What Is Intuitive Eating?

This simple guide breaks down everything you need to know about intuitive eating.

Like most of us, at some point you’ve probably felt slightly frustrated with yourself for “not being strong enough” to resist that chocolate cake or for failing the umpteenth diet. A diet which you promised yourself was most definitely going to be the last.

But the problem isn’t you. Everywhere we go and even in our own homes we are bombarded with images of foods and promises of miraculous benefits, so much so that we’ve tuned out and disengaged from our own bodies. That’s where intuitive eating comes in. Because it’s not another fad diet.

What is Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive eating could be described as mindful eating or being fully aware of what you’re eating. Many of us adopt mindless eating habits, such as munching on our favorite bag of snacks while we’re watching Netflix. Or eating when we’re stressed out, happy or depressed.

Intuitive eating is about getting back in the driver’s seat when it comes to what you eat and reconnecting with your body and the signals it sends, like feelings of hunger and fullness.

The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating

The 10 principles of intuitive eating center around reconnecting with the body’s natural signals for hunger and fullness, and encourages a healthy relationship with food, physical activity and the body:

Here’s a snapshot of each concept.

1. Reject the Diet Mentality

Get rid of all those diet books, magazine articles and delete everything else that focuses on diet culture. This includes weight loss articles and unfollowing social media accounts about dieting.

2. Honor Your Hunger

Many of us blame ourselves for not having the will-power to resist “forbidden” foods when we’re on a diet. But studies suggest that food restriction may stress the body and increase cravings for ‎highly palatable foods, such as fatty or sugar-rich foods‎.1

Honoring your hunger is about eating when your body tells you that you’re hungry. Recognize the signal of hunger for you – your tummy might start to rumble or your mood may change.

By honoring your hunger, you’re telling your body it can have food whenever it wants – this will help dampen preoccupation with food.

3. Make Peace with Food

Give yourself unconditional permission to eat, and get rid of idea of banned foods. You can eat whatever you want. Accept that food cravings are normal.

While you may overeat during the first few days, soon your body learns that foods are no longer forbidden. As a result these foods may no longer seem so appealing and the intense cravings will ease. 

4. Challenge the Food Police

Diet culture is pervasive. Over the years we police what we eat, categorize foods as good or bad, and have an internal voice that doesn’t allow us to enjoy eating.

Make a list of all the rules you’ve made around eating. If you eat a slice of pie, firmly shut down that inner chastising voice. If you’ve skipped a meal and that voice is congratulating you, hum it away. Become aware of and challenge negative self-talk and the rules you’ve made around food.

5. Respect Your Fullness

Listen to your body and learn to unravel the satiety cues it is sending you. To do so, you need to eat slowly, taste your food, and from time to time put your fork down and ask yourself how you feel. Still hungry, or satisfied and content? Stop eating when you are comfortably full.

Don’t want to waste food? Use smaller plates and take smaller portions. It’s okay to go for go for another round if you’re still hungry.

6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor

Make mealtimes pleasant and savor your meal. Slow down, take time for yourself. As part of healthy eating habits, it is important that you see ‎food as nourishment and something to be enjoyed, not simply as something to gulp down in between meetings or when you ‎manage to catch a break at the office.

Avoid distractions while eating. Watching TV or reading a book while eating may cause you to overeat.

7. Cope with Your Feelings with Kindness

Feeling bored, tired, stressed out, anxious, angry, sad or lonely are emotions we all experience. Unfortunately, these feelings often lead to unconscious emotional eating despite the fact that food won’t fix anything.

To cope with your feeling without resorting to food, ask yourself:

  • Am I truly hungry? If yes, honor your hunger. If not, ask yourself the next questions.
  • Why do I want to eat? Take a piece of paper and write down your feelings or talk to someone.
  • What do I need? Are you reaching out for that bag of snacks because you’re tired and need a time-out? Or perhaps you need someone to talk to? The answer might be a nap, calling a friend, or going for a walk.

8. Respect Your Body

Respect here means taking care of your body, accepting your genetic blueprint, feeding it, and not criticizing yourself because you don’t look like someone on the cover of a magazine.

Say you’re a shoe size six – would you try to squeeze in a size four? Just as you don’t criticize your shoe size, don’t criticize your body. We all have different body types and body shapes. Accepting this can help you let go of unrealistic expectations and accept the body you have.

9. Feel the Effects of Moving Your Body

Instead of assessing your workouts by counting the number of calories burnt or by the number of minutes you spent on the treadmill, think about how it feels when you move your body.

Concentrating on calories prevents you from focusing on the real benefits of exercise – like how it improves your overall mood, helps you sleep better and enables you to handle stress better. 

If you exercise with a weight loss mindset, you might give up if you don’t get the expected results and in expected timeframe. But if you focus on how good exercising makes you feel, you’re more likely to stick to it and keep reaping its benefits. And remember to choose an exercise you enjoy.

10. Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition

Make food choices that honor your health and taste good. Identify how certain foods affect you, whether they make you feel full, and how it impacts your health.

This principle is about gently adding nutrition to the 9 previous principles about your internal cues:

  • Eat real food. Stop eating low-fat, sugar-free diet foods.
  • Enjoy a varied diet – but without thinking too much about the nutrient content of each and every meal you take. Nobody developed a deficiency because one of their meals was unbalanced! 
  • Limit (but don’t ban) processed foods and those loaded with sugars, high fructose corn syrup, MSG or trans fats.

These 10 principles can help you learn or relearn to eat intuitively, and to listen to and accept your body. It can help you to unlearn the negative messages about food that diet culture has taught all of us, and to make peace with food.

The Benefits of Intuitive Eating

Some of the benefits of intuitive eating according to research include:

  • Greater general well-being. Studies report enhanced quality of life and greater psychological well-being such as self-esteem, self-compassion and life satisfaction, as well as reduced stress levels and a higher body appreciation, among those who followed the above principles.234
  • Improved eating behaviors. Intuitive eating is associated with less disordered eating and a more positive body image.56
  • Better weight control. Intuitive eating is linked with better weight maintenance, a lower BMI, less weight cycling, and greater weight stability.78

Some health conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, may require restriction of certain foods to help manage the condition. If you have a health condition and are interested in intuitive eating, speak to your doctor about it first.

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