What is intuitive eating?

by Kaiser Permanente |
Person placing tomato and cheese on plate

Intuition is your ability to understand something without needing an explanation. You simply "know" it to be true.

Listening to and understanding your intuition is an important part of staying healthy. Your intuition can help you avoid danger and get medical attention when necessary. It can even help you get the sleep, exercise, and nutrients you need.

So, what happens when you use intuition to guide your eating habits? That’s what dietitian Evelyn Tribole and nutritionist Elyse Resch first explored in their 1995 book, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach.1 And now intuitive eating is considered a mainstream movement.

How intuitive eating works

Often called the "anti-diet," intuitive eating is about letting your gut guide your food choices — not calorie counting or weight loss. This means no food is off-limits and there are no strict guidelines to follow. You eat when you’re hungry and don’t eat when you’re not. But this doesn’t mean giving in to every craving and impulse. With intuitive eating, you observe your cravings to determine where they came from and what your body may really need.

For example, say you get an overwhelming craving for chocolate. Since eating chocolate can improve your mood,2 craving it may be your body’s way of saying it needs a quick mood boost. Instead of reaching for a sugary chocolate bar that could zap your energy, you may need a different mood booster — like a brisk walk.

Overall, this approach can offer a healthy option to eating and enjoying food. Here are a few other points to consider.

Understanding the difference between physical hunger and emotional eating

Physical hunger is your body’s biological response to being hungry. It can manifest as a growling stomach or feelings of irritability or fatigue. After you eat, these responses will go away.

Emotional eating is a desire to eat that’s driven by an emotional response. You may not be physically hungry, but you feel compelled to eat because you’re sad, or anxious, or bored. Emotional eating uses food to fill emotional needs.

Because emotional eating isn’t driven by your body’s need for nutrients, it can lead to poor nutritional choices. You can avoid emotional eating with mindfulness. When you find yourself craving a comfort food, pause for a moment and ask yourself why you want it. Is your stomach rumbling, or are you having a stressful day and feel like you need a reward? Taking a moment to ask yourself the question gives you a chance to make an informed choice for your body.

Eating until you’re satisfied — not full

Once you start eating, it can take between 5 and 20 minutes to start to feel full. If you wait until you feel full to stop eating, you may have already consumed too much. This can result in eating more than you need for the day — and may even cause stomach pain and discomfort.

Instead of rushing through a meal, take your time and enjoy your food. Try to experience your meal with as many of your senses as possible: How does it look or smell? You can even practice gratitude in each bite, feeling thankful for the meal.

As you eat, pay attention to how you feel. When you start to feel satisfied, slow down or even stop. You can always keep eating later if you’re still hungry.

Practicing healthy eating habits

Intuitive eating doesn’t include food restrictions. But it doesn’t mean you should throw all healthy eating guidelines out the window. Your body still needs a balance of nutrient-rich, healthy foods.

Make sure you eat a variety of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Your plate should be colorful and balanced.

This also means being cautious of too much saturated and trans fats, added sugar, alcohol, and salt.

Being mindful

Are you a late-night snacker? Do you always order appetizers before a big entree? Do you feel compelled to eat a bag of candy after a stressful meeting? Identifying your eating habits can help you decide if adjustments might be helpful.

You can either take mental notes or write your observation down in your journal. Just remember: It’s not about tracking exactly what you ate. It’s about exploring your thoughts, feelings, and impulses. Then you can see if there are patterns that could lead to emotional eating.

Reframing your thoughts

Eating and emotion are often intertwined. So it can help to reframe any negative thoughts about food. Remember, food is meant to fuel your body so you have the energy you need to thrive. For example, grabbing a cupcake when you’re sad may feel good in the moment, but it may not make you feel so great later.

But if you do feel guilty after grabbing a cupcake, try to quiet your inner critic as much as possible. Accept that the choice was made. Then, let go of any shame or disappointment, and use the experience as an opportunity to reaffirm your commitment to eating as healthy as you can. Also, remind yourself that it’s OK to enjoy a sweet treat. As always, moderation is key.

Bottom line

When done right, intuitive eating can help you form healthy habits and enjoy the food you eat. If you need more guidance, check out our online resources for healthy eating.

1 Kaiser Permanente does not endorse the book or authors mentioned. Any names listed are for easy identification only.

2 Ji-Hee Shin et al., "Consumption of 85% Cocoa Dark Chocolate Improves Mood in Association With Gut Microbial Changes in Healthy Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial," The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, January 2022.