What Is the Difference Between Mindful and Intuitive Eating?

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As human beings, it’s virtually impossible to separate our eating habits from our mental state. Our emotions, thoughts, and beliefs clearly influence our diet choices—for better or for worse.

If you’d like to bring more focused intention to your diet (or disentangle yourself from harmful beliefs about food) you may want to pursue a mindful or intuitive approach to eating.

It’s easy to assume that mindful eating and Intuitive Eating are two terms for one concept. After all, the words “mindful” and “intuitive” are near-synonyms, and the methods bear some similarities. However, these approaches to eating have distinct histories and differences in everyday use.

Whether your journey takes you toward mindful or Intuitive Eating (or a combination of both), here’s what you can expect.

What Is Mindful Eating?

Although mindfulness is trendy these days, it’s hardly a new concept. Ideas like non-judgment, patience, and living in the present moment stretch back to ancient Buddhism. It wasn’t until the 20th century, though, that applying them to, say, a slice of pizza became popular.

University of Massachusetts researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn is widely acknowledged as the founding father of mindfulness in the modern era. Kabat-Zinn established the Center for Mindfulness at UMass in the late 1970s. There, his famous mindfulness exercises for food (such as eating a raisin extremely slowly to experience sensations via all five senses) paved the way for bringing more intention to mealtimes.

As more practitioners have embraced mindful eating in recent years, its basics have become more mainstream. However, mindful eating is not a trademarked diet program, and no absolute consensus exists about which activities or principles define it.

In essence, though, mindful eating involves harnessing present-moment awareness before, during, and after eating. This can involve multiple practices.

Mindful Eating Principles

  • Minimizing distractions while eating, such as turning off the TV or keeping your phone out of reach
  • Savoring food’s tastes and textures
  • Experiencing food with all five senses
  • Eating slowly and chewing more thoroughly
  • Taking smaller bites or setting down utensils between bites
  • Practicing gratitude, i.e., offering thankfulness before meals
  • Paying close attention to the body’s hunger and fullness cues while eating
  • Acknowledging feelings about or responses to various foods without judgment

What The Evidence Says

Eating more mindfully has some proven positive effects (beyond just helping you enjoy your meals more).

A large systematic review in the journal Eating Behaviors found that people who received mindfulness training were able to reduce binge eating and emotional eating behaviors. Other research has linked increased mindfulness to weight loss and better self-management of type 2 diabetes.

What Is Intuitive Eating?

Where mindful eating involves a general application of mindfulness to diet, Intuitive Eating offers a more focused approach. In fact, though there is plenty of overlap between the two methods, Intuitive Eating is a specific program that was developed in the 1990s by two dietitians, Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole.

Intuitive Eating aims to free people from the confines of damaging beliefs about food (and, often, about themselves), with the goal of establishing judgment-free eating. It trains users to eat in response to physical hunger and satiety cues rather than emotional cues. It helps users cultivate the ability to notice and identify sensations of hunger, fullness, and satisfaction as they arise in the body. The program does so by emphasizing ten core principles.

10 Core Principles of Intuitive Eating

  • Reject the diet mentality
  • Honor your hunger
  • Make peace with food
  • Challenge the food police
  • Discover the satiation factor
  • Feel your fullness
  • Cope with your emotions with kindness
  • Respect your body
  • Movement—feel the difference
  • Honor your health—gentle nutrition

What the Evidence Says

Unlike mindful eating, Intuitive Eating addresses letting go of harmful beliefs that may stem from past life experiences or unrealistic diets.

Giving yourself unconditional permission to eat, not labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” and meeting difficult emotions with self-compassion are just a few of the ways intuitive eating can steer you toward a mental clean slate about food. The program also encourages incorporating physical activity that brings you joy.

Intuitive Eating is associated with higher levels of self-esteem and lower levels of disordered eating, body image concerns, and psychological distress. While weight loss is not a goal of Intuitive Eating, numerous studies have concluded that Intuitive Eating may be associated with lower body mass index (BMI).

But even Intuitive Eating’s founders refute the idea that the program is intended for weight loss. Rather, its goal is to re-orient your relationship with food to find more freedom and less guilt.

Resch and Tribole’s program offers certifications for dietitians, psychotherapists, and other practitioners. You can locate an intuitive eating counselor in your area by accessing the program’s directory.

How Mindful and Intuitive Eating Can Work Together

Mindful eating and Intuitive Eating are by no means mutually exclusive. While several of the Intuitive Eating principles incorporate features of mindfulness, practicing mindfulness doesn't mean that you will automatically incorporate the principles of intuitive eating.

Both philosophies address the ways our mental state can influence our food choices, and both encourage similar actions like tuning into feelings of fullness while eating and experiencing pleasure in meals and snacks.

They can also both help reduce feelings of stress about food in different ways. Mindful eating does so by limiting distractions during meals, while Intuitive Eating incorporates mindfulness and other tools to reconnect with the body while rooting out deep-seated negative beliefs about the body and food. Deciding whether mindful or Intuitive Eating (or both) is right for you will depend on your goals for your personal wellness.

If you’d like to focus on your nutrition, for example, you may prefer to use mindful eating to bring awareness to how you're fueling your body. But if your goal is to rectify an out-of-sorts relationship with food, Intuitive Eating might be a better choice.

A Word from Verywell

Mindful eating is a broad term that encompasses various applications of mindfulness to eating, while Intuitive Eating is a specific, ten-tenet program developed by dietitians.

Either method can help you develop a healthier mentality about food. Use them individually or in tandem—no matter which you explore, you’ll reap the benefits of staying in the present, eating when you’re truly hungry, and enjoying each bite.

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