There’s been a lot written about mindful eating recently – the concept of really paying attention to what you’re eating; how it tastes, feels, smells and looks. But experts now think extending that approach to our own bodies with intuitive eating could be the key to staying healthy
"Intuitive eating is the rejection of the ‘dieting’ mentality, and instead following internal cues to make our decisions about what and when to eat," explains Louise Murray, an integrated health coach. In other words, it means eating what we want, when we want it, by teaching us to recognise signals from our body, and ignore what society and social media tell us are "good" and "bad" foods.
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"It’s all about listening to what your body really wants and letting go of external messages from our fad diet-led culture," explains Louise. "It isn’t about perfection, it’s about what’s right for you. And nothing is off limits." Sounds great - but it does take some effort on your part...
Is intuitive eating right for you?
It’s not suited for everyone. If planning every meal is your thing, you want some quick-fix weight loss or you suffer from an eating disorder, this is definitely not for you. But if you’re a yo-yo dieter, constantly worry about what you’re eating, or restrict what you eat and then binge, the approach could be the answer to your prayers.
Intuitive eating is worth a try if you:
- Want to break free from a cycle of yo-yo dieting
- Want to get in touch with your hunger and feel-full cues
- Would like to reset or renew your digestion
- Want to understand how food makes you feel and make the right decisions for your body
- Don’t want to follow another restrictive diet plan that leaves you cutting out endless food groups
How does intuitive eating work?
There are ten basic principles to intuitive eating:
- Reject the diet mentality
This helps you let go of the feeling that you’ve failed every time a new diet stops working. You haven’t failed, the diet failed.
- Honour your hunger
Fuel your body with adequate energy and carbohydrates, otherwise you can trigger an urge to overeat. When you’re excessively hungry, all intentions of moderate, conscious eating go out of the window.
- Make peace with food
Give yourself permission to eat. If you deny yourself a particular food, it can lead to cravings and, often, bingeing. Equally, if you’re not hungry, don’t eat just because the clock says you should.
- Reconsider your thoughts
Forget thoughts about being "good" for eating minimal calories or "bad" for eating a piece of chocolate cake. No food is bad or good.
- Discover the "satisfaction factor"
We’re so busy trying to eat what diet culture tells us we should that we often forget the pleasure of eating. When you eat what you really want, you’ll feel satisfied and content, and are much less likely to overeat.
- Feel your fullness
Listen for the signals that tell you that you are no longer hungry. Pause while eating and ask yourself what your current hunger level is.
- Treat your emotions with kindness
Learn to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger.
Physical hunger is the biological urge that tells you to replenish nutrients. It builds gradually and has signals such as a growling stomach, fatigue, or irritability. It’s satisfied when you eat.
Emotional hunger is driven by emotional need, rather than physical. Sadness, loneliness and boredom can create cravings for food. Find ways to relax that don’t involve food - such as yoga, a relaxing bath, or speaking to a friend.
- Finally enjoy exercise by really "feeling" it
Forget militant exercise. Shift your focus to how it feels to move your body, rather than the calorie-burning effect of exercise. It’s the difference between rolling out of bed for a brisk morning walk or hitting the snooze button.
- Respect your body
Accept your genetic blueprint. If you have size seven feet you wouldn’t try and squeeze into a six – so why have such unrealistic expectations about your body? "It’s hard to reject the diet mentality if you are overly critical of yourself," says Louise.
- Honour your health with gentle nutrition
Make food choices that honour your health and taste buds while making you feel good. Progress, not perfection, is what counts.
How do I get started with intuitive eating?
"Get rid of books about fad diets and unfollow social media accounts that propel the dieting myth," suggests Louise. "Replace them with ones that feature a diverse range of body sizes and share non-diet messages, and watch your energy start to shift."
Try to get in tune. "Years of dieting and eating for external reasons often distances us from the awareness we once had," says Louise. Use the hunger-fullness scale before, during or after eating to decide what you really want.
The hunger scale: which number are you?
- Starving, faint and irritable
- Very hungry and need food fast
- Hungry and ready to eat
- Beginning to feel signs of hunger such as a growling stomach
- Physically full
- Satisfied, no longer hungry
- Slightly uncomfortable feeling of fullness
- Feeling too full, having to loosen your belt
- Too full, have to unbutton trousers
- Overstuffed and feeling sick
Keep a journal so you start to recognise signals of hunger and fullness. Ask yourself questions such as: how hungry do I feel right now? Are there times when I am hungry but don’t eat? If so, why, and what happens then?
Set yourself free from restrictions
Have you ever eaten something you didn’t really want because it felt like the healthier option, then been left feeling unsatisfied and ended up eating the thing you really wanted in the first place as well? You’re not alone. But you need to allow yourself that satisfaction – and you only get it by eating what you really want.
"Satisfaction turns off our compulsion to eat, so we stop when we feel full," says Louise. "Before you eat, ask yourself, 'What do I feel like eating right now?' Then, if possible, eat that."
Remember to pay attention to the sight, smell, taste and texture of the food you’re eating. This helps you to understand how hungry or full you feel.
Banish the voice in your head policing your food
You know that voice in your head that tells you what you "should" and "shouldn’t" be eating? Ignore it. "Start to challenge these voices," says Louise. "Make a note of what your internal food police is saying. It can help you pinpoint patterns and recognise when these thoughts creep in, which in turn can help you to come up with more helpful reframes, such as, 'I’m allowed to have this’".
How intuitive eating could help to reset your digestion
If you suffer from IBS, intuitive eating could help. "Because intuitive eating helps us to reconnect and listen to our bodies, this can help to manage gut symptoms," explains Gaby Goodchild, specialist in intuitive eating and functional gut disorders at The Healthful Dietitian.
"Often we become disconnected from the signals our bodies are sending us and struggle to recognise how different foods make us feel. This makes understanding our gut symptoms challenging."
For example, if you stick to a set meal pattern rather than eating when you’re hungry, or eat more fruit as part of a "healthy" diet, or binge because you’ve been denying yourself, you could make symptoms worse. It can also lead people to believe they have a food intolerance when they don’t.
"Intuitive eating can also help people recognise food intolerances because of a better understanding of their bodies," explains Gaby, who adds that as well as this, it may help us to expand our intakes.
"Some people may have negative associations with certain foods, which can lead to assumptions they are intolerant to them, but Intuitive eating helps us to explore whether this is the case."