• Tamar Rothenberg, MS, RD

Why everything you know about the 10 principles of intuitive eating is wrong

Here's why everything you probably know about the principles of intuitive eating is wrong. Intuitive eating is not a weight loss program, although you may lose weight or stay the same. It's also not a free for all buffet, giving you license to eat all the time.


Intuitive eating has 10 principles, not 10 commandments. (Remember? It's not a diet). It’s about accepting food—and our bodies—as the amazing wonder that they really are and a belief that there truly is no “right” or “wrong” way to eat.


Intuitive eating principles is freedom to eat all foods
Intuitive eating principles are the freedom to eat all foods

Body acceptance and abandoning food rules are especially difficult after breast cancer. A cancer diagnosis, surgeries, physical changes, early menopause, and side effects from treatments, all lead to a deep distrust of your body. This is exactly why I find intuitive eating incredibly effective for thrivers.


You're invited to join our new private nutrition group for thrivers on Facebook! https://www.facebook.com/groups/afreshstartforbreastcancerthrivers


Intuitive eating allows you to safely ditch diet culture, make peace with food, and prioritize your physical and mental wellbeing. Intuitive eating is a way to get back in tune with your body and refocus your mind away from “food rules.” Rigid food rules only serve to increase anxiety around food.


Many thrivers channel their stress and anxiety about breast cancer recurrence or living with cancer into food rules. But more rules decrease food enjoyment, and leads to decision fatigue. There's enough fatigue after breast cancer treatments, and reducing stress around food choices is one way thrivers can have some relief.


Intuitive eating deprioritizes weight as a primary measure of health, while inviting you to eat the foods you want when you’re hungry—and stop eating when you feel full. This isn’t about eating how much you want of whatever you want whenever you want it. It’s about getting back in tune with your body and showing it the respect it deserves. It's using both your brain and your body to make food decisions.


Eating intuitively means being curious about what and why you want to eat something, and then enjoying it without judgment. I'll say that again: without judgment. It’s about trusting your body’s wisdom without influence from outside of yourself. It’s about removing the labels of “good” or “bad” food and ditching the guilt or pride about eating a certain way. Intuitive eating can be accomplished while remaining flexible to patterns of eating for thrivers or specific medical diets for all kinds of conditions.


intuitive eating also includes nutritious foods
Intuitive eating includes all foods you love

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The 10 principles of intuitive eating


The two dietitians who popularized intuitive eating in 1995, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, have outlined 10 principles. Here are the principles along with what people get wrong about intuitive eating.


1 - Reject the diet mentality

Ditch diets that give the false hope of losing weight quickly, easily, and permanently. You are not a failure for every time a diet stopped working and you gained the weight back. If diets were successful, we wouldn't need to start one every Monday. Until you break free from the hope that there’s a new diet around the corner, you cannot fully embrace intuitive eating.

What people think: Ditching diets only refers to fad diets that come and go in popularity. Truth is, any type of a diet or restrictive eating that's not in tune to your body's needs will ruin your relationship with food.


2 - Honor your hunger

Your body needs adequate energy and nutrition. Keep yourself fed to prevent excessive hunger. By honoring the first signal of hunger you can start rebuilding trust in yourself and food.

What people think: Intuitive eating is a hunger and fullness diet. No, it's the exact opposite of a diet because you're actually listening to your body!


3 - Make peace with food

Stop fighting with food and give yourself unconditional permission to eat. Stop fostering intense feelings of deprivation by denying yourself a particular food, as these can lead to cravings and bingeing. You don’t want your “giving in” to lead to overwhelming guilt.

What people think: I can't give myself permission to eat all foods, because I'll be out of control around foods. But intuitive eating principles reduce food stress and allow ourselves to discover what we enjoy and what we don't, in amounts that feel good to our body.


4 - Challenge the food police

Confront the thoughts that you as a person are “good” or “bad” based on what and how much you eat. Diet culture has created unreasonable rules. The food police are the negative, hopeless, or guilty thoughts that you can chase away.

What people think: I won't be able to fight the thoughts that induce guilt around eating certain foods. No worries, intuitive eating includes strategies to challenge your feelings of guilt or shame associated with eating a certain way.


5 - Discover the satisfaction factor

Pleasure and satisfaction are some of the basic gifts of existence. By allowing yourself to feel these when you eat, you can enjoy feeling content and fulfilled.

What people think: If I focus on satisfaction, I'll overeat or binge on foods. However, when you do focus on satisfaction, you will be able to identify the feeling of “enoughness.”


