Over the past few months, I noticed a common phrase surfacing on many food, health, and lifestyle blogs—intuitive eating. It was framed as a new approach to eating that would help balance weight and increase overall wellness. At first, I grouped it with other healthy-eating buzz words, assuming it was just the newest version of the paleo / keto / Whole 30 trends that entice millennials and sell cookbooks. However, after slowing down to read blog posts and doing a bit of research, I learned that what I originally dismissed as a fad diet is actually the exact opposite: the anti-diet.

The Basics

I know it may seem strange to call changing one’s eating habits to regulate weight anything but a diet. However, there are fundamental differences in the mentality and practices of intuitive eating that set it apart. Most dieting programs—think South Beach, Atkins, Weight Watchers—encourage losing a desired amount of weight and fighting to keep it off. They have many restrictions, and, aside from possible “cheat days,” strongly discourage deviating from their set path to perfect health. Intuitive eating is much less structured, being more of a philosophy than a defined program. It focuses on listening to your body and staying within its self-determined natural weight. Participants are encouraged to trust the body’s hunger cues and food cravings, honoring and satisfying them without guilt. You heard me right. This is an eating philosophy that promotes only having a salad if you actually want a salad and definitely having a donut if you want a donut. Sign me up!

The Science

Think it sounds too good to be true? In fact, this philosophy is backed up by many scientists and dieticians today, like Sandra Aamodt, a neuroscientist and science writer with a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Rochester. In her TED Talk, "Why Dieting Doesn't Usually Work," she explains that the brain has its own concept of how much you should weigh. This range of 10-15 pounds is called the “set point” and is regulated by chemical signals of hunger and fullness, increasing hunger if you are below the set point and decreasing hunger if above it. Simply eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full is the best way to reach your natural, healthy weight. The body’s desire to maintain the set point also explains why dieters may gain and lose the same weight many times during their attempts. They are trying to push their bodies in one direction, while their brains want to pull them in another. Naturally, this battle is hard-fought, and our willpower alone will rarely outlast the brain’s stubbornness.

The Mindset

If this call-and-response reasoning for intuitive eating isn’t convincing enough, consider this philosophy’s broader implications for our relationship with food. Today, obsession with losing weight, seeming healthy, and living up to our own unreasonable expectations of appearance is rampant. Intuitive eating, however, relieves that pressure by encouraging us to honor natural signals of hunger, fullness, and satisfaction. When not focused on only eating 450 calories for breakfast, dessert one time a week, or no carbs after 9pm, we can make the best choice for our bodies in the moment and feel its effects. Like registered dietician Alissa Rumsey points out, food restrictions are not innate but learned from diet culture. Intuitive eating allows us to get back to a pre-restriction mindset and eat according to cues. Really, just to eat normally.

Another principle of intuitive eating is not categorizing food. Most dieters view certain foods as bad (cake, pizza, chocolate, donuts) and others as good (salads, smoothies, whole grains). Intuitive eaters see food as food. As shown in this Instagram post by Dr. Claudia Felty, a calorie is simply a unit of energy. One is not better for you than another. This mentality frees us from guilt about satisfying cravings and, in turn, reduces the desire to binge-eat. If you can enjoy a slice of cake whenever you want, why scarf the whole thing down with the nearest utensil right off the tray? When restriction barriers are first broken down, some people may take the opportunity to over-indulge. This experience can be an important part of the process. After looking down at the empty tray of cookies and possibly taking to the couch, people learn that the reason not to binge isn’t because cookies are “bad” and cause weight gain but because eating 16 does not make them feel their best. Intuitive eating is founded on this important correlation between nutrition and positive sensations, eventually leading intuitive eaters to nutritious foods and healthy habits if they listen to their bodies. They develop a mindful relationship with food while enjoying what makes them happy and satisfied. 

The Bottom Line

After I became interested in intuitive eating and saw that it was backed up by scientific research, I consciously tried to adopt its principles. In the past, as many of us have, I struggled with compulsive behavior around food, severely limiting myself and demonizing certain “unhealthy” products. However, when I let go of all that pressure around eating, I realized that it was perfectly okay to eat and enjoy foods that I love. I can have a Reese’s Cup milkshake or an apple cinnamon scone, appreciating it and knowing that one choice will not tear apart the fabric of a healthy lifestyle. In fact, allowing some indulgences is really the key to having one. I can confidently say that I now think less about food, have more willpower to use for making other choices (and desserts), and am more confident in myself and my body (and my pie-eating skills).

Avery Indermaur

In the simplest terms, intuitive eating says take a step back. If you ever find yourself feeling out of control when it comes to what or how to eat, just remember to relax, listen to your body, eat what you want, and enjoy it.