What is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating is a way of eating that has nothing to do with diets, macro counting, meal plans, discipline, or restriction. It’s about developing a connection with our bodies and learning to trust your body signals, break the cycle of chronic dieting, and healing your relationship with food.
Intuitive eating is not a diet, in fact, it’s kind of an anti-diet. There’s no counting calories, no weighing foods or portion control, and no off-limits foods. Essentially, you eat what you want when you’re hungry. While there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to intuitive eating, there are some principles that can help guide you as you choose freedom when it comes to food:
10 Principles of Intuitive Eating
Say goodbye to diet programs and plans that give you false hopes of losing weight quickly, easily and permanently. The majority of people who lose weight on ‘diets’ gain all of the weight back, and often even more. We know it doesn’t work, so let’s try something different.
Nourish your body with an adequate intake of energy – fat, protein and carbs (yes, carbs CAN be your friend again). Learn to honour the biological signals your body sends around hunger. This requires a certain degree of mindfulness and being in tune with your body. You kind of need to ‘tune in’. Eat without distractions and make sure you take time to direct your awareness of how your body feels while eating. If you restrict yourself and avoid eating when you’re feeling hungry, you deny yourself the nourishment your body needs which can lead to cravings and binges.
Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. Making some foods ‘off-limits’ or demonizing them (outside of serious food intolerances and allergies) can lead to feelings of deprivation, and, if you give in, feelings of shame. As you learn to eat intuitively and become more mindful of your body, you’ll notice that certain foods don’t make you feel good when you eat them. When you amp up your awareness, it’s hard to ignore that you feel sluggish, antsy, or mentally foggy after eating certain foods. It’s important to still show yourself compassion when you eat foods that don’t make you feel good – it’s likely that you’ll simply start eating fewer foods that tend to throw our body/mind off balance.
The 'food police' are the thoughts in your head that declare what food is ‘good’ and what food is ‘bad’ – and even more importantly, when you are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on what you eat, as if what we eat and the appearance of our bodies are intrinsically tied to our worth. They are not. There are many, many examples of people with BMI’s that are ‘too high’ that are healthy; they eat healthier and exercise more than the average person. Learn to observe the critical thoughts that come up around food. Try not to play into the voice in your head that attach your worth to what you eat. Self-compassion is key.
Learn to listen to the body signals that tell you that you’ve eaten enough. You want to be comfortably full, not necessarily stuffed. Pause during your meal and take moments to be mindful of the act of eating, as well as fullness.
Food is so much more than just calories and nutrients – it is an inherent part of our culture, a way to bring people together, and can be a source of joy. When you eat foods that you enjoy, in an environment that is accepting and supportive, you allow yourself to experience the pleasure of the food and end up feeling satisfied and content, vs. shameful and inadequate.
Find ways to cope with stress that don’t revolve around food. Emotional eating often leaves us feeling worse in the end, after the initial feelings of relief subside. No one likes to be caught in a shamenado. Try finding ways to address and deal with the source of the emotion. Mindfulness, meditation, yoga, exercise, adequate sleep, therapy, and engaging with social connections have all been shown to be incredibly helpful when managing stress and unresolved emotions.
Self-acceptance is so important. We are sold the idea in the Western world that we can (and should all want to) acquire the body of Kate Moss. Not. Freakin. Possible. Learn to love and accept your body. We’re all genetically different and healthy comes in many shapes and sizes. Research shows that intuitive eating actually decreases body dissatisfaction and encourages self-acceptance.
Forget regimented, militant-style exercise (unless that’s your jam). Simply get active in a way that feels good for you. Shift your focus to how you feel overall – physically and mentally – when you move your body, instead of focusing on how many calories you want to burn.
Make food choices that honour your health and well-being but that you also enjoy. Remember that you don’t need to eat a perfect diet (though I doubt one exists anyways) to be healthy. It’s what you eat consistently over time that matters and one ‘unhealthy’ meal or snack won’t ruin everything, so eat the birthday cake. Try shifting your focus from looking healthy to being and feeling healthy.
There’s a growing body of research that shows the benefits of intuitive eating. Restrictive diets, aka diets that involve a lot of rules and ‘off-limits’ food, have been shown to be largely ineffective for long-term weight loss and weight maintenance. Alternatively, intuitive eating has been shown to foster a healthy relationship with food, higher body satisfaction and acceptance, more self-compassion, and improved mental health and resilience to stress.
Restrictive eating practices have been associated with:
- Higher body mass index (BMI)
- Weight gain
- Increased risk of disordered eating
- Increased risk of psychological problems such as emotional difficulties, body image concerns, and reduced cognitive functioning
- Greater weight and body shape concerns in women and greater body dissatisfaction
- Motivation based on external pressures and feelings of guilt or shame
Intuitive eating is linked to:
- Decreased disordered eating symptoms, bulimia, food preoccupation, binge-eating behaviors, and dieting
- Decreased likelihood of engaging in unhealthy weight loss practices and extreme weight loss practices (diet pills, laxatives, diuretics)
- More positive body image and positive emotional functioning in women
- Increased ‘body flexibility’ (the degree to which one accepts thoughts and feelings about the body)
- Decreased symptoms of depression
- Greater emotional awareness and less self-silencing of emotions (emotional suppression)
- Increased ability to cope with stress
- Increased self-esteem, self-compassion, unconditional self-regard, responsiveness to internal bodily sensations, greater life satisfaction, optimism, and perceived social support
- Proactive coping, psychological hardiness (resilience) and social problem solving
- Motivation based on feelings of pleasure
The research shows that restrictive eating doesn’t work – we end up feeling worse about our bodies than before we started. Not only is intuitive eating associated with healthier eating habits, but it’s also good for our happiness. Numerous studies have shown that intuitive eating can increase our resilience to stress, our acceptance, and appreciation of our bodies, and ultimately leaves us happier than any diet could.
The foundation of intuitive eating is a healthy relationship with food through moving away from restrictive eating, emotional eating, and eating in response to external cues. Instead, it promotes eating in response to bodily cues for hunger and fullness and permits people to eat unconditionally, removing the need for rules about what, when, and how much to eat.
A good place to start when it comes to intuitive eating is to simply set the intention to pay attention to the thoughts you have around food in a critical way. What thoughts are coming up, and how can you reframe those thoughts through the lens of self-compassion. Listen to your hungry, ask yourself what you want to eat, pay attention to how your body reacts to foods, take time to eat your meals without distractions, and above all, be gentle with yourself.
I’m here to support as you transform your relationship with food and learn to love eating (and yourself) again! Book your free discovery call.