Have you ever started a new diet, feeling so pumped and full of optimism that this is the one that will work, only to fall off the wagon (again) a few weeks later?
While it can be tempting to blame yourself and give up, or go to the extreme and starve yourself to get results, you should know that you’re far from alone. In fact, almost every dieter is right there with you, considering that 95 percent of diets fail. (1)
Now, you’re probably thinking that there’s no other option but dieting to lose weight and improve your health, so what gives?
Fortunately, there’s an answer, and that answer is intuitive eating.
What Is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating is connecting with and trusting in the satiety and hunger cues given to you by your body. It focuses not on weight loss as a goal, but rather on eating what you want, when you’re feeling true hunger.
Unlike dieting, it doesn’t encourage counting calories, carbs, fats, or grams of protein. Instead, it encourages simply listening to your body’s needs for certain foods for nourishment.
In reality, intuitive eating is the way man has always eaten, before “diets” and processed, industrialized foodstuffs came along. You wouldn’t see hunter-gatherers or pre-agriculture community members sitting around their camps, planning out their macronutrients for the day, and stressing out about weight gain if they ate an extra stick of jerky.
Animals also eat intuitively, and you’ll notice that most animals in the wild are lean. They search for food and eat when they feel hungry, not just because they are craving a midnight taste of gourmet garden carrots. Which brings on an important question: how do we, as humans accustomed to snacking and having food available all the time, know when we’re truly hungry?
True Hunger vs. Cravings
Sometimes it can be hard to tell whether you’re truly hungry, or just bored, restless, stressed, or craving a certain taste (chocolate, anyone?). And since eating only when you’re hungry is the foundation of intuitive eating, it’s important to be able to tell the difference between hunger and simple cravings.
Some signs that you might not be truly listening to your body when it comes to hunger include:
- Feeling “stuffed” after meals.
- Eating too quickly or not chewing food thoroughly.
- Snacking several times between meals.
- Feeling like you need to eat after a stressful situation.
- Feeling ashamed after eating something.
Another great way to tell if you’re truly hungry is to ask yourself what sounds good to eat in that moment. When you’re experiencing true hunger, whole foods such as veggies, meats, fruits, and seeds sound delectable. When you’re bored or simply craving something, none of these will sound satisfying.
5 Health Benefits of Eating Intuitively
Eating intuitively will change your life in more ways than simply changing what you put on your plate.
1. Improved Digestion
Two of the key tenets of intuitive eating are to:
- Eat only when you’re truly hungry
- Eat until you’re satisfied, not stuffed
Practicing both of these habits can help improve your digestion in a number of ways.
For one, eating only when you’re truly hungry gives your digestive system time to completely empty your stomach from your last meal. This might seem like no big deal, but when you keep eating every couple hours and not allowing your food to digest, your system can easily become overworked. Your stomach has to continually pump out enzymes and acids to help digest your food, while your liver is continually being worked to filter toxins and digest fat.
Similarly, eating until you’re stuffed at every meal can keep your digestion from running smoothly. You’re essentially “backing up” your system by pouring undigested food on top of half-digested food, which may cause you to experience indigestion, constipation, or any number of digestive troubles.
Practicing body awareness, eating only until you’re satisfied, and not snacking between meals unless you’re truly hungry gives your digestive system a rest so that it’s fully equipped to handle your next meal.
2. Less Stress
Studies have shown that intuitive eaters not only enjoy a more pleasant emotional state than dieters, but also experience improvements in depression, anxiety, negative self-talk, and general psychological well-being when they switch to eating intuitively. (2,3)
The reason for this reduction in stress might stem from the fact that when you eat intuitively, you get to focus more on enjoying your food instead of analyzing it. You also take yourself out of the mindset of, “I can’t have that because I need to lose weight,” or “I can’t have carbs because I’m fat.”
These kinds of reactions to food put a load of stress on your mind and body, so it’s no wonder you feel better when you let them go!
3. Weight Loss
Studies have also shown that intuitive eaters have lower body mass indexes (BMIs) than dieters. (4) One of the major reasons for this could be due to the fact that intuitive eating is easy to stick to (unlike fad diets) which can lead to long-term weight loss.
When you eat intuitively you also learn to respect satiety signals that tell you when you’re truly satisfied, versus just eating for the sake of eating. This results in a natural, optimal calorie balance that could lead to weight loss if you’ve been overeating by ignoring hunger signals.
The fact that intuitive eating reduces stress levels can also play a role, since too much of the stress hormone cortisol can cause fat gain. (5)
4. Higher Self-Esteem
In addition to improving eating patterns and anxiety levels, studies have also shown that practicing intuitive eating improves self-esteem.
For instance, participants in one study experienced more acceptance of their bodies and less psychological distress regarding their bodies. They were also able to let go of “unhealthy weight control behaviors.” (6)
By improving your self-esteem, it’s only natural that other areas of your life will improve as well. When you’re focusing less on not being “good enough,” and more on accepting yourself, you’ll naturally experience less anxiety and have a more positive outlook on life. In turn, this can lead to untold opportunities at work and improvements in your personal relationships.
