First, there was mindful eating, which extended the concept of mindfulness to our plates for healthier choices. But just when we thought we’d gotten the core tenets of this eating pattern down, another dietary approach with a similar name has come along: Intuitive Eating.
If you’ve heard these two terms and are feeling a bit confused about whether they can be used interchangeably (or whether one is somehow an extension of the other), you’re not alone. As a nutritionist myself, I initially assumed that “Intuitive Eating” was simply the new lingo all the cool kids were using to talk about mindful eating. As it happens, however, though these two food philosophies have many similarities, they also come with distinct differences in purpose and practice.
A bit of background
Before we delve into the contrasts between mindful eating and Intuitive Eating, let’s take a look at the history. As you’re likely aware, the mindfulness movement, so popular lately in meditation and therapy, is not a new phenomenon. The idea of anchoring attention in the present stretches thousands of years back into Zen Buddhist history. So although mindfulness, as applied to the food we eat (and how we eat it), has been promoted by a handful of prominent academics — such as Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts and Brian Wansink at Cornell — no single individual can really take credit for it. (Still, for the sake of a timeline, many people view the publication of Wansink’s book Mindless Eating ($25) in 2006 as the starting point for increased awareness of the concept.)
Unlike these rather nebulous origins, Intuitive Eating has a much more structured background. It’s a trademarked program developed by two registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. In an effort to help their clients establish healthy relationships with food, Tribole and Resch outlined a 10-principle philosophy in their 1995 book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works ($18). Twenty-three years later, the program has grown into its own empire of books and workshops. Dietitians and other health professionals may now receive training to become certified Intuitive Eating counselors.
The differences between mindful eating and Intuitive Eating don’t end with their backstory. Though both may yield the same end results (like achieving healthy weight or enjoying food more), they do so via distinct paths.
What is mindful eating?
Mindful eating, as its name implies, aims to engage and focus the mind. Dining mindfully might mean, for example, eliminating distractions like TV or your phone in order to concentrate on food as its own event. “By choosing mindful eating, you are choosing to enjoy your meal in a calm and comfortable place,” says Phoenix, AZ-based registered dietitian nutritionist Yaffi Lvova. “You forego distraction to focus on the complete sensory experience of the food: the taste, texture, temperature, smell, and your natural biological reactions to it.”
A mindful attitude toward eating can take on other forms as well. Savoring is a mainstay of the mindful experience of food. Taking time to enjoy something delicious tends to make it even more satisfying — often leading to consuming less of it. Mindful eating also emphasizes paying attention to the body’s cues of hunger and fullness: Eat when you’re hungry. Stop when you’re full. (What could be more logical?) And pausing to give thanks before eating creates mental space for contemplating questions like where your food came from and how it will nourish your body.
Okay, so what is intuitive eating?
If mindful eating focuses on the mental experience of food, you might say Intuitive Eating takes this one step further, from the mental to the emotional — and beyond. To varying degrees, eating is an act loaded with emotion, both positive and negative. For some, this can lead to eating disorders or unhealthy relationships to food. Certain foods become virtuous, others villainous. In consuming them, we can assign these labels to ourselves as well. Intuitive Eating aims to turn this black-and-white, emotionally-fraught thinking on its head — as reflected in Principles Number One: “Reject the Diet Mentality” and Number Three: “Make Peace With Food.”
Also in contrast to mindful eating (which by definition pertains only to food), Intuitive Eating encompasses far more than diet. With principles like “Exercise — Feel the Difference” and “Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food,” the program attempts to move hyper-vigilance around food choices to a more comprehensive understanding of health. Says Lvova, who encourages Intuitive Eating with her clients, “My clients are searching for true health — the kind reflected in blood results, mood, quality of sleep, and overall life enjoyment.”
This big-picture approach to food and health means that Intuitive Eating is rarely used with weight loss as an end goal. (Alternatively, in pop culture and even in clinical studies, proponents point to mindful eating’s effectiveness as a weight management strategy.) “One of three things will happen when you start to follow IE,” says Lvova. “You’ll lose weight, you’ll gain weight, or you’ll stay the same weight. But you’ll have so much more room in your head and in your life for joy.”
Depending on your goals, either a mindful or intuitive approach to eating may be best for you. With their shared purpose of giving the body what it truly needs, both can lead to better food choices, spot-on portion sizes, and numerous measures of health improvement. Talk to a dietitian for expert guidance on either method.