This article is a beginner’s guide to intuitive eating, a mind-body health approach to long term health and wellness focused on trusting and listening to your body.
Understanding the 'why' and 'how' behind your hunger cues can help you connect back to your natural intuition and find freedom in food while prioritizing your health and wellness.
What is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating is a framework that includes mindful eating, that allows you to find more balance and feel less stress around your relationship with food by connecting back to your body’s natural cues.
Registered Dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch created Intuitive Eating in 1995 as a way of integrating instinct, emotion, and rational thought into a self-care eating framework (1).
They refer to intuitive eating as the personal process of honoring health by tuning into and “responding to the direct messages of the body in order to meet your physical and psychological needs” (1).
By connecting to your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues you can create more mindfulness and a healthier relationship with your body and food.
Intuitive eating is a mindset, not a diet, it’s a way to explore and strengthen the connection between your mind, body, and relationship with food linked to optimal health and wellness.
In this article we explore
- How to eat intuitively
- Mindless eating and chronic disease
- Health benefits of intuitive eating
- 10 principles of intuitive eating
You are an expert in all things you, learn how to make empowered and mindful food choices by practicing intuitive eating.
Intuitive eating or mindful eating may be beneficial if you:
- Tend to eat when you aren’t even hungry
- Eat mindlessly when you are emotional
- Eat or act on autopilot
- Talk a lot about dieting
- Feel uncomfortable in your body and clothes
- Want a healthier relationship with food and increased nutrition
Intuitive eating and mindful eating practices are helpful for everyone, no matter what lifestyle and meal plan you follow; they are mindsets not diets.
How does Intuitive Eating Work?
From birth we intuitively crave food, babies know when their bodies need nourishment and typically cry to be fed or send us other signals, simple.
As we get older how we interact with meal times, the food we are given, and the rules placed around eating transforms food into good vs bad.
The rules placed on that food such as not leaving the table till your plate is clean, sweets becoming a 'special' treat, and bouncing from diet to diet can all affect our relationship with food and our body. These rules may cause us to link specific emotions and cues to foods or rely on food as a coping mechanism.
Outside experiences shape our relationship with food and may cause us to lose touch with our intuitive cues when it comes to hunger and food.
Intuitive eating is behavior focused, not rule focused, so you can reject the diet mentality or any food rules and focus more on feeling good.
Intuitive eaters learn how to distinguish between emotional hunger cues and physiological hunger cues which in turn helps (2):
- Promote self-awareness and mindfulness
- Make decisions based on our own needs vs reacting to emotion, other people, or any other external obstacles
Physiological cues are our body's natural cues signaling when we are hungry, i.e. growling stomach, being ‘hangry’, or even light-headedness.
The regulation of our food intake and body weight is influenced by our hormones, specifically leptin and ghrelin. Hormones and other signals our body can communicate with our brain and stomach to help us know when we are hungry and when we are full (3).
But like any relationship communication can get messy, and be affected by emotional cues we have associated with food.
Emotional Cues or emotional eating is when we turn to food as a coping mechanism usually in response to a negative feeling or stress.
Emotional cues may also be related to factors that influence our food choices such as our environment, social life or relationships , and cultural traditions.
There is a whole study of psychology devoted to understanding the connection between mood and food. The basic act of eating causes our brains to produce more of the feel-good neurotransmitter, dopamine (4).
This can be true of both nutritious and non-nutritious foods, no matter the case, using food as a coping mechanism can alter our relationship with our body and food enough to lose the natural intuition of when we are physically hungry.
Are You Eating Mindlessly?
If we are not consciously connected to how we feel, our motivation, and our strengths then our actions and choices become mindless.
It's no surprise that mindless eating is associated with poorer quality of health and nutrition due to increased calorie intake, unhealthy food choices, and weight gain.
Mindless eating can include eating when you are full, snacking until you get bloated, or eating things just because they are in your line of sight.
Strict dieting or food restriction can also warp our mindset in the same way as compulsive or mindless eating.
This kind of unconscious eating may contribute to the development of eating disorders, obesity, and obesity-related conditions such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer (2,5).
To get the most benefit out of mindful and intuitive eating include these practices as a part of a comprehensive wellness program that includes other lifestyle modifications such as mind-body therapies and exercise; body, mind, and spirit should all be addressed.
Health Benefits of Intuitive Eating
It's hard to study a broad mind-body technique such as intuitive eating but there is a growing amount of evidence suggesting that interventions using mindfulness techniques such as learning how to intuitively eat may improve well-being, eating disorders, food cravings, and weight loss (6).
Intuitive Eating and Weight Loss
Current scientific data suggests that intuitive eating is associated with lower BMI and improved healthy eating behaviors, which may help with natural weight loss (7).
This has more to do with appetite control vs focusing on weight loss. For most people, it takes about 20 minutes for your brain to recognize that you are full. So if you are eating your food in 5 minutes or less, you likely aren't giving yourself enough time to rely on your natural form of calorie control - your hunger fullness signals.
This is directly linked to your ability to recognize when you are full and it is time to stop eating, and not being able to distinguish physical cues of hunger or satiation.
Eating quickly and mindlessly has been linked to weight gain in a number of studies, and on the flip slide, slowing down your eating speed may lead to control over your appetite (8,9).
Overall there isn't enough scientific data to suggest that intuitive eating on its own will help people lose weight as it is a mindset, not a diet, and it is meant to help you build a healthier relationship with yourself and food.
Increases Mindfulness and Self-Awareness
Research suggests that mindful and intuitive eating may help you learn to trust your body by slowing down and checking in with yourself, your environment, and your food (10,11).
