Intuitive eating, a way of eating and living that helps you connect to your body and listen to its needs, can be a long-term approach to help you reach your health goals. We believe it’s the most sustainable approach to determine what and how much to eat as it requires only tuning into your body’s signals and no tracking, weighing, or measuring.
What is Intuitive Eating?
If you’re thinking this is another diet, I promise you this isn’t. In fact, intuitive eating is the polar opposite of a diet. There’s no diet plan and no specific rules to follow. Eating intuitively allows you to follow your body’s hunger, fullness, and satisfaction cues. Additionally, it can promote a positive relationship with both food as well as body.
Why Intuitive Eating May NOT be for You
While our goal is for every person we work with to be able to transition to intuitive eating at some point during their healing journey, we realize it’s not always realistic to eat intuitively during all seasons of your life.
It may be that you’ve suppressed your body’s hunger and fullness signals due to trying diet after diet or restricting foods or the times of day it’s eaten. This may mean you aren’t hungry most of the day and suddenly you’re famished. Or you think you feel satisfied but just before bed, you get major munchies.
Or it’s possible that you don’t have an accurate interpretation of your body’s physical sensations. How often have you been low on energy or focus and reached for a coffee or energy drink? Intuitive eating and living are noticing you're low on energy and being able to look deeper into your days and recognize that it could be a lack of quality sleep or simply not getting enough nutrients.
If you suspect one of these to be true or if they even sound a little familiar, you may want to consider tracking. Tracking can be a handy tool to learn how much you’re actually eating, what truly makes up certain foods, and to help regulate your hunger signals.
If you’re still not sure if tracking is for you, check out this post weighing the pros and cons of tracking.
Why Intuitive Eating May be FOR You
For those of you who know you have a positive relationship with food and are already in tune with your body’s signals, this is a no-brainer. You’re already doing it! Maybe you just need to hone in on your skill a little bit and really embody the ten principles we’ll talk about below.
If you have a history of disordered eating, and tracking seems scary and potentially triggering, intuitive eating is the way to go. It’s shown to be associated with positive body image, greater emotional functioning, as well as less disordered eating.
Also, there are a lot of health benefits associated with eating intuitively. The Health at Every Size (HAES) and anti-diet culture approach has been associated with long-term results. It can help curb disordered eating, improve body image as well as health markers like anxiety and depression, and overall quality of life.
If you’ve already considered other alternatives and have decided intuitive eating is for you, there’s nothing wrong with jumping right in. Just know that like anything else, it’s a practice that you’re not always going to get right every single time. It’ll more than likely take time and patience to get to that sweet spot where you can really rely on your body’s cues to take the lead.
10 Key Principles
Intuitive Eating is made up of ten key principles created in 1995 by dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. While it may seem at first glance that the principles are just another set of rules to follow, that’s not the case. These principles are designed to help you learn how to create awareness and remove blocks that might get in your way. Let’s go through each one in brief.
01: Reject the Diet Mentality
We’re bombarded with advertisements for a new cleanse or diet trend on social media, in magazines, on the radio, on billboards, the television, and in magazines… basically, there’s no getting away from it. These advertisements promise everything from abs in eight minutes, to drop 10 pounds in 10 days, or to “detox” your body from toxins. These false promises lead to diets of restriction and depreciation and are the start of many failed attempts to lose weight. Intuitive eating, on the other hand, is being able to look past the false hope implied in advertisements and embrace your body’s internal needs.
02: Honor Your Hunger
Hunger is an innate primal biological need. Eating when your body sends the signal prevents irritability, headaches, energy dips, and more. By feeding your body adequate amounts of protein, carbohydrates, and fats, you’re less likely to experience unwanting cravings. Ignoring hunger can cause you to have to rely on willpower which will undoubtedly fail since hunger is such a primal need. By ignoring it, all sensibility goes out the window and you’ll likely eat in excess and make less desirable subconscious decisions.
This primal need is one of the reasons why we focus so much on macros and eating every three to five hours throughout the day. This allows you to reset your hunger signals and rebuild trust between food and your body.
03: Make Peace with Food
Give yourself permission to eat all food including carbs, fat, and sugar. Feelings of deprivation and restriction will inevitably lead to the restriction and binge cycle. You tell yourself to avoid a “bad” food until the cravings become so overwhelming they take over your thoughts. The desire to eat the forbidden food becomes so intense that you have no choice but to give in. And when this happens, you eat uncontrollably and are left with feelings of guilt and shame.
Food is meant to be enjoyed and bring joy into our lives. So much of life is centered around food because it’s how we enjoy social outings and quality time with our family and friends. Food isn’t meant to be classified as “good” or “bad”. We like to think of it on a continuum so that some foods are enjoyed more frequently, and some less so. Allow yourself what you want when you want it and remind yourself that it’ll always be there tomorrow too. With a little practice, this will help you tune into your body’s signals and learn that oftentimes, your body actually craves healthy foods!
04: Challenge the Food Police
The inner voice inside your head that tells you things like “sugar is toxic”, “carbs make you gain weight”, “fat makes you fat”... The voice that tells you to “eat this, not that”, or that white rice is “bad” or “you need to exercise longer to deserve dessert”... That’s the voice that needs to be challenged. These voices are easily internalized and lead us to feel guilt when we don’t listen. And they can cause feelings of shame by leading us to believe that we as a person are bad.
Simply being aware that these voices are in your head, allows you to recognize the familiar dialogue and question it before reacting. Challenge that inner voice and take back control over your food decisions and body.
