What Is Intuitive Eating and How Can It Help You?

To meal plan or go with the flow of the moment?  To diet or shun all diets forever? To try and lose weight or give up that goal and focus on behaviors?  

All these are really great questions to ask yourself and they point to the abundant confusion so many of us have with trying to feed ourselves the best way we can in today’s world.  

And the more confused we get, the louder and more divided certain nutrition camps seem to get, hoping you’ll pick their course as the be all and end all of what and how to eat.  It seems that opposing eating styles each have convincing success stories and convincing scientific evidence to back them up.

For example, the paleo diet pushes food eaten before agriculture, and tends to be heavy in animal protein.  On the other hand, plant based diet advocates tout only a tiny percentage, if any, of our food should be from animal sources for the best health.  

Then there’s Intuitive Eating, which puts all food back on the table and you in the driver’s seat for knowing how to best feed yourself.  The 10 principles of Intuitive Eating were created by Registered Dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, and described in their book and workbook, Intuitive Eating.  

What’s so ironic is that we are all born with this innate ability to know just how to feed ourselves.  Even though we were dependent on others to do the feeding, we knew exactly when to eat, how much to eat, and how to get those needs met.  

Depending on the messages you received from your caregivers, those innate abilities may have hung around quite a few years, or you may have lost them as early as the highchair.  But somewhere along the way, messages from the culture and peer groups seep in and most of us lose connection with our inner signals.

Probably the fastest way to get out of touch with your body’s needs is by dieting to try and lose weight.  Think about what a diet does. It gives everybody the same set of rigid rules to follow, regardless of your individuality.  It tells you what to eat, what not to eat, how much to eat, and often when to eat.

Probably the fastest way to get out of touch with your body’s needs is by dieting to try and lose weight. ~Meghan Leah, MS, RD Click To Tweet

If your body sends hunger signals before it’s time or after your allotted amount, you learn to suppress it.  With enough repetition, that signal is greatly muted and you often can’t detect it anymore. If you happen to eat half the amount allotted and feel full, fat chance you’re listening to that signal – you “earned” this food!  And since you aren’t sure you’ll get enough later, you learn to override your body’s fullness signals.

Dieting damages your intuitive connection to your body, and can make it very hard to hear even when you’re off a diet.  

Dieting damages your intuitive connection to your body, and can make it very hard to hear even when you’re off a diet. ~Meghan Leah, MS, RD Click To Tweet

Another thing dieting does is creates fear around certain foods and a “health halo” around other foods.  Foods not allowed on the diet become “bad” foods that you automatically feel guilty eating, even when you’re not on a diet!  Foods allowed are seen as “good” foods even if you’re so sick of them you don’t want to touch them! This sets you up for psychological mayhem, and can even drive overeating.

When something is forbidden, how much more do you want to see or do that thing than you would if there was nothing special about it?  It instantly becomes more interesting and thought-consuming. Of course the same goes for food! Yes, you may still love brownies even if they weren’t “forbidden” on your diet, but the powerful drive toward them diminishes when you know you can eat them anytime you want.  When unlimited and guiltless access to food is provided, your internal signals become much more of a driver to if and how much you eat compared to thinking this is the last chance you’ll ever have a piece of chocolate again!

When unlimited and guiltless access to food is provided, your internal signals become much more of a driver to if and how much you eat compared to thinking this is the last chance you’ll ever have a piece of chocolate again! ~Meghan… Click To Tweet

So how can you reignite your own intuitive eater?  Here is a brief description of the 10 principles, which are described in detail in the book:

 

  • Reject the Diet Mentality – this principle means ditching weight loss diets for good, and committing to honoring your own guiding principles from a place of kindness.  Instead of coming from a place of “not good enough yet,” you learn to take on eating from a place of nurturing.
  • Honor Your Hunger – if you’re hungry – eat!  Hunger is not something to fight against, but something to listen to and honor.  Just like you wouldn’t fight your body from needing oxygen, don’t fight your body for needing food.
  • Make Peace with Food – learn to allow all foods, except things you’re allergic to, back into your diet.  Un-moralize food by quitting words like “good” and “bad” or referring to yourself as “good” or “bad” for eating a certain way.  Learn never to feel guilty about eating any food – unless you stole it!
  • Challenge the Food Police – learn to catch those damaging thoughts that might creep up when you eat a certain thing or a certain amount.  Replace these judgmental thoughts with nurturing and helpful thoughts and observe your experience from a neutral place.
  • Respect Your Fullness – Learn to hear when your body is satisfied and energized with food.  Connect how you feel physically to how you eat to learn what amount and type of food works best for you.
  • Discover the Satisfaction Factor – bring pleasure back into your food life – without the side of guilt!  Experiment with what makes you feel truly satisfied with food. If you crave something, eat it!  Then see how that feels in your body.
  • Honor Your Feelings without Using Food – learn to notice your feelings, and if you find you use food to cope with emotions, learn other strategies of coping that leave you feeling better.
  • Respect Your Body – even if you aren’t in the body you might want, learn ways you can respect all your body has done for you, and find ways of respecting this place you call home right now.  This means not waiting until you reach a certain weight to have the clothes you want or doing the activities you want.
  • Exercise – Feel the Difference – rather than exercise from a place of punishment or force, move from a place of joy that feels good to your body.  The purpose is not to lose weight, but to feel the gift of movement. Learn more about Joyful Movement here.
  • Honor Your Health – use “gentle nutrition” to feel your best.  Choose food from a place of feeling satisfied and helping your body get or stay healthy.  

 

These 10 principles have the power to change your relationship with food and your body forever.  But they will likely take time, especially if you’ve been dieting a long time. Some people are able to find their intuitive eater within months, but it can take years if you’ve buried that part of you under years of dieting.  But if you’re tired of dieting and ending up at the same place you began, or even heavier, you may want to consider transforming your whole approach to food.

The reason honoring your health is the last principle is because for that to truly work as an intuitive eater, your relationship with food must be healed first.  Think of it like unwinding all the years of diets and deprivation before you can build a new foundation. The old house must be torn down before the new one goes up.

Once you’ve truly healed your relationship with food, then you can really tune in to what works for your body.  After careful observation and honest listening, you may make connections that a certain eating style really does make you feel better.  Maybe you find a meal plan helps to organize your hectic schedule and makes it easier for you to eat the way you feel best. As long as flexibility is built in, that may work for you.  

The most important question to ask when thinking about your eating style or changing it to something else is: Where is it coming from?  

The most important question to ask when thinking about your eating style or changing it to something else is: Where is it coming from? ~Meghan Leah, MS, RD Click To Tweet

If your way of eating comes from a place of guilt, fear, anxiety, “should,” or shame, it won’t work for long.  Even if it does, the stress that goes with it can erase any health benefits you think it might have. But if it comes from a place of curiosity, respect, love, joy, playful experimentation, or kindness give it a go!  

Remember to come back to your Intuitive Eater to guide you forward.

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