How to Be an Intuitive Eater
One of the things I am very thankful for is that I have a great “on/off” switch when it comes to eating. In the US, we get very caught up in carbs, fat, protein, and every facet of “what” we are eating. I am certainly not immune to this – especially as a registered dietitian! After all, what we use as food IS important.
But putting aside the question of “what” to eat for a moment, one of the most helpful methods I have found to maintain a healthy weight is knowing when (and when not) to eat. Simply put: I eat when I’m hungry and I stop eating as soon as I feel satisfied. I don’t think much about this process at all. And in between meals and snacks I really don’t think about food. And yes, I feel lucky to have such a good “built-in on/off switch” for eating.
So often people I hear from do not have this inner mechanism of knowing when and when not to eat. But the good news is that there is a growing focus within the nutrition field on helping people to reconnect to their hunger and satiety switches. This is called Intuitive Eating.
We’ve written about intuitive eating before, but I think it is worth talking about often. I believe that intuitive eating really helps people gain (often re-gain) a connection to their bodies and food in a healthy way.
It’s hard to believe that anything could quell a late-night Rocky Road craving besides the cold, creamy stuff. But with enough practice, intuitive eating techniques can kill that mindless urge to eat. When the urge to eat strikes, try counting your breaths up to four (innn, one, innn, two…), and then ask yourself, “Am I hungry, or am I eating for some other reason?” In practicing this ‘meditation’ everyday, eventually, eating becomes a choice rather than a thoughtless habit.
This may sound simplistic, but it is rather complex. Our hunger and satiety cues are often clouded by years of dieting and food myths that abound in the culture. For example, “Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full” may sound like basic common sense, but when you have a history of chronic dieting or of following rigid “healthy” rules about eating, it can be quite difficult.
The underlying premise of intuitive eating is that you will learn to respond to your inner body cues, because we were ALL born with the wisdom needed for eating intuitively.
Below is a summary of the 10 principles of Intuitive Eating, from the book, Intuitive Eating. I think they can go a long way toward eliminating bad feelings about food and ultimately, to helping you achieve a healthy weight. Of course exercise and making wise food choices are still essential to reach a healthy weight, but practicing intuitive eating can play an important role too. For more about Intuitive Eating, please visit their website.
Intuitive Eating Principles
- Reject the Diet Mentality. Throw out the diet books and magazine articles that offer you false hope of losing weight quickly, easily, and permanently. Get angry at the lies that have led you to feel as if you were a failure every time a new diet stopped working and you gained back all of the weight. If you allow even one small hope to linger that a new and better diet might be lurking around the corner, it will prevent you from being free to rediscover Intuitive Eating.
- Honor Your Hunger. Keep your body biologically fed with adequate energy and carbohydrates. Otherwise you can trigger a primal drive to overeat. Once you reach the moment of excessive hunger, all intentions of moderate, conscious eating are fleeting and irrelevant. Learning to honor this first biological signal sets the stage for re-building trust with yourself and food.
- Make Peace with Food. Call a truce, stop the food fight! Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. If you tell yourself that you can’t or shouldn’t have a particular food, it can lead to intense feelings of deprivation that build into uncontrollable cravings and, often, bingeing When you finally “give-in” to your forbidden food, eating will be experienced with such intensity, it usually results in Last Supper overeating, and overwhelming guilt.
- Challenge the Food Police. Scream a loud “NO” to thoughts in your head that declare you’re “good” for eating under 1000 calories or “bad” because you ate a piece of chocolate cake. The Food Police monitor the unreasonable rules that dieting has created . The police station is housed deep in your psyche, and its loud speaker shouts negative barbs, hopeless phrases, and guilt-provoking indictments. Chasing the Food Police away is a critical step in returning to Intuitive Eating.
- Respect Your Fullness. Listen for the body signals that tell you that you are no longer hungry. Observe the signs that show that you’re comfortably full. Pause in the middle of a meal or food and ask yourself how the food tastes, and what is your current fullness level?
- Discover the Satisfaction Factor. The Japanese have the wisdom to promote pleasure as one of their goals of healthy living In our fury to be thin and healthy, we often overlook one of the most basic gifts of existence–the pleasure and satisfaction that can be found in the eating experience. When you eat what you really want, in an environment that is inviting and conducive, the pleasure you derive will be a powerful force in helping you feel satisfied and content. By providing this experience for yourself, you will find that it takes much less food to decide you’ve had “enough”.
- Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food. Find ways to comfort , nurture, distract, and resolve your issues without using food. Anxiety, loneliness, boredom, anger are emotions we all experience throughout life. Each has its own trigger, and each has its own appeasement. Food won’t fix any of these feelings. It may comfort for the short term, distract from the pain, or even numb you into a food hangover. But food won’t solve the problem. If anything, eating for an emotional hunger will only make you feel worse in the long run. You’ll ultimately have to deal with the source of the emotion, as well as the discomfort of overeating.
- Respect Your Body. 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 as futile (and uncomfortable) to have the same expectation with body size. But mostly, respect your body, so you can feel better about who you are. It’s hard to reject the diet mentality if you are unrealistic and overly critical about your body shape.
- Exercise–Feel the Difference. Forget militant exercise. Just get active and feel the difference. Shift your focus to how it feels to move your body, rather than the calorie burning effect of exercise. If you focus on how you feel from working out, such as energized, it can make the difference between rolling out of bed for a brisk morning walk or hitting the snooze alarm. If when you wake up, your only goal is to lose weight, it’s usually not a motivating factor in that moment of time.
- Honor Your Health–Gentle Nutrition. Make food choices that honor your health and tastebuds while making you feel well. Remember that you don’t have to eat a perfect diet to be healthy. You will not suddenly get a nutrient deficiency or gain weight from one snack, one meal, or one day of eating. It’s what you eat consistently over time that matters, progress not perfection is what counts.