Contrary to popular diet culture, based on food and calorie restriction, intuitive eating is a way of eating that promotes a healthy attitude towards food and body image. It is an intuitive process that requires us to be in touch with our body and its needs, and drops the “shoulds” and “don’ts”.
What exactly is intuitive eating?
The term intuitive eating was coined in 1995 as the title of the book by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. But the concept of eating intuitively has its roots from way before the 90’s. The concept rejects traditional diets that promote restriction and deprivation of any kind and encourages you to truly get in touch with how hungry and how satisfied you are at any given moment, and based on that inner knowledge, attune with your body to know when, what and how much to eat. It focuses beyond food, and places focus on lifestyle changes and personal care that can be even more important in long-term health.
10 key principles
According to the book, intuitive eating is based on 10 key points. It is important to note however, that there is no right and wrong, and no rules. These are simply pointers that can help you improve your relationship with food and can act as guides as you make changes at your own pace.
1. Reject diet mentality
The diet mentality suggests that there is one diet out there that will work for you. While a diet might work for you in the short time, it will oftentimes not in the long term. Take the time to review your own dieting history. Has dieting helped you improve your health in the long term? How so? Have you found yourself circling between dieting, restriction, giving in to a craving, shame and guilt, and then restricting food again?
2. Honor your hunger
Learning to acknowledge hunger is important when we want to rebuild the relationship with food and our bodies. Responding to hunger cues early on, by eating nourishing foods will prevent us from overeating. Also, learning to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger, will also help us acknowledge our eating patterns, as well as some deeply ingrained coping mechanisms we might have with food. I have a detailed post about emotional eating here that you might find interesting.
3. Make peace with food
This involves getting rid of ideas about what you should or shouldn’t eat and giving yourself permission to eat the foods you enjoy, including those that might have been off-limits. Telling yourself you can’t have certain foods can lead to strong cravings. Allowing certain foods ever so often and in appropriate quantities will make them less exciting, as they are no longer off-limits. And as you get more in touch with your body and its true needs, you might find down the line that these foods become less and less exciting for you and that you don’t feel the need to eat them anymore.
4. Challenge the food police
Challenge the thought patterns you have about food. Catch yourself whenever you think or say out loud that certain foods are “good” or bad” or find yourself judging people as “good” or “bad” depending on the food they eat. This part is about learning about how to speak to yourself in a more gentle and nurturing way. It is about dropping the labels about food and realizing that food is just that – food. Doing this will help you establish a more sustainable practice of self-care. One that is rooted in nourishing yourself and your body, and truly learning what is good for you, rather than punishing and depriving yourself in ways that can damage you physically and mentally.
5. Respect your fullness
Learning when to stop eating is just as important as learning when you need to eat. Listen to your body for signs when it’s full. Check with yourself and notice if the food tastes differently, how full you’re feeling and if you’re still eating because there’s food around. Practice eating slowly and mindfully.
6. Discover the satisfaction factor
Make food enjoyable, and make meal times special. Take the time to sit down, and acknowledge you’re nourishing your body. Choose food that brings you pleasure, be it by adding a delicious dip to vegetables, or making a plate that is nice to look at. I don’t see this part as an overindulgence, but rather as discovering the art of enjoying food fully. It has a lot to do with mindfulness and being present when you eat. It also has a lot to do with how connected you are to your body and its true needs.
7. Honor your feelings without using food
Emotional eating is a coping way to deal with feelings. Many times, this coping mechanisms stems from our childhood, other times it is learned later, and becomes an unconscious habit, which can be hazardous to our health. I have written more about emotional eating here. Learning to recognize emotional eating is the first step towards correcting it, and choosing different, more helpful ways, of dealing with these emotions is a step further.
8. Respect your body
Treating our body with respect is something we all need to do more. It doesn’t always happen immediately, and also doesn’t literally mean “love your body just as it is”. Even if you have some body issues, this shouldn’t stop you from treating it with the kindness and respect that it deserves. Starting with respect is a good way to work through whatever body issues you might have and then slowly moving into feeling more comfortable in it, to actually truly loving it. Remember, it’s a process, so be kind to yourself.
9. Exercise – feel the difference
We know that the food we eat is only part of the equation to health and wellbeing. Moving our body regularly is another important aspect. Your body loves movement, it is made to move! So rather than viewing exercise as a chore or a necessary nuisance to get where you want to be, see it as a tool to make you feel more energized, strong and alive! To do this, find ways to move your body that bring you joy. Try different sports – individual and group ones and see what gives you that spark. Pleasurable movement can be the just about one of the best things that you can do for yourself!
10. Honor your health with gentle nutrition
Naturally, nutrition is part of intuitive eating. After all, the food we eat affects our health and our body directly. But it is important to heal your relationship with food first, otherwise it can become another focus of obsession or restriction. Eating nutrient-dense foods will make us feel good, but you need to get there at your own pace, gently and steadily. Nutrition in intuitive eating is all about keeping things in perspective. One meal or day of eating won’t make or break your health. Consider what you do the majority of time, and allow yourself to enjoy food or the situation you find yourself in, without giving in to shame and guilt and reflect on how food makes you feel and your personal health goals.
My experience with intuitive eating
My experience with intuitive eating started about four years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child. At this time, I haven’t read the book, nor was I aware of the term “intuitive eating”, but I became strongly aware of my body’s needs. Up until I became pregnant, I was vegan for about a year and a half, and soon after my first trimester my body started requesting food that was not part of my daily menu. Particularly for me it was the case for some fish and yogurt. And while I resisted the urge at first and made sure I get the nutrients found in these foods from plant foods (such as omega-3s, protein and calcium), the call from my body didn’t stop. And so, I decided that the best thing I can do is to listen to it. I started adding some fish and yogurt to my diet and found a positive change almost immediately. This was not an easy move, as I was quite committed to my plant-based style, but it proved to be a major lesson and opened further my path to becoming nutritionists an getting more in touch with my body. Also, I want to reiterate that this is my personal experience and that my aim is not to slam the plant-based diet. I know of plenty women who have had a 100% plant-based diet during pregnancy and had a healthy baby and pregnancy, and also know you can get all your nutrients with a well-planned plant-based diet. I help many of my clients to do that. My point is simply, that what this changed for me was my mindset and the realization that we are all fluid, constantly changing beings. While this diet worked for me for a year and a half and brought me so much health and vitality, at this point in my life, my body needed a slight adjustment. I have since been listening to my body and found myself rejecting to describe myself as “vegetarian” or “pescatarian” or to put myself in any of these boxes, as I find it limiting. Right now, I eat plant-based 90% of the time, but I allow myself to eat anything else if I ever feel like it, which is rare, but it happens. And with that I find I have found my golden range where I feel at my best. When I later read the book on intuitive eating it struck a chord with me, as I have gone through all this intuitively and have healed many parts of my own relationship with food.
Lastly, I also want to reiterate that intuitive eating doesn’t meat you can eat anything you want, it is about improving your relationship with food. Oftentimes cravings can be a sign of addiction or even food intolerance (see my detailed post about it here). On our path towards healing and well-being we also need to become aware of certain foods that we might consume on a daily basis, but that are detrimental to our health. The need to eliminate these foods for a certain period of time can then be a good starting point in regaining our health and feeling better. If you need help with getting started, feel free to get in touch.