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10 Principles of Intuitive Eating with a Neurodivergent Twist

A photo of various foods on a spoon with text that says "10 Principles of Intuitive Eating with a Neurodivergent Twist"
10 Principles of Intuitive Eating with a Neurodivergent Twist was written by Laura Ugwuoke and reviewed/edited by Rivah Goldstein MScFN, RD and Jackie Silver MHSc, RD
Medical Disclaimer: The information in this article is meant for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be personalized medical or nutrition advice. For a plan tailored to your needs, please consult with a Registered Dietitian or qualified healthcare professional.
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links with which I may earn a small commission but at no additional cost to you. Affiliate links help bloggers like me to provide you with free content. All opinions expressed here are genuine. 
Last updated: August 9, 2023

Eating nourishing foods is important for everyone, and intuitive eating can be a powerful tool to help people improve their relationship with food. 

The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating encourage you to be curious about your body’s needs and preferences, helping you become more aware of how different foods make you feel to empower you to make food choices for yourself informed by your body.

Intuitive eating can look different for neurodivergent individuals. In this article, we explore the principles of intuitive eating and how neurodivergent folks can also incorporate intuitive eating into their lives.

Before we delve into the 10 principles of intuitive eating, let’s start by defining intuitive eating

A forkful of various vegetables - 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating with a Neurodivergent Twist

10 Principles of Intuitive Eating: What is Intuitive Eating? 

Intuitive eating involves eating in a way where you trust and listen to your body’s needs. You learn to honor your body’s innate hunger and fullness cues. 

Some of your body’s cues may include feeling low in energy, physical hunger sensations (like a growling stomach), or the sensation of a full belly.

With intuitive eating, no food is considered “off limits”. It’s about learning to reject toxic diet culture and nourish our bodies without focusing on weight loss or body size.

Intuitive eating was created by Evelyn Tribole, M.S., R.D.N., and Elyse Resch, M.S., R.D.N. They first introduced the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating in their 1995 book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works

Since then, the practice of intuitive eating has gained more recognition in the field of nutrition and health. In June 2020, they released an updated version of their book on intuitive eating called Intuitive Eating, 4th Edition: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach.

Intuitive eating involves avoiding labeling foods as “good” or “bad”.  Instead, all foods are enjoyed without remorse. 

With the 10 principles of intuitive eating, a positive relationship with food can be developed, while removing all shame or guilt associated with eating. 

A woman is grabbing her stomach in front of her food, looking unhappy - 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating with a Neurodivergent Twist

What are some of the benefits of using the principles of intuitive eating?

Some benefits of intuitive eating include:

  • Reduced levels of emotional eating
  • An increased level of body satisfaction and acceptance
  • An improved relationship with your body
  • Less anxiety around food

There are many wonderful benefits to incorporating intuitive eating into our daily lives! However, intuitive eating can be challenging for neurodivergent folks, especially people with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) due to the unique way their brains work. 

Barriers to Intuitive Eating for Neurodivergent Individuals

  • Research suggests that neurodivergent folks may struggle with their ability to sense and understand their body’s internal hunger and fullness signals. Given these difficulties, they may struggle to trust their body’s signals and ability to make decisions regarding food choices and portion sizes. 
  • Many neurodivergent individuals take medications to manage their symptoms. For example, those with ADHD might take stimulants to improve focus and attention, but these medications can have side effects like appetite suppression, leading to reduced eating desire and lack of awareness of hunger cues. 
  • Neurodivergent individuals might struggle with remembering daily tasks, including eating regularly. Forgetting to eat can lead to irregular meal patterns, skipped meals, and inadequate nutrition. To address this, some individuals may prefer to adopt a mechanical approach to eating, relying on routines, reminders, and structured meal plans rather than relying on intuitive hunger cues. 
  • Please note that intuitive eating is NOT appropriate for individuals with an eating disorder like anorexia nervosa. If you are struggling with an eating disorder, please speak with a healthcare professional who can provide you with more personalized care to address your specific needs.

Fear not though, intuitive eating can certainly be incorporated into your life if you are neurodivergent! Read on for the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating with a Neurodivergent Twist.

10 Principles of Intuitive Eating with a Neurodivergent Twist

A graphic that lists the 10 principles of intuitive eating
  1. Reject the diet mentality. Throw out those dieting magazines. Unfollow those celebrities and social media accounts that promote trendy diets. Rejecting the diet mentality means letting go of everything surrounding you related to dieting. 

    Neurodivergent folks may have specific sensory preferences for food. Fad diets may not take these preferences into account which can be invalidating.

    This principle of intuitive eating can be useful for neurodivergent folks, allowing them to find foods that work with their unique preferences without the pressure of diet culture.  
  1. Honor your hunger. Listening to your hunger signals like a growling stomach and feelings of low energy is a great way to understand what your body needs. However, neurodivergent brains work differently, making it more difficult to recognize their hunger cues. 

    To address this, creating an eating schedule that works for you can be a powerful way to still honor your body’s hunger.  This could include using tools like visual reminders or alarms to help you remember mealtimes. 
A smart phone with alarms turned on - 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating with a Neurodivergent Twist

You can also practice recognizing your body’s hunger cues. If you have ADHD and take stimulants, a good time to do this is in the evenings when your meds have worn off and your hunger cues return.

