10 Principles of intuitive eating and how to use them
March 22, 2022

10 Principles of intuitive eating and how to use them

Rachel Wadsley, PhD

According to Boston Medical, 45 million Americans are on a diet each year. Once you hop on the diet rollercoaster, it’s hard to get off. Diets are on the news, social media, and even in conversations with family and friends. 

Harvard Health researchers found the results of diets last a year or less! Still, we devote so much of our time and energy hopping into the next fad diet resulting in an obsession with food and physical, psychological, and emotional damage. 

Intuitive eating breaks the cycle of dieting and body shaming setting you up for more self-confidence, self-love, and developing a positive relationship with food.

1. Reject diet mentality

The idea of giving up dieting can be scary. You’ve likely been dieting in some fashion on and off for years. Even if you haven’t been on a full diet, you might have been pseudo-dieting by counting carbs, only eating “good” foods, punishing yourself for eating “bad” foods, or replacing food with things like diet soda. 

Breaking free from diet culture is the single most challenging thing you can do. But stopping the physical, psychological, and emotional damage caused by dieting is well worth the effort. 

Start your journey to diet freedom with these steps:

  1. Think about the harmful impact dieting has had on your life and health 
  2. Learn to recognize diet mentality (ex. willpower or labeling food as good/ bad)  
  3. Ditch the scale as the primary measure of health/ beauty
  4. Embrace self-compassion and have grace for yourself

2. Honor your hunger

Our bodies don’t understand the concept of dieting. Calories are necessary for survival. When you deprive your body of food, it’s viewed as starvation. Metabolism will slow down, you’ll crave foods higher in calories, and feel hungrier.

Dieting trains you to quiet your hunger cues because they’re viewed negatively and can lead to masking hunger by filling up on calorie-free drinks. Going without food or enough food can increase cravings and overeating. 

Tuning into your hunger cues takes some practice if you’ve been suppressing them for a while. Hunger can ebb and flow each day or even time of day. It’s normal to feel more or less hungry. 

Signs of hunger:

  • Mild stomach sensations
  • Growling noises
  • Lightheadedness
  • Headaches
  • Trouble thinking/ focusing
  • Irritability

3. Make peace with food

The moment you stop thinking about something, that’s all you can think about! Ever tried a no-carb or low-carb diet, and would give anything for some pasta? Making foods off-limits or labeling them as bad creates a deprivation mindset. 

When you avoid any food, it becomes all-consuming, and when you get a chance to eat, you will EAT and eat and eat. Then guilt sets in, you punish yourself with negative thoughts, restriction, or extra exercise. And guess what? The cycle continues all over again. 

It’s time to make peace with food. A lot of emotions and fears pop up when you think about giving into cravings or granting permission to eat. Remember, you might eat more than usual in the beginning due to the deprivation created by dieting. 

Allowing yourself more freedom around eating doesn’t have to happen overnight. Small steps are ideal. Here is an exercise to try from Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch:

  1. Make a list of all the foods you enjoy (“good” and “bad”)
  2. Circle the foods you avoid or limit
  3. Choose one of those foods and buy or order it
  4. Eat the food, taking time to use all of your senses
  5. Decide if the food was good and if you still enjoy it
  6. Give yourself permission to eat that food!!!!
  7. If you still like it, make sure you have easy access to that food in the future

4. Challenge the food police

The food police are the annoying voices in your head that scream “no” or “that’s a bad food.” You know that voice. We all know that voice. I’ve even been guilty of saying something is sinfully delicious, like it’s a bad thing to enjoy something sweet and chocolatey. 

The food police are also all around us in commercials, social media, and conversations. What we have immediate control over is ourselves. Work on challenging and changing self-talk. 

  1. Take note of repetitive or intense emotions and thoughts
  2. Examine what you’re saying to yourself
  3. Look at what’s true and false about that thought 
  4. Replace the distorted thought with a neutral or rational thought

5. Feel your fullness

Feeling your fullness is closely related to honoring your hunger, just the opposite end. Here you want to pay attention to signs of fullness, also known as satiety, including subtle (not uncomfortable) full stomach, feeling neither hungry nor full, or feeling emotionally satisfied. 

