Intuitive eating pleasure is partly about eating what makes you happy. This photo is of a red neon sign that says "Eat What Makes You Happy" in front of a brick wall.

One of the questions I received in what I’ve now decided will be my annual “What do you want me to write about?” survey (thanks everyone for your great responses), was “How does pleasure work with the intuitive eating model?” Considering that I wrote about using mindfulness to increase pleasure and happiness last week, I thought I would continue on the pleasure train this week.

If you are practicing intuitive eating in a way that honors the intention behind intuitive eating, then there’s plenty of pleasure. Now, let’s unpack that sentence, because there’s a lot there!

First, you’ll notice I didn’t say, “If you are practicing intuitive eating correctly…”. That’s because there’s no one “right” or “correct” way to practice intuitive eating. That said, many people promote or practice it in a way that doesn’t honor the intention behind it. One example would be promoting intuitive eating for weight loss. (When someone practices intuitive eating, they might lose weight, they might gain weight, or they might stay at the same weight, depending on many factors). Another is turning the principles of “Honor Your Hunger” and “Feel Your Fullness” into something more along the lines of “You can only eat when you’re hungry and you have to stop when you start to feel full (or sometimes before you get full).” That’s not intuitive eating. The principles are guidelines, not rules.

Intuitive eating pleasure can include enjoying a piece of chocolate cake, guilt free, as this woman in a sleeveless white-and-yellow polka dot dress is doing in this photo, smiling brightly with dark pink lipstick, sitting on a pink picnic blanket set with a tea pot and tea cups.
What is pleasure?

Second, what do we mean when we talk about pleasure? Eating chocolate cake is pleasurable (well, for most people), but if you eat so much chocolate cake that you have a stomach ache, is that pleasurable? What about if you ate nothing but chocolate cake for a week? You wouldn’t feel very good, and you would probably be so bored with chocolate cake that you never wanted to eat it again, a la Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory.

On the flip side, let’s say you eat, a nice piece of grilled salmon, with some roasted broccoli and a small sweet potato. You would experience the pleasure of satisfying your hunger, and fueling your body with a balance of nutrients that left you feeling energized afterward. But what if that was one of the few dinner combinations you allowed yourself? What if you really wanted a slice of chocolate cake for dessert—a favorite treat that you haven’t had for a long time—but told yourself “No” because you weren’t hungry—and because chocolate cake is “bad” for you.

In both scenarios, there’s pleasure to be had, up to a point, but then the pleasure is squelched by either excess or deprivation. In the first scenario, the pendulum has swung far in one direction. In the other scenario, it’s swung completely the opposite direction. What we’re looking for is a middle ground. That’s the place where true pleasure lives.

A graphic of Ellyn Satter's hierarchy of food needs.
Hierarchy of food need

Intuitive eating draws from a number of sources, including the work of Ellyn Satter, who developed the Hierarchy of Food Need (a twist on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). Starting from the bottom, or most essential need, you have:

  • Enough food. If you are food insecure, on a restrictive diet, or stuck somewhere without so much as an emergency snack bar in your bag or purse, then getting enough food is priority one.
  • Acceptable food. Once you have enough food, do you have enough acceptable food? This is the type of food you prefer, and food preferences vary from person to person.
  • Reliable access to food. Do you know you will have enough food, ideally enough of your preferred foods, tomorrow? Next week? Lack of reliable access to food is why people who can only afford to grocery shop once a month, or who go on and off restrictive diets, are prone to binging when access to food resumes. That access might be granted by yourself or by a new allotment of food stamps.
  • Good-tasting food. Once you have enough food, you become more particular about your food, prioritizing enjoyment. This brings even more pleasure
  • Novel food. Once you’re use to having enough food, and enough of your favorite foods, you want more variety. You might try new foods, or try eating favorite foods prepared in different ways. This enhances sensory pleasure further, but it also can make your overall diet more varied and nutritious.
  • Instrumental food. This is the category of food that you might consider “good for you.” It’s also the only tier that dietary recommendations pay attention to. Ironically, not forcing yourself to eat fruits and vegetables will allow them to become foods you eat for pleasure. As Ellyn told me once, “People eat nutritious food because they enjoy it, not because they have to. The bedrock is that you enjoy eating and feel good about it.”
A close up photo of someone in a gray sweater holding a red-and-yellow apple.
Discover the satisfaction factor

