What is Intuitive Eating?

Learning to eat intuitively transformed my life from one tied to rules, diet-binge cycles, self-criticism, anxiety and lack of enjoyment to one that feels liberated to enjoy food and respect my body.  By default, this intuitive side of things extended to other areas of my life – work, relationships, home life and more – so that now I am generally a more relaxed person, but also someone with more self-respect, kindness towards myself and others and who is able to enjoy life more fully.

So what is Intuitive Eating?  Is it just eating mindfully?  Is it just paying attention to hunger and fullness signals?  Is it just eating what you feel like?

Intuitive Eating incorporates all of these, but also much more besides.  According to one of the creators of Intuitive Eating, Evelyn Tribole, it is “a dynamic interplay between instinct, emotion and thought”.  

“How do I dynamically interplay my instincts, emotions and thoughts?!” you may ask.   Thankfully, Intuitive Eating has been broken down into 10 principles.  They can be followed in any order, but all have a vital part to play in the journey to becoming an intuitive eater.  Each person will have a very unique journey with each principle.  Some people may spend months getting to grips with just one principle, some may get them all in a few weeks.  And either way is okay.  I’ll summarise the 10 principles here for you:

  1. Reject the Diet Mentality

If, like I did, you have spent years dieting, this is a vital principle to get to grips with.  This is where you commit to giving up dieting completely.  Throwing away all the rules – which can be both liberating and terrifying in equal measure.  Not following diet books, websites, magazines or dieting influencers, not participating in diet-related conversation.  You define your boundaries and protect them by not allowing others to influence you or tell you how or what to eat.  

  1. Honour your Hunger

You begin listening to your body.  Years of dieting can leave you very confused about the signals your body gives you.  You learn to tune-in to what hunger feels like in your body; perhaps that is feeling lethargic, headachy, a growling stomach.  You learn that hunger is not a bad thing, and you can honour your hunger in a healthy way.  Over time you realise that respecting your body’s needs pays off in how you feel in general.  

  1. Make Peace with Food

This can be such an enlightening, informative and liberating exercise.  It is where you identify foods that have tended to be on your ‘forbidden’ or ‘restricted’ list, or foods you have found to be triggering, or that you commonly binge on.  Common examples are cookies, chocolate, pizza, and ice cream, but could be anything.  You learn what these foods actually taste like, whether or not they actually satisfy you or give you pleasure, that you won’t run out, how much of the food your body actually wants.  You can read my account of eating chocolate intuitively here

  1. Challenge the Food Police

Permission to say a firm and loud “NO” to any and all thoughts of what/when/how much you should or should not be eating.  “NO” to thoughts of deserving or not deserving or earning food, and “NO” to compensatory behaviours like restriction and excessive exercise.  “NO” to guilt.  This is a time to learn some self-compassion and practice being objective in your thoughts about yourself; being a friend to yourself rather than a harsh critic.

  1. Feel Your Fullness

This is more tuning-in to your body’s signals.  You learn what various levels of fullness feel like – from ravenously empty to bursting.  You see that it is okay to take your time when eating, to pause and check in with yourself and your level of fullness.  You learn what level of fullness is comfortable, and how to honour and respect your body by stopping eating when you reach that level.  

  1. Discover the Satisfaction Factor

You have permission to seek pleasure from food!  It is not merely fuel, and it is not a punishment.  You learn to pay attention to all the characteristics of food and how you feel when you eat it so that you discover what gives you pleasure and what doesn’t.  You think about how you will feel when you finish eating your chosen food.  You see that if you are relaxed and your surroundings are enjoyable then your whole eating experience is more pleasurable.  You learn to savour the food you love, and to not eat what you don’t love.

  1. Cope with Your Emotions Without Using Food

You learn to find ways of coping that do not involve food.  Other ways to provide yourself with pleasure, distraction, relaxation, stress relief, ease of boredom, reducing anxiety, managing anger and loneliness.  These are all common emotions but none are resolved by food.  You learn to identify if your hunger is biological – in which case you eat – or emotional.  If it is emotional hunger then you will learn to ask yourself what it is that you really need, and gradually find other ways of fulfilling those needs.  

  1. Respect Your Body

If you respect your body you will generally feel better about yourself as a whole.  So, you learn to care for yourself rather than being harsh and critical towards yourself. You learn to accept and appreciate yourself instead of holding yourself and your body to unrealistic expectations and standards. 

  1. Movement – Feel the Difference

You allow yourself to experience movement intuitively and pay attention to how that feels.  It is not about militant or compensatory exercise.  You learn to enjoy movement for the pleasure it gives you, for the way it makes you feel strong, energised, fit and healthy, and you stop connecting it with weight loss.  You find a physical activity that is fun and that you enjoy, and include some quality rest.

  1. Honour Your Health with Gentle Nutrition

You choose food that honours your health while incorporating pleasure and feeling good in your body.  What’s important is how things go over time.  A food or meal here and there that you view as “unhealthy” isn’t going to cause a problem.  As you work through the principles, you will likely find that the foods your body desires tend to be whole and mostly unprocessed foods, that your body likes movement and that you can trust your body to know what it needs to be healthy.

I hope this summary of the principles of intuitive eating is useful and gives you some insight into what eating intuitively looks like.  

Learning to eat this way after decades of dieting truly transformed my life.  If you would like to know more about how you too can experience food freedom through intuitive eating, why not schedule a FREE discovery session with me?  We can explore where you feel stuck and uncover how you can experience freedom, enjoyment and peace in your relationship with food and many other areas of your life

This post was written with reference to “Intuitive Eating” by Evelyn Tribole, M.S., R.D., and Elyse Resch, M.S., R.D., F.A.D.A., C.E.D.R.D.  1995, St. Martin’s Press.  

Emma Senanayake

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