Defining intuitive eating
Intuitive eating is an approach to eating that focuses on being in tune with our body cues related to hunger, such as hunger itself, fullness, and satisfaction. Rather than following a set of rules, intuitive eating emphasizes trusting the signs our body tells us related to what we eat when we eat, and how much we eat. Being aware of and trusting our intuition makes up a big part of intuitive eating.
Why intuitive eating
It's hard to avoid diet culture, especially from the media. This can set us up for negative emotions surrounding our body image and the foods we eat. In the long term, restrictive dieting doesn't lead to sustainable weight loss and if anything, can lead to more weight gain. On the other hand, an approach that appreciates health at every size has been found to have both psychological and physical benefits. Here are some examples:
Intuitive eating has been associated with greater emotional functioning and decreased disordered eating.
We can increase our awareness of what we're eating and why by practicing intuitive eating. This allows us to become more mindful when it comes to our meals.
Intuitive eating provides a way to reduce dieting patterns and enable more sustainable, long-term behaviours.
Engaging in intuitive eating has been correlated with an increased motivation to engage in exercise, especially for pleasure purposes.
The more appreciation we have for our bodies, the more happiness we tend to experience. In intuitive eaters, higher levels of body appreciation and lower levels of body image concerns have been found.
Overall, the most sustainable approach to healthy eating is eating in a way that's enjoyable rather than restrictive. Intuitive eating provides an approach that's flexible and is able to be adopted by everyone.
Get the PDF
We're all capable of intuitive eating, but it can a challenging shift to make. To get started, we've created a daily intuitive eating journal to provide some support on the journey to becoming a more intuitive eater. It can help promote healthy habits related to intuitive eating that we'll explore below.
Note: the PDF asks us to reflect and write down what we eat, but this isn't for calorie or macro-tracking purposes. Rather, it's to increase mindfulness around our food choices, and how they make us feel. Here at PUL, we recommend tracking only for a few days and not for longer periods of time. A few days is generally enough for us to learn more about ourselves to help us eat more intuitively without tracking anything related to food or fitness.
The ten principles
Intuitive eating consists of ten key principles created by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Here's a rundown on each.
1. Reject the diet mentality
When we think about how dieting makes us feel, both mentally and physically, there are usually some negative feelings floating around. Many people begin dieting to lose weight, but time and time again, it's been shown that dieting can have the opposite effect. Individuals following diets may lose weight in times of restriction, but the weight tends to return with time, potentially with a little extra than before the restriction. Diet culture often advertises weight loss which doesn't last or may not work in the first place. The first step to intuitive eating, then, is to reject the diet mentality.
2. Honour your hunger
Many of us have likely had at least one instance where we didn't eat despite feeling hungry. Headaches, irritation, fatigue, and an inability to focus are commonly experienced when we ignore our hunger. Plus, when we restrict our intake of food, cravings begin to kick in. Rather than ignoring what our body is telling us, eating when we're hungry is essential in building a positive relationship between our body and food.
3. Make peace with food
Food is supposed to give us energy; nourish our cells from the inside out. Food is also something that brings us together with others. It brings happiness, joy, and satisfaction. In this way, food is there to also nourish our soul. Rather than thinking of foods as "good" or "bad", we can try to think of them as "everyday" food and "sometimes" food based on what our body cues tell us. There's room for all foods; so let's make peace with it. Make a truce with food to help avoid the restrict-binge cycle.
4. Challenge the food police
Deep in each of our heads are the food police. They're the watchdogs of diet culture. The food police are the little voice that tells us "don't eat that" or "you need to exercise now to make up for that" or "this food is bad, and that food is good". Diet culture has developed unreasonable rules related to food. Many of us have these rules ingrained in our thoughts. The food police is that inner critic that makes us feel guilt, shame, or other negative emotions when we don't follow these unfair food rules. It's simply not possible to enjoy eating fully when the food police are involved.
