Updated: Apr 27, 2020
Intuitive Eating is the way we were born to eat. It was when we cried or whined that we wanted to be fed and pushed the bottle away when we were full. Intuitive Eating is an evidenced-based way of eating. Living in diet culture, intuitive eating has lost its way. Restricting specific foods, limiting the times in which we eat, and having negative emotions associated with eating has made it difficult to connect with our inner biological cues.
Ever wonder how some people can eat cakes and cookies yet maintain their weight? Or how some people still have candy from last year's Christmas or Halloween (my husband still has candy from last year's Easter!)? They may be intuitive eaters. Intuitive Eating is unconditional permission to eat anything at any time while honoring our hunger and fullness and striving for satisfaction. It presents freedom when eating, because the expert in what, how much, and when to eat is YOU!
The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating
1. Reject the Diet Mentality
The first principle of Intuitive Eating is to believe that diets do not work. Dieting does far more harm than good, and provides a false sense of hope for weight loss, and therefore a "perfect" life. Read more about dieting here. I encourage you to reflect the following:
How many diets have you tried?
How many of them worked long-term?
How did you feel when you were dieting?
Did you overeat or binge before, during or after the diet?
How quickly did you re-gain weight back after the diet?
How did you feel after that weight gain?
Did you seek another diet after that one?
Weight loss diets set many of us up to fail. Think about it: How can someone who does not know you, or your favorite foods, nutrient needs, schedule, financial situation, culture, genetic profile, etc. tell you what and when you need to eat? One must believe that diets do not work full-heartedly because if not, it will impede the ability to become a true intuitive eater.
2. Honor Your Hunger
Eat when you are hungry. This may sound like common sense, but sadly, it is not. Many people push off hunger due to intermittent fasting, not eating past a specific time, or because it is not "time to eat." Hunger is the body's way of saying, "Hey, I'm low on fuel." Would you ignore your low gas light if your car was running on empty? It is important to eat consistently throughout the day to prevent feeling too hungry, which can lead to eating too much, too fast. This also helps to keep blood sugar levels consistent. Don't try to ignore signals from your body; food is fuel and your body is always running. (This may be the dietitian in me talking, but I recommend always having a snack with you, just in case :))
3. Make Peace With Food
Don't restrict foods and give yourself unconditional permission to eat anything at any time. Food is not the enemy. It's OK to eat and to enjoy indulgent treats. Eating something will not make you "bad" or unworthy. It is time to end the war with food and see food as nourishment and enjoyment. Food is supposed to taste good, and if it didn't, many of us would die of starvation. Ending the war on food can help reduce intense cravings, deprivation, and binge eating.
4. Challenge the Food Police
Stop seeing food as "good" and "bad." Seeing foods this way can make it difficult to enjoy them. Food is neither good nor bad; it converts to energy for the body to use regardless of what it is. Restricting "bad" foods can make it difficult to eat them without guilt or overindulging. Many people overindulge because they may not know when they will eat that food again (due to dieting), leading to eating excess amounts. Seeing food as pleasure, nourishment, and comfort makes it easy to enjoy treats without fear of never eating them again. This also helps you feel satisfied and increases pleasure when eating. Guilt takes away satisfaction and can cause stress when eating.
5. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Imagine this: you're craving [insert desired food here], but you think it's too "bad," too high in calories, or too high in fat. So instead of eating what you really want, you eat [insert food substitute here] instead. You eat it, but you're not satisfied, so you seek something else. You may eat something else that's "healthy" and still not satisfied. Finally, you either end up eating the desired food anyways, binging on the desired food at some point, or eating a whole bunch of healthier/lower-calorie alternatives. You were better off just eating what you wanted in the first place.
Satisfaction is so important when eating and is not talked about enough. No amount of walking around the block, journaling, or taking hot showers will replace the satisfying food you are seeking. In fact, we should strive to feel satisfied every time we eat. Taste your food. Smell it. Look at it. Make eating an experience. Many of us eat so mindlessly, that we don't embody the full eating experience. It is so important to feel satisfied after a meal or snack, which makes it easier to feel your biological signals of hunger and fullness.
