Updated: Feb 26, 2022
Written by: Natalie Faella, MS, RDN, LDN | July 14, 2021
Choosing to eat foods we enjoy when we’re hungry, stopping when we’re full… sounds simple enough, right? How did we get so out of touch with our preferences and hunger and fullness cues?
That part can be somewhat simplified, too. First, our busy schedules don’t often leave time to think about what we want to eat, or actually sit down and enjoy our meals or snacks. And second, HOW much diet advice is out there? How could our food choices and beliefs not be influenced? This influence can be deeply rooted and start at a very young age, too.
Think about it. Are there any foods you feel that you "shouldn’t" eat or are "bad" for you? Have you ever said something like “I was really bad this week” or “I was really good this week so I’m going to let myself have ___,” regarding food? You’re not alone. Diet culture has created this dichotomous thinking when it comes to food, which then translates to how we feel about ourselves when we eat “good” or “bad” foods.
How do we break this cycle? That is where intuitive eating comes in.
Intuitive eating is a practice that honors both our physical and mental health. It is eating in a way where you not only trust your hunger and fullness, but your emotions and true food preferences. This means you are choosing to eat foods you find satisfying and enjoyable, not just the foods you’ve been told or believe you “should” eat.
RDNs Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch are the originators of this evidence-based, mind-body health approach that started an anti-diet movement. Their book, Intuitive Eating was created as a guide for chronic dieters to find peace with food and a new approach to healthy living that wasn’t focused on body weight or shape. I believe this practice would be helpful for anyone, whether you’ve tried a million diets before or haven’t really thought about dieting. The 10 principles of Intuitive Eating that Tribole and Resch describe are a great foundation to a healthy relationship with food and your body.
I'll spend time in future blogs on each of these, but for now here is a quick summary:
1. Reject Diet Mentality. This can be especially hard with diet culture constantly buzzing in our ears (“hmm should I have my burger without the bun for less carbs?”). By learning to mute the messages of diet culture we can tune into our inner body’s wisdom and make food choices that feel good for us — without judgement.
2. Honor Your Hunger. Did you know if we do not consume enough calories and/or carbohydrates it can trigger a survival response that pushes us to overeat? Prolonged periods of restriction can also increase anxiety, worsen body image, and trigger the onset of eating disorders. By honoring this biological cue to eat, we are on our way to intuitive eating.
3. Make Peace with Food. This means giving yourself unconditional permission to eat the foods you want. This thought can be a little scary — won’t I just end up eating ice cream all day? The truth is, just by having this permission alone, it greatly decreases the likelihood of overindulging. That’s right! By not allowing ourselves to eat a certain food (or foods), the feeling of deprivation can increase the intensity of our cravings for it, making it more likely we’ll binge on it when we do eat it. (“OK I’m just going finish this carton of ice cream and then I’m never eating it again!”).
4. Challenge the Food Police. This is that voice in your head that’s been influenced by diet culture, food beliefs of family and friends, the rude thing that stupid guy once said about your body, etc. Telling this voice “no” and learning to let it not influence the way you eat and exercise can be tricky. Muting the messages from diet culture certainly helps, but this voice can be deeply rooted in your psyche, so just know that it may take some extra time (and need some extra help) to work on.
5. Discover the Satisfaction Factor. When making food choices we can often prioritize the food police’s preferences over our own, forgetting that eating is supposed to be an enjoyable experience. Eating what we really want (and taking a moment from our busy day to truly enjoy it), helps us to feel more satisfied and content. When we choose the bland salad over the pasta dish we really wanted, we can end up picking and eating more after the meal because we never felt truly satisfied.
6. Feel Your Fullness. This one piggy backs off of satisfaction because in order to tune into our fullness, our body needs to trust that it’s going to receive the foods it desires. We can often be distracted at meal times, so trying to slow down or take pauses while eating to check-in can help us notice our fullness.
7. Cope with Your Emotions (with Kindness). Emotional eating is common, especially when we have or have had strong diet mentality. Reaching for the “bad” foods when we aren’t hungry but feel badly makes sense, but won’t resolve the issue. Try to recognize when emotional eating comes up, be kind to yourself about it, and learn to cope with the emotions in different comforting and nurturing ways.
8. Respect Your Body. All bodies deserve nourishment, satisfaction, and acceptance. Learning to let go of unrealistic body images and accept your genetic blueprint and/or set point is such an important step to a healthier relationship with food, exercise, and yourself.
9. Movement (vs. Exercise). Shift your focus from burning calories to moving your body in an enjoyable way. Believe it or not, moving away from a rigid exercise schedule to more joyful movement actually makes it more likely you will be active regularly.
10. Honor Your Health (And Be Flexible). You don’t have to eat “perfectly” in order to be healthy. You will not develop heart disease or a nutrient deficiency by opting for the pasta over the salad at lunch. It’s what you eat consistently overtime that makes a difference. Regularly incorporating nutrient dense foods (like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, lean proteins) is great, but you don’t always have to choose the healthiest choice.
I realize these principles are way more easily said than done, but please know that they are possible! We were all born with the natural ability to nourish ourselves; to eat when we’re hungry, stop when we’re full, and choose foods based on nourishment and satisfaction. Intuitive eating is a major step on the way back to this place, and to a place of peace with food and your body.