We live in a culture that's steeped in a diet mentality. From an early age, many of us were taught that some food was good, some was bad, and some you ate just because it was healthy. For many of us, as we grew older, we were intrigued by diets and eating habits that promised us the holy grail of health, wellness – and yes being at an ideal weight. But in the past few years, a fundamental shift has begun to take place in the way we view food and its role in our lives. So it's no surprise that the idea of "intuitive eating" has taken hold in recent years.
What is intuitive eating? Definitions differ, but at the core it means taking a "non diet approach" and making peace with all types of food. As Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole – pioneers that have embraced intuitive eating for more than 30 years – explain, it's about tuning in to the intuition that governed our eating as toddlers. It’s recognizing that jumping from diet to diet, and food restriction to food restriction isn't working. In fact, multiple studies have shown that the majority of people who lose weight on a "diet" tend to gain it back – and then some – within a year. As more and more of us prioritize health and wellness over an elusive goal weight, intuitive eating might be an approach that can really stick.
So how do you incorporate intuitive eating into your life? There are 10 basic principles or guidelines that can help you get started.
- Reject the Diet Mentality
Get rid of any diet books you have, and quit clicking on social media posts that promise you the secret of effortless weight loss. This may be hard, because we are bombarded every day with literally hundreds of messages about diet, weight, and food. Rejecting the diet mentality means making a clean break from all of those influences that consume our attention and shape our attitudes. As Resch and Tribole state "If you allow even one small hope to linger that a new and better diet or food plan might be lurking around the corner, it will prevent you from being free to rediscover intuitive eating."
- Honor Your Hunger
As any long-time dieter can tell you, dieting teaches us to ignore our hunger cues. Intuitive eating recognizes that true hunger is a biological response meant to be acted upon. To really honor this principle, you need to ask yourself what you're hungry for. Is your body telling you it needs carbohydrates for energy? You need to start trusting your body and feeding it when it asks. In this way, you can start to rebuild trust in yourself and in food.
- Make Peace with Food
Have carbs become your mortal enemy? Do you mentally calculate the calories in every treat you see? Are you convinced that one slip means the food has won and you’ve lost? Does eating beyond a certain time doom you to failure? If so, it's time to break away from those practices immediately. Stop thinking about food as forbidden, or as a reward. Stop saying you "can't eat this" or "shouldn’t have that". Do away with the judgment that comes with certain foods, and many of your guilt-ridden thoughts will go with it.
- Challenge the Food Police
You aren't "good" for eating vegetables or "bad" because you ate a piece of chocolate cake. That's the food police – or the voice inside your head (or maybe from others) that criticizes and judges what you eat. Identify where the voice is coming from, then ask yourself why you believe these things. Often these rules that we have imposed and think we must follow are arbitrary and unhelpful – and they are completely counter to intuitive eating.
- Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Often we eat what we think we're supposed to eat – and not what will really satisfy us. Intuitive eating not only meets your biological needs, it also encourages you to eat foods that bring you some joy and satisfaction. At the end of the day, eating should be pleasurable, and allowing yourself to enjoy the experience, really taste your food, and stop once you are satisfied is an integral part of intuitive eating. When you eat what you really want, in an environment that is inviting, you are creating an experience that allows you to decide when you’ve had enough. This is the mental satisfaction of food.
- Feel Your Fullness
In addition to mental satisfaction, we must get physical satisfaction from our food. It starts by listening to the signals your body is giving you. If you are no longer hungry but your plate is still half-full, allow yourself to stop eating without guilt. If you were always admonished as a kid to clean your plate, it's time to let go of that approach, and start relying on your own body instead. Take periodic pauses while you're eating to see how you're feeling. If you're no longer hungry and feel satisfied, there's no reason to continue eating until you are uncomfortably full and the food no longer tastes good.
- Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness
Emotional eating is real for many people, and it's often a behavior learned over many years or decades. Eating intuitively requires that you first accept that food isn't going to help with loneliness, or soothe your hurt feelings after a bad day. Food may provide some short-term comfort, and occasionally indulging in a bit of stress eating (a piece of chocolate or two) won't hurt, but continuously feeding our emotions with food just exacerbates the problem. You have to deal with the emotional hunger – and that means finding the source of those feelings. Identifying and planning for other ways to cope with emotional stress is critical. Whether you turn to meditation, yoga, a walk, or reading a book, dealing with emotions in a non-food way will quickly enhance your progress in eating intuitively.
- Respect Your Body
Resch and Tribole state it very succinctly: "Accept your genetic blueprint. Just as a person with a shoe size of eight would not expect to realistically squeeze into a size six, it is equally futile (and uncomfortable) to have a similar expectation about body size." Intuitive eating recognizes the idea that all bodies are worthy and acceptable, and we should honor our bodies for what they allow us to do, not just for what size they are or how they look in the latest trendy jeans.
- Movement—Feel the Difference
Remember when you were a kid and you loved to play outside? How you counted down the minutes until the recess bell rang – and you were free to run around the playground for 20 minutes? It's time to start thinking like a kid again. Stop looking at exercise with dread, and instead focus on movement as something that feels good for your body. If you focus on how you feel from working out, energized, less stressed and high on endorphins, it can make the difference between rolling out of bed for a brisk morning walk or hitting the snooze alarm.
- Honor Your Health—Gentle Nutrition
Finally, it's important to recognize that intuitive eating doesn’t ask you to abandon everything you know about nutrition, and it doesn't give you carte blanche to embrace junk food. Instead, it asks you to make food choices that honor your health and taste buds while making you feel good. Remember that you don't have to eat perfectly to be healthy, but consistency matters. Progress, not perfection, is what counts.
Finally, remember, that the goal of intuitive eating isn't necessarily weight loss. Many people who eat intuitively do eventually lose weight because they abandon unhealthy eating patterns over time. The real promise of intuitive eating is a better relationship with food – and being more in-tune with what your body needs. In the end, that can lead to more satisfaction and fulfillment every time you sit down to enjoy a meal, and a more sustainable approach to eating in a way that's healthy for you.
This article first appeared in the March 2023 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.