For those of us who have tried diet after diet with minimal success, it can often seem like deeper issues are at play than just what we put in our mouths. In the midst of weight loss struggles, it may be that finding the perfect diet isn’t really what we require. Rather, establishing a more balanced relationship with food could be the key to finally achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. If you’d like to reclaim your sanity around food and break the cycle of dead-end diets, an approach called Intuitive Eating could be just what you need.
You may have heard of the concept of mindful eating, which emphasizes bringing awareness to cues of hunger and fullness, savoring food, and practicing gratitude before meals. Intuitive Eating, developed by Registered Dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, is based on similar principles, but takes mindful eating one step further (1). Adherents are encouraged to reject the diet mentality entirely. Instead of focusing on any specific pattern of eating, intuitive eaters trust the body and mind to inform their food choices on a moment-by-moment, meal-by-meal basis.
While the official Intuitive Eating plan comprises ten major principles, it’s not too difficult to distill them down into a few essentials (2). First and foremost, Intuitive Eating means getting rid of long-ingrained “rules” around eating in favor of your body’s own innate instincts. If you’ve been trying intermittent fasting, for example, but some mishap or other makes you miss dinner in your scheduled window, Intuitive Eating says go ahead and eat. After all, you’re hungry, aren’t you? Hunger is meant to be satiated with food.
This attention to hunger (and fullness) plays a major role in intuitive eating. Our bodies have a remarkable way of communicating to our minds when we do and don’t require fuel, but in a food-saturated, constantly stimulating culture, it’s all too easy to lose track of these basic signals. Instead of eating at prescribed times or grabbing a donut simply because someone brought a box to work, bring intention to your consumption by checking in with your body’s level of need and true desire for food. This may look like taking a moment of quiet before reaching for a snack, or even setting reminders on your phone every few hours that ask you to assess your hunger level on a scale of one to ten. These small touchpoints can add up to a far better grasp of your body’s actual needs, leading to the right amount of intake throughout the day.
Check-ins aren’t just for deciding when to start eating, either. They can also be helpful for monitoring when to stop. During a meal, if possible, Intuitive Eating means striving for small pauses here and there to take stock of your fullness. Sometimes even leaving the table for a moment can give you a necessary physical and mental re-set to keep you from overdoing it—or allow you to continue eating if you’re still hungry.
Another tenet of intuitive eating is discarding thoughts of certain foods as “good” or “bad”—and oneself as good or bad for eating them. This way of categorizing food as positive and negative, acceptable and off-limits, can easily lead to overwhelming temptation. Anyone who’s ever operated on the “cheat day” principle can attest that when you keep yourself from desirable foods for long enough, going overboard is inevitable when you finally allow them. When the binge occurs, self-judgment often follows. To eat intuitively, level the playing field of food by detaching emotional associations. Almost any food can be acceptable to eat sometimes, and it doesn’t have to invoke guilt or self-righteousness.
In addition to removing emotional labels from foods, Intuitive Eating explores the gamut of reasons we eat. When’s the last time you asked yourself why while you chewed and swallowed? Stop for a moment and consider the purpose of food. We eat to nourish our bodies, certainly, and to maintain health, but eating is also one of life’s greatest pleasures. Intuitive eaters understand this, and see the big picture of food as both fuel and fun.
This celebration of food’s deliciousness leads to increased savoring—a practice Intuitive Eating shares with mindful eating. When we give enjoyment of food the mental attention it deserves, we have a far more satisfying experience of eating, and actually tend to consume less. One way to boost your savoring is to eliminate distractions. While eating, leave your phone off the table, turn off the TV, and even try closing your eyes, if circumstances allow. You’ll quickly find that when your mind (and you taste buds) are focused on tasty flavors and appealing textures, less really is more.
While it’s not a diet, Intuitive Eating could be the solution you’ve been seeking for weight loss, weight maintenance, or simply to bring back your sense of well-being around food. Its totally back-to-basics approach to hunger and fullness, invitation to enjoy eating, and guilt-free mentality toward food could bring needed freedom from long-held dieting baggage. So what do you say—are you ready to eat intuitively?
Inside the 131 Method, we have over 20 lessons on mindset and creating a better relationship with food. Throughout the 12 week program, we teach how to release the pressure or expectation of perfection and instead, focus on taking care of yourself as a whole person.