Bringing it back to intuitive eating, specifically, once you ditch the diet mentality (Principle 1), you can start making peace with food. This includes internalizing the fact that there are no “good” foods and no “bad” foods, in a moral, virtuous sense. Yes, as Evelyn Tribole, co-author of the book “Intuitive Eating,” often says, it’s true that an apple and a slice of apple pie are not nutritionally equivalent, but they ARE morally equivalent.

When you make peace with food, and accept that you can have a cookie anytime you want a cookie, you won’t suddenly start eating cookies all day, every day. (One caveat: depending on your level of prior deprivation, there may be an initial “honeymoon” period where you are eating a lot of the foods that you had previously defined as “bad” or off-limits). You’ll actually become choosier.

If you can have a cookie anytime you want a cookie, why would you eat that cheap grocery store cookie that someone brought into work. After all, you could get a cookie from that fabulous bakery down the street if you really wanted one right now? You’re no longer doing a land grab whenever a “forbidden” food crosses your path. This enhances pleasure, because you’re not just having any cookie, you’re having the kind of cookie you really want, at a time when you truly want it.

Intuitive eating pleasure includes having holiday dessert if you want it, but saying no if you don't. Photo of a slice of pumpkin pie with a dollop of whipped cream on a white plate, sitting on a wooden table with three pinecones behind it.
Intuitive eating and the holidays

How would an intuitive eater handle holiday deserts? They would have that slice of pumpkin pie if they really wanted it (or even a sliver of all three pies on offer) and thought it would be tasty. If they took the pie, and it wasn’t tasty, they would feel free to not finish it. If they really, really enjoyed the savory portion of the meal, and realized that they were a little to full to truly enjoy dessert, and felt they could take it or leave it, they would leave it—or take some to go to enjoy the next day.

All of these options enhance the pleasure of having the pie, if they ultimately choose to have pie. It also sustains the pleasure of having eaten enough at the main meal to feel satisfied, or even gently full, without going to the point of being uncomfortably full. That said, eating to the point of overfullness is not a failure. (It might be an opportunity for gentle curiosity, such as, “That’s weird, I specifically did not want to end up this full, now what exactly happened? How can I learn from this?”). However, when you feel uncomfortably full, it dims the pleasure of the meal you just enjoyed, as you become focused on how long it will take for the discomfort to fade.

Photo of a young woman with long brown hair, mirrored sunglasses and a white, eyelet off-the-shoulder blouse, holding a fork with a piece of watermelon on it, smiling as she looks to her left.
Finding food pleasure where you wouldn’t expect it

Food is fuel, food is pleasure. Ideally you get both in the same meal, but that doesn’t always happen, and that’s OK. There’s pleasure in all three scenarios: fueling your body well, mindfully savoring a delicious desert, and enjoying a delicious meal with or without dessert as a capper.

One you’ve reached the point of allowing yourself pleasurable, formerly forbidden foods, they become less of a big deal. You become freer to find pleasure from all sorts of foods, nutritious foods or fun foods. That involves checking in with yourself about what would feel good and taste good. Do you want hot or cold? Crisp or creamy? Hearty or light? Cooked or fresh? Do you need your meal or snack to keep you satisfied for two hours, or four? Your answers will guide your choices, and make your meal or snack more pleasurable on more levels than simply taste.

For example, when it’s summer and you’re sitting outside eating a cool, crisp salad for lunch, that’s pleasurable. When it’s extra chilly outside and you’re curled up inside with a comforting bowl of soup or a cup of tea, that’s pleasurable.

You could say that intuitive eating helps you find the pleasure of truly nourishing yourself. And something I’ve seen over and over again is that when people embrace the practice of intuitive eating, they start nourishing themselves better in ways that have nothing to do with food, specifically. Setting boundaries. Trying that new yoga or dance class. Going for a walk because they want to, not because they “have to.”

I hope that answers the question!

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!

Print This Post Print This Post