Imagine being so in tune with your body that you knew exactly what to eat and when, without following any kind of meal plan, or “allowed” foods list, or eating schedule. Intuitive eating is an approach to eating that completely ignores rules, doesn’t label foods “good” or “bad,” and positions you as the best person to make your food choices.
Using self-compassion as the foundation, intuitive eating helps you learn to trust yourself to nourish your own body. This article details the concept of intuitive eating, the principles of intuitive eating, and how to make intuitive eating work for you.
What is intuitive eating?
Intuitive eating is a relatively recent concept that’s taking on diet culture in the best way possible. It’s a mindset around eating that sharpens your own awareness about your body and its hunger and satiety signals.
When you eat intuitively, you learn to observe and recognize the cues that your body uses to tell you what you should eat at that moment.
Intuitive eating principles
The principles of intuitive eating vary slightly depending on the source, but generally follow the spirit of these ten principles set forth by intuitiveeating.org:
1. Reject the diet mentality
Diet culture dictates that you will definitely lose weight if you follow this set of rules, and when that doesn’t happen, it’s because you’ve done something wrong. Shame is a cornerstone of diets, whether it happens overtly or disguised as encouragement.
So many factors play into your body composition: your genetics, your hormone balance, where you live, your stress levels, your occupation, your metabolic profile, and even your socio-economic status plays a role.
Diets tell you what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat, which only accounts for the food component of body composition and leaves all of those other factors unaccounted for.
When you’re eating intuitively, there’s no time when you’re “on” a diet or “off” of a diet. Instead, you switch to eating to live, and eating for enjoyment.
2. Honor your hunger
With intuitive eating, you eat when you’re hungry, period.
Instead of viewing hunger as your own weakness, you reframe hunger as your body’s signal that it needs nourishment and energy to keep doing its thing.
If you repeatedly ignore your hunger signals, as you might on a diet, you fall out of touch with your body. That leaves you primed for overeating – either because you’re actually hungry, or because you’re upset, or stressed, or because you didn’t sleep well the night before.
Intuitive eating is about trusting yourself and developing a keen awareness of what your body needs.
3. Make peace with food
The shame and guilt that surrounds diet culture may have created negative associations around food. You may have labeled lettuce as “good” and a mocha with extra whip as “bad.”
With intuitive eating, food is food. There is no good, no bad. Certain foods work with certain occasions – for example, lunch may be a colorful buddha bowl, and that mocha may become part of celebrating a promotion. No judgment – it’s only food.
4. Challenge the Food Police
Diet culture is so ingrained in our minds that the arbitrary food “rules” make you assess your value as a human with every bite.
Since you rejected diets in Step 1, remember that there are no rules, so there’s no food police to enforce it. If you follow someone on social media that makes you feel bad about what you ate, unfollow, or at least scroll on by. If your coworker has comments about the treats in the break room, decide that they are projecting their own self-criticism onto others (because they are).
Immediately shut down any negative thoughts or guilt that come up around food.
5. Discover the satisfaction factor
When you eat what you want to eat, you feel satisfied when you’re finished.
And when you don’t, and you’re unsatisfied, you end up eating more to fill the void – often without the satisfaction you were after in the first place.
When you decide to eat something, figure out what you have to do to make it an enjoyable, satisfying experience. Maybe that means you’re at your dining room table eating on your grandmother’s china. Maybe that means you top your meal with a pinch of flake salt. Create the experience that will up your enjoyment.
That doesn’t mean you have to ignore what you already know about your body. For example, if you crave sweets but you know sugar breaks out your skin or will make you crash later, you can reach for a sugar-free peanut butter cup or cookie instead of a sugary one.
6. Feel Your Fullness
We’ve been taught since we were little to clean our plates. As a result, a lot of people do not know what comfortable fullness feels like (but we do know what uncomfortable fullness is!).
To become more in tune with your body, you have to pay close attention at first to re-learn your body’s “full” signal. It becomes second nature once you’ve sharpened your awareness to your body’s signals. This may involve taking a pause at various points during your meal to sit back and observe how you feel.
7. Cope with your emotions
We’ve all been there. We have a bad day (or week, or month…) and reach for the salty-crunchy chips or sugary ice cream to take the edge off of a tough day. But, that can end up making us feel worse off than we started.
Finding healthy ways to cope with difficult emotions can prevent you from reaching for food for comfort. Come up with a few things that lift your mood when you’re faced with anxiousness, stress, sadness, and other difficult emotions. You can take a walk, shower, soak in the tub, sing, pet your dog, draw, meditate, read a book… different people respond to different things. Take some time to figure out what tends to pull you out of a funk.
And remember, eating for enjoyment and pleasure is completely separate from emotional eating.
8. Respect your body
Your body deserves kindness, no matter what your size.
A little louder this time: your body deserves kindness, no matter what your size.
Instead of thinking about all that your body is not, honor your body for everything it is, in this moment, right now. Your arms hugs your kids, your strong legs can kick a soccer ball in the back yard, your loving hands make nourishing meals for your favorite people… there’s so much you are able to do.
9. Move because of the way it feels
Some people eat to burn off lunch or to punish themselves for the donut. Next time you work out, notice how you feel during and after. When you move, chase that feeling, not the feeling that you need to make up for something, or that you need to burn fat.
10. Honor your health
Choose foods without a bit of concern for what they’ll do for your body size. Instead, choose foods for what they’ll do for your organs, your energy levels, your brain, even your individual cells.
Intuitive eating vs. mindful eating
There’s a bit of overlap, but mindful eating and intuitive eating are a little different.
Mindful eating centers around being fully present while you are eating, and engaging all of your senses for the full experience.
Intuitive eating goes beyond the meal you are eating in the moment and helps you reframe the way you think and feel about food, including foods you ate in the past or foods you will eat in the future. Intuitive eating goes deep into your relationship with food in general and helps you form more positive and healthy attitudes around eating.
How is intuitive eating different from intuitive fasting?
Intuitive eating and intuitive fasting overlap as well, but not perfectly. People who want to engage in fasting for its purported benefits may choose a strict schedule, like fasting for 24 hours or not eating between the hours of 7:00 pm and 10:00 am.
Intuitive fasting involves taking your body’s signals into account. You might say, “I’m going to do a fast where instead of eating as soon as I wake up, I’ll eat when I start to feel hungry,” or a similar pattern that takes your body’s signals into account.
You can do intuitive eating without intuitive fasting, but you cannot fast intuitively without eating intuitively.
It takes time to get into the swing of intuitive eating. It’s a practice that centers around self-compassion, so don’t beat yourself up if at dinner you ignored your body’s signals and overate, or if you’re unsure whether you’re confusing hunger with work stress. The more you pay attention, the more aware you will become. And remember: there aren’t any rules, so you can’t break them.
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