Intuitive Eating: An Introduction

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This article originally appeared as a guest piece in the Progress Wellness newsletter.

What the heck is intuitive eating? We often hear the term, but what does it mean, how can it help us, what are its common misconceptions, and how can we begin to put it into practice?

First, some context: In our society, we are often taught that we cannot trust our bodies and that we need something external from ourselves to guide our eating. Hence, we have calorie counting, tracking apps, points systems, lists of foods to eat and those to avoid, meal plans, and other tools that tell us what, when, and how much to eat.

Intuitive eating, on the other hand, is a system based on the reality that contrary to popular belief, we can actually trust our bodies to guide our eating decisions. Internal signals give us information regarding our hunger and fullness, what foods will hit the spot at any given eating occasion, and how much of those foods we need to feel satisfied. Think of how much better water tastes when we are thirsty versus when we are already well hydrated, for example. Someone with anemia might not know that red meat is high in iron; they just know that a hamburger sounds mighty fine.

In contrast to external tools, intuitive eating tends to be a more peaceful and satisfying way of making decisions regarding what, when, and how much to eat. Not only that, but clinical trials have also found that intuitive eating is associated with improvements in physiological measures (blood pressure, blood lipids), health behaviors (eating and physical activity habits, dietary quality), and psychosocial outcomes (body image, self-esteem).

Whereas diet culture has rules and judgment, intuitive eating offers guidelines and flexibility, and it encourages neutral curiosity when events do not transpire as one would hope. Some people turn intuitive eating into the “hunger and fullness diet” by believing that they must eat when they reach a certain level of hunger and must stop when a certain level of fullness is attained, but such action is an oversimplification and misuse of the skills. If someone practicing intuitive eating ends up overly full, rather than beating themselves up for it and judging themselves as bad or undisciplined, they will just explore what happened to see if perhaps next time they might want to make a different decision.

Some people use intuitive eating as a weight loss tool, but doing so is a mistake. While some individuals will lose weight when they eat intuitively, many will not. By focusing on weight loss, people are likely going to end up disappointed and also stunt their development as intuitive eaters.

We are born intuitive eaters, and internal eating cues still reside in virtually all of us. Even if we fear our signals are gone, more likely they are simply buried by years of disuse, and we can uncover them and put them to use once again.

As a first step, when you are considering eating, take a moment to ask yourself, “How hungry am I right now?” You can imagine hunger and fullness existing on a linear continuum with extreme hunger at one end and extreme fullness at the opposite end. Ask yourself where on that continuum you are. Keep in mind that this is never to be a leading question, and your answer has nothing to do with permission to eat. You are simply gathering data and trying to notice the signals that your body gives you.

As a second step, if you have decided you are going to eat, rather than jumping to immediately see what your options are, take a moment to first look inward. Ask yourself if a particular flavor (sweet, salty, spicy, etc.) would hit the spot. Similarly, consider temperature (hot, frozen, chilled, room temperature, etc.), texture (crunchy, smooth, liquid, etc.), and even color. You might not have answers for all of these questions, but even knowing one of them (Temperature tends to be easiest for most people to discern.) can give you some direction. With your answer(s) in mind, now survey your choices, whether on a restaurant menu or in your own pantry or refrigerator, and try choosing the food that most matches your identified criteria.

Most people who are looking to become intuitive eaters need more help than can be found in a blog. Consider seeking the help of a registered dietitian who specializes in intuitive eating, and remember to be patient, as it can often take six months to a year, or even longer, of work and practice before your intuitive eating skills once again take their natural place as your default decision-making tools.

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