How To Eat Intuitively When Your Cravings Lead You To Donuts, Pasta & Cake

Intuitive eating encourages you to use your bodily sensations of hunger, fullness, and satisfaction, along with your own life experiences, to drive what you eat. But what about nutrition?

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You open up Seamless, prepared to make what feels like your most important decision of the day: what to order for dinner. You know the nutrient-rich choice would probably be one of those overpriced kale salad bowls or something. You’ve read the wellness blogs, you know the nutrition stuff. But — hold up. What about that whole intuitive eating thing you heard about, which encourages you to honor your cravings when making food decisions?
If your intuition is at the wheel, you’re ordering chicken parm. And pasta. And burrata. And cannolis, too. And you’re also devouring all of those leftover holiday cookies you said you wouldn’t touch in the freezer. Food is delicious, and your intuition doesn’t lie.
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But going to town on an Italian family-style meal for one probably won’t make you feel great that night or the next day. So, should you let your “intuition” strong-arm you into ordering the chicken parm? Probably, says Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, a registered dietitian, author, and pioneer of intuitive eating.
This sort of thought process and fear of overeating is common for people who are first learning about intuitive eating. If you’ve never heard of this method before, it’s a 10-principle concept that was originated by Tribole and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN in the ‘90s, and is employed by dietitians as a way to help people make peace with food and eat in a way that’s enjoyable.

The overall goal is to eventually use these principles, along with your own life experiences, to drive what you eat — even on the occasions when your intuition leads you to the chicken parm (yes, really).

The principles of intuitive eating are: reject the diet mentality, honor your hunger, make peace with food, challenge the food police, respect your fullness, discover the satisfaction factor, honor your feelings without using food, respect your body, exercise, and honor your health through gentle nutrition. The overall goal is to eventually use these principles, along with your own life experiences, to drive what you eat — even on the occasions when your intuition leads you to the chicken parm (yes, really).
One common assumption people have about intuitive eating is that it’s a lazy excuse for eating whatever you want — but it’s way more nuanced than that. We know traditional diets that encourage restriction with an end-goal of weight loss are not sustainable long-term, so they often lead to weight cycling, or cyclical weight loss and gain. More and more evidence shows that negative health outcomes are actually associated with weight-cycling or “yo-yo dieting,” rather than simply being a certain weight, explains Alyssa Pike, RD, a registered dietitian at the International Food Council Foundation.
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Contrary to popular belief, when you give yourself permission to eat a food whenever you want, the “off-limits” foods become even less interesting.

Intuitive eating is not intended as a method for losing weight, and it’s not possible to predict how a person’s body will respond to intuitive eating, says Kathleen Meehan, MS, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian in Houston. “If a person has been restricting forever, it’s possible that they see weight changes and weight gain when they become more attune to what their needs are,” she says. But we do know that intuitive eaters are less-likely to weight-cycle, which means they’ll achieve a weight and stay relatively in this range, instead of going up and down from crash-dieting, Pike says.
Photographed by Heami Lee, Food Styled by Lauren La Penna.
Perhaps more importantly, intuitive eating has been shown to improve people’s relationship to food, Pike says. In studies, people who implement intuitive eating feel less anxious about food, and have lower levels of disordered eating and body image concerns. Many people seek out intuitive eating because they’re sick of dieting, they’ve tried everything, or they’ve had it with “diet culture,” and want to figure out a way of eating that’s gratifying but also health-promoting. When Victoria*, 35, from Orange County first heard about intuitive eating a few years ago, she had tried every keto and low-carb diet out there, and knew she needed something different to lose weight. Quickly, her goals changed: “As I learned more about intuitive eating, I realized you can't really change your relationship with food while trying to lose weight at the same time,” she says.
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In studies, people who implement intuitive eating feel less anxious about food, and have lower levels of disordered eating and body image concerns. Many people seek out intuitive eating because they’re sick of dieting, they’ve tried everything, or they’ve had it with “diet culture,” and want to figure out a way of eating that’s gratifying but also health-promoting.

There’s another misconception that intuitive eating couldn’t possibly be right for everyone. But in reality, anyone can benefit from some of the principles, Meehan says. There are a lot of benefits to eating healthier and improving your relationship to food besides weight loss. “Intuitive eating can serve as an undercurrent as to how you think about, and experience, and appreciate food and your body, no matter what your story or experience has been,” she says. If you have certain health conditions, such as celiac disease or diabetes, that doesn’t preclude you from trying intuitive eating. In short, you can work within the framework and apply it to any medical condition, Meehan explains.
The intuitive eating principles support what Fatima Cody Stanford, MD, MPH, an obesity medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells her patients. “I think that ‘intuitive eating’ tends to align with the idea that our biology interacts with the environment and this plays a role in our intake, hunger, and satiety,” she says.
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Now, back to the quinoa-kale salad bowl vs. chicken parm dilemma. There’s a time and place for nutrition in intuitive eating, and it’s the last principle in the process (honor your health) for a reason. Before you can reintroduce nutrition considerations when making food decisions, a lot of the legwork has to be spent healing your relationship with food, explains Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD, of Street Smart Nutrition. And that includes giving yourself permission to eat chicken parm if you want it.
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While it may be true that there’s a big difference nutritionally between a kale salad and chicken parm, the chicken parm might be in the best interest for your emotional health in terms of feeling satisfied and not having guilt — two important tenets of intuitive eating, Tribole explains. So, you shouldn’t discount those cravings. “When we’re looking at health, we’re looking at total health here,” she says. “Not just what you eat, but emotional health, too.”
In many ways, your emotional health can drive your physical health. When you’re taught to avoid certain foods, it only intensifies your cravings for the food — whether it’s chicken parm or jelly donuts — even more, Tribole explains. With intuitive eating, you’re encouraged to get rid of any restrictions or judgements about food, and give yourself permission to eat whatever you want, whenever you want. “It puts all foods on an equal playing field,” says Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CDN, CSCS, a registered dietitian and intuitive eating coach. If your gut reaction to this idea is a terrifying fear that you’d get out of control, or eat to an uncomfortable point of fullness, then that typically reflects the amount of time that you’ve spent depriving yourself, Tribole says.

