Intuitive Eating

Three interrelated features of intuitive eating

  • Giving oneself unconditional permission to eat desired foods when  hungry 
  • Basing eating on physiological hunger as opposed to emotional eating 
  • Reliance 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.
You eat when you’re hungry, you eat what you fancy, and you don’t feel guilty (2). 

Intuitive eating is a concept that 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’s simply proposes mindful eating by the process of paying attention to our food and experience without passing judgement, to help patients and consumers adapt a healthy relationship with food and what they eat. 

Intuitive eating is individualised and is a strong connection with, understanding of, and eating in response to internal physiological hunger and satiety cues united with a low preoccupation with food. 

Intuitive eating allows us to think about our relationship with food, have you ever stopped to think about your relationship with food? 

Ask yourself these three questions 

“Do I really want to eat this?”
“Will I enjoy this food now or later?”
“will I really taste the food?”

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 guilt. 

If you are unsure to the answer to some of these, 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 turn 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 retaliation to the low success rate of dieting and with overweight and obesity rates at an all-time high, allied health professional and dietitian are tying a number of different approaches to help education and inform the general public on healthier eating. By working on the root of the problem and focusing techniques on how to deal with external triggers that cause you to overeat may well be the key to success. 

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

  1. Reject the diet mentality – Providing education on diets and the negative side effects of fad diets on health and wellbeing if not undertaken with care. Teaching athletes on the effects of low blood sugar, dehydration and injury risk when undertaking a diet and helping them understand 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 still feeling ravenous, be comfortable to increase your calorie intake to ensure adequate recovery. Some athletes may get to the point of overeating by having excessively large meals due to 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” mentality with an understanding 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 nutritional intake post exercise to ensure adequate 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, but they frequently get their nutritional information from an array of sources such as supplement companies or the media and may not be relevant, up-to-date or evidence-based. This can cause athletes to adopt strange eating habits, for example some may fear certain nutrients, adopt strange eating patterns or continually have inadequate energy intake. Our role as a dietitian is to respectfully explain the scope of practice and that a healthful and adequate diet for an athlete is altogether different from that for the general population.
  5. Love your food. Discover the satisfaction factor and enjoy the food that you eat, along with getting enough fuel throughout the day, enjoying foods mindfully that were previously “off limits” on a regular basis can leave clients feeling more mentally content and satisfied. With athletes, there may be a need for additional education about timing of treats around workout and competitions, depending on their fat content, or pairing a small portion of a treat 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. So help athlete find healthful outlets to manage stress such as yoga and meditation. Food is not punishment; find the satisfaction in the food we eat, ditching the diet snacks and enjoying nourishing food. 
  7. Respect and Love your body – Athletes in particular, female athletes are prone 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 client population, for example some clients need to understand that their muscles provide strength to achieve their goals, while other may need to help in avoiding comparing their body with that of leaner athletes. Reinforcing the body positivity notion and allowing yourself to love yourself. Encouraging the principle of health at every size and embracing that all bodies are beautiful. 
  8. Giving exercise respect – Being aware of your athletes exercise habits. Are your athletes exercising simply because not exercising intensely makes them anxious? Do your athletes feel the need to continue exercising by adding additional workouts on top of the prescribed workload simply to burn more calories and not because its enjoyable? Many athletes need to reflect and remind themselves what their why is, what is their ultimate goal or be reminded about what they enjoy about physical activity and competition so they can fully understand.
  9. Making health the priority – Reminding athletes that food and exercise should make them feel good. However, if there are frequent episodes of sickness or injury, it may be an indication that the athletes diet is inadequate and therefore not supporting their 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. T. Tylka (2006). Development and psychometric evaluation of a measure of intuitive eating. Journal of Counselling Psychology. 53(2)226-240.

Lindsay Benson