Intuitive Eating… Can it Work for You?

A diet is a diet is a diet, right?

Sort of…

A diet is just the class and kind of food that makes up your daily consumption roster. So even if you eat nothing but cookies and chips, that’s a diet.

And the heart of the word “diet” is the same heart of “intuitive eating.” It’s what you eat, and it’s what your body tells you to eat.

We think about food about 200 times a day. But we make far fewer than 200 decisions about eating. That dissonance may be the crux of the overeating/undereating crisis – the number of times, conscious or unconscious, that we make a choice to eat doesn’t come close to the number of times we think about food. 

Not only that, but studies have shown that relying on external clues (like the sun’s positioning or the time on the clock) can lead you to eat thoughtlessly instead of listening to your own internal clues. 

That’s where intuitive eating comes in – what, when, and how much you eat is dictated by your body’s cravings.

But before we get into details of intuitive eating, let’s examine where it came from.

The Intuitive Eating Movement

Intuitive eating was originally borne out of the need to rehabilitate those suffering from eating disorders.

Because of the pervasive negative thoughts about food – and bad habits drilled into our intuitive centers, like the hippocampus – developing a healthy relationship with food is essential to recovering from an eating disorder.

Intuitive eating returns the control to the eater. Instead of living within the restrictions of a diet, or rules about how much you should eat before you purge, or how many hours you must go without eating and what you’re allowed to eat when you do eat again…

Your body is the boss. It tells you what you want, and you listen to it. 

When you learn the difference between emotional eating (eating in response to sadness, loneliness, rejection, guilt, etc.) and biological eating (eating in response to your tummy rumbling, feeling faint or nauseous, getting irritable when your blood sugar is low, etc.) can change everything.

Now, this is not a weight loss program.

Intuitive eating is about loving yourself enough to give your body what it’s asking for. When you retrace the negative thoughts about rewarding yourself with junk food or punishing yourself for eating too much, your natural cravings more closely align with your body’s actual needs.  

Then, if you’re craving something, there’s a good chance that your body is deficient in it at the moment. 

So how can you start intuitive eating?

Follow the 10 Principles 

  1. Reprogram the Diet Mentality: Don’t think about how you eat in terms of how quickly you can lose weight, how much you can lose, and what you aren’t allowed to have. If your body is telling you it would like a cupcake, let it have the cupcake! But take that same principle into account when your body wants a banana instead of a candy bar.
  2. Honor your Hunger: Hunger is not the bad guy. And if you treat hunger like it’s the bad guy, you’ll stave it off until you eat ANYTHING. Instead, listen to your cravings. Eat some sweet potato crackers if you’re craving a salty snack. If you want something sweet, grab an apple.
  3. Make Peace with Food: You can’t fight food. You need it. Now, yesterday, and tomorrow. And the more you do fight it, the more you’ll want the thing you’re forbidding yourself. Hence the cupcake rule.
  4. Say No to the Food Police: A lot of disordered eaters struggle with “good” food and “bad” food. And they translate those thoughts about food to themselves – you’re bad for eating the cupcake. You’re good because you barely ate today. But those things aren’t true. Nothing is good or bad inherently. Being kind to your body is the only rule.
  5. Discover the Satisfaction Factor: We’re meant to enjoy food. Yes, its function is to sustain us. Yes, a double bacon cheeseburger with extra cheese sauce is egregious. But part of Western culture is taking pleasure in things that are bad for us… and that’s not the case in lots of other cultures. Enjoy the satisfaction of a fresh strawberry taken in tiny bites, or a beautiful crisp salad, or salmon broiled with dill. 
  6. Listen to your Fullness: Food tastes good, and even better when it’s forbidden. Eat slower, with tinier bites, and take longer to finish your meals. That way, you can better hear your body when it says it’s had enough. 
  7. Treat Your Emotions Kindly: Restricting food intake often leads to feelings of loss of control. Instead, respond to your feelings of loneliness, frustration, anger… with kindness. Remind yourself that food won’t solve that problem. You won’t be caring for yourself. You’ll be soothing yourself. 
  8. Respect your Body: Not everyone is built tiny. And not everyone should be! People throughout history have been all sizes under the sun, and there’s nothing that says your size twelve is unnatural next to someone else’s size six. Negative diet habits will die even harder if you fixate on hating your body.
  9. Movement: This is important: You do not have to do CrossFit to take your fitness seriously. You just have to move. Spend more time walking, and notice the difference in your body. Try doing 10 pushups an hour, and pay attention to how much stronger you get.
  10. Honor your Health: Make sure that every decision you make is with your health in mind. Worry about falling into a nutrient deficiency, not about how you’ll look tomorrow if you eat a full dinner. Worry about fueling your muscles with protein. Worry about maintaining energy throughout the day. Those are the things that your body cares about. Not your pant size.

Intuitive eating might not be for everyone.

In some cases, it may be more important to try an elimination diet to figure out what food is bothering your system, or maintaining high activity because of what your health goals are.

But especially if you’ve suffered from disordered eating, it’s certainly true that the world could use more gentility and kindness. Start with yourself. 

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.