Intuitive Eating

Three interrelated features of intuitive eating

  • When hungry, allowing yourself unconditional permission to eat desired food. 
  • Eating based on physiological hunger cues as apposed to emotional cues. 
  • Relying on hunger and satiety cues to decide when and how much to eat. 

The Oxford dictionary defines intuition as, based on what one feels to be true even without conscious reasoning; instinctive (1). 
Intuitive eating can therefore be defined as the dynamic mind-body integration of instinct, emotional thoughts and using rational thinking (2).
Breaking the definition down further and giving a practical example, intuitive eating is saying...
You eat when you’re hungry, you eat what you fancy, and you don’t feel guilty (3). 

The concept of intuitive eating was created in 1995, It recognises and encourages the idea that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods. Intuitive eating promotes a sustainable lifestyle change and does not involve measuring out or recording the foods that you eat. It simply proposes mindful eating by the process of paying attention to our food and enjoying the experience without passing judgement. Intuitive eating aims to help patients and consumers adopt a healthy relationship with food and what they eat and ditch the stereotypical diet mentality. 

Intuitive eating is individualised, forming a strong connection with and developing an understanding of eating in response to internal physiological hunger and satiety cues. 

Intuitive eating allows us to think about our own relationship with food.
Take two minutes just now and stop and think about your relationship with food? 

Ask yourself these three questions 

“Do I really want to eat this?”
“Will I enjoy this food now and will I still enjoy this food later?”
“Will I really taste this food and enjoy it?”

If the answer is yes, take your first bite and enjoy your meal, whatever it may be. There are no strings attached, no feelings of immediate guilt or guilty feelings later. 

If you are unsure how to answer some of these questions, or you feel guilty or you say “the diet will start tomorrow”, continue reading to learn more about intuitive eating and how this principle may benefit you. 

Most people don’t like ‘diets’, the word tends to be associated with words such as:
Socially awkward
Self-control and motivation.

The problem occurs when there is one blip or downfall in one’s 'diet', the sense of catastrophe sets in alongside an overwhelming feeling of guilt. Your thoughts reverse and your 'diet' is over as swiftly as it started. In general, diets do not work when it comes to weight loss and then weight maintenance.

In response to the low success rate of dieting, and with overweight and obesity rates at an all-time high, allied health professionals and dietitian's are trying a number of alternative approaches to help educate and inform the general public on healthier eating. The key to success may lie in breaking down the issues which cause you to overeat in the first instance, by working on the root of the problem and focusing on techniques to deal with external triggers. 

Often active individuals follow an overly prescribed diet and nutrition plan, ensuring their calorie  and macro nutrients targets are met daily and match their exercise demands. From reading the above it would seem that intuitive eating and typical strict diets of athletes would not go hand in hand. However, active individuals are at a much higher risk of developing some forms of disordered eating, therefore implementing the principles of intuitive eating can help combat this. 

Adopting the principle of intuitive eating for athletes. 
9 Tips for Athletes. 

  1. Reject the stereotypical 'diet' mentality – A dietitian can provide education on diets and the negative side effects of fad diets on health and wellbeing if not undertaken with care. For example, they can teach athletes the effects of low blood sugar, dehydration and injury risk when undertaking a diet and help them understand and identify their individual nutritional needs for the demands they put on their body. 
  2. Honour your hunger - The simple principle of listening to your internal cues. Without sounding obvious, this means to eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full. Food can be left over, boxed up and eaten later. Or, if you have had an intense exercise session and are still feeling ravenous, be comfortable with increasing your calorie intake to ensure adequate recovery. Some athletes may get to the point of actually overeating by having excessively large meals due to an inadequate energy intake throughout the day. This is where a dietitian can help counsel athletes on structuring their daily schedules and eating patterns,  with adequate energy intake before and during a long workout, athletes can avoid feeling the need to eat quickly and impulsively, enabling them to pay better attention to fullness cues. 
  3. Make peace with food – For athletes, food rules and food rituals are common. Influences from social media, sporting cultures, gossip from teammates, friends and coaches can produce stigmas. Dietitians must be able to balance the “all foods fit in a healthy diet” mentality with an understanding and knowledge that certain nutrients must be consumed in higher or lower amounts before and during exercise to avoid gastrointestinal (stomach) discomfort and subsequent low energy levels, as well as optimising post exercise recovery. 
  4. Don't be afraid to challenge the food police – Athletes have the tendency to look to coaches and trainers for nutritional advice more so than registered dietitians, they frequently get their nutritional information from an array of sources such as supplement companies and the media, which may not be relevant, up-to-date or evidence-based. This misinformation may cause some athletes to adopt strange eating habits, for example some may fear certain nutrients (e.g. carbohydrates), eating in an unconventional pattern or continually consuming insufficient calories. A dietitian can help to explain the scope of dietetic practice to athletes to promote a healthy, balanced and adequate diet and how it differs from that of the general population. 
  5. Love your food. Discover the satisfaction factor and enjoy the food that you eat. Enjoying food mindfully and ensuring you are getting enough food throughout the day to fuel your activities, as well as enjoying those foods that were previously “off limits” to avoid a the sense of a restrictive diet and become mentally content and satisfied. Additional education around nutrient timing for workouts and competitions will allow the addition of 'treat' food without impacting on performance. For example, educating on fat content of 'treat' foods, or suggesting food pairings - small treat food with an adequate protein source post workout. 
  6. Separate your feelings and emotions from food. Athletes may be prone to high stress and anxiety levels due to training or competition. This change in emotional state may lead to undereating and loss of appetite, but for others it can lead to overeating as a coping mechanism. Identifying the source of stress during one-to-one white board sessions and working together to formulate healthful copying strategies to manage stressful situations such as yoga,  meditation and talking through the issues with a coach or dietitian. Emphasising that food is not punishment, it should not be restricted or enforced; finding the satisfaction in the food we eat, ditching the diet snacks and enjoying nourishing food is the key to a happy athlete. 
  7. Respect and Love your body – Learning to love and embrace your body in whatever shape or size that it comes in, as all bodies are beautiful. Female athletes tend to be more susceptible to feeling insecure in a lean body that’s more muscular than the average woman. Sitting down with your athletes and having open discussions on respecting’s one’s body may be different with each athletic population, for example some athletes need to understand that their muscles provide strength to achieve their sporting goals, while other may need to help in avoiding comparing their body with that of leaner athletes. 
  8. Giving exercise respect – Being aware of your exercise habits as an athlete. Are you exercising simply because not exercising intensely makes them anxious? Do you feel the need to continue exercising by adding additional workouts on top of the prescribed workloads simply to burn more calories and not because its enjoyable? Take some time to reflect and remind yourself what your why is, what is your ultimate goal or remind yourself what you enjoy about your sport and competition.
  9. Making health the priority – Food and exercise should make you as an athlete feel good. However, if there are frequent episodes of sickness or injury, it may be an indication that your diet is inadequate and therefore not supporting your prescribed activity in addition to other extraneous variables. In female athletes inadequate nutrition can lead to irregular periods or cause them to stop altogether, so registered dietitians may need to discuss the short and long term consequences of menstrual dysfunction. 


2. Tribole, E., & Resche, E. (1995). Intuitive eating: A recovery book for the chronic dieter. New York: St Martin's Press. 
3.Tylka, T (2006). Development and psychometric evaluation of a measure of intuitive eating. Journal of Counselling Psychology. 53(2)226-240.

Lindsay Benson