Intuitive Eating Principles in Eating Disorder Recovery

Our bodies know what they need. We were all born with an intuition about what we need to survive. Food is essential fuel for our daily activities and our overall well-being. What began as an understanding with our bodies about what they need evolved over time to a disconnect. We may have learned growing up that we must clean our plates. Or maybe media messages about “good” and “bad” foods have influenced eating habits and now hunger cues are off. Certainly the development of an eating disorder causes behaviors around food that are very detrimental to physical health. Is it possible to return to intuitive eating principles in eating disorder recovery?

Moving from Structure to Intuition

At the start of eating disorder recovery, when refeeding must occur and behaviors interrupted, a structured meal plan is essential. This teaches clients how to eat again, following a schedule to help normalize eating patterns. According to Recovery Warriors, clients can still engage intuitive eating while following a meal plan:

  • Begin to notice hunger cues. This may be a challenge, because prolonged starvation or purging can disrupt hunger cues. Clients can notice and honor any cues that arise and work with those to identify their bodies’ needs.
  • Removing “good” and “bad” from the vocabulary. Intuitive eating means having permission to eat all foods. Clients can work with their treatment teams to identify fearful foods to begin implementing back into the meal plan.

Application in the Treatment Setting

Nutrition plays such an important role in recovery. The body has been traumatized and has to be treated gently and with care. Even with missing hunger cues, clients must eat regularly to weight restore or guard against binging and purging behaviors. Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, writing for Perspectives, outlines the application of intuitive eating principles in recovery:

  • Challenge thoughts and beliefs about food. The eating disorder voice is strong but challenging the judgments around food will help to expand the client’s food choices.
  • Cope with emotions! In order to truly mitigate eating disorder behaviors we must be able to identify and cope with emotions without using food to do so.
  • Heal body image. Distorted body image is often one of the last eating disorder symptoms to go. Working in therapy to accept and respect the body is key to this process.
  • Reintegrating exercise. During refeeding exercise will likely be contraindicated. For people with bulimia or binge eating disorder, learning to exercise in moderation and avoid over-exercise is key to overall well-being.
  • Honor health. Every body needs carbohydrates, fats, and a wide variety of food sources to be healthy. Rigid nutritional beliefs are inherent in eating disorders. Challenging these and being open to new foods will begin to foster the variety necessary for health.


Fowler, L. (2015). 3 Ways to Use Intuitive Eating During Recovery. Recovery Warriors,

Tribole, Evelyn. (2010). Intuitive Eating in the Treatment of Eating Disorders: The Journey of Attunement. Perspectives.