In short: intuitive eating is normal eating. Intuitive eating teaches you how to look inside yourself and listen to internal cues. It has nothing to do with diets, willpower or calorie counting. It is an anti-diet approach to eating and provides guidance on how to form a healthy relationship with food. There are no rules to break and no temptations to resist. Unlike dieting and meal planning, intuitive eating is not a set up for failure. It's also extremely important for children to embrace the cues they're born with.
You're Born With Internal Cues
The ability to use internal cues (hunger and fullness) to regulate food intake is present in everyone – no matter how long the individual has been ignoring them. We are born knowing how to eat according to our internal cues. A baby cries when he’s hungry, he eats, and stops eating when he’s full. Kids innately balance their food intake week to week, eating when they’re hungry and stopping once they feel full. I often see my kids eat only half their dessert because they’re full. An adult would likely ignore those cues and eat the entire dessert.
The challenge in becoming an intuitive eater is to reconnect with the already present internal cues and to learn to ignore the external ones.
Fears Regarding Listening to Our Bodies
Most people initially believe that by using internal cues to guide food amounts and food choices, they will inevitably be “unhealthy,” make the wrong choices, and eat too much. This is a sign of a lack of self-trust, which is natural when external factors have been used for so long to make these choices for us. Regaining trust is a process. It takes time and practice, but it’s well worth it. By using internal cues, it is possible to never diet again!
Eliminate External Rules and Controls
When people start eliminating all the old external rules and controls, it is normal to crave foods that were once restricted. For example, when individuals go on low-carb diets, usually that is the nutrient they start to think about and crave. After stopping the diet, it is quite common to “over-indulge” in foods high in carbohydrates. This is because the body is craving them so intensely. It is the same with any food. The more and longer a food is restricted, the more intense the cravings will be. At first, you might feel out of control, like you can’t be trusted with food. But eventually the extreme cravings subside and return to “normal.” It is important for them to keep this in mind as they are going through the process of becoming an intuitive eater.
Just as the body and mind intensely crave foods that have been restricted, the reverse also holds true. An example of this is going on a road trip and only having limited options of restaurant food available. At first it may be fun, exciting and pleasurable to eat these foods, especially if they aren’t foods you normally consume. However, after a while, restaurant food will get old and boring, and cravings for other foods will arise. This is because your body and mind get tired of the same thing over and over. We crave variety, and we can think of the old adage “variety is the spice of life.”
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Listening to Your Body and How That Effects Weight
By listening to hunger and fullness cues, and to what the body is craving, our body will naturally find a weight where it feels comfortable. This is known as the body’s set-point weight. An easy way to understand this concept is with an analogy. A thermostat is set at 70 degrees. When the room drops below that temperature, heat will blow out of the vent and warm the room. If the temperature in the room goes above 70 degrees, the air conditioner will blow cool air. Metabolism and hunger operate in a very similar way.
Hunger and fullness cues and metabolism play a role in the regulation of our body’s weight, just as the heating and cooling of the room helps control the temperature where the thermostat is set. When weight drops below our set-point, hunger will increase, and metabolism will lower to conserve energy. When our weight goes above our set-point, hunger decreases, and metabolism increases to burn energy more easily.
It is true the regulatory mechanisms do work harder to keep the body from going below the set-point than above it. This is most likely because during the majority of human history food sources have been scarce, and it has been vital for the body to preserve energy as a means of survival. However, the more we can tune into the regulatory mechanisms, the more likely weight will remain stable.
Being Mindful While Eating
To get back in touch with hunger/fullness cues and to figure out what the body is craving, it’s important to be mindful while eating. Using our senses while eating is a great way to get back in touch with our bodies. In our modern-day lives, many of us are rushing around and eating food on the run. Eating in this manner, most individuals do not pay attention to hunger and fullness cues, let alone the taste, texture, sight, and smell of their food. Staying fully aware of these aspects of food will enhance the experience of eating, and more enjoyment and satisfaction will be derived.
Checking in during various times throughout the meal can also help us to be mindful while eating.
Ask questions like:
1. Where is my hunger/fullness level?
2. Am I enjoying this food?
3. What would make my eating experience more pleasurable in this moment?
4. Would I rather be eating something else?
5. I am staying present while I am eating, or is my mind wandering around?
6. What external things influenced my food choices today?
7. How can I reconnect to the internal signals my body is giving me?
Asking questions and being curious and mindful during mealtimes will be beneficial to someone trying to become a more intuitive eater. Awareness is such an important component of change. Without this subtle awareness we may find it impossible to become an intuitive eater and move out of the diet mentality.
Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods
Reference: Center for Change. Dieting is Out; Listening to Our Bodies is In. Alice Covey, RD CD