If you've found yourself caught up in the seemingly endless cycle of fad diets — or even wellness trends, for that matter — with nothing but frustration to show for it, you're not alone. Considering how inundated the health and fitness industries are, it can be exhausting to keep up with the latest crazes and products that promise you renewed energy, better digestion (to name a few popular claims), and general improved health inside and out. That said, one of the buzziest diets of late isn't really a diet at all — and it's winning over those looking to ditch damaging eating habits. So what is intuitive eating and why is everyone talking about it? The answers may surprise you.
It might be easiest to think of intuitive eating as an "anti-diet," basically the opposite of restricted eating plans like ketogentic and intermittent fasting, which many wellness experts are now realizing can often cause more damage than good — both physically and emotionally. "I think the most important thing to start off by saying is that dieting and focusing on eating less and weighing less, can actually make us fixated on food, both mentally and hormonally," says Caroline Dooner, author of The F*ck It Diet. "Intuitive eating is a way to step out of that cycle, listening to and honoring your body and appetite, and learning how to feed yourself normally again without rules about food, without an attempt to eat less, and without a focus on weight or weight loss."
Basically, in a nut shell, intuitive eating promotes eating when you're hungry and stopping when you're full. It focuses on the idea of satisfying physical hunger as opposed to restricting yourself to dietary restrictions and timeframes that can cause guilt if you step (or fall) outside their boundaries. It also retrains your brain to know the difference between physical and emotional hunger, training one to honor their feelings without the use of food. It's learning to trust your body by making peace with food and honoring both hunger and fullness.
And while this way of eating is certainly getting a lot of attention these days — likely as a direct reaction to often overwhelming diet culture — it's actually nothing new. The term was initially introduced in 1995 when Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch literally wrote the book on it, but as Christy Harrison, dietician, podcaster, and author of Anti-Diet explains, it's also your body's natural instinct. "I always say that intuitive eating is the default mode, the way we’re born knowing how to eat, before diet culture and its attendant food-phobia come in and mess up our relationships with food and our bodies."
To understand why this idea is circling back around, it's important to note how fad diets have a negative impact on your health. For one thing, there's an emotional component. "There’s evidence that 75 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 45 have some form of disordered eating, which makes any diet extremely dangerous for them," says Harrison, pointing out a 2008 study by SELF in partnership with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "What’s more, there’s evidence that a lot of the ailments that typically get blamed on food — like digestive disorders, bloating, 'brain fog', hormonal abnormalities, skin problems, etc. — can actually be caused by disordered eating, not food itself."
Additionally, on-again-off again dieting in itself can wreak havoc on your system. "Weight cycling (aka yo-yo dieting) is an independent risk factor for heart disease, chronic inflammation, and some forms of cancer, among other unfavorable outcomes." And medical experts agree. Dr. Kate Ayoub, physical therapist and health coach at Own Your Movement, adds, "Fad dieting or restricting certain key nutrients can lead to low energy, difficulty sleeping, decreased sexual drive, irritability, dehydration, nausea, and headaches."
As for who's the best candidate to try the intuitive approach to eating, Dr. Ayoub believes one key factor is having a healthy outlook on food. "Intuitive eating works well for people looking to have a better relationship with food and what health means to them," she says. "By developing more sustainable eating habits, some people lose weight, but that is not ultimately the goal. The goal is to create a guilt-free relationship with food, hunger, nourishing and supporting your body."
Harrison adds that while intuitive eating can be a great method of eventually getting out of unhealthy habits, those with disordered eating might need to take things slow. "For people with active eating disorders or severe chronic dieting, that’s basically the polar opposite of intuitive eating, so it’s not possible to jump straight into the full expression of intuitive eating — particularly the principles of honoring your hunger and fullness, because eating disorders and chronic deprivation can profoundly alter your hunger and fullness cues, and it takes re-nourishing yourself to make those cues function properly again," she says.
And Dooner suggests that those with certain health issues be sure to consult with an expert that's well-versed in the practice before dramatically changing their diets in any way, including attempting intuitive eating. "People with specific health concerns like allergies, celiac, IBS, or diabetes may want the support of a trained intuitive eating practitioner and non-diet dietitian, to help guide the process since the stakes are a little higher," she says.
All that said, intuitive eating can be a sustainable option for many people to try — particularly those who have been consumed with exhausting and potentially ineffective wellness crazes. And with this shift, Dooner hopes the entire industry changes as well. She explains, "The truth is, if the wellness industry could understand that people really do come in diverse body sizes, and that different people have different weights where their body feels safe, then people could be encouraged to focus on healthy habits without obsessing over weight loss — which can do a lot of harm!"