6. Feel Your Fullness
Fullness may be difficult to detect if you have a history of dieting. To everyone, it may feel a little different. It is a feeling of content after a meal and where hunger is no longer present. After years of dieting, fullness may be presumed as this extremely full, can't eat another bite feeling. However, fullness is more gentle than that. It does not mean you feel stuffed after every time you eat. Eating slowly, honoring your hunger, and savoring food makes feeling fullness easier.
It is important to note that it is OK to overeat - just make that a conscious decision. For example, on our honeymoon, there were numerous times where I was full after a meal, but I still wanted to try some dessert (I mean, who wouldn't want to try some freshly baked baklava in Santorini??). I made the conscious decision to overeat and share a dessert with my husband. I try to plan and/or save part of my meal if I think I may want dessert later.
Intuitive Eating is NOT a hunger and fullness diet. It's connecting with yourself and providing you with what you need and want. Seeing it as a diet, to only eat when hungry and to stop when you start to feel full for the goal of weight loss will impede its full effects. This will prevent you from experiencing the full intuitive eating experience.
7. Cope With Your Emotions With Kindness
People respond or act differently when dealing with difficult times. Whatever difficult times you may face, please know that your feelings are valid. Some people turn to support from family and friends, while others may turn to alcohol or drugs. The concept of emotional eating may not be the healthiest way to cope during tough times, but for some, it's how they cope, and that is OK. It is OK to eat emotionally without feelings of guilt or shame; however, emotional eating may not solve your problems or make them go away. If you decide to eat emotionally, make it a conscious decision. Remember, intuitive eating is about empowering YOU. I suggest reaching out to family, friends, a therapist, or your doctor to get the help you so much deserve. Make sure you are taking care of yourself by regularly eating, getting adequate sleep, and getting in some movement.
8. Respect Your Body
You don't have to love how your body looks to love and respect your body (although I suggest doing both!). Think about it; what were our bodies made for? To be a particular size? To lose weight? NO! Our bodies encompass our beautiful souls and let us experience this incredible life. We are able to touch things, get to places, see the world and fulfill our dreams because of them. They have much more of a mission than to change or become smaller. Respect your body by taking care of it and being kind to it. Talk to it like you would as if it was a friend's, your parent's or your daughter's. Would you still say those things? Respect it by listening to it. Is your body hungry, full, or tired? Does it need to move? Stretch? Walk? You only have one body, one home to house your soul. Respect it and give it the care it needs and deserves.
9. Movement - Feel the Difference
Diet culture has made us see "working out" as a way to change our physique, burn a certain number of calories, or get however many steps in. Take the "work" out of working out and move by doing something you enjoy. Shift the focus to on how you feel - not what you look like. Whether it's walking, dancing, lifting weights, or doing sports, choose what makes you feel energized and happy.
10. Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition
It is no surprise that eating a healthy diet has its benefits. This principle is last for a reason. Adequate nutrition is important, but stressing about food, nutrients, and weight is not and can cause more harm than good. Choose foods that taste satisfying, and that make your body feel good. Choose a variety of foods that you enjoy from all of the food groups (fruits, vegetables, grains, lean protein, dairy/or alternative). Remember, there is no such thing as perfect eating. Working through all 1-9 steps before this one will give you the tools to tune into what foods make your body feel good.
It is important to note, that some people cannot always eat what they are craving due to availability or financial situations. There is a time and place for everything, and sometimes just having food to eat is the main goal. Intuitive Eating works differently for different people and at different times, and may not fully be implemented due to a critical illness or financial inability. However, different principles can be practiced to help empower you to make your own eating decisions.
I hope this opens your eyes as to what the alternative to dieting can look like, and that life is so much better on the other side.
Interesting in learning more?
Love always, Mariana