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Forget Dieting — Try Intuitive Eating

By Densie Webb, PhD, RD

Dieting is the bane of all clients who have tried it and failed time and again. And it’s a thorn in the side of dietitians who have encouraged these clients to adopt healthful eating behaviors instead, but were unsuccessful.

What’s frustrating about traditional dieting is that it often causes weight gain over and above a dieter’s starting weight. This can lead to self-loathing, a sense that the whole endeavor is a waste of time and money, and more overeating as a means to feel better—at least temporarily.

Enter the nondieting Intuitive Eating approach. Though there are several nondieting programs, Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, and Elyse Resch, MS, RD, CEDRD, FADA, authors of Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works were the first to develop the concept and the first to promote its virtues back in 1995.

Tribole defines Intuitive Eating as a form of attunement of mind, body, and food. “There are several principles of Intuitive Eating, but they can basically be boiled down to the following four core characteristics: 1) Give yourself unconditional permission to eat with attunement. 2) Rely on internal hunger and satiety cues. 3) Eat for physical rather than emotional reasons. 4) Achieve body-food-choice congruence—choose foods that feel good and energize your body.”

Mindful eating, the process of paying attention to your eating experience without judgment, is a chief principle behind Intuitive Eating. As an RD who counsels clients and instructs other RDs on Intuitive Eating, Tribole says a dietitian’s job is to help clients and patients foster a healthy relationship with the food they eat, so that a slice of pepperoni pizza, that doughnut with sprinkles, or that double cheeseburger with special sauce, becomes less compelling, less of a threat to your client’s physical and emotional well-being.

A healthy relationship with food begins by counseling clients to ask themselves the following three questions before reaching for the next bite:
• “Do I really want to eat this?”
• “Will I enjoy it now or later?” and
• “Will I really taste the food?”

If the answer is “yes,” the Intuitive Eating approach says, go ahead and eat it. No strings attached, no guilt, no “tomorrow I will diet.” The idea is that the food you want—the food that you miss while “dieting”—will cease to be an overwhelming desire for something you know you can’t or shouldn’t have, once you give yourself permission to eat it. And once the allure has faded, so does the longing, and food no longer has control over your client’s life. Trying to ignore a craving for a double chocolate chip cookie and opting for a carrot stick instead is unlikely to satisfy. As the craving continues to haunt, your client is more likely to give in and overcompensate, ie, overeat.

Along with permission to partake, it’s critical to instruct clients how to become aware when they’ve had enough—to recognize, acknowledge, and act upon the cues of being full. Tribole says that while it may seem like a no-brainer to stop eating when you’re full, for chronic dieters and those with a history of eating disorders, it can be nearly impossible without the proper guidance. A key component of that guidance is learning to distinguish biological hunger (hunger pangs, stomach growling, irritability, lightheadedness) from emotional hunger (boredom, anger, anxiety, sadness) and eliminate forced constraint, ie, waiting as long as possible before eating. Only your client knows exactly how he or she feels, both emotionally and physically. Your job is to help clients access and use that knowledge and become the experts on their own physical cues. The intuitive approach encourages individuals to be in tune with their internal body signals, not the numbers on the scale or well-meaning encouragements or admonishments from family and friends.

Interest and research in the area of Intuitive Eating is increasing. Several recent studies have confirmed Tribole’s assertion that Intuitive Eating is a more effective approach than conventional dieting, resulting in lower BMIs and better psychological health.1-5

“Once the allure of ‘forbidden foods’ is taken away, clients can develop a positive attitude toward food and make nourishing food choices that feel good,” Tribole says.

For more information on Intuitive Eating, go to www.intuitiveeating.com for resources and information on counseling seminars, on how to use the Intuitive Eating approach, and how to get Intuitive Eating Certification. To chat with others on the topic, go to www.intuitiveeatingcommunity.org.

— Densie Webb, PhD, RD, is a freelance writer, editor, and industry consultant based in Austin, Texas.


1. Anderson LM, Reilly EE, Schaumberg K, Dmochowski S, Anderson DA. Contributions of mindful eating, Intuitive Eating, and restraint to BMI, disordered eating, and meal consumption in college students [published online August 5, 2015]. Eat Weight Disord. doi: 10.1007/s40519-015-0210-3.

2. Dockendorff SA, Petrie TA, Greenleaf CA, Martin S. Intuitive Eating scale: an examination among early adolescents. J Couns Psychol. 2012;59(4):604-611.

3. Cole RE, Horacek T. Effectiveness of the “My Body Knows When” intuitive-eating pilot program. Am J Health Behav. 2010;34(3):286-297.

4. Denny KN, Loth K, Eisenberg ME, Neumark-Sztainer D. Intuitive Eating in young adults. Who is doing it, and how is it related to disordered eating behaviors? Appetite. 2013;60(1):13-19.

5. Van Dyke N, Drinkwater EJ. Relationships between Intuitive Eating and health indicators: literature review. Public Health Nutr. 2014;17(8):1757-1766.