05: Discover the Satisfaction Factor
There was a study referenced in my training at the Institute for Eating Psychology that I find fascinating. A group of women from Sweden & one from Thailand were fed a traditional Thai meal. The Thai women loved it but the Swedish women didn’t. The researchers measured the nutrient absorption and the Thai women absorbed most of the nutrients whereas the Swedish women did not. Then they did it again but in reverse and the same thing happened in that the Swedish women who naturally enjoyed food from their own country absorbed the nutrients much better than the Thai women who didn’t enjoy the food. And for the third part of the experiment, they blended each meal up, (icky), and neither group absorbed the nutrients well. So even though the nutrient profile was exactly the same, the blended meals tasted awful and the nutrients weren’t absorbed nearly as well.
It goes to show that the enjoyment of food can actually change the metabolic impact it has on your body. By enjoying food as well as your surroundings, you’re more likely to feel satisfied, are less likely to overeat, and are able to absorb the nutrients better.
06: Feel Your Fullness
Recognizing when you’re full is a big part of intuitive eating. The goal is to be able to tune into your body’s signals that you’re filling up to the point of being satisfied but not stuffed. To help you pay attention to these cues, eat with intention; sit down for your meals, chew your food slowly and put your fork down between bites. Take your time with your meal and it’ll be easier to tune into your body’s fullness cues and stop eating before you get too full. Once you build this two-way trust with your body, it’ll be easier to reach for any food you desire having already built trust as a solid base to keep you from overindulging.
07: Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness
As we keep saying, intuitive eating is a journey. You’re not going to get it right as soon as you start trying. Be kind to yourself when emotions are running high, and remind yourself that food won’t fix them. Feelings like anxiety, loneliness, boredom, and anger can often be triggers for losing control. When you feel any of these including guilt, regret, and fear, pause and ask yourself, “why”. Allow yourself the opportunity to get the root cause of the emotion and to find another way to cope with the problem instead of resorting to emotional eating.
08: Respect.Your Body
I don’t think it’s realistic to love every litle thing about your body. But I do believe that the key is to appreciate it for what you do like, for what it can do, and where it is at this time. That may mean buying a larger pair of jeans than you want for now while you give yourself time and patience to get to where you want to be. When you’re unrealistic or overly critical of the size and shape of your body, it’s hard to get past the diet mentality. But when you feel gratitude towards what it can do and not what it looks like, you’re more likely to be in tune with it.
09: Movement - Feel the Difference
Shift your focus from pushing your body into a calorie-burning machine and instead, towards making your body stronger. This way you can feel at ease carrying your kids around the grocery store, picking up heavy shopping bags off the ground, and placing your own luggage in an overhead bin. When you do this and are able to focus on how you feel versus how an exercise will make you look, you’re more likely to enjoy it and continue to show up.
10: Honor Your Health - Gentle Nutrition
This principle embodies a powerful message we do our best to embody and pass along… eat foods that nourish your body and leave you feeling good. And just as importantly, understand that you’re only human and not always going to get it “right”. A few meals that aren’t on your plan aren’t going to cause you to be unhealthy. Just like a couple of weeks eating a certain way isn’t going to suddenly make you healthy. The all-or-nothing approach simply never works which is why it’s so important to remember that it’s about the choices you make consistently over time that matter.
What Diet Culture Has to do with Intuitive Eating
While it may seem like eating intuitively is second nature, as we mentioned above, it can be far more challenging than you’d think. Biologically, we’re born as humans to eat when we’re hungry and to stop when we’re full. But as we grow up, we’re bombarded with diet culture sending messages like this food is “good” and this food is “bad” or that if we eat a certain way or don’t eat certain foods, we must be “unhealthy”. It’s taught us that in order to eat dessert, we must “earn” it by excessive exercise or we reward ourselves with it when we “eat clean” for a period of time. It leaves us feeling confused, overwhelmed, and often with feelings of guilt, shame, and regret. The first principle of intuitive eating is to reject diet culture for this reason.
How to Get Started Eating Intuitively
If you’re new to intuitive eating, here ere are a few tips to help you get started.
Fill yourself up with nutrient-dense foods. Intuitive eating doesn’t mean eat all the cookies and cake that you want until you feel sick and then stop. Always make an honest effort to choose nutrient-dense foods first and still allow yourself to enjoy all the other foods you enjoy. Strangely enough, you’ll soon find that you crave healthier foods more often and your cravings for less healthy foods will lessen.
Fill yourself up with non-food fuel. In other words, figure out what you genuinely enjoy and find a way to make time for it within your life. And when you feel the urge to overindulge or “throw in the towel”, consider filling the emotional void with self-care instead.
Fill your mind with literature, social media, podcasts, and television that make you feel good about being in your skin. If something makes you feel less than for looking a certain way or eating or not eating something, then it’ll save you the mental struggle to have to fight off those negative thoughts they can bring on.
Fill yourself up with kind words, thoughts, and feelings. We all know that we’re our own worst critics. So when unkind things pop into your head or mind, remind yourself to respond as though you were speaking to a loved one. I bet that loved one would tell you that you’re perfectly imperfect just the way you are and that health and healing is a journey, not a destination.
One final thing that may help you on your journey to make intuitive eating a part of your lifestyle, is a food journal. Even when tracking, we encourage our students and clients to keep a journal of how they feel as they progress towards their goals and what impact certain foods or meals have on their bodies. As we keep reiterating, it’s going to take time to become an intuitive eater and a journal is a tool that can help you along that journey.
So… are you ready to make intuitive eating a part of your life?