Intuitive Eating: What is it and How do I Get Started?

Working as a Registered Dietitian, a lot of people think I help my clients measure portion sizes, count calories, and drop pounds quickly. I have to say, I’m really happy that’s not the case! Instead of putting my clients on diets and strict meal plans, I spend most of my time helping them tap into their internal cues by practicing Intuitive Eating. If right about now you’re thinking, “what in the world is Intuitive Eating?” you’re going to love this introduction!

Intuitive Eating is a practice that allows you to use your knowledge of nutrition in conjunction with your body’s intuition. The wonderful thing about Intuitive Eating is that this is your body’s default state. Eating according to your body’s internal cues is what we are born doing. Unfortunately, there are a number of things that can get in the way of listening to our intuition. Food insecurity, dieting, and body image concerns, to name a few, can all lead our body’s intuition astray. If you feel like you’ve lost touch with your body’s intuition, have trouble feeling subtle hunger cues, and never know how to stop eating when you feel full, you are not doomed! Here are five simple ways to get started with an Intuitive Eating practice.

1. Feed Your Body Consistently Throughout the Day

A simple first step to getting started is to help your biology work in your favor. This means feeding your body every 3-4 hours (no longer than 5) to keep your metabolism working efficiently. Energy stored in the body is depleted every five to six hours, and once it gets too low, it’s likely you’ll feel extremely hungry, which can lead to those “out of control” feelings around food, and overeating at your next meal. This is simply a signal that your body needs more food, and not a sign that you need more willpower.

2. Use a Hunger and Fullness Scale

When we don’t have the volume turned up on our hunger and fullness cues, it’s likely that we will experience bouts of extreme hunger and fullness. If this is the case, we might  find ourselves getting so hungry that our stomach is growling, we are irritable, and we feel the urge to eat everything on our plate and then some, getting so full we feel uncomfortable. If this sounds like you, it might be useful to keep a hunger and fullness journal.

In this journal, record the meal or snack you ate (you don’t have to record exact measurements), the time of day, your hunger level before the meal, and your fullness level after the meal. Rate your hunger on a scale from one to ten, one being not hungry at all, and ten being absolutely starving and not able to wait another minute to eat. When you are done with your meal or snack, rate your fullness on a scale from one to ten, one being you are not full at all, and ten being uncomfortable. The goal of keeping this journal is to start tapping into more subtle feelings of hunger and fullness so you can feed your body when it’s whispering, “I need some fuel right about now” and stop eating when it’s whispering, “I’ve had enough.”

3. Embrace Flexibility

A central principle of Intuitive Eating is allowing yourself unconditional permission to eat. Unlike most diets and meal plans, Intuitive Eating isn’t about “good” or “bad” foods, it’s about being flexible and honoring what your body needs in the moment. The food police aren’t going to come to your house if you decide to have some potato chips with lunch or a bowl of ice cream after dinner. Focus on finding satisfaction from the foods you eat, and approach your food choices with a sense of curiosity, instead of judgement. Ultimately, this will help you feel relaxed around food, and prevent those feelings of  “all or nothing.”

4. Create a Positive Food Environment

To me, creating a positive food environment is more important than following any diet rules. This means enjoying your favorite foods when you’re moderately hungry and when you have the mental and physical capacity to enjoy them. For example, let’s say your favorite food is ice cream. A simple way to set up a positive food environment around your trip to the ice cream shop is to go when you’re moderately hungry (not starving, and not overstuffed). At the same time, make sure you have the space to really enjoy this experience: Are you feeling rushed? Do you have time to order your ice cream and relax while you eat it? Are you feeling stressed or anxious? Can you take a few deep breaths so you can really savor this food? We know that slowing down and being in a perfectly balanced emotional state is not always feasible, which is why our third tip, Embrace Flexibility, is so important. The more you can create a positive environment around food, the easier it will be to tap into your hunger and fullness, and understand what it is your body is asking of you.

5. Separate Nutrition from Emotion

At first glance, Intuitive Eating might sound like “eat whatever you want, nutrition doesn’t matter!” That’s not exactly the case. Intuitive Eating is learning how to fuel your body with the foods that it needs (sometimes it’s vegetables, and sometimes it’s cake), without the emotional consequences of eating something on the “no, no” list. Our culture really likes to place things in “good” or “bad” categories, but Intuitive Eating is not about following black and white rules, it’s all about embracing the gray. It’s no secret that broccoli is more nutrient dense than a brownie. These two foods are not nutritionally equal, but they can be morally equal. Eating broccoli does not make you a better person, just like eating a brownie does not make you a bad person. Separating nutrition from emotion is a simple starting point to finding peace with food and letting your body naturally moderate your food intake.

If the concept of Intuitive Eating is new to you, it’s likely you have a lot of questions. We are here to answer them! Please let us know your thoughts and questions in the comments section below and we look forward to getting a conversation started!