Our culture has become so focused on restricting calories and taking up the latest diet craze that we have forgotten how to listen to our bodies and eat intuitively. So how can we get back to basics so we can enjoy food again?
The good news is that it is entirely possible to love food once again and eat in a healthy way without going on a diet. We recently talked to gastroenterologist Dr. Michelle Pearlman to learn more about what intuitive eating is and how we can incorporate it into your daily life. Her advice sheds light on how to retrain our brains and follow our intuition when we eat.
What is intuitive eating?
The practice of intuitive eating eliminates the need for dieting by focusing on your body’s natural signals and needs. The concept of intuitive eating was first introduced in 1995 by two registered dieticians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.
With this mindset, you don’t restrict calories or worry about arbitrary food rules or branded diets.
According to Dr. Pearlman, “intuitive eating should not be considered a diet but instead a way of life.” Diets don’t address food preferences—they are restrictive in nature and hard to customize. The reason you may have a hard time following a diet is that you are eating foods you and your body may not enjoy and eating according to a schedule that may not align with your body’s natural rhythm.
We’re all born intuitive eaters. As we get older, however, certain dietary behaviors get imposed on us. We find ourselves snacking when we aren’t hungry or not allowing ourselves to eat when we are hungry because we are trying to lose weight or cut calories. Think about intermittent fasting. Some may restrict for a prolonger period of time and then binge on several thousand calories within a small window because they experience extreme hunger, sometimes contributing to GI distress like bloating and heartburn.
Intuitive eating encourages you to reject the diet mentality by focusing on nourishing your body with foods and allow you to feel your best.
How to practice intuitive eating
You can start learning how to eat intuitively right now. The leaders of this movement have created a set of principles of intuitive eating to follow. Here’s a quick rundown based on Dr. Pearlman’s expert advice.
10 Principles of Intuitive Eating and How to Start
- Focus on the act of eating
Our culture is so used to doing five things at once. We are sucking down our coffee while rushing out the door as we send out an email from our phone. It is very rare nowadays that we stop to enjoy our food. Many of us are guilty of working through lunch. Instead, we should be focusing on mindful eating. Minimize distractions. Bring back family dinners around the table. Savor each bite of food instead of scarfing it down quickly so you can get on to the next thing.
- Take time to appreciate your food.
Time is a limiting factor, but taking the time to eat by really looking at the food and appreciating it will force you to slow down and enjoy food for a change.
- Learn to chew your food.
When we eat fast and swallow the food without properly breaking it down by the act of chewing, we swallow excessive amounts of air and do not allow proper digestion, which begins in the mouth. Studies show this can cause digestive issues and bloating, amongst other common GI symptoms like heartburn. How we eat is just as important as what we eat.
- Avoid drinking excessive fluid during your meals.
When you consume excessive amounts of liquid with your meals, this can cause GI distress like heartburn, bloating, diarrhea, and altered digestion and absorption. When intuitively eating, try to drink the majority of your liquids in between meals and focus on sips during your meals if needed.
- Eat only when you’re hungry.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are a product of our culture. Our bodies are designed to eat when we are hungry, not at a prescribed time. Our work schedule doesn’t always allow for this, though, so we have to settle for eating during set times. Try to practice eating only when your body tells you that you are hungry. Notice how you feel throughout the day. You may be surprised to find you have more energy when you minimize mindless snacking and become more in tune with your hunger signals and fullness cues instead of eating at preset times when you may or may not actually be hungry.
- Recognize the difference between hunger and cravings.
Often we crave highly palatable foods like added sugars or saturated fats and confuse it with true hunger or thirst. This is commonly associated with feelings of sadness, anxiety, and/or boredom. Find healthy food choice alternatives, like reaching for a piece of fruit that has natural sugar instead of added sugar or finding healthier coping strategies like taking a walk or meditation.
- Eat the rainbow.
Eating the rainbow is important. People start restrictive diets and cut out numerous food groups, often fruits and veggies that contain dietary fiber, which is important for gut health and immune function. Eating a limited number of foods can increase the risk of malnutrition (deficiencies of important vitamins and minerals).
- Do not diet.
Study after study shows that diets don’t work for long-term health or weight loss. They’re restrictive, hard to maintain, and can be downright depressing. Instead, intuitive eating should be a lifelong practice of eliminating processed foods and nourishing our bodies with whole foods that make us feel our best and provide the nutrients our body needs.
- Know when to stop eating.
It takes a full 20 minutes for our bodies to tell us we are full. Yet, we only spend about 5 – 10 minutes eating a meal. This disconnect leads to overeating because we don’t realize that we are full. Slowing down to appreciate your meals will help them last longer, meaning you’ll enjoy your food more while eating less overall. If you still feel hungry after finishing a portion, sit back and wait. If you are still hungry minutes later, then eat another helping. When you’ve reached a level of comfortable fullness, you’ve had enough to fuel your body.
- Honor your hunger and enjoy how food makes you feel.
Enjoying what you eat is more than just like the taste. It also includes how food makes you feel after you eat it. You might love the taste of greasy pizza, but do you feel like you need to take a nap immediately after? Does your head feel groggy? Are you bloated beyond belief? These are all signs that you are not actually enjoying the food, even though you get immediate satisfaction while consuming it. Dr. Pearlman helps people make minor adjustments to meet their health goals by looking at the foods they enjoy eating.
How to eat intuitively and lose weight
Intuitive eating is important whether or not you want to lose weight, gain weight, or maintain your current weight.
If you’re the type of person who tends to nibble on food long past when you’re full, then you might find you naturally end up eliminating calories when you start learning what true hunger is and how to cope with stress and other emotions that often stimulate cravings.
Heal your relationship with food through intuitive eating
Intuitive eating is an excellent way to heal your relationship with food. It isn’t restrictive and doesn’t require you to give up foods you love. Stick to whole foods the majority of the time and limit liquids that contain calories and/or added sugars.