Many of my neurodivergent clients tell me they know they’re hungry when they start to feel tired, irritable, can’t focus, or feel their stomach growling. Each person’s hunger cues are different. Take a look at this blog post to determine your body’s unique hunger cues.

There’s also nothing wrong with a mixed approach of mechanical eating and intuitive eating. Perhaps you rely on mechanical eating during the day when your appetite is suppressed from your stimulant meds and then practice intuitive eating in the evenings.

  1. Make peace with food. Saying no to the concept of “good foods” and “bad foods” is another powerful tool to improve your intuitive eating skills.  Allow yourself to enjoy all foods without feeling guilty and let go of the labels.
A group of foods shape into a heart - 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating with a Neurodivergent Twist

Neurodivergent folks might also struggle with food aversions. Practicing intuitive eating involves respecting your preferences and learning how to incorporate them into your life while also finding some new additions to meet your nutritional needs.

  1. Challenge the food police. The food police, that little voice in your head judging what you eat, can be challenged by embracing the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating. This is particularly important for neurodivergent folks who may have sensory sensitivities to certain tastes or textures. 

    Food aversions can create rigid food rules and limited meal variety. Break free from this by trying new foods that match your sensory preferences and comfort. 
  1. Discover the satisfaction factor.  This involves gaining pleasure, enjoyment, and satisfaction from your meals and creating a pleasant eating environment.

    We can do this by practicing mindful eating and using all our senses when we eat. We can pay attention to how the food smells, looks, and tastes. We can take smaller bites and savor the delicious tastes.

    For some neurodiverse folks, mindful eating may be inaccessible and uncomfortable. Instead, eating with external stimuli and distractions such as fidget toys or the TV might help with feeling regulated, calm, and focussed. Neurodivergent brains work differently, and if mindful eating feels uncomfortable, do what works best for you.
2 children are eating while watching TV - 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating with a Neurodivergent Twist

Further, neurodivergent folks may have strong flavor and texture preferences which can contribute to satisfaction. Your brain may also seek certain foods for a dopamine hit. You can certainly incorporate these foods to improve your satisfaction factor and still get that needed dopamine.

For example, after eating dinner, you may crave something sweet and may not feel satisfied until you meet that craving. Perhaps you decide to savor your favorite chocolate or candy after dinner to feel fully satisfied.

Many of my clients have appreciated this recommendation when they learn ways to enjoy all foods and not have to give up their favorites.

  1. Feel your fullness. This means paying attention to how your body feels when you eat, and stopping when you feel comfortably full, not sickly full.

    This principle of intuitive eating can be difficult for neurodivergent folks as it requires interoceptive awareness. When experiencing overstimulation or understimulation, it can be especially difficult to listen to your body’s hunger and fullness cues.

    Recognizing fullness signals can be challenging for individuals with ADHD and ASD. To help, try practicing mindful eating techniques, such as taking breaks during meals, checking in with your body’s sensations, and pausing when you feel satisfied.

    You can learn about signs of fullness here

    However, let’s validate that this advice may just not work for a neurodivergent individual. Instead, you might need extra external stimulation (if you are feeling understimulated) during meals to help you listen to your physical bodily sensations. This is okay! 
  1. Cope with your emotions with kindness.  People tend to rely on food as a source of comfort when dealing with emotional challenges. Instead, try exploring alternative coping mechanisms to manage emotions, such as engaging in sensory activities, practicing deep breathing exercises, or seeking support from therapists or counselors. 
A girl is playing with her red fidget spinner - 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating with a Neurodivergent Twist

It’s important to note that oftentimes, emotions can be a signal that we are hungry. For a neurodivergent individual who has trouble listening to physical hunger cues, emotional eating can be very useful, allowing you to nourish your body. 

Additionally, using food as stimulation or to self-soothe can be a crucial form of self-care. Let’s acknowledge that this principle of intuitive eating may look different for neurodivergent folks! 

  1. Respect your body. Respecting your body doesn’t mean that you have to love your body, it means that you can respect the incredible things that your body enables you to do every day. And you can work towards letting go of the desire to change your body size or appearance.

    Similarly, we can respect our brains and acknowledge the beautiful and unique ways that neurodivergent brains work. Your brain is doing everything it can to support you. 
  1. Joyful movement. This principle of intuitive eating is a valuable one because it shifts the goal away from exercising for weight loss to exercising for enjoyment and feeling good.

    Autistic individuals or those with ADHD commonly struggle with executive dysfunction and planning, which makes forming long-term habits extremely difficult. You may also get bored of doing the same type of physical activity after a certain amount of time.

    The beautiful part of joyful movement is that it doesn’t call for a structured exercise routine. You can switch things up whenever you want and move when you feel like i

    For example, you may love bike riding for a few months and then get bored of it and want to try a different type of movement, such as swimming or tennis. Then after a few months you may want to move on to something else. All of this works and is part of intuitive eating!

