Do you obsess about what you eat? When you eat something that you think you shouldn’t, do you often find that it’s hard to stop, but then feel overwhelmed with guilt afterwards? Do you often feel deprived? Do you find yourself still searching for the right diet out there that will finally work for you?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may be suffering from the confines of diet culture. This makes you believe that you lack willpower and are doing something wrong if you’re not losing weight or achieving your health goals despite trying everything you know. It can be an exhausting effort…but there is a better way.
Enter the concept of intuitive eating. It’s likely that the term “intuitive eating” is not new to you, as this concept has been gaining in popularity for the past few years. In fact, headlines are saying that the latest diet trend is not dieting at all. How’s that for a cultural shift?
While the popularity and promotion of intuitive eating is only more recently expanding, the concept has been around for over 20 years. In 1995, Registered Dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch published their first book on the topic after watching their own clients repeatedly regain weight that had been lost while dieting. Research shows is nearly inevitable.
Because it’s not just about what you eat, it’s also about how and why.
Intuitive Eating is a non-diet approach to health that teaches you how to tune into your body’s innate signals, break the cycle of chronic dieting or strict eating patterns, and heal your relationship with food. It has nothing to do with diets, meal plans, calorie counting, or even willpower. While this may sound like a foreign concept to someone who has been a chronic dieter, the crazy part is that we are ALL born intuitive eaters.
Babies cry when they’re hungry and naturally stop when they are full, and have no one telling them what or how much or little to eat. As we get older, though, cultural influence and behaviors taught in childhood can cause us to stray from this framework as we instead learn to eat based on a list of rules and restrictions. Intuitive Eating, therefore, is about re-learning how to eat outside of the diet mentality and puts the focus on the body’s internal cues to guide your eating.
The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating
1. Reject the Diet Mentality. Face it: diet’s don’t work and set us up for failure. Research shows that frequent dieting has a negative effect on your metabolism and increases your risk of gaining weight. Where has your focus on weight loss and diets gotten you to at this point in your life? How has it impacted your body & your mind? Refuse to believe that the “magic” diet is out there. Get rid of any material in your home that supports diets, unfollow social media accounts that support diet culture, and do whatever else is in your control to remove yourself from this environment.
2. Honor Your Hunger. Hunger is a normal, biological process. If you try to ignore feelings of hunger and restrict your body of adequate calories and nutrients, your body will fight back with cravings and binges. Consider utilizing the hunger-fullness scale to get started with honoring your hunger.
3. Make Peace with Food. Give yourself unconditional permission to eat what you want. Beating ourselves up for eating certain foods leads to guilt, which leads to deprivation followed by cravings and overeating, which creates a vicious cycle. Call a truce with food, and stop the food fight.
4. Challenge the Food Police. This involves thoughts in your head that you are “good” or “bad” for eating certain foods. These thoughts create guilt and a negative association with food. Recognize that no single food has the ability to make you healthy or unhealthy on its own. Stop giving food so much power and allowing unreasonable rules to govern your food decisions. It is impossible to view eating as a normal, pleasurable activity when the food police are present, so say goodbye!
5. Feel Your Fullness. Just as important as recognizing hunger is respecting your fullness. Dieting often causes us to eat based on routine, which doesn’t always line up with when we are actually hungry or full. Try slowing down with your eating and start listening for signals that tell you that you are feeling full and satiated. Bring more consciousness and awareness to your meals. Utilizing the hunger-fullness scale can help.
6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor. Have you ever felt full, yet not satisfied? This often happens when we fill up on foods we feel like we are “supposed” to eat, yet avoid what we may truly want. This often leads us to keep eating “that one thing” that will make us feel satisfied and can lead to overeating. When you eat what you really want, the feelings of pleasure you feel will help you feel satisfied, which often leads to eating less!
7. Cope With Your Emotions Without Using Food. It is very common to use food to cover up unpleasant feelings and emotions. First, recognize that you are not alone and not a failure if you eat without being physically hungry. Acknowledge these times and ask yourself WHY you may be doing so. Explore ways to comfort yourself and resolve your emotions without turning to food every time.
Tip: check out my blog post on emotional eating that can help you identify and recover from this habit.
8. Respect Your Body. Body shaming is sadly second nature for many of us. Learning to respect your body for how it is at this moment is a very important principle of Intuitive Eating. If you are too critical of your body and don’t accept yourself as you are, it’s hard to reject the diet mentality.
9. Exercise and Feel the Difference. Stop exercising only for its calorie burning effect and start shifting your focus to what type of movement feels good to you. How do you feel both before & after working out? If you only use exercise as a way to lose weight or eat more food, it’s not going to be something you will stick with forever. Start exercising because you want to, not because you have to!
10. Honor Your Health With Gentle Nutrition. Being healthy doesn’t mean eating perfectly. Consider how certain foods make you feel, in addition to how tasty and satisfying they are to you. Recognize that one meal, snack, or even an entire day of eating poorly will not cause you to instantly gain weight or develop a health problem. It’s the consistency of what you eat over time that matters. Incorporating health and nutrition is the last step in intuitive eating because if a healthy relationship with food is not in place, it is difficult to truly pursue healthy eating. If you have been a chronic dieter or strict food rule follower for a while, even the best nutrition guidelines can be treated like a diet, which will continue to set you up for failure. So, get a good grasp on principles 1-9 before moving on to this final principle.
Benefits of Intuitive Eating
Studies show that intuitive eating is associated with:
Better body image
Higher self esteem
Lower rates of emotional and disordered eating
Lower body mass index
Does all of this sound too simple or too good to be true? If so, you’re not alone. Perhaps one of the most common defenses said about intuitive eating is that if you give yourself full permission to eat whatever you want, you will binge on it over and over again.
Yet the opposite is actually true for most people. The moment we can normalize food in our minds is the moment that it loses the power it has over us. The more we give ourselves permission to eat what we want without any “should” or care about what other people are thinking, the less we will have the urge to binge or eat in secret. There would simply be no need to if you truly knew that the food would always be there.
So, how can you get started with intuitive eating?
Applying Intuitive Eating to YOU
If you're new to Intuitive Eating, start to clarify your goals and desires with your relationship with food. Consider the following questions:
How would it feel to stop stressing about food all the time?
What would finding freedom with food feel like to you?
How would you spend your days, if you weren't obsessing about food?
What can you do today to commit to your journey toward intuitive eating?
Remember that whenever you find yourself beginning to have rigid rules about food and health, you have moved away from intuitive eating. By simply taking note of this, you will continue to gain awareness and be more able to bring yourself back to the 10 principles. Working with a Registered Dietitian or other trained and trusted health professional is the best way to receive support on this lifestyle shift.
Joanna Foley, RD
Joanna has been practicing as a Registered Dietitian for over 5 years and is the owner of a private nutrition counseling practice at https://www.joannafoleynutrition.com/. Joanna believes that food really IS the best medicine and has a holistic, “whole body” approach to health. Having had personal experience with anxiety and disordered eating, Joanna is also passionate about helping clients transform their relationship with food and create positive eating environments, as well as to learn to use food & nutrition as a tool to recover from emotions such as anxiety. Joanna provides personalized nutrition and lifestyle counseling, and is dedicated to helping others achieve a healthier and happier life for the long term.
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