6 - Feel your fullness

Trust that you will give yourself the foods you desire. Pause in the middle of eating and ask how the food tastes. Respect when you become comfortably full.

What people think: No way! I can't listen to cues when I'm hungry. This is true, which is why the intuitive eating process includes not skipping meals or waiting until you're too hungry to care. You'll learn to listen for the signals that you’re not hungry anymore.


7 - Cope with your emotions with kindness

Be kind to yourself. Comfort and nurture yourself. Everyone feels anxiety, loneliness, boredom, and anger. Food won’t fix these feelings—it’s just a short-term distraction. Ultimately, you have to deal with the uncomfortable emotions.

What people think: It's wrong to eat for emotional reasons. In fact, all eating is both emotional and physical. Restricting food can trigger a loss of control and lead to more reliance on food to cope with emotions.


8 - Respect your body

Everyone is genetically unique, whether it’s shoe size or body size. Respecting your body will help you feel better about who you are. Being unrealistic or overly critical of your shape or size makes it hard to reject the diet mentality.

What people think: Body respect is unreachable, especially after breast cancer. It can be more difficult after diagnosis, so start by paying attention and being grateful for what your body can still do after cancer.


9 - Movement—feel the difference

Feel the difference activity makes. Not militant or calorie-burning exercise, but simply moving your body. Focus on how energized it makes you feel.

What people think: I must exercise, it's the only way to lose weight. But this kind of inflexible thinking leads to hating exercise. Intuitive eating encourages finding joyful ways to move your body without focusing on weight loss.


10 - Honor your health—gentle nutrition

Choose foods that honor your tastebuds and health. One snack, meal, or day of eating won’t suddenly make you unhealthy or deficient in nutrients. Look at how you eat over time.

What people think: I have to eat perfectly. Actually, intuitive eating honors your health, as you choose to honor your progress, not perfection.


One donut won't suddenly make you unhealthy
One donut won't suddenly make you unhealthy

The science behind intuitive eating


Studies show that people who eat intuitively tend to also have lower cholesterol and higher levels of body appreciation and mental health. They are also associated with lower blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and inflammation.


A review of eight studies compared “health, not weight loss” eating styles with conventional weight-loss diets. While they found no significant differences in heart disease risk factors between the two types of diets, they did find that body satisfaction and eating behavior improved more for people in the “health, not weight loss” groups.


Another review of 24 studies of female college students showed that those who eat intuitively experience less disordered eating, have a more positive body image, and greater emotional functioning. Another study showed this was also true for cancer survivors.


Overall, there is a growing amount of research that shows the benefits of intuitive eating on both physical and mental health, regardless of your size.


Tips to eat using intuitive eating principles


There are many things you can do to start eating more intuitively and ditch diet culture and “food rules.”


  • Put aside your guilt for previous diets that have failed you. (You have not failed them and you are not bad for participating in them.)

  • Stop focusing on finding or implementing diets that promise easy, permanent weight loss.

  • When you feel like eating, ask yourself if you’re truly physically hungry (and not emotionally hungry).

  • Eat when you’re physically hungry, don’t deprive yourself. Get back in tune with your body’s signals and don’t wait until you’re extremely hungry.

  • Ask yourself what type of food will satisfy you. (Remember, there aren’t “good” or “bad” foods and you don’t need to judge yourself for eating—or not eating—them.)

  • Pay attention to and enjoy your food while you’re eating it (eat mindfully).

  • Stop eating when you are comfortably full.

  • Treat your body with dignity and respect—regardless of its size or shape.

  • Move your body in a way that is enjoyable and see how that makes you feel.

  • Stop worrying about eating perfectly. If you get off track, gently bring yourself back on track.


Bottom line on intuitive eating principles


Intuitive eating helps to improve your relationship with food and your body and mind. It’s about challenging external rules and subconscious habits around eating. It also challenges feelings of guilt or shame associated with eating a certain way.


To eat intuitively, listen to your body’s hunger and fullness cues, enjoy a wide variety of foods (because none are inherently “good” or “bad”), and respect your body.


For a nutritious approach to health based on intuitive eating and Health at Every SizeⓇ, consult a nutrition professional who is versed in these programs. I can help. I've studied intuitive eating with Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, its founders.


Want to enjoy your foods without the guilt from diet culture? Book a chat on my website about making sure to meet your dietary needs.


Subscribe! Get continuous updates on nutrition for cancer survivors. Click this button on the top of the blog page and you'll be directed to the subscribe link.


You're invited to join our new private nutrition group for thrivers on Facebook! https://www.facebook.com/groups/afreshstartforbreastcancerthrivers