When I first heard people talking about intuitive eating a few years ago, it just seemed like an excuse to eat french fries whenever you want. I was intrigued, though, and as time went by I decided to learn more about this way of eating.
The premise is simple: eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full. Listen to your body and eat the foods you’re craving so that you feel satisfied. Easy, right?
Well, for many of us, not so much. I’m a nutritionist who specialized in obesity in graduate school, so embracing intuitive eating and moving away from diet culture wasn’t straightforward for me. If you’ve spent years of your life ensconced in restrictive ways of eating it can be hard to unlearn those habits and instead rely on your intuition.
So why intuitive eating? Well, first and foremost, we know that diets don’t work. Whether it’s 5:2 or Weight Watchers or Keto, or whatever diet is trending at the moment, the statistics are crystal clear: less than 4% of people who diet achieve sustained weight loss.
The vast majority of people who diet end up regaining all of the weight they lost, and often even more, usually with poorer health outcomes than before. So not only does dieting not work, it actually ends up making people sicker.
Intuitive eating is not a diet. It’s a way of eating that honors your hunger and respects your body. At its core, intuitive eating rejects diet culture and embraces a body-positive way of thinking. It can be a real challenge to shift away from a restrictive eating mentality – trust me, I know – but if you can do it, the end result is a healthy, nourishing, and peaceful way of eating.
So, how do you get started with intuitive eating? I recommend reading the book Intuitive Eating, and also working through the Intuitive Eating Workbook in order to get a good grasp on this concept. For now, here are five simple things you can do to start your intuitive eating journey.
1. Stop categorizing foods as good and bad
We’re subject to so many mixed messages about what’s good for us, and the truth is that there’s very little consensus about what’s the best way to eat, even amongst the scientific community.
If we can move past the labels of good and bad, clean and dirty, you’ll find that an apple can be good food, and boxed macaroni and cheese can also be good food. Try to stop demonizing foods – or entire food groups – as being healthy or unhealthy, and you’ll realize that all foods have the potential to nourish.
2. Try to tune into your cravings
If you worry that without the confines of diet culture you’ll end up in a food coma with a pile of empty potato chip bags littered around you, I assure you you won’t. If you do get a bit of out of control with foods you’ve been restricting, that’s a good sign you haven’t been listening to your body.
For example, what if you’re craving chocolate and instead of restricting it to a certain day or a certain amount, you allowed yourself to eat as much chocolate as you wanted, for as long as you want to. You’ll likely find that you eat past the point of satisfaction on the first time – try to make a note of where that point might be. The next time perhaps you’ll eat a bit less, and eventually you’ll figure out exactly how much chocolate is the right amount to you.
And it’s important to note that this a fluid process. The right amount of chocolate today and the right amount of chocolate next week might be entirely different.
3. Accept your body today and tomorrow
Many people are concerned that if they embark on an intuitive eating journey they might end up putting on weight. And you know what? You might. You also might lose weight, and you might stay the same.
If you’ve been living in a state of deprivation and have been restricting your food intake, you may find that when you listen to your body it’s been asking for more food than you’ve been giving it. Similarly, if you’ve been out of control with food and taking in more than your body wants and needs, you may notice you’ll end up eating less.
Either way, it’s okay. If you give it a chance, your body – and your food intake – will eventually settle to where it naturally should be.
4. Move your body in a way that feels good to you
Until now, you may have been moving your body in a way designed to help it achieve a particular shape or size, rather than in a way that feels good to you. Paying attention to what your body wants may mean that you realize you hate running but that swimming feels awesome. Or that you’ve been working out at the gym, but a sweaty hot yoga class is actually what your body craves.
Take some time, try some different things, and try to figure out what kinds of movement and how much movement work best for you and your body.
5. Know that it’s a journey
Intuitive eating is about progress, not perfection. It’s hard work shifting away from diet mentality, especially when this kind of programming is all around us. Some days you’ll do better at listening to your body and honoring your hunger than others.
I always recommend keeping a journal. Not a food journal where you track what you ate and how many calories you’ve consumed each day, but a journal around what you craved, what you ate, and how you felt as a result.
This can help you get in tune with your body, understand your cravings and where they come from, and eat in a way that will bring you peace.
Katie is a university-trained nutritionist and professional writer based in Stockholm, Sweden. She is a vegetarian of more than two decades, and is passionate about real food. Her blog Hey Nutrition Lady and nutrition services program are all about approachable nutrition.3