Gaining freedom from emotional eating – intuitive eating explained



By Lara Wessels (RD) and Danielle Heyns

‘If only I could eat what I wanted, when I wanted, and be the healthiest me I could be,’ you think as you dig into that bag of cookies that you went out and bought when your colleague rubbed you up the wrong way. It’s the second time this week she’s done that, and here you are again, leaving the bakery. It’s not just her. Every time your mother-in-law calls, your car goes into autopilot and you find yourself in the McDonald’s drive-through again.

I get it. Chocolate was my comfort tool of choice. I was a very shy teenager, and chocolate seemed to numb those feelings of not being able to effortlessly mingle at school, the way the popular girls did. But I’ve since discovered that you CAN eat what you want, when you want, and be the healthiest you can be. It’s something called intuitive eating.

What do feelings have to do with it?

Over the years, countless people have told me that comfort eating was the barrier between them and a healthier lifestyle. Most of us have and idea of what we should be eating to be our healthiest selves (although the media try it’s very best to confuse the living daylights out of us). It’s often not a lack of knowledge about nutrition and healthy eating that stands in our way – it’s executing that plan. Why? Because we’re emotional beings, and our emotions are often intricately interwoven with our eating habits.

So how do we overcome emotional eating? This is where intuitive eating comes in. It offers an evidence-based respite from the angst of emotional eating.

Follow your gut

Two US dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, created the idea of intuitive eating in 1995. It’s about developing a healthy relationship with food and your body and following your body’s own internal cues of hunger and satiety to determine when and what to eat, and when to stop eating.

Intuitive eating has a lot in common with ‘mindful eating’, which focuses on paying attention to the act of eating, including the colours, smells, textures and flavours of foods and drinks, how they affect our mood and how it feels in the body, and noticing hunger and fullness cues. These approaches help us to rediscover the joy of eating, instead of attaching feelings of guilt to food.

Intuitive Eating helps improve our ability to hear and respond to our cues of hunger and fullness. It helps us remove obstacles which prevent us from tuning into our body’s signals, including beliefs about foods – judging foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – and coping with feelings without using food.

My colleague made me do it

While working in an eating disorders service in England, together with specialist psychologists, I saw many people who suffered from binge-eating disorder, a type of eating disorder characterised by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food, usually very quickly and to the point of feeling uncomfortable, when not physically hungry.

These episodes are associated with feeling loss of control, and feelings of shame, distress or guilt afterwards. In contrast to bulimia nervosa, also a type of eating disorder, compensatory behaviours such as purging are not regularly used to counter the binge eating. Binges usually happen in secret, and sufferers experience considerable distress regarding binge eating. I also met sufferers of anorexia nervosa, who severely restricted their food intake to a dangerous and life-threatening degree. It was so distressing to see how their anxiety about food and body image lead to these very disabling mental health disorders.

Intuitive eating is frequently used to help sufferers from eating disorders to trust their bodies to tell them what and how much to eat, rather than to follow a set of ‘rules’ defined by their eating disorder, which is often detrimental to their health, and can even be life-threatening.

What do you mean I can trust myself?

We were all born with an innate ability to be intuitive eaters. Think about feeding a baby. When the baby has had enough, we can try and try to get it to eat more – including the ‘aeroplane coming in for landing’ trick – but usually to no avail. Babies know when they’re hungry, and know when they’ve had enough, and respond to these amazing cues.

Why then, do we as adults not respond to our body’s cues to eat when we’re hungry and stop when we’re full? All too often we are taught to override these cues – think about when you were little. When you didn’t finish your meal, were you told: ‘finish your meal – there are starving children in India’? Or: ‘you can’t have pudding if you don’t finish your meal’? Of course, our parents were well-meaning, and didn’t know what impact it would have on our ability to eat mindfully, but nevertheless, the damage was done.

Drown out the other voices

We get bombarded with advertisements of diets, sending us messages about what to eat and what not to eat, how many calories to consume, when to fast. We get told ‘fat is the root of all evil’, then it changes to ‘sugar is the enemy’. Nutrition science is complex, and messages often get taken out of context. As a result, these messages further serve to mess up our ability to listen to our bodies.

Intuitive eating is not another useless fad. There are years of research behind it, which shows benefits including increased well-being, reduced risk of eating disorders, improved blood sugar levels and improved cholesterol.1 A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2014 showed that women who reported high levels of Intuitive Eating had lower BMI (body mass index) and those who eat intuitively are more intrinsically motivated to engage in physical activity.2 A study done in 2005 showed that intuitive eating was associated with reduced BMI, triglycerides (one of the ‘bad fats’ in our bodies), and with reduced risk for overall heart disease.3

Intuitive Eating isn’t a justification for eating plenty of fatty, sugary junk foods. In fact, next time you over-indulge in these kinds of foods, jot down how you feel afterwards. You’ll probably find that your body is telling you something – “please don’t engage in that kind of behaviour again soon!’’

Be your own best friend 

Imagine feeling the healthiest you have ever been. Imagine having more energy and more focus than ever before. Imagine feeling completely in tune with your body – knowing when to eat, what to eat, and how much. Imagine feeling in control of food rather than it controlling you.

Intuitive Eating has helped many people find that magical spot of realising their body is far cleverer than they gave it credit for. Speak to a dietitian trained in Intuitive or Mindful Eating today

For more information, see:

  2. Food psych podcast by Christy Harrison
  3. The bodylove project podcast, by Jessi Haggerty
  4. The Intuitive Eating Workbook (Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch)
  5. Intuitive Eating – A revolutionary program that works (Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch)
  6. – This is a South African website, focusing on Eating Disorder treatment information and resources
  7. NEDA is the USA’s National Eating Disorders Association, which offers help, support and resources to those suffering with eating disorders. The website includes a helpful screening tool for ages 13 and up, to help you determine if you need to seek professional help.


  1. Tribole E, Resch E. (2017). The Intuitive Eating Workbook. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
  2. Gast J, Campbell Nielson A, Hunt A, Leiker JJ. (2014). Intuitive Eating: Associations with physical activity motivation and BMI. Am J Public Health, 29 (3): e91-9.
  3. Hawks SR, Madanat H, Hawks J, Harris A. (2005). The relationship between intuitive eating and health indicators among college women. American Journal of Health Education, 36, 331 – 336.