Principles of Intuitive Eating and How Behavior Science Can Help

A headshot picture of Christine Byrne.

Before Christine became a dietitian, she spent nine years working as a journalist and recipe developer, first as a food editor at BuzzFeed, then as the features editor for Self, then as a freelancer for over four dozen media outlets. She’s written thousands of articles and hundreds of recipes. She’s also appeared as a guest on Good Morning America, New York One, and the Meredith Vieira Show. You can learn more about her work here.

In today’s world of diets, meal-tracking apps, restrictive eating plans and fad foods, it can be difficult to make sense of what is healthy for our bodies. 

We often feel stuck in a cycle of trying something new only to find that it does not work or have the desired effect. It can be confusing and frustrating to navigate the world of “healthy” eating. 

One approach is Intuitive Eating, which seeks to create an interactive experience of exploring questions to find peace in our relationships with food and our bodies.

Understanding Intuitive Eating

A picture of snacks and vegetables with two hands illustrating a choice between the two.

When it comes to Intuitive Eating, one key principle is learning to listen to your body’s hunger signals and responding appropriately. The simplistic way to think about this – eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full. Additionally, it involves bringing mindful awareness to your eating experience, allowing yourself to enjoy the flavors, textures and smells of food without guilt or judgment.

Intuitive Eating encourages us to practice self-compassion when it comes to our eating habits and takes away the sense of restriction that many diets impose. It asks that we honor our hunger, make peace with food and challenge the diet mentality. It emphasizes trusting in ourselves and recognizing that each person has different needs and preferences regarding what they eat.

The 10 Principles Of Intuitive Eating

So, how does one become an intuitive eater? There are ten established principles of Intuitive Eating. They help you unlearn the diet mentality, develop trust in yourself, and make peace with food.

1. Reject the Diet Mentality

That means ditching the all-or-nothing mindset that many diets impose and allowing yourself to indulge in food without guilt. People telling you how to lose weight quickly are only after a quick fix without considering the long-term consequences. That’s why rejecting the diet mentality and trusting your body is vital.

2. Honor Your Hunger

Eat when you are hungry, rather than waiting until your hunger becomes overwhelming and extreme so you make choices out of desperation. Do not ignore your hunger signals, and understand that eating when you are hungry is OK.

3. Make Peace With Food

Allow yourself to eat whatever you desire without judgment or guilt. Learning how to make peace with all kinds of food is essential and not label them as “good” or “bad.”

4. Challenge the “Food Police”

The “Food Police” are really just the negative thoughts in your head, that almost always don’t come from you intrinsically, rather they’re a reflection of the diet culture, social pressures, and/or shame that you absorb from the world around you. Negative thoughts about food can be damaging to your relationship with food.

That’s why it is important to challenge that voice in your head, recognize when these negative thoughts arise, and where they come from so you can let them go and not have them disconnect you from listening to your body.

A woman eating a strawberry out of a plate of vegetables.

5. Respect Your Fullness

Stop eating when satisfied rather than pushing yourself to eat more. That will help you become more mindful of how much food your body needs and allow you to make peace with how much food you eat.

6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor

Allow yourself to savor each bite and enjoy the food’s taste, texture and smell without guilt or judgment. If a certain meal doesn’t give you satisfaction, don’t feel obligated to finish it all – just leave it for later or throw it away if needed. Recognize foods where you have even just one solid bite, yet you feel totally satisfied because you enjoy them in the perfect way.

7. Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food

It is essential to recognize your feelings and understand that it is OK to feel those feelings. Avoid turning to food to deal with difficult emotions or challenges in life; instead, practice self-care and take a break from food.

8. Respect Your Body

Respect your body’s size, shape and abilities regardless of what others may say. It is essential to accept yourself for who you are rather than trying to fit into an idealized version of “perfection” that culture imposes on us today.

