Unlocking Intuitive Eating

February 16th, 2021

By Katie Graham, MS, RD, LDN

There is a “D” word dietitians cringe when hearing (no, not donuts), it is … DIETING (eek!).  

When I mention the word “diet” in this case, I’m referring to a restrictive way of eating. Whether the diet is carbohydrate free, or smoothies only, or no eating after 7 pm, what the majority of diets have in common is that you end up without a long-term sustainable change (1). 

So, throw out the magazine articles and diet books that offer you false hope of losing weight instantly. Get mad at the diet culture that promotes weight loss and the myths that have led you to feel like a failure every time a new diet did not work and you gained back all of the weight. Instead, let’s introduce the Intuitive Eating approach, the only concept that allows you to honor your hunger, respect your fullness, and respect your overall health (3). 

Listen to Your Body

Consider this: you came into this world as an intuitive eater, you would cry to signal you were hungry, and turned your head away when you were full. Your body is smart and knows how to self-regulate, but along the way you have lost that ability to listen to your body. To be an intuitive eater you must develop your interoceptive awareness. Interoceptive awareness is the process of recognizing and processing internal, physical sensations that can exist such as hunger, satiety, rapid heartbeat, or the rush of heat felt during panic (2). This response helps you to recognize, “Do I feel hunger, fullness, or something else?” Once you reach the moment of excessive hunger, all intentions of moderate, conscious eating are fleeting and irrelevant. Learning to honor this first biological signal sets the stage for re-building trust with yourself and food (3). 

Try it: Pause in the middle of eating and ask yourself how the food tastes, and what your current hunger level is.

Find Peace

Our feelings deserve true coping skills without using food, because food won’t fix any of these feelings in the long-term. Food is not the true solution to your problems. You’ll ultimately need to deal with your feelings, so why not do it as you heal your relationship with food? Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. If you tell yourself that you can’t or shouldn’t have a particular food, it can lead to intense feelings of deprivation that build into uncontrollable cravings and, often, binging. When you finally “give-in” to your forbidden food, eating is experienced with such intensity, it usually results in overeating, and overwhelming guilt.

Try it: Pick one of your “forbidden” foods. Eat it and observe how you feel when eating and how satisfying it is to your tongue. Acknowledge the sensations and slowly allow yourself to recognize that one food does not have control over you.

All Foods Fit

There are no good or bad foods; you are not a good or bad person based on your food choices. Many people think that when you give yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods, you’ll just lose control and won’t be able to stop eating. When in fact, the opposite happens. If for example you give yourself permission to eat that morning donut, you can enjoy it, you can feel satisfied after eating that donut. When you know it is available if you wanted it, but the reality is, you don’t always want those foods 24/7 (3).

Try it: Reject the voice of the Food Police in your head that brings up unreasonable food rules. Write down the food rules you have previously given yourself and read it out loud. Are these rules you would give to someone you love?

Rediscover Satisfaction 

Food deserves to be satisfying and bring joy to your life. When you eat what you want, you truly feel satisfied and content with your food choices and how much you’re eating. If you’re unsatisfied with your food choices, you will likely just keep eating, looking for something more. When you eat what you want, in an environment that is inviting, the pleasure you derive will be a powerful force in helping you feel satisfied and content. 

Try it: Before eating try thinking to yourself, “Is this how/what I would feed a loved one?” If the answer is no, then you need to alter your meal.

Gentle Nutrition 

Make food choices that honor your health and that also honor your food preferences and tastes. It is what you eat consistently over time that matters. Flexible planning of meals and snacks is a strategy that you can use to learn what truly works for you. You will not suddenly develop a nutrient deficiency or become unhealthy from one snack, one meal, or one day of eating (3). It is what you eat consistently over time that matters, progress not perfection is what counts. But importantly, respect your body so you can feel better about who you are. It is difficult to reject the diet mentality if you are unrealistic and overly critical about your body size or shape. All bodies deserve dignity.

Try it: Remember the tenets of food wisdom, “variety, moderation, and balance.” 

Mindful Movement 

Exercise should not be a chore or something to dread doing. Find ways to be active that you enjoy. When you enjoy what you do it will be easier to choose fun movement as a part of your daily activity. Allow yourself time to come up with answers that include off-the-beaten-path options. Some options include; walking outdoors, yoga, having a dance party, joining a Zoom exercise group, or swimming. The sky is the limit when it comes to finding a movement you enjoy and incorporating into your daily activity. 

Try it: Find an exercise partner with whom you can motivate and enjoy being active with. 

Katie Graham registered dietitian

Katie Graham, MS, RD, LDN is a dietitian working in both community and clinical dietetics. She currently works for University Pennsylvania’s Netter Center- Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative and for Health Care Services Group at a long-term care facility.


  1. Christoph, M., Järvelä-Reijonen, E., Hooper, L., Larson, N., Mason, S. M., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2021). Longitudinal associations between intuitive eating and weight-related behaviors in a population-based sample of young adults. Appetite160, 105093. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2021.105093 
  2. Herbert BM, Blechert J, Hautzinger M, Matthias E, Herbert C. Intuitive eating is associated with interoceptive sensitivity. Effects on body mass index. Appetite. 2013;70:22-30. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2013.06.082. 
  3. Tribole, E. (2012). Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works (Third ed.): St. Martin’s Griffin.


Posted by: Julie Stefanski

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