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Beginner’s guide to intuitive eating

Does eating while driving, working or scrolling on your phone sound familiar? We’ve all been there. But did you know how important it is to fully participate in the experience of eating? In this article, we cover what intuitive eating is and ways to help you change your mindset around food.

A young women sits at a table eating a healthy bowl of chicken salad. She has the fork in her mouth and her eyes are closed in an expression of enjoyment and satisfaction with her mouthful, as though she is savouring every flavour.

In this article

What is intuitive eating?

Here at the Heart Foundation, we often talk about the benefit of eating and enjoying plenty of heart-healthy foods to help us manage our risk of heart disease. Yet, our relationship with food is just as important. Embracing the concept of intuitive eating can positively impact our relationship with food. But what do we mean by 'intuitive eating'?

Intuitive eating is a flexible approach to eating where you eat mindfully and pay attention to your body’s internal hunger and fullness cues.

The philosophy rejects traditional dieting approaches, like counting calories and restricting foods. Instead of labelling foods as “good” or “bad”, it places all foods on an even playing field and accepts that you need more of some foods and less of others.

The theory is that when we allow ourselves to eat without restriction and fully tune into the experience, we’re more likely to enjoy our meals and eat the right amount of nourishing and satisfying foods to meet our body’s needs. Over time, this way of eating can help you eliminate strict food rules and develop a positive relationship with food.

This image shows two forks. On the left fork, sits a pile of fatty junk food - generally considered to be bad for our health. On the right fork sits all the green vegetables and fruits - generally considered to be good for us.

Is intuitive eating the same as mindful eating?

Although these terms after often used interchangeably, they have slightly different meanings.

Mindful eating is the practice of paying close attention to your eating experience, such as savouring every bite, slowing down, and taking in all the senses when eating.

Intuitive eating is a broader philosophy that includes principles like rejecting the ‘diet’ mentality and moving your body.

Whether it’s mindful eating or intuitive eating, both philosophies address how our thoughts and feelings can influence our food choices.

Intuitive eating and weight loss

Managing your weight and maintaining a healthy body size benefit your overall health and heart health. However, for many people, maintaining a healthy body size can be a lifelong struggle.

Research shows that around one in five people will maintain their weight loss when they lose weight. Most people regain a third of their lost weight in the first year and the rest over the following three to five years.1, 2

Intuitive eating isn’t focused on weight loss. But eating this way and realistic lifestyle changes may help you break the dieting cycle and sustainably manage your weight.

Benefits of intuitive eating

There is evidence from a handful of studies showing that people who practice intuitive eating have less restrictive/disordered eating behaviours and greater levels of positive body image, self-esteem and wellbeing.3, 4 They may also have a better quality diet.5, 6

Despite this, more research is needed to determine who benefits the most from applying the principles of intuitive eating.

Intuitive eating and heart health

Some evidence shows that eating more intuitively is associated with a better cholesterol profile (lower LDL-cholesterol and triglycerides). However, more research is needed.7

For many people, the greatest benefit to heart health is likely to be an improved relationship with food and the potential to reach and maintain a healthy body size over the long-term. Although the reasons are not fully understood, the repeated cycle of losing and gaining weight (‘weight cycling’) often experienced through dieting is thought to negatively impact our heart health.8

A positive of this approach is that you focus on all the delicious foods that nourish and protect your heart instead of labelling foods as “bad” and restricting them.

Four ways to improve your relationship with food

If you’re sick of dieting and want to develop small sustainable habits, these four steps will help you apply intuitive eating to your life.9

1. Discover the satisfaction factor

Food is there to be enjoyed, so get the most out of each meal. Avoid eating in the car, at your desk or while watching TV. When you fully concentrate on your meal, you will appreciate it, enjoy it and be more in tune with your body.

Top tip: Find a comfy spot in your house or work away from distractions where you can enjoy all your meals.

2. Feel your fullness

We can get used to finishing everything on our plate and returning for seconds without registering how we’re actually feeling! Try tuning into your hunger levels and stop eating when you feel full. It’s okay to leave food on your plate and to have it as leftovers.

Top tip: Instead of quickly eating a meal, pause mid-way to think about how it tastes and how full you feel.

3. Make peace with food

When we try to avoid certain foods, we often crave them even more and end up binge eating or overeating them when we get the chance. Give yourself permission to eat the foods you love and enjoy! You’ll find that when food is no longer forbidden, it becomes less appealing, and you’ll probably eat a more sensible amount.

Top tip: You may feel like chocolate or biscuits after dinner. Why not pause and ask yourself, ‘Do I really feel like that?’ and if you really do – then go for it.

4. Cope with your feelings without food

We can often use food to deal with our emotions, such as anxiety, loneliness, boredom or sadness. Food may provide short-term comfort or relief, but it won’t fix any of these feelings.

Top tip: Think about other ways to deal with emotions, such as getting out in the fresh air, phoning a friend, journalling or doing something you enjoy.

A woman of South-East Asian heritage is sitting on a cream coloured sofa writing in a notebook. She is wearing a white blouse and blue denim jeans.

If you want to learn more about the ten principles of intuitive eating, visit

The bottom line

Eating a wide variety of healthy foods every day is essential for heart health. But it’s important to be realistic, too – it’s what happens on most days that matters!

Most of us know what we should eat for optimal health, but putting it into practice and creating sustainable healthy habits is challenging.

If you are stuck in a cycle of weight loss and regain, it may be time to throw your latest diet book out the window and work on your relationship with food.

Lily Henderson, NZRD

Lily Henderson, NZRD

National Nutrition Advisor

I am passionate about improving the health of all Kiwis from young through to old. I have enjoyed working in nutrition in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.


  1. Anderson JW et al. Long-term weight-loss maintenance: a meta-analysis of US studies. Am J Clin Nutr. 2001;74(5):579-84.
  2. Hall KD, Kahan S. Maintenance of Lost Weight and Long-Term Management of Obesity. Med Clin North Am. 2018;102(1):183-97.
  3. Gödde JU et al. Intuitive eating and its association with psychosocial health in adults: A cross-sectional study in a representative Canadian sample. Appetite. 2022;168:105782.
  4. Linardon J et al. Intuitive eating and its psychological correlates: A meta-analysis. Int J Eat Disord. 2021;54(7):1073-98.
  5. Jackson A et al. Intuitive eating and dietary intake. Eating Behaviors. 2022;45:101606.
  6. Christoph MJ et al. Intuitive Eating is Associated With Higher Fruit and Vegetable Intake Among Adults. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2021;53(3):240-5.
  7. Teas E et al. Intuitive Eating and Biomarkers Related to Cardiovascular Disease in Older Adults. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 2022;54(5):412-21.
  8. Rhee. Weight Cycling and it’s cardiometabolic impact. J Obes Metab Syndr. 2017 Dec 30;26(4):237-242
  9. 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating