Intuitive Eating: the anti-diet we're 100% here for.


One of the side effects of a century and a half of diet culture is that we have a huge and restrictive set of principles when it comes to food. We eat based on calories, or forbid foods and hero foods with the aim of losing weight.

Some of the emotions attached to food and diet are normal, such as liking a particular food or enjoying a birthday cake with your family. Others are not so helpful, such as crippling guilt over eating a piece of bread or a bar of chocolate.

Most of us seem to have a basic level of understanding that what we eat is important to our health and wellbeing.

However, it’s not easy for a lot of people to understand the finer details of a healthy diet. An American study demonstrated that nearly half of the people surveyed thought it was easier to do their taxes than it was to eat healthily.

While we may think we know what is “healthy”, when we’re pressed for the details of nutritious food and a balanced diet, they may elude us.

There are are number of tools we can use to maintain a healthy relationship to food, such as intuitive eating.

Intuitive eating is almost an antithesis to dieting, letting us get back to understanding the cues and signals our bodies send us about eating.

There is a set of 10 principles of intuitive eating: these involve rejecting diet culture, not labelling foods good, bad or forbidden, focusing on health rather than weight, and learning to understand when you’re hungry and when you’re full.



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It’s a way of looking inwards for cues to eat, rather than outwards to models or diets or gym challenges. Tracy Tylka, a body image researcher and Professor of Psychology from Ohio State University, summarised intuitive eating around three basic principles: unconditional permission to eat, eating for physical rather than emotional reasons, and tuning into your body’s cues for when it’s hungry and when it’s full.


Chronic dieting is very good at cutting the ties we have with the needs of our bodies. For example, chronic dieting can actually disrupt the stomach’s function, delaying the signals that get sent to your brain to say you’re done.

Before you know it, you’ve eaten way more than you needed to or intended to because your stomach has no idea what to do anymore.

Intuitive eating was first described by dieticians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch as a way to eat for your body’s need for food rather than for your emotions or the situation: ‘A personal process of honouring health by listening and responding to the direct messages of the body in order to meet your physical and psychological needs.’

Clinical nutritionist Laura Thomas PhD hailed it as a way to get off the chronic dieting merry-go-round.

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Intuitive eating is finding its home in the fight for good health. Since its inception, it has spawned a number of research projects in areas including gut health, weight loss, polycystic ovarian syndrome and eating disorders. There is also some evidence to suggest that intuitive eating can improve our levels of good cholesterol (HDL) and lower bad cholesterol (LDL), which is great news for heart health.

The popularity of intuitive eating in the scientific community has shown some distinct benefits. It has been found to improve body satisfaction, improve the desire to exercise and improve self- compassion. In one study of 200 American university students, intuitive eating was also associated with having a lower BMI. However, intuitive eating is not a way to lose weight and dietitians and nutritionists who practise in this area rightly caution people about this.


Intuitive eating is also not flexible eating, where people take smaller servings of food or compensate at the next meal if they overeat at one meal. Flexible eating still has elements of control, restriction and deprivation that feature in diets and does not have ties to physical or emotional health.

Intuitive eating sounds like a licence to eat whatever you want and Laura Thomas acknowledges that having a ‘f*ck it’ day (or week) may happen, but this is a normal part of the process of your body learning what it needs.

As she puts it, you might ‘hang out in donut town for a couple of weeks, but it’s not sustainable’. Ultimately, our bodies need good nutrition and good food because, when it boils down to it, we all want to feel well.


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We want energy and stamina and health. Research has demonstrated that intuitive eaters tend to have higher diet quality over all, which is really what we need for good emotional and physical health.

It’s not about denial or absolute freedom, but intuitive eating might be a holistic tool that has surprisingly good benefits on our health.

Those who promote intuitive eating as a weight-loss strategy come under heavy scrutiny from dietitians; it is not a weight-loss plan. However, avoiding the chronic yo-yo nature of dieting might, in turn, lead to weight loss or at least weight stabilisation.

One study of overweight intuitive eaters pitted them against calorie counters: the calorie counters lost more weight. Some intuitive eaters lost weight, but not as much as the calorie counters.


In general, intuitive eating isn’t a way to lose weight and should never be considered a ‘diet’. Just like dieters, intuitive eaters can slip back into old ways, losing their body awareness and internal cues.

The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating

  1. Reject the diet mentality: get rid of magazines, books and social media accounts that promote diets. And get mad at them.
  2. Honour your hunger: learn to eat when you’re mildly hungry, not hangry.
  3. Make peace with food: stop calling foods good and bad, and if you want it, have it. Again, this avoids over-indulgence.
  4. Challenge the food police: challenge that internal voice that tells you off for eating something ‘bad’.
  5. Respect your fullness: listen to those body cues that say you have had enough.
  6. Discover the satisfaction factor: get some pleasure from your food.
  7. Honour your feelings without using food: find ways to comfort and nurture your emotional needs without turning to food.
  8. Respect your body: accept your body as it is and don’t try to turn it into something it will never be.
  9. Exercise – feel the difference: be active to feel how remarkable it is to move.
  10. Honour your health: choose foods that help you be healthy as well as taste good. Know that it’s about overall quality, not just one meal or food.

Intuitive eating does need practice, just like any lifestyle change. It needs to come with education about good diet and exercise; it’s not easy to abolish old habits and relearn what it means to be hungry, and we’re doing it in a world that makes it a challenge.

We’re told to drink water if we’re hungry when really hunger necessitates food. We’re served enormous portions that we finish, pushing past our feelings of fullness. Intuitive eating is vastly better than deprivation or stuffing yourself, and brings skills we desperately need but have forgotten. But it isn’t a magic bullet; it’s just one part of the solution when it comes to letting go of diets, diet culture and the havoc that they cause.

This is an edited extract from Pretty Unhealthy: Why our obsession with looking healthy is making us sick by Dr Nikki Stamp (Murdoch Books, $32.99).

Dr Nikki Stamp FRACS is a cardiothoracic surgeon, one of only 11 female heart surgeons in Australia. Her clinical work is at the forefront of cardiothoracic surgery, including transplants and congenital heart disease. She has a particular interest in women’s heart disease and how the medical system can better serve female patients. Nikki is also the author of Can You Die of a Broken Heart? which has been translated into seven languages.