they're eating smaller portions [than they want to] or serving themselves less or avoiding certain foods," points out Harrison. "It can be under the guise of wellness, or a healthy lifestyle, or a 'keto template' or 'Whole30 reset.' But they're all diets. When people initially go off diets, there is often a weight regain, to go back to their baseline."

Harrison notes that this can be challenging for people to hear, especially if they've been conditioned to lose weight in the past.

"Accepting where they are at comes into play, too," she says. "It can be very challenging, especially if you're someone who is in a larger body already. Gaining weight can come with a lot of weight stigma, both internal and external. We live in a culture that's stigmatizing to higher-weight people, so going through therapy to deal with those triggers can be helpful for many people."

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.