What Is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive Eating is a dynamic mind-body integration of instinct, emotion, and rational thought. It is a personal process of honoring your health by paying attention to the messages of your body and meeting your physical and emotional needs. It is an inner journey of discovery that puts you front and center; you are the expert of your own body. After all, only you know your thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Only you know how hungry you are and what food or meal will satisfy you. No diet plan or guru could possibly know these things.
There are ten principles of Intuitive Eating, which work in two key ways. Some of them help you gain body attunement—that is, the ability to hear (and thus respond to) the physical sensations that arise within your body, such as biological cues of hunger and fullness—and other principles work by removing the obstacles to body attunement.
Principle One: 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.
If dieting programs had to stand up to the same scrutiny as medications, they would never be allowed for public consumption. Imagine, for example, taking a cholesterol medication that improved your blood results for a few weeks but, in the long run, caused your arteries to clog. Would you really embark on a dieting program (even a so-called sensible diet) if you knew that it could cause you to gain more weight and affect your emotional well-being?
Principle Two: 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 the first biological signal of hunger sets the stage for rebuilding trust with yourself and food.
The chronic food deprivation of dieting is a traumatic assault on the body and mind—a nutritional trauma, similar to actual starvation—which needs to be remedied with consistent nourishment. If you also have a history of food scarcity—whether from poverty or childhood neglect—dieting and the act of denying your hunger recreates that trauma. Every meal can feel as if it’s the last time you will get to eat, even if you are safe and financially secure.
Honoring your hunger is a key step in healing your relationship with food. But this is not always easy. It can be challenging to honor your hunger if you have been avoiding it or simply not listening for it. Perhaps the signs of hunger from your body have been dormant for a long time.
Principle Three: 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 that it usually results in Last Supper overeating and overwhelming guilt.
When you truly give yourself permission to eat what you like, it allows you to really experience the taste and the effect of the food in your body. If the food is not off-limits, the threat of the now-or-never type of overeating is gone. When you no longer feel you are depriving yourself of a food, it gives you the space that allows you to ask, Do I really like the taste of this food? Do I like how this food feels in my body? Would I choose to feel this way again after eating this meal or snack? Would I choose to eat in this manner again? After all, this will not be the last time you eat this food—so why would you want to eat it in a way that does not feel good or is not satisfying?
Principle Four: Challenge the Food Police
The food police monitor the unreasonable rules that dieting has created. The police station is housed deep in your psyche, and its loudspeaker shouts negative barbs, hopeless phrases, and guilt-provoking indictments. Chasing the food police away is a critical step in returning to Intuitive Eating.
We are all born into this world innocent, filled with instinct and emotions and the capacity to eventually form thoughts. Even in the womb, the child learns about the world. Smells, voices, and sensations can be experienced, but the formulation of a belief system about the world begins once the child is influenced by the environment outside the womb. Beliefs about people, politics, religion, culture, education, and so forth, to which a child is exposed while growing up, are the building blocks of the child’s early formation of his or her own beliefs. In the realm of eating, this child lives in a nation—and, perhaps, a home—riddled with guilt about eating. Foods are often described in moralistic terms: decadent, sinful, tempting, or bad. This way of viewing food has become a false religion. Dieting has become the absolving ritual for removing the guilt of eating pleasurable foods.
Principle Five: Feel 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 eating and ask yourself how the food tastes and what your current fullness level is.
It is difficult to identify fullness if you are eating while distracted, stuck in habitual patterns of cleaning your plate, or eating quickly without savoring your food. In the book CrazyBusy (2007), Edward M. Hallowell describes our modern predicament: people are incredibly busy and distracted, thanks to technology that’s always on and a growing sense of urgency that we must be productive at all times. We always have to be doing something. Some people even view sitting down to simply enjoy a meal as a waste of time; they use their mealtimes to get other things done, even if it’s just watching the news.
Principle Six: 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.
Unfortunately, for so many in our culture, the pleasure of eating promotes feelings of guilt and wrongdoing, and, of course, dieting plays right into this ethic. It causes you to make sacrifices and settle for less. But if you regularly settle for an unsatisfying food or an unappetizing eating experience, satisfaction will not be the outcome; rather, you are likely to continue searching for a satisfying food, even though you are no longer hungry.
Principle Seven: Cope with Your Feelings Without Using Food
Find ways to comfort, nurture, distract, and resolve your issues without using food. Anxiety, loneliness, boredom, and 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.
The manner in which you were raised can impact your ability to effectively cope with life’s ups and downs. If your parents or caregivers helped you develop positive coping skills, such as the ability to speak up, to show emotions, and to receive comfort from others, life’s challenges (and irritations) can more easily be met. On the other hand, if your parents were emotionally distant, abusive, or neglectful, or simply unable to cope with problems themselves, you may find yourself turning to destructive coping mechanisms, because you learned no other way to manage life’s challenges. When you throw dieting into the fray, you may find yourself catapulted into seeking solace in food, regardless of how you were raised.
Principle Eight: 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.
The dictionary definition for respect includes words like honor, regard, admiration, reverence, esteem, politeness, courtesy, civility, deference, and dignity. Sadly, we rarely hear people describe their bodies in this manner. We live in a culture of body bashing and body shame, thanks to the proliferation of crash-diet programs, social media, and abusive television shows bullying people under the guise of health. As if the human body can be sculpted at will and into a different shape or size!
Principle Nine: 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.
There is no question that exercise is beneficial for a myriad of health issues from stress reduction to prevention of chronic diseases. The issue for most people is the art of doing it consistently. A big challenge for chronic dieters is choosing the right exercise. If they make their selection based on how many calories they will burn, they might be engaging in activities they don’t necessarily find enjoyable.
When your focus is on an unattainable aesthetic, rather than the intrinsic pleasure of movement, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Worse yet, exercise becomes part of the dieting mentality and drudgery, which leads to burnout. Consequently, when the dieting stops, so does the physical activity, which is understandable—if your primary experience with exercise has been connected with dieting or when you’re not eating enough food, you won’t learn that exercise can feel good.
Principle Ten: Honor Your Health: Gentle Nutrition
Make food choices that honor your health and taste buds 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.
There was a reason for making Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition, the tenth and last principle. A focus on nutrition in the beginning might have sabotaged your ability to challenge the notion of “good” and “bad” foods. It was important that you learned to view foods as emotionally equivalent in order to truly tune in to which foods give you the most satisfaction and feel good in your body. Hopefully, you’re now ready to extend that to which foods to include in your world in order to derive the benefit of good health.