We can try to notice the food police each time they whisper in our heads. Identify them as soon as the voices pop up. Say to yourself, "that's not me talking, that's the food police." Once we've identified them, retaliate by saying "no" when they try to tell us what to do. Question their authority; is what they're saying even true? Likely not. This helps us take back control over our food choices, rather than letting the food police make our decisions.
5. Discover the satisfaction factor
Let's say we're craving a bowl of ice cream, but we feel that we shouldn't, so instead, we have an orange. That didn't feel satisfying enough, so we have some hummus with crackers. That also didn't "hit the spot", so we eat something else. Without satisfaction, our body can be physically full but we might not feel content.
A couple of hours later, the craving remains, and we finally give in. This can sometimes be accompanied by a feeling of guilt for not having been able to control our urges. Instead, what if we give in to the craving when we feel it? To allow ourselves to enjoy the food, without guilt. To feel and experience the joy the food brings us. The food we enjoy not as a reward, but just because we wanted to, and without punishment. With this mindset, it becomes easier to listen to the inner voice that says "I've enjoyed that, thank you, that's enough for now." It helps create a healthier relationship with food.
6. Feel your fullness
Listening to our bodies is a critical aspect of intuitive eating. If we come from a history of chronic dieting, it might be difficult to know when exactly we're hungry, and when we're full. This is because diets tend to make us ignore these signals. Becoming more conscious while eating can help us be more aware of when we're full.
Here are some helpful tips for feeling our fullness:
- Use a hunger metre. This is a simple tool to help us reflect on how we feel when we're eating - check out the daily intuitive eating journal above for a printable version!
- Eat slowly, to allow our body to react and digest food.
- Pause for a minute when eating to check-in with our body. Would we like to continue eating, or do we feel content and full?
7. Cope with your emotions with kindness
We're all human. We all experience anger, loneliness, boredom, or anxiety from time to time. We're not perfect and it's totally normal to feel emotional at times. Although we may not be able to avoid emotions, how we deal with them is within our control.
A good first step is acknowledging that restricting our intake of food can trigger negative emotions to come up. A second step is recognizing that food isn't always able to address the true root of our emotions. Eating may distract us from certain feelings, but if we don't reflect on what's really making us emotional, we won't be able to solve the true problem.
8. Respect your body
Growing up, we're commonly taught to treat others the way we want to be treated. The same applies to how we treat ourselves. All bodies deserve to be loved and accepted. If we have unrealistic goals or expectations for ourselves, it will be very challenging to reject diet culture. We can honour our bodies wherever we're at. It's that very body that pumps our heart without us thinking about it; it brings oxygen to our lungs; it makes us feel love for those in our life; it feels warmth; it smells delicious food, it does everything for us, every day. When we give our body the utmost love and appreciation, we then honour the food we give it. Whether that food nourishes the cells or the soul.
The rush of energy and positivity after exercise isn't a fluke. Physical activity is actually associated with higher happiness levels. To be clear: this isn't talking about forced and unenjoyable workouts. Instead, we can move our body and focus on feelings rather than calories burned or time on a machine. Once we recognize our feelings, we may find activities we enjoy more than others. It's much easier to commit to moving in ways we enjoy than forcing a dreaded exercise plan.
10. Honor your health
Again, we're all humans which means we're not perfect! With this in mind, eating healthy doesn't mean eating perfectly. What we eat consistently is what counts more than a single meal or snack. One meal can't make us unhealthy in the same way another meal can't automatically make us healthy. Eating isn't an all-or-nothing approach, so consider focusing on progress instead of being perfect.
Putting it into practice
Although intuitive eating may sound easy enough to some, it's not as easy as it may seem to others. When we were young, we simply cried when we were hungry, and stopped eating when we were full. As we've grown up, though, we've learned various things that make us ignore these natural instincts. We've learned the idea of "good" and "bad" foods; we've been taught that some foods are rewards (such as dessert); and we've learned that some foods "deserve" feeling good about (like drinking a green smoothie), while other foods deserve feelings of guilt or shame (like eating french fries). Here are some ways that may help us become a more intuitive eater:
1. Unfollow certain social media accounts
Unfollow any social media accounts that don't bring value. This can include accounts that promote dieting behaviours, or accounts that make us feel negatively about ourselves. We can easily replace these with accounts that share body-positive messages to fill up our feed!
