Intuitive Eating or Structured Eating – Which is right for you?

Man thinking

Both intuitive and structured eating styles are compatible with a Health At Every Size® approach. But which is right for you?  Take this quick quiz to find out:

  1. Are you able to reliably identify mild hunger?
  2. Do you have a flexible enough schedule to eat when you are hungry?

If you answered ‘yes’ to both questions, intuitive eating may be right for you.

If you answered ‘no’ to one or both questions, start with structured eating. 


Intuitive Eating

Intuitive eating encourages tuning in to hunger and fullness, and letting these signals be a primary guide of when and how much to eat. This style was created by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, and is grounded in 10 guiding principles.

Advantages:

  • Helps you tune in your body’s signals
  • Food tastes best when you are hungry

Structured Eating

Structured eating is having meals and snacks at scheduled times.  This approach is supported by Ellyn Satter, as part of her Eating Competence model.

You can be somewhat flexible with your eating schedule, and move mealtimes by an hour or so if needed.  But Satter recommends avoiding grazing in-between meal and snack times.  When you sit down at your regular meals/snacks, tune into your body’s signals and eat as much or as little as you are hungry for.

Advantages:

  • Builds regular eating habits
  • Easier to coordinate with others

With both eating styles, being prepared is a good idea.  Have a variety of nourishing food options available, so you can eat what is satisfying to you in the moment. Both eating styles also encourage eating with attunement– paying attention to cues like hunger, fullness, taste, and satisfaction while eating.

Ultimately, you do not have to choose one eating style or the other (in my opinion).  You can make both styles work for you depending on the situation.  For example, I generally consider myself to be an intuitive eater.  However, I sometimes have structured meals with others.  At those times, I eat as much as I feel hungry for, and then wait until I feel hungry again to have my next meal or snack.  In this way, you can have the best of both worlds.

People who are recovering from chronic dieting or disordered eating generally need to start with structured eating, and then may decide to move towards intuitive eating as their hunger signals become more reliable. Or, they can decide to stick with a structured approach if it feels right.

Note: There’s more nuance to intuitive eating and structured eating than is described here. Reading books or working with a trained professional can help you to understand and apply these nuances: 

2 responses to “Intuitive Eating or Structured Eating – Which is right for you?

  1. Thank you for introducing me to the Ellyn Satter philosophy. That was exactly what I was looking for for the last 2 years while I was trying to give up 20 years of dieting, food obsession, creeping up weight after every diet…..
    intuitive eating made sense but I could not accomplish it. You put it very clearly who is better off with IE and who with Ellyn Satter method. I wonder why I didn’t come across the Ellyn Satter method earlier…..I have been browsing the different anti-diet methods for over a year. Your site is the only one that guided me to it. And how did I find your site? Google searched: structured eating. ☺️

    • Nicole Geurin, MPH, RD

      Hi Sara,
      Thank you for the kind words! I am so happy to hear this post was helpful to you. Ellen Satter’s approach is excellent and it sounds like it will work well for you. Keep me posted! – Nicole

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