Contrary to popular belief, when you give yourself permission to eat a food whenever you want, the “off-limits” foods become even less interesting.

This pattern of behavior reflects what Harbstreet calls the “restrict, rebel, repent” cycle, which is the pendulum swing that happens when we try to restrict consuming certain foods. On one end of this pendulum, we decide we need to give up foods that we’ve deemed as “bad” for the foreseeable future. What that does is put the food on a pedestal, and you become obsessed, Pike says. But, Harbstreet explains, “We can only really maintain that distance from that food for so long before we eventually just say, Screw it, throw our hands up, and allow ourselves to have it.”
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But then, because we’ve been craving that forbidden food for so long, and haven’t allowed ourselves to have it, we end up bingeing it, and the pendulum swings to the opposite end. What we want instead, Harbstreet says, “[is to] kind of settle in the middle, where we still see these small fluctuations to one side or the other, but [our habits aren’t so extreme].” And the only way to truly break the cycle is to embrace intuitive eating.
Photographed by Heami Lee, Food Styled by Lauren La Penna.
Contrary to popular belief, when you give yourself permission to eat a food whenever you want, the “off-limits” foods become even less interesting. “Knowing you can have it again takes away the urgency of I need to eat it right now,” Tribole says. “The relationship dynamic really, really changes.” Often people discover that they don’t even really like the food they were initially lusting after, they just like the excitement of not being able to have it. “I used to constantly feel bad about falling off the wagon and stress about having to get back on,” Victoria says. “Now I just live day to day.”
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Over time with intuitive eating, you’re supposed to naturally desire a full range of foods, because that’s just how the human body works, Rumsey says. “Once you’re tuned into your body, it actually is going to want those things sometimes, but not all the time,” she says. “Most people find that they get to this place where it’s a balance between high-nutrient foods and fun foods or play foods as well.” Of course, this requires trusting your body’s cues and getting rid of any guilt.
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Basically, it’s about finding a way to make food choices that honor your health and taste buds, without making it so obsessive that it impairs all brain space, Pike says. According to Victoria, the most rewarding part about intuitive eating is being able to live her life without stressing about what the “right thing” to eat is. “I don't have to battle between what I ‘want to eat’ and what I ‘should eat,’” she says. “I can enjoy so many things, [such as] social outings and baking with my son without feeling guilty about going off my diet.”
But that doesn’t mean that intuitive eating and what’s known as gentle nutrition are always easy. There are still some aspects of dieting that Victoria is struggling to let go of, like the possibility of losing weight, but says, she’s “slowly coming to terms with that.” “Even though I'm making all of these breakthroughs mentally, it's invisible to everyone else,” she says. “You don't get external rewards like you do when you lose weight.”

“Diets don’t get to claim the salads.”

Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD, of Street Smart Nutrition
“There's this suggestion that [intuitive eating is] not healthy because we’re sort of saying, ‘well you can eat what you like, and you can eat whatever you want,’” Meehan says. Both lay people and medical professionals might think that this philosophy leads to binge-eating or disease, she says. “What we know is that it’s actually restriction that typically precedes binge eating or eating in a way that's out of control. Permission and reconnection to what feels good in your body is likely to enhance health instead.” Indeed, studies have shown that intuitive eating improves people’s self-acceptance and body satisfaction, plus can improve psychological health.
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People often ask Tribole, When can I start eating healthy? “It cracks me up,” she says. With intuitive eating, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to eat “healthy” or nourishing foods, she says. “It’s sign that they’ve reached liberation stage, and now we can integrate it,” she says.
Ultimately through intuitive eating, you learn to recognize that certain foods leave your body feeling better or worse, Harbstreet says. “That’s going to look really different from person to person, even for the same person, day to day, or meal to meal,” she says.
So, if you genuinely want to skip the chicken parm and eat a kale salad for dinner instead, and you know it’ll leave you feeling full and satisfied, then you can make an intuitive choice to lean in and eat it. Whatever you do, don’t add more judgment to the situation for wanting a salad, Harbstreet says. “Diets don’t get to claim the salads.”
*Names have been changed at the request of the subjects.
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