Wouldn’t it be nice to let go of all the rules about healthy eating and simply follow your body’s signals when you eat? That’s the promise of intuitive eating.
But intuitive eating is not a free-for-all where you indulge and eat whatever you want. It’s about learning to listen to what your body needs and how you feel when you eat – and using that to guide you.
“Intuitive eating is about accepting where your body is at, rather than being forced to live by a certain set of rules or standards, as would be the case with specific diets,” says Wellness Dietitian Lindsey Wohlford. “That includes your body image, as well as how your body is feeling, and following internal cues to guide your eating.”
It is a simple idea, but intuitive eating is a big lifestyle shift that may take time to embrace, Wohlford says.
“For most people, it’s not something that you just decide, ‘Oh, I'm going to start intuitively eating today,’” says Wohlford. “It's really a process for most people to go through.”
Here are her tips to get started.
1. Get rid of diet books and other outside influences. Intuitive eating is about learning to trust yourself, so any rules or eating patterns you’ve been following should be left behind. This also extends to social media feeds that promote specific diets or types of food, magazines you might subscribe to and groups about dieting you may participate in. Intuitive eating is just you and your own relationship with food.
2. Tune into your body. Start asking yourself questions like, ‘How am I feeling? Am I hungry? What is it that my body needs right now?’ and make decisions about food based on that.
“Focus on getting in touch with your body to understand what it is that it's truly needing, and keep that free from emotions,” says Wohlford. “The emotional aspect is really important because there're times where we all think, ‘I really want that chocolate cake.’ But that's not necessarily a message from our body. It’s coming from a search for emotional relief or from cravings.”
You may get triggered to eat because you want to feel better, are in a social situation where others are eating, or because you’re in the habit of eating certain things at certain times.
“Intuitive eating calls for searching for the real messages you’re getting from your body. A lot of times it's focusing on how your body is feeling energy-wise,” says Wohlford.
3. Consider accessing support. When food is removed as a tool for dealing with issues like stress, anxiety, boredom or even lack of sleep, it can leave a gap that may be best filled with extra help from professionals. For some people, talking to a dietitian, doctor or therapist can be the final piece of the puzzle when it comes to shifting to intuitive eating.
“A change like this may not be best done alone, especially if you have been dealing with chronic stress or sleep deprivation, or emotions like loneliness and depression.” says Wohlford. “There are dietitians and mental health professionals trained to support people moving away from emotional eating, and we all need help sometimes.”
Practices like mindfulness may help, too. Meditation like this builds up awareness and helps reduce stress, which can make it easier to identify what your body needs.
4. Realize you’re making a whole life choice. Intuitive eating is not something you do for a short amount of time to achieve a certain goal. It’s meant to be a permanent shift in the way you approach food. It’s about making peace with food and your body.
“What to eat and not eat, guilt about forbidden foods, and anxiety about the impact of it all on our bodies can become so draining and physically exhausting,” says Wohlford.
Intuitive eating means putting all that to bed and saying: “Enough. I’m not going to let food, dieting and weight loss run my life.”
“It’s about giving yourself grace and mercy and treating yourself with the same kind of kindness and understanding that you would other people,” says Wohlford.