10 Secrets of Intuitive Eating

Imagine a diet where you can eat anything you want. The catch? You only eat when you're hungry and stop when you're full. It's intuitive eating -- a way of eating that helps people establish a healthy relationship with food and their bodies.
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By Kerri-Ann Jennings, M.S., R.D. Associate Nutrition Editor for EatingWell Magazine

Imagine a diet where you can eat anything you want. The catch? You only eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. It’s intuitive eating -- a way of eating that helps people establish a healthy relationship with food and their bodies.

I’d read a lot about intuitive eating from bloggers who’ve embraced the approach after years of dieting and said it had helped them to have a healthier relationship with food -- they could eat what they wanted and still maintained a healthy weight. To learn more I interviewed Evelyn Tribole, M.S., R.D., the author of Intuitive Eating and one of the thought leaders on the subject for the May/June issue of EatingWell Magazine.

As a registered dietitian and associate nutrition editor of EatingWell, intuitive eating makes a lot of sense to me -- it’s an inherently healthy way to eat. Rather than focusing on some sort of external sense of what you should and shouldn’t eat (such as in a diet), intuitive eating makes you the expert on how much, when and what you eat. This shift turns eating from a struggle to an enjoyable way to nourish your body.

Here are Tribole’s 10 principles of intuitive eating:

1. Reject the Diet Mentality
Diets give you rules about when and what you should eat. Intuitive eating says that you are the person best able to tell you that information -- unlike diets, no foods are off limits when you eat intuitively. It empowers you to be the expert of your body -- but in exchange, you have to get rid of the idea that there’s a perfect diet that will be the one that finally works for you.

2. Honor Your Hunger
Hunger is your body’s way of telling you to eat -- nourish your body by tuning in to mild hunger cues and eating before you get ravenous (waiting until then may lead you to overeat). When I spoke to Tribole, she told me that while people are generally good at identifying extreme hunger, gentle hunger can be harder for people to identify. Start to cue in to your hunger -- and fullness -- by taking time throughout the day (and especially before, while or after you eat) to check in with your body, and by asking yourself how hungry or full you feel. By doing this you’ll be able to identify those different levels of hunger and fullness.

3. Make Peace with Food
Are there foods that you consider off-limits? Or do you feel guilty about what or how much you eat? According to Tribole, restricting certain foods can lead to uncontrollable urges and overeating. So make peace with food by giving yourself unconditional permission to eat. That’s right -- if it’s ice cream or doughnuts you want, go ahead and have it without the guilt. Tribole mentioned that studies have shown that people who diet often end up gaining weight in the long term, but intuitive eating can lead to stable, healthy weights.

4. Challenge the Food Police
On a related note, Tribole says you should stop categorizing food as good or bad (and labeling yourself good or bad for what and how you eat). Getting rid of rules and the judgment calls that accompany them are an important step in eating intuitively.

5. Respect Your Fullness
Just as you learn to tune in to -- and honor -- your hunger, start noticing your body’s cues that tell you when you’re full. Hunger and fullness encompass a wide spectrum, from stuffed to ravenous. Try to avoid each of those extremes. Instead, learn to identify when you’re comfortably full -- the point when you’re no longer hungry and the food you’re eating is losing its enjoyability. Do this by taking time during your meal to ask yourself how the food tastes and how full you feel. During our interview, Tribole mentioned that clients she’s worked with are surprised to find that even when they’re eating a highly palatable food like French fries or brownies, there’s a point when those foods become less enjoyable and you can stop eating. It’s a sign that you’ve had enough.

6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor of Eating
Eating should be an enjoyable, satisfying experience. Enhance that satisfaction by making mealtime special -- set the table, sit down to eat. If you’re eating alone, focus on eating without distractions like TV. Or take pleasure in sharing a meal with others. Tribole says that satisfaction is one of the keys that will help you realize that you’ve had “enough.” Not only that, by knowing you can eat whatever you want, you may end up eating less of those really enjoyable foods -- this isn’t your “one time” to eat bread or cake, for instance, so there’s no need to overdo it.

7. Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food
Although eating should be enjoyable, it shouldn’t be your main source of comfort. Find other ways to deal with your feelings -- like anxiety, loneliness, boredom and anger -- that are not food-related. Take a walk, call a friend, write down your feelings… If you’ve typically used food to soothe your feelings, explore new ways to deal with feelings that don’t involve eating.

8. Respect Your Body
Accept and respect your body as it is now, whatever shape and size you are. As Tribole says, “It's hard to reject the diet mentality if you are unrealistic and overly critical about your body shape.”

9. Exercise -- Feel the Difference
If you’re exercising just to burn calories, then it becomes a chore. Exercise is important for your health -- and it does burn calories -- but if you don’t enjoy it, you’re less likely to do it regularly. Tribole recommends tuning in to how exercise feels. I’d add to that experimenting with different forms of exercise and finding things you enjoy -- if it’s going to the gym you don’t like, think of walking, dancing, bike riding, rock climbing or playing with your kids instead.

10. Honor Your Health
When you start tuning in to how food tastes and how your body feels when you eat, then you’ll also start noticing that some foods make you feel better than others. That doesn’t mean you have to give up bad foods, says Tribole -- quite the opposite. You should strive for foods that taste good to you and, in your overall diet, get in foods that are also healthy for you (and therefore make your body feel good).

Are you an intuitive eater?

By Kerri-Ann Jennings

Kerri-Ann JenningsKerri-Ann Jennings, a registered dietitian, is the associate nutrition editor of EatingWell Magazine, where she wields her master's degree in nutrition from Columbia University writing and editing news about nutrition, health and food trends. In her free time, Kerri-Ann likes to practice yoga, hike, bake and paint.

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