Practicing intuitive eating and mindfulness can help you cultivate gratitude and self-awareness for the present moment, learning to love yourself in the process.
This is one of the reasons mindful eating and intuitive eating practices are being used as tools in eating disorder recovery, as they help increase self-awareness (11).
Decreases Cravings of Foods
Cravings can often be the result of food restriction or from not eating enough in general; poor nutrition intake, emotions, and stress can also impact your cravings (12).
Intuitive eating and mindful eating helps us identify the emotion or physiological cues connected to when you feel a craving or desire; when you become aware of these cues you can consciously choose how to process that emotion.
If you are eating intuitively, you can also recognize when your body is naturally hungry and enjoy a satisfying meal or snack.
Leads to Healthier Food Choices and Nutrition
Research suggests that those who practice mindfulness or intuitive eating when it comes to their diet, are more likely to choose nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables, have a higher intake of fiber, and lower intakes of sugar (6).
Being in the moment and observing how you feel after you eat certain foods will help determine which ones you enjoy the most, not just for flavor but also for function.
10 Principles of Intuitive Eating
We expanded upon the 10 principles of intuitive eating as defined by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch to provide you the best tips on how to learn trust your body and eat intuitively.
1. Drop the 'Diet", Define Your Wellness
Tribole and Elyse tell you to reject the diet mentality. It’s no surprise that many of us can struggle with hopping from one diet trend to the next and experience the negative ‘yo-yo’ effects of ‘dieting’.
The unfortunate negative association with the word 'diet' infects our relationship with food from the moment we are told or feel something isn’t quite right and then react and tell everyone around us, including ourselves, I need to diet.
Set aside any articles or books about quick weight loss, permanent weight loss, or easy weight loss; instead, start with figuring out how you want to feel and what you want to achieve with your food plan.
You are on a wellness journey, and defining what wellness means to you will ultimately help you become more mindful and intuitive as to what is right for your body. It will also help you plan and initiate whatever the next steps are in your journey.
2. Know Your Hunger Cues
The 2nd principle is learning to honor your hunger, keeping your body biologically fed with the appropriate amount of food (13).
The most basic role of food is to support us with adequate energy and nutrition to keep us functioning, honor your body by understanding and learning about what it needs to keep you going.
When you reach moments of hanger or excessive hunger, all of our ability to choose consciously goes out the window. Prevent this by identifying your hunger cues or using tools to check in with yourself.
Check in with yourself using a hunger scale or mindfulness practice to help you identify where you are at with your hunger.
3. There is No Forbidden Fruit
It’s no surprise we have developed a lot of weird feelings around food and eating.
Guilt over telling yourself you “shouldn’t eat this or that” leads to cravings, bingeing, and potentially the development of disordered eating (7).
But instead of beating yourself up or telling yourself you can't have that, give yourself unconditional permission to eat.
This will do wonders in helping you achieve your health goals and makes the journey much more enjoyable.
4. Learn to Challenge Your Thoughts
The saying goes, "you are not your thoughts". And it's true, we are not our thoughts, but we are what we choose to do with them.
The fourth principle from RD'S, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, tells us to challenge the food police; scream a loud 'no' to thoughts in your head that label you as 'good' or 'bad' based on what you eat.
Words build worlds, show yourself some love, and say no to all of the negative self-talk, toxic thought-loops, and guilt-provoking banter that may pop up around food. Just being aware that these thoughts are popping up is a great start to kicking them to the curb.
If a negative thought comes up, acknowledge it, then let it go; choose not to engage with the food police.
5. Tune into Your Satisfaction Senses
Discovering the 'satisfaction factor' means exploring the pleasure and satisfaction found in the eating experience (14).
Use your basic senses to explore each meal and the environment around you.
When you eat do you stop to appreciate the textures and flavors of the meal? How do you find gratitude for what’s on your plate and pleasure in your environment? What does satisfaction feel like to you?
Understanding the feeling of being satisfied will help you determine what amount of food it takes for you to feel full and satiated.
6. Know When You Are Full
Feeling your fullness means listening to the body for natural signals that you have had enough to eat (14).
Practice this by pausing while you are eating and observing what your hunger level is. Once you have finished a meal wait 10 minutes and check in again, if you no longer feel hungry then you may be comfortably full.
7. Practice Nonjudgment
Emotional eating can be devastating both physically and mentally, leading to food restriction, over-eating, weight gain or loss, and overall trigger a loss of control (14).
Knowing how to comfort yourself, and approaching your emotions and food with kindness and non-judgment will help you find freedom in food.
8. Appreciate Your Body
Tribole and Elyse say we should accept our genetic blueprint; it is uncomfortable when we reject our natural body size (14).
Being able to respect your body starts with accepting where you are at Acceptance is about being ok with where you are at in the present moment, saying " I am who I am".
9. Movement - Feel the Difference
Movement can be anything from walking, yoga, pilates, stretching, and plyometrics. Instead of focusing on how many calories you are burning or the thought of "I have to workout" shift to focusing on how your body feels when you engage in any kind of movement.
You don't have to go big at first either, aim for 30 minutes of any kind of movement a day to start, this could be as simple as a walk around the block.
10. Honor Your Health
Make food choices that make you feel good; gentle nutrition encourages us to not obsess over every single food or meal.
You don't have to eat perfectly to be healthy, because at the end of the day there is no perfect diet or one-size-fits-all equation for optimal health.
Having a meal prep plan or the resources to cultivate a food plan that honors your wellness goals is a great place to start.
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