9. Exercise – Feel the Difference

Exercise should be enjoyable and not another form of punishment or obsession. Trying to “burn” off a meal or fixating about how many calories you used in a workout usually is unfulfilling, because it’s not a realistic way to think about the purpose of exercise. Start to think of exercise as movement – joyful movement, intense movement, noticing that walking in nature or up some stairs are all ways that you are giving your body something to move for. Each movement releases an amazing cascade of hormones and heartbeats, which all make your body feel different ways. Feel the difference in movements. Enjoy yourself while you’re at it ☺ 

10. Honor Your Health – Gentle Nutrition

Make decisions about food that honor both your physical and mental health. This means finding a balance between nourishing yourself with healthy foods and allowing yourself to indulge occasionally without guilt or judgment. The key point about Gentle Nutrition is that you can begin to reincorporate nutritional science, but only once you’ve gone through the first 9 principles and can honestly say that your relationship with food and your body is healed to the point where if you start to look at nutritional values, facts, and labels, you won’t be triggered back into the restrict-binge eating cycle. If you can honestly say that you can reincorporate nutritional science while prioritizing listening to your body, you’re ready for Gentle Nutrition.

How To Get Started With Intuitive Eating

Intuitive Eating is a process of learning, unlearning and relearning; it takes time and effort to become an intuitive eater. 

To get started, begin by taking the time to understand your relationship with food. 

How does food make you feel? 

What triggers your cravings? 

Are there any emotional or social aspects that influence how you eat? 

These are just some of the questions that can help you gain insight into your eating habits and work towards a more positive relationship with food.

Once you have determined what is causing your eating habits, it’s important to find ways to replace the negative aspects of the diet mentality with principles of Intuitive Eating. For example, if counting calories or tracking macros is something that makes you feel anxious or stressed, find ways to replace those habits with more mindful practices such as savoring each bite or focusing on how the food makes you feel.

Lastly, be patient and gentle with yourself during this process of learning how to become an intuitive eater. It might take time for you to get used to your new eating habits but it is important to recognize that progress comes in many shapes and forms. So, don’t get discouraged if you slip up; just pick yourself back up and continue on your journey to becoming an intuitive eater.

Behavior Science – An Added Layer to Help with Intuitive Eating

Another approach that can be helpful is Using approaches such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Behavior Science looks to identify patterns of behavior behind the relationship with food and the body, understand the thoughts and emotions and feelings behind those behaviors and attitudes, and develop strategies for changing them in order to have a positive impact on overall health. When behavior science is done well, it seems really simple on the surface, but the profound nature of the question(s) and sequence of the questions can entirely reshape your conscious and unconscious world to align with your body’s needs, your true self, and the values that are nearest and dearest to your heart.

One Behavior Science technique we use at Way is called the “Magic Wand” question, which is a powerful and proven behavioral technique. The way we adapt it within the Way app, is to help you imagine your picture of what finding peace in your relationship with food and your body would feel like, look like, what you’d notice in your surroundings, what you’d be eating, and how you’d feel about your body. We call this your “Peace Point”, and it’s the center of everything we do in Way – all of the Sessions, Pathways, all of it is designed to help you get closer to your Peace Point, each step of the way. 

Additionally, mindful breathing techniques can be used with Behavior Science in order to bring our bodies into parasympathetic nervous system, relieving us from sympathetic nervous system, calming us down so we can do self-exploration more easily around our relationships with food and the body.

When the principles of Intuitive Eating and Behavioral Science are incorporated into our approach to eating, we can listen to our body more easily, having more confidence and connection in our relationships with food and our body. Not only does this have a positive impact on our physical health, but it helps us in our emotional health and mental health.

Get Started!

At Way, we use both approaches to create an interactive experience that naturally happens from exploring questions with the purpose and focus of helping Way members find peace in their relationships with food and the body. Our app is a fundamentally unique blending of intuitive eating with behavior science and mindfulness (with mindful breathing techniques in Way that are short, sweet, and easy). We look forward to continuing our mission of helping everyone find balance in their lives so they can enjoy the journey to health