2. Try a hunger - fullness scale
This is a tool that can help us reflect on how hungry or full we are. Using the tool, we rank our hunger on a scale of 1-10 before and after a meal. Generally, it's encouraged to start eating between 3 - 4 and stop eating between 6 - 7. Right before eating, we can rank how hungry we feel, and after eating we reflect on how our food made us feel. Here's our PUL adaptation of the hunger - fullness scale:
3. Take note of non-food fuelers
Sometimes we eat to fill a void for something that can't be filled with food. When we notice that our food choices might be fuelled by something other than hunger, consider trying these:
- Emotional self-care: stress and/or emotional management can come in many forms. It's also individual to each person. Whether it's time alone, through meditation, yoga, connecting with nature, or journaling, these self-care practices can help us find compassion and forgiveness.
- Progress at something: we can feel fulfilled by things other than food. Fulfillment may come in the form of a hobby, a good book, facing a fear, or learning something new.
- Social nourishment: we're social creatures. Nourishment can also come in the form of connecting and interacting with others. There's value in finding someone we're comfortable communicating with, creating a support system, and asking for help.
- Physical energizers: we've said it before, and we'll say it again: exercise, stretching, sleep, and rest can nourish the body in more ways than one. Make space for these, wherever possible.
4. Give yourself permission
If we notice we're eating for emotional reasons, we can try to address these reasons as outlined previously. If we notice we're having cravings in general though, we can allow ourselves to have what we're craving for no reason at all.
A lot of people will recommend not keeping snacks or sweets in the house but this is not a philosophy that we personally follow at PUL. Rather than not buying an item of food that makes us feel guilty, we recommend keeping our pantry stocked. In our experience, this helps stop the preoccupation since the food item eventually becomes more normalized. Part of the process is learning to be comfortable with these foods around, and this tip is a great starting point.
5. Reflection, reflection, reflection
Take a moment to see how we feel before, during, and after eating when possible.
Before eating, ask if we're truly hungry or if we're craving food for another reason. It's easy to go straight to food when we're bored, thirsty, or anxious. Some people may find it helpful to drink a small glass of water, wait a few minutes, and then reevaluate hunger or cravings. If we're not truly hungry, consider if there's something else we may be craving. Perhaps go on a walk, phone a friend, or unwind with some yoga. If we're indeed hungry, we can portion out how much of what we want to eat in a bowl or plate rather than eating out of a package. Finally, and most importantly, let's enjoy it! Limit potential distractions before eating, if necessary, such as a TV or cellphone to truly savour the experience mindfully.
In the middle of eating, we can ask ourselves how the food tastes, and gauge what our current hunger level is. Take a few breaths between bites of food. Eating slowly lets our body digest what we're eating, and sends signals to our brain that let us know when we're full. Take a moment to enjoy each bite and focus on how it tastes, feels, or smells; that's the pleasure in eating, after all!
After eating, reflect on how we feel and rank our hunger again. Consider the following questions:
- How did that food make me feel? There's no right answer, but some possibilities include tired, lazy, energized, and content.
- Are we satisfied with what we ate? Why or why not?
- If we had a craving, did food really solve the craving? If not, some non-food fuelers in point 3 may be helpful to explore.
- Scratch diet mentality. Intuitive eating is an approach to eating that focuses on listening to the signals our body tells us and responding accordingly.
- There are 10 pillars to intuitive eating. They include things such as making peace with food, coping with emotions kindly, and allowing ourselves to welcome all foods.
- Reflection is key. Intuitive eating requires us to spend time focusing on our body and asking questions related to how we feel.
- Patience is a virtue. It can be hard to transition from the diet culture mentality to intuitive eating. For those of us choosing to give it a try, remember to focus on progress and not perfection!