There’s a lot of interest in Intuitive Eating, and as a certified Intuitive Eating counselor I work with a lot of clients who are actively working on reclaiming their intuitive eating skills. (I say “reclaim,” because we are all born with the ability to eat intuitively, it just tends to get knocked out of us along the way.) While learning to become an intuitive eater again can be hard work—as learning/relearning any set of skills and habits can be—it’s unnecessarily hard, not to mention frustrating, when would-be intuitive eaters fall into one of these three common traps.

Permission without attunement

One of the core philosophies of Intuitive Eating is permission to eat, which falls under the principles “Honor Your Hunger” and “Make Peace With Food.” To some people, that may sound silly, but the reality is that many (most?) people don’t allow themselves to eat certain foods, because they aren’t “healthy” or they are too “fattening” or they fear if they start eating those foods they’ll never stop. Or, they feel they don’t deserve to eat when they are hungry, possibly because it’s “too soon” after their previous meal (“I can’t possibly be hungry…what’s wrong with me?”).

However, another core philosophy is attunement, or listening to your body’s wants and needs and using them to guide your eating instead of relying on external rules. Here are some examples of what eating with both permission and attunement might look like:

  • Eating when you are hungry (or when you know you’ll be hungry at a time you won’t be able to eat, so you eat something “preemptively”).
  • Tuning in to signs that you’re satisfied and ready to stop eating.
  • Paying attention to how it feels if you stop eating when you are overfull or, conversely, don’t give yourself that crucial permission to eat until satisfied.
  • Being curious about how different foods or combinations of foods make you feel physically—energetic or tired, satisfied for hours or hungry in an hour.
  • Noticing how it feels to eat what your body tells you it’s hungry for, rather than what some set of external rules says you “should” eat.

When permission to eat doesn’t go hand-in-hand with attunement, it’s not intuitive eating, its dysregulated eating…at least once you are past the “honeymoon period” (more on that below). If permission without attunement continues, one could argue that it’s not true permission anymore, because it’s more reactionary (perhaps even rebellious) rather than being centered on your true wants and needs in a particular time, space and circumstance.

Attunement without permission (aka, the hunger-fullness diet)

It’s important to give yourself unconditional permission to eat when you’re hungry, but that permission doesn’t just extend to “good” foods. An example I heard somewhere (I think from Christy Harrison) and use often is to ask, “What’s healthier, an apple or a cheeseburger?” The answer is “It depends.” Why?

Because if you are just a little bit hungry, and maybe you know you have a meal coming up in an hour or two, then the apple would be the better option, because you need a snack, not a meal. You might also have a yen for something cool, crisp and fresh, and the apple would fit that bill.

On the other hand, if it’s time for a meal, and you need something filling, then the apple isn’t going to cut it. The burger would be a better option, because it’s going to satisfy you longer, and you’ll get ample protein, which you would not get from the apple.

Does this mean you ought to eat burgers all the time? Probably not (in part because you likely wouldn’t feel very good), but it’s not a good idea to try to subsist on apples, either!

If you find that you are using attunement to your hunger and fullness cues as a rigid guide to when to eat (for example, you feel that you are being “good” if you never eat when you are not hungry, and “bad” when you eat past the point of fullness), then you are still caught in a dieter’s mindset. Ditto if you only allow yourself to satisfy hunger with foods that meet some set of extrinsic criteria, aka “good” and “bad” foods.

Intuitive eating mistakes: Photo of a stopwatch on a chain swinging back and forth like a pendulum
Ignoring nutrition (or worrying that you are)

But…does that mean you ignore nutrition? No. “Gentle nutrition” is the 10th and final principle of Intuitive Eating. Why final? Because, frankly, most people who have a history of dieting already know quite a bit about nutrition, and perhaps some anxiety about whether they are eating “correctly.” But the authors of Intuitive Eating, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, are registered dietitians who do care about nutrition!

One big misconception about Intuitive Eating is that it’s the eff-it-all diet. What is true is that there’s often sometimes a “honeymoon” period when starting to eat intuitively that may involve eating a lot of whatever foods you haven’t been allowing yourself (ice cream, cookies, you name it). The length and strength of that honeymoon period may be somewhat proportional to how long your history of dieting is, or the degree to which you’ve been restricting.

Another way to think of the honeymoon period is that your body is overcorrecting for the physical and/or mental restriction you’ve been experiencing. Think of a pendulum: the further the pendulum swings one direction, the further it will then swing the other direction. Someone (I think Deb Burgard) described it as swinging from Dietland to Donutland—eventually, if you give yourself time and space, and permission along with attunement, you’ll end up in a neutral, balanced, more peaceful place, aka Discernment.

On the flip side, I’ve had clients new to intuitive eating who freak out because they crave broccoli. They worry that they are slipping back into their old dieting ways. That’s where curiosity helps. What is it about broccoli that you want? The crispness? The taste of the little black floret tips when you roast it? The way it provides satisfying balance and color to the other components of your meal? Or, is your desire based more on what you “should” eat or guilt/fear that you aren’t eating enough vegetables. This will help you decided if your yearning for broccoli is intuitive, or diet-y.

The bottom line

Sadly, intuitive eating is often sold as a diet, or perhaps a non-diet diet, but that is not what intuitive eating is about. It’s about creating a healthy relationship with food, mind and body…period. If you want to learn more, the go-to resources are the books “Intuitive Eating—A Revolutionary Program That Works” and “The Intuitive Eating Workbook—10 Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship With Food,” both by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD and Elyse Resch, MS, RD.

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Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!