5. Improved Body Awareness
Being aware of your body and what it’s signaling to you is extremely important when it comes to maintaining your health. If you listen closely, your body will give you subtle signs that something is wrong, allowing you to give it what it needs before it becomes a major problem.
Take, for example, signs of nutrient deficiencies. Many people are so disconnected from their bodies that they don’t notice subtle signs of a nutrient deficiency, like a lack of energy or tingling in their hands and feet. By the time they do notice, the deficiency has become so severe that they have to go to the doctor to get it taken care of.
Intuitive eating is all about getting in touch with your body’s signals of hunger and satiety. However, once you start paying attention to these signals, you’ll begin to be hyper-aware of other signals your body is giving off. This will allow you to always be in tune with what you need, so you can take care of it before it becomes a full-blown problem.
7 Ways to Start Practicing Intuitive Eating Today
Below are the seven best ways to get started with practicing intuitive eating.
1. Eat When You’re Hungry, Stop When You’re Satisfied
The Okinawans, some of the longest-lived people on earth, have a saying: “Hara hachi bu.” It translates as, “Eat until you are eight parts out of ten full,” or 80 percent full. Researchers mention that this mindset surrounding food is part of the reason why Okinawans regularly live to celebrate turning 100.
Draw on the concept of hara hachi bu each time you sit down to a meal, taking time to notice when your belly begins to feel slightly full, not stuffed. Your body, and most especially your digestion, will thank you for it.
2. Avoid Thinking About Foods As Either “Good” or “Bad”
When you’ve been dieting for a while, it becomes second nature to constantly think about food in terms of “good” or “bad.” Unfortunately, this creates a lot of stress around the very idea of food, as you’re constantly analyzing and/or demonizing what you’re putting into your body.
While this is by no means an invitation to start indulging in processed foods filled with sugar and chemicals, it is an invitation to stop categorizing whole foods from the earth as either good or bad. For instance, many Paleo dieters see natural sources of carbs, such as from sweet potatoes, squash, or fruit as “bad.” Try not to fall into this idea, instead, giving your body permission to eat whole, unprocessed foods as it desires.
3. Avoid Emotional Eating
Eating when you’re stressed or upset can disconnect you from how much you’re consuming, and can also interfere with proper digestion. Try to find a separate outlet for stress, such as yoga or painting.
4. Accept That There Are No “Quick-Fix” Diets
Extreme dieting that involves low calories, meal replacement shakes, and the like have been proven to be ineffective in the long run for weight loss. Extreme dieting can even lead to you gaining all the weight back that you lost once you stop, plus more. (5)
5. Eat Enough Calories
When you’re not eating intuitively, it can be tempting to strictly limit the amount of calories you consume in order to look better and lose weight. Unfortunately, when you don’t have enough fuel for your body and brain, your metabolism will become damaged and you’ll start to feel stressed and anxious.
Don’t be afraid to fuel up: just do it with whole, unprocessed foods.
6. Focus On the Act of Eating
When you sit down for a meal, really sit and focus on the act of eating. This means turning off the television, setting aside the laptop, and putting down the phone. Doing this will help you fully tune into your body and its satiety signals so that you don’t overeat. It will also help you learn to appreciate the complex flavors of foods, which can help reduce cravings.
7. Set Realistic Goals
Setting unrealistic goals, such as saying you have to lose 10 pounds in two weeks to fit into a dress for an event, can create a huge amount of stress, anxiety, and self-loathing. It also sets you up for future failures, because if you fail to meet this weight loss goal, you may feel that you’ll never meet one in the future (and therefore, never try again).
Set goals that are attainable over the long term, and perhaps even remove weight loss from them. For instance, instead of setting a goal of losing so many pounds per month, try focusing on only eating whole foods (nothing boxed or processed) for a month. Reframing can make all the difference in your stress levels and success.
The best way to achieve success with intuitive eating is to eat what your body craves in whole food forms. Again, this doesn’t mean indulging in cravings for twinkies, chips, and candy bars because you’re thinking about them. That isn’t your intuition talking, it’s your cravings.
Try it like this: you’re craving sweets, but you know you aren’t hungry. Listen to your hunger cues, and when you finally are hungry, eat something naturally sweet that sounds good, like some fruit or a sweet potato. If this isn’t enough, try a piece of very dark chocolate after your meal. You’ll find that you probably feel more than satisfied now that you’ve given your body actual nourishment in the form of complex carbs, which usually manifests as a craving for sweets.
Of course, this is only one example of intuitive eating in action. At the end of the day, it will be you and your personal intuition calling the shots. Luckily, your intuition is one of the oldest and most reliable things about you, so don’t be afraid to give in and trust it.