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Tuning into Your Body’s Hunger Cues: How to Start Eating Intuitively

Have you ever wondered how our ancestors decided what to eat?  I’m not just talking about our primal ancestors, but three or four generations ago.  How did they choose what foods to consume?  Or when to have meals?  Well, they didn’t really.  They simply listened to their bodies and ate what was available.  The intuition they held – we hold– guided them to eat nourishing foods needed for sustained health.

That may sound like an odd concept give that nowadays the amount of food readily available in the U.S and most of the world is astounding.  We are bombarded with messages to “indulge” or “reward” ourselves with food; and on the flip side we are told to restrict x, y, and z foods in order be good, healthy individuals.  That intuition we had? Slowly eroding, giving way to food pyramids and calorie counting.  In the process, we are listening to our bodies less and less. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are people who have seen benefits from strict rules around food. Some individuals enjoy guidelines to follow. Different strokes for different folks. But for others who are looking to have a better relationship with food, eating like our recent relatives may hold the key.

What is Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive eating is a realistic approach towards eating.  No food is off limits (unless you have an allergy/sensitivity) and calorie counting is obsolete.  It consists of listening to what your body specifically needs because you are the expert of it. Your body will tell you when you need salty, crunchy potato chips (and how many) and when you need a mountain of broccoli.  There are no rules to intuitive eating other than listening to your body.  Portion sizes and feeding times are obsolete. You can munch on a snack after dinner, or chow down breakfast at 10:30 am.  It is about listening to your body’s internal clock, not external societal expectations.  It does not take a cookie-cutter approach eating. The goal is to give yourself the freedom of choice because once the ability to choose exists, more often than not, the appeal of the “forbidden fruit” (no pun intended) diminishes.

That is not to say that intuitive eating promotes a free-for-all at the buffet.  Remember, it is about listening to your body.  It is about nourishing yourself, not about consuming large quantities of food haphazardly. There’s a good chance your body is not asking for three dozen cookies at one sitting.

For example, let’s say you have a yearning for cheesecake, but because you have deemed it off limits a substitution is eaten instead.  Maybe it a sugar-free drink or a piece of gum.  However, after the substitution is consumed, that craving is still there haunting you.  You continue to think about that rich, creamy, tangy cheesecake.  You try a couple of berries, maybe some cheesecake-flavored yogurt, yet the craving lingers.  None of the substitutions have hit the spot, so what happens? 

Frustration ensues and you decide the whole day is ruined.  You declare you have no willpower and it is too hard to forgo cheesecake.  A slice ends up on your plate and it is devoured in minutes.  There is no use in stopping now since the day is ruined, so you might as well have another slice.  Or two more slices.  You can start your new diet tomorrow. 

Sound familiar?

Well with intuitive eating you crave cheesecake, you have one bite. Savor it, think about it, really taste it, then maybe there is a second bite and a third.  At some point you realize you are satisfied for the moment and your cheesecake craving has disappeared.  You do not need to restrict yourself because restriction will only make you want it more.  Instead you learn to rely on your body and what it deems is a suitable amount to eat. Since the option to have cheesecake is always available you do not have to over consume it in one sitting.

Ready to start eating intuitively?  Here are some tips to get the ball rolling:

  • Listen to your body, not your brain.  What is your body asking for?  Is it looking for vitamins (vegetables) to sustain energy? Is it asking for satiety in the form of fats and proteins?  When the body is asking for something it needs, it will say so.  Your mind on the other hand may be asking for that brownie because it saw it in the case, or the caramel macchiato because a coffee run is part of the morning routine.  By tuning into your body, you get to understand what it really wants instead of going on impulse or habit. 
  • Take time to eat.  Savor your food.  Really savor the food being eaten.  Use all five senses critically.  What does the apple taste like, smell like, feel, look like, what did you hear when you bit into it?  It may sound (and look) silly to do this but taking the time to appreciate the food being eaten helps connect your senses with the habit of eating mindfully.  You may realize that celery sticks really don’t have a pleasing flavor, or that what you really love about pretzels is the crunch factor it brings.  It also gives you the opportunity to digest your food and measure how much your body really wants instead of devouring it quickly.  Yes, your body may want that chocolate milkshake, but you may be satisfied after two-thirds of it, yet you may never know this if you do not take the time to mindfully consume your food.
  • Cancel your membership to the clean plate club.  Part of intuitive eating is identifying your satiety point.  Arbitrary indications like drink sizes or portion servings may not align with what your body is telling you – and that’s okay.  Each person is different.  You may be satisfied with ½ of what’s on your plate.  In that case, learn to walk away from it.  You are full.  Your body is nourished.  End of story.  Don’t feel bad for leaving food on the plate.  Eating the excess amount of food may only harm you in the long term so find peace with it.    
  • Respect your hunger.  If you are physically hungry, eat.  If you are emotionally hungry, feed it in a non-food manner.  It is perfectly fine to eat until physically satisfied.  Do not feel like you have to deprive yourself: your body is asking for it.  There should not be any guilt in eating to fuel your body, that’s one thing food is for.  Don’t sweat it if you need more food than your dinning partners either.  We are all built differently and require different amounts of food.     
  • Be gentle, be patient. Eating this way may be new.  Thinking this way may feel odd at first.   It will take time to get accustomed to listening to your body’s needs, especially if you have been raised in a society where rules and restrictions around food is standard (and feelings of guilt for “cheating”).  Having the freedom to choose may be a little daunting at first, so be patient.  There will be days of regression, when you ignore your body’s cues.  It happens, just remember you are trying something new.  You will learn and keep moving forward.

Progress, Not Perfection

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