    You may also have a day where you barely have an appetite (from your ADHD meds) so you forgot to eat. As a result, you may be exhausted at the end of the day when you had intended to workout. This could be your body’s way of telling you to skip joyful movement for today. This is okay!

    Traditional forms of movement may be inaccessible to neurodivergent individuals due to increased sensory awareness and discomfort. For example, certain forms of movement may feel uncomfortable due to sensory sensitivities. 

    On another note, navigating a neurotypical world with a neurodivergent brain is exhausting, and sometimes movement just feels impossible. Consider what forms of movement you enjoy and do what works best for you. Doing some stretches or going for a slow walk counts if it makes you feel good! 
A woman is doing yoga in a green tank top, smiling - 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating with a Neurodivergent Twist
  1. Honor your health with gentle nutrition.   Gentle nutrition means being kind to your body and choosing foods that will nourish you and make you feel good.

    For neurodivergent individuals, this principle of intuitive eating might include incorporating more protein into your diet for focus (read our blog post on protein for ADHD here), or eating foods that give you energy.

    This may also mean eating enough food throughout the day by setting alarms if that is a struggle for you.

    Achieving this principle of intuitive eating can be challenging for neurodiverse individuals. Consider working with a registered dietitian who specializes in working with neurodivergent populations if you are struggling with this.
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Additional Considerations for Incorporating the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating:

Medication side effects: A common side effect of stimulant medications, often taken for management of ADHD, is a lowered appetite. As a result, people who are on stimulants might forget to eat. A good strategy is to set reminders on your phone to help you remember to eat regular meals and snacks, ensuring you provide your body with the nourishment it needs throughout the day.

Additionally, other classes of medication such as SSRIs and antipsychotics are commonly used by neurodivergent folks to manage other co-occurring mental health symptoms. Depending on the medication, it may increase or decrease your appetite, making it more challenging to incorporate the 10 principles of intuitive eating. 

Speak with your doctor if you are concerned about your medications and side effects. Working 1:1 with a registered dietitian can also be a great way to manage appetite-related medication side effects.

Someone is holding various pills on their hand - 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating with a Neurodivergent Twist

10 Principles of Intuitive Eating Book Recommendations:

10 Principles of Intuitive Eating Podcast Recommendations:

Conclusion:

Intuitive eating means listening to our bodies and eating in a way that feels right for us. The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating are a set of guidelines that help us build a positive relationship with food. These principles teach us to trust our hunger and fullness cues, let go of diets, and enjoy all foods without feeling guilty. 

For some people with unique brains, like those with ADHD or who are autistic, intuitive eating might be harder. They might have trouble recognizing when they’re hungry or full, or they might be taking certain medications that affect their appetite. But that’s okay! 

There are ways to make intuitive eating work for neurodivergent individuals too, like setting reminders for meals or finding foods that match their sensory preferences. The main goal is to listen to our bodies and nourish ourselves in a way that makes us feel good and happy.

Remember, reach out to a trusted health professional before making major diet, medications, or lifestyle changes! Working with a registered dietitian can be a great way to work on incorporating the 10 principles of intuitive eating in a way that suits your unique brain.

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Laura Ugwuoke is wearing a dark brown and navy striped sweater and standing in front of a beige wall

About Laura

Meet Laura Ugwuoke, a wellness advocate with a deep-rooted passion for promoting a healthy lifestyle. Armed with a BSc in Nutrition from UBC and actively working towards a degree in Dietetics and Nutrition, Laura possesses a wealth of knowledge to guide individuals on their path to wellness. Embracing the belief that wellness should be inclusive and available to all, Laura is committed to breaking down barriers and making healthy choices accessible.  Beyond the world of nutrition, you’ll often find Laura unwinding and enjoying the latest binge-worthy series on Netflix, finding joy in a well-deserved moment of relaxation.

Rivah is wearing a striped shirt and a blazer, smiling

About Rivah

Hello! I’m Rivah, a registered dietitian passionate about helping teens and adults with neurodivergence and mental health conditions. Additionally, I support individuals with chronic disease management, plant-based diets, and mindful eating. My counseling approach is weight inclusive, client-centered, and evidence-based where we create realistic nutrition goals, prioritizing physical, mental, and emotional health.  In my free time, I enjoy reading, cooking, and outdoor activities.

Check out her full bio here →

About Jackie

Jackie is a Toronto-based Registered Dietitian whose mission is to empower and support the neurodivergent and physically disabled communities through nutrition. Jackie runs a virtual private practice and blog which has simple recipes and health information tailored to these communities. She loves cooking, exercising, traveling, journaling, and spending time with family and friends.

Check out her full bio here →

2 thoughts on “10 Principles of Intuitive Eating with a Neurodivergent Twist”

  1. Avatar

    Thank you thank you thank you for this article. I’m a little emotional about it actually, because I never knew I experienced hunger differently and acknowledged my food aversions and made me feel ok about eating my comfort foods. It’s honestly so helpful, and I feel like I can really try to make a positive lifestyle change instead of “do it this way and no way else.” So thank you!

    1. Jackie Silver MHSc, RD

      Hi Lydia, Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment. We are so happy this blog post has resonated with you and hopefully made you feel less alone! There are many people who have similar struggles to you!

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