While plenty lot of folks flock to plans like keto and low-carb, a growing number of people are turning their backs on traditional diets and finally making peace with food. “Intuitive eating” is the practice of eating when you’re hungry, stopping when you’re full, and eating what you want. Sounds simple enough, right? But if you’ve been dieting for most of your adult life, it can feel downright radical – and incredibly freeing too.
Intuitive eating has been around for more than 20 years but is enjoying a resurgence in popularity right now. According to a survey last year from the International Food Information Council, about half of all Millennials surveyed were familiar with intuitive eating (versus only about a quarter of people over 50).
At the core of intuitive eating is trusting yourself to know what to eat and pay attention to your body – specifically, signals that you’re hungry and full. It also requires a rejection of the diet mentality. No more thinking about foods as good and bad, no more avoiding foods you love because they’re “fattening”, and no more judging yourself for what (or how much) you eat.
The principles of intuitive eating include honoring your hunger, coping with your emotions without food, and challenging the food police. And if you’re thinking that it sounds like an unhealthy free-for-all, know that the practice also encourages exercise and “gentle nutrition”, which involves making food choices that make your body feel good, while still allowing for foods that simply give you pleasure.
It’s also important to understand that intuitive eating isn’t a weight loss plan. Everyone’s experiences are different – and it’s possible that you may eat more initially when you finally allow yourself to have previously-banned foods. But ultimately it’s meant to help you make peace with food and actually enjoy eating again without baggage. In a study from Brigham Young University, people who scored high on an intuitive eating scale had less anxiety about food and got more enjoyment from eating (and interestingly, had lower BMIs) than those who scored lower.
If you’re intrigued and want to know more, the book Intuitive Eating by dietitians Eveyln Tribole and Elyse Resch (co-creators of intuitive eating) is the handbook. In the meantime, get started by trying a few things:
Pay attention to your hunger and fullness. Intuitive eating uses a “hunger discovery scale” of 1-10 (1 is empty, 10 is overstuffed to the point of feeling sick, and 5 is neither hunger nor full). Are you feeling pangs of hunger? Is your stomach rumbling? Give yourself permission to eat. Are you higher on the scale and simply bored, sad, or angry? Look for a way to cope with that emotion, like calling a friend.
Enjoy your food. Put down the cell phone or magazine and focus on your food (and ideally, eat in a nice environment, not at a cluttered desk or in front of the TV). Does your food look, smell, and taste good? Allow yourself to really savor something delicious. Then occasionally pause to check in: Are you still hungry? If so, keep eating. If not, stop before you’re uncomfortably full.
Stop diet talk. Check yourself when you start thinking of certain foods as “good” and “bad” or “allowed” and “prohibited”. If there’s a food you’ve banned because of fat or calories, allow yourself to have it without judgement. That can feel uncomfortable at first, but it’s possible that your fixation of that food as “forbidden” is what’s made it so appealing. Knowing you can have the food whenever you want just might weaken that pull.
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