Intuitive eating, or listening to your body and its cues around food, is an increasingly-popular framework for nutrition. It draws people in who are interested in giving up dieting and want to finally make peace with food without neglecting their health.
Oftentimes, people’s disordered relationships with food parallel their relationships with movement. They may be caught up in all-or-nothing thoughts and behaviors, follow rigid rules, and act in a way that is totally disconnected from their bodies’ cues. For that reason, practicing intuitive eating often promotes intuitive movement—a more attuned, self-compassionate approach to physical activity.
So, why practice intuitive eating?
Intuitive eating is a non-diet, weight-neutral framework for nutrition made up of 10 principles. Intuitive eaters use their body’s internal cues and signals to guide eating rather than external rules and restrictions typical of diets. For many, intuitive eating offers a path to healing from chronic dieting. It allows you to make peace with food, exercise, and your body while still practicing gentle nutrition, on of intuitive eating’s core principles.
“Gentle nutrition is about giving your body the nutrients it needs without restricting or micromanaging your food intake, and while also eating foods that feel tasty and satisfying,” Christine Byrne, MPH, RD, a Raleigh-based dietitian who specializes in eating disorders, previously told Well+Good.
Psychologically, some mental benefits of intuitive eating include increasing self-esteem and body appreciation, decreasing disordered eating behaviors or risk of eating disorders, and increasing the overall quality of life and satisfaction, explains Kathleen Castrejon, RDN, LDN, non-diet dietitian at Nourishment Works.
And while the mental benefits of not stressing over every morsel of food you put in your body are profound, there are also a lot of physical benefits of intuitive eating as well. Castrejon says, “Biomarkers such as blood sugar levels may be more managed when eating intuitively. Another physical benefit of intuitive eating is that it can increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and decrease triglycerides, decreasing the risk of heart disease.”
Intuitive eating is a framework rooted in self-compassion and kindness. Too often, we are told we have to restrict our favorite foods, punish ourselves with harsh exercise routines, or lose weight to be happy and healthy. Intuitive eating is an alternative approach backed by research that is rooted in compassionate self-care and body trust.
The intuitive eating process is a journey. It takes time and will not be linear. It will involve acknowledging your food rules and letting go of them one by one. It will involve eating foods you’ve come to label as “bad” or “unhealthy” and letting go of those black-and-white terms. It will involve learning to nourish your body in a way that feels good for you. It will involve restoring trust with your body. And it won’t be limited to just food.
How giving up dieting leads to intuitive movement
The ninth principle of intuitive eating is “Movement-Feel the Difference.” It encapsulates finding movement—a gentler alternative to exercise—that feels good in your body and that you enjoy. Some call this intuitive movement. Lauren Leavell, NASM certified personal trainer, group fitness instructor, and body positive content creator, says, “To me, intuitive movement is about listening to your body and moving in ways that help you connect with it.”
Part of what Leavell is describing is interoceptive awareness, a central part of intuitive eating. Castrejon explains, “Interoceptive awareness is described by Resch and Tribole, the creators of intuitive eating, as one’s ability to recognize our body’s cues or sensations. This awareness can help someone’s relationship with movement because it can serve as a guide for what feels good and help someone incorporate consistent intuitive or joyful movement instead of moving for weight loss or body changes.” When we learn to connect to our body’s cues for things like hunger and fullness, we practice connecting with our body as a whole—something that can positively influence our movement practice as well.
When we’re stuck in the diet mentality, we get caught in a lot of mental traps around movement. We often think of it as something rigid, intense, and serious. We make up rules around movement similar to those we make for food. These could include:
- The length of time a workout has to be for it to “count”
- The type of movement you have to do for it to “count”
- The time of day you have to workout
- The physical changes in weight or body shape you “must see” for it to be “worth it”
- The number of days you have to workout each week
- The refusal to end a workout early
For many, what comes to mind when they think of moving their body for health is a tough gym session or a long run. And while some people truly enjoy that type of movement, many people don’t. By connecting with our bodies through intuitive eating and leaning into some gray area around food, we can do the same with movement. Leavell says, “With anything, starting can be super difficult, especially if someone has always had a strained relationship with exercise and movement. I would recommend starting small and pairing your movement to existing things you do. This could look like adding a few minutes of stretching in the morning after you brush your teeth or in the evening before bed.”
The type and length of movement that feels good one day may be different the next day and that’s okay. You don’t have to stick with a rigid, repetitive movement routine for it to be health-promoting. In fact, if you are more in tune with the type of movement that feels good for you instead of forcing yourself into a box that wasn’t meant for you, it will probably be more sustainable. Leavell says, “I would recommend not getting discouraged right away if the first thing you try doesn’t work out. Some people prefer more structure and others like more flexibility.”
Embrace rest guilt-free
If we’re talking about movement, then we have to talk about rest. Rest is a necessary part of your movement practice. And in our society steeped in grind culture, rest can even be a form of resistance.
Our bodies need rest. Even the most elite athletes need to take rest days. You may think, “But they’re working out all day! They earn the rest.” But the thing is, you don’t need to earn your rest. It is something you deserve no matter what.
If you do have a regular movement practice, you will need rest days to allow your body to recover. These rest days may look different for you at different times. Leavell says, “There are going to be rest days where you naturally get more movement from doing things throughout the day. There can also be rest days where you genuinely reduce your movement down to the minimum and allow your body to recover. You do not have to earn rest, and it is beneficial to schedule some rest days in to your life.”
Be mindful as to whether guilt creeps into your rest days. Especially if you’re healing from a disordered relationship to movement, guilt and anxiety may arise when you start prioritizing rest. Remember that rest is essential. You may even pick up a new hobby like reading, knitting, or writing! Ultimately, striking a balance between movement and rest is key.
By embracing intuitive eating, you won’t only heal your relationship with food, but also your relationship with movement. There are so many parallels in these two relationships. Embracing more flexibility in one can serve as the foundation for doing the same in the other. Treating ourselves and our bodies with kindness and compassion is at the root of the intuitive eating framework. Finding joyful, intuitive movement can help you feel better in your body without the harsh rules typical of diet-related fitness routines and may even make it more sustainable.