Tips for mindful eating to tap into your fullness cues:

  • Make a note of how hungry you are before eating and your fullness level afterward
  • Pause while eating (put your fork/ food down in between bites)
  • Keep note of how you feel at different levels of fullness
  • Remove pressure to clear your plate
  • Eat without distractions (no TV, social media scrolling, etc)
  • Know it’s okay to “say no” if offered food you don’t want or aren’t hungry for

6. Discover the satisfaction factor

Eating has become a mindless activity. We eat on the go, in front of the TV, or while working at our desks. With eating operating on autopilot, it’s no wonder we’ve lost touch with our hunger and fullness cues. 

Enjoy food! Reconnect with the pleasure of food with these tips:

  1. Choose what you REALLY want to eat
  2. Pay attention to the taste, texture, smell, and look of the food 
  3. Appreciate and savor the food
  4. Tap back into your peace with food exercises 

7. Cope with your emotions without using food

Foods become associated with memories, experiences, and emotions. We can eat emotionally for sensory gratification, comfort, distraction, numbing, or to punish ourselves. A wide variety of emotions can trigger eating, too, from boredom to anxiety. 

Each of us is unique in how we respond to food and our triggers. The smell of home-cooked bread reminds me of my grandmother. It’s my go-to comfort food because it brings up wonderful memories and a feeling of joy. 

Tips for finding healthier and positive ways to process those emotions or triggers without food:

  • Seek other forms of self soothing like meditation
  • Face and directly process your feelings (possibly with a counselor)
  • Find alternative distractions like reading or walking  
  • Talk to a friend 

8. Respect your body

Each of us has a unique body which makes the world a beautiful and diverse place. You don't hop over to a plastic surgeon if you have a round face but really love heart-shaped faces. Yet you’ll mentally attack yourself over your body shape or weight and try to force your body to be what’s seen as “ideal” from society, media, and the fashion industry.

Here’s the thing, you have a set point weight where your body is happy, and a physical body shape based on genetics. You can’t force yourself to be taller or shorter. Have the same respect for the rest of your body. 

Ways to treat your body with respect:

  • Stop using the scale as a measure of success/ health
  • Dress in clothes that make you feel good
  • If you start body checking in a mirror, stop and say something neutral or positive 
  • Don’t make assumptions about others or compare your bodies
  • Skip the “special event” pressure to change (there will always be special events)
  • Instead of body bashing, give praise 
  • Respect the diversity of all bodies
  • Be kind to your body and do things that make it feel good
  • Explore the healthy at every size movement for more support

9. Exercise and feel the difference

Do you enjoy exercise? We tend to view exercise as something we “have to do,” which becomes another chore. And who likes chores???

Exercise has countless benefits for our physical and emotional health. I’ve got some good news for you… Whether you like the gym or not, you can still get in a lot of healthy exercise. 

All forms of movement from walking to dancing to a cardio workout count as exercise. You don’t have to work out for 60 or even 30 minutes for something to count as exercise. Moving your body for even one minute is better than zero minutes. What you will do is what matters. 

Are you ready to commit to making movement a priority? If you need some extra support, trainwell (formerly CoPilot) fitness trainers have your back. They will:

  • Identify natural movement you’re already doing in daily life
  • Make exercise fun (seriously!!!)
  • Be an accountability and support partner 
  • Provide guidance on being more comfortable when working out
  • Create customized workout plans 
  • Teach the benefits of strength training and stretches
  • Help you prevent injuries and gradually get stronger and healthier

10. Honor your health with gentle nutrition

You don’t have to eat perfectly. And you certainly shouldn’t avoid foods or label foods as bad. Instead, focus on taste, quality, and quantity. Eat foods that you enjoy and take time to savor the flavors and texture. 

Nutrition tips:

  • Eat higher quality foods when possible 
  • Keep processed foods are still on the menu (no forbidden foods)
  • Eat with all of your senses
  • Let go of the all or nothing mindset created by diets
  • Aim for half your plate to be fruits and vegetables
  • Seek balance in whole foods and other processed items
  • Listen to your body’s cravings and seek out why they’re happening
  • Drink a lot of water (drinks with sugar and fake sweeteners disrupt normal hunger and cravings)

If you’re ready to dive in now and take control of your health, join trainwell, where you’ll have a supportive partner and trainer ready to make the journey less bumpy. Start your free trial now.

Written by Rachel Wadsley, PhD

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