Intuitive eating isn’t a diet, but rather a healthier way of eating and thinking about food. You will lose weight by eating intuitively, but the weight loss will come as a result of a more holistic approach to nutrition and not because you’ve followed a prescribed weight loss plan.
Intuitive eating seems very simple on the surface. The idea behind intuitive eating is that you eat what you want, when you want. You eat when you are hungry, and stop eating when you are full. From an evolutionary perspective, this is how we’re supposed to eat anyway. Dieting is a relatively new concept in human history, as our primitive ancestors never had to battle obesity or fast food cravings.
Many of the psychological associations we’ve developed about food counteract our bodies’ natural abilities to regulate nutritional intake. We think we “need” brownies, cupcakes and French fries to make us feel better when we’ve had a bad day, or we binge on holidays because we’ve been conditioned to overeat as part of celebrations. Intuitive eating has become a diet in the sense that we’ve learned so many eating behaviors and patterns that we have become unable to hear our bodies over our brains.
The good news is that intuitive eating can be relearned. The bad news is that to learn intuitive eating (and lose weight in the process) takes some work and self-control. Here are some guidelines.
Step One: Get to know your body.
One of the basic tenets of intuitive eating is only eating when you are hungry. That sounds easy enough, but think about all the times you eat when you aren’t hungry at all. Do you eat habitually on your couch when you watch television? Do you eat at parties to be polite? Do you order food at restaurants so your friend isn’t eating alone? Do you eat when you’re depressed or angry? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are probably eating more than you need to. That means you are not yet eating intuitively.
To assess whether you’re actually hungry or just eating out of habit, wait half an hour from the onset of the urge to eat. If you’re actually hungry, you’ll still want food. If the craving for food has passed, you probably just wanted to eat for psychological reasons. This requires quite a bit of self-control, especially when food is everywhere. If you’re having trouble after a few weeks of trying this, you may need to go one step further.
Try making a log of all the times and places you want to eat during the day. Do this for a week, and you’ll start seeing patterns of behavior. The next step is to evaluate when the eating was habitual, and when it was necessary. Be very suspicious of eating that occurs after a meal or during periods of inactivity.
To further your goal of eating intuitively, you need to learn to stop eating when you aren’t hungry anymore. This can be difficult when restaurant proportions are so large and there is societal pressure to “clean your plate.” Plus, we associate being full with feeling satisfied; the fuller we get, the more satisfied we feel.
To learn how to stop eating when you are full, there are some things you need to understand about the human body. First, the stomach will expand to hold the amount of food put into it. If your stomach is full and you keep eating, your stomach will simply stretch to accommodate the extra food. Second, it takes up to ten minutes for your stomach to tell your brain that it is full, and you can cram an awful lot of food into yourself in ten minutes.
To develop a better understanding of when you are full and when you are still hungry, you need to learn to eat slowly so you can hear what your body is telling you. There are two ways to do this. First, take frequent breaks while you are eating. Eat a bit, then read a few pages of a book before you start eating again. Get up between bites and walk around the room. Anything you can do to stretch out the length of time you spend eating your meal will help, because you need to give your body the opportunity to feel full.
If stretching out the duration of your meals isn’t an option for you because of time constraints or failure of willpower, the second thing you can try is portion control. Chances are, if it fits into a regular-sized coffee mug, it will fill you up. If you are eating more than a coffee mug-full of food, you are probably eating too much. Divide your meal into small portions before you start eating. Eat a portion, and then stop. If you are still hungry in a little while, eat the next portion. If you eat a portion or two and still want food, you need to assess whether or not you are eating for psychological reasons at that point.
Step Two: Understand your cravings.
Now that you’ve figured out how to eat when you are hungry and not eat when you are full, you need to learn what your cravings for specific foods mean. If eating intuitively means that you eat what you want to, you need to recognize what you really want to eat and what you only think you want to eat.
Everyone has particular comfort food, and chances are good that your comfort food is bad for you. That’s okay. Intuitive eating doesn’t mean that you have to give up your favorite comfort food, but it does mean that you need to learn when you turn to your comfort food for psychological reasons and when you turn to your comfort food for nutrition.
When you crave a particular food, your body is trying to tell you something. If a big bloody steak tickles your fancy, your body is probably craving protein. If a juicy orange would hit the spot, you might be experiencing a slight Vitamin C deficiency. These are important cravings to listen to, because your body often knows what it needs to function optimally better than you do.
The “eat what you want” part of intuitive eating doesn’t mean that you suddenly have license to eat crap. If you have gotten this far in learning what your body really wants, you’ll surprise yourself by craving food that is actually pretty good for you. On those occasions that you actually “need” cookies, for example, your body is probably experiencing low blood sugar and needs a quick pick-me-up. Most of the time, though, your body’s cravings will be in line with food that is considered full of nutritional value.
What happens when you want to eat a certain food that isn’t available to you for some reason, though? At this point, you need to know a little about food groups. If you’re craving a protein, starch, vegetable, or sugar, fulfill the craving by eating something from the same food group. Say you really want rice, for example, but you don’t have any rice in your home. Rice is a starchy food composed of carbohydrates. You could easily fulfill your craving with spaghetti noodles instead.
Step Three: Incorporate intuitive eating into your lifestyle.
Now that you’ve got the idea, it’s time to restructure your eating habits to let intuitive eating become plausible in your lifestyle. If you’re like most people, you’re busy and stressed most of the time. Any sort of diet plan, even a non-diet, takes work and readjustment.
Making intuitive eating as convenient as how you already eat requires stocking your refrigerator with lots of different kinds of foods. You should make many choices available to yourself, so you don’t grab the first thing you see when you’re hungry. Having lots of food around means that you’ll be able to eat what you truly want and not just to fill the void.
If you limit your food intake to only eat enough to fill you up and no more, you’re going to get hungry every few hours. That’s actually a good sign-our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate many small meals over the course of a day instead of two or three large ones. The downside is that you’ll have to incorporate eating breaks into your routine. Instead of packing a big lunch for work, pack a snack bag with lots of non-perishable food items and fruit that can survive outside the refrigerator. That way, you can graze discretely at your leisure and you’ll have lots of ready-made options.
The most important thing you can do to incorporate intuitive eating into your lifestyle, though, is to enjoy it. After all, when was the last time someone told you that eating what you want could be a guilt-free activity? Cookies and milk for breakfast never sounded so good, and your body is sure to balance itself out by craving a big salad later!