What is interoceptive awareness and how it stops food stress
Poor mind-body connection leads to a stressful relationship with food.
Do you find yourself second guessing your food choices or relying on diet rules to guide when and what to eat but then still experience emotional eating and feel out-of-control around food? These experiences occur when there is a lack of mind-body connection, that is, when you are out of touch with your body's language. This language your body uses to communicate with you is called interoceptive awareness.
The good news is, just like learning a language, you can improve your interoceptive awareness and turn these messy, frustrating and confusing experiences into powerful knowledge to help you stop stressing over food.
What is interoceptive awareness?
Interoceptive awareness is your ability to feel and consciously understand the physical sensations you feel in your body. These sensations are the language your body uses to communicate your psychological and biological needs. We are all born with an ability to innately understand the language our body uses, although, common practices such as dieting and weight loss pursuits can weaken your trust and understanding of this language. This leaves you relying on external messages or diet plans to nourish yourself.
Improving your interoceptive awareness empowers you to use your own body as a guide to meet your nutrition and self care needs without the need for stressful diets and ever-changing food rules. By improving your communication and trust, food decisions will come naturally rather than a constant fight between your body and your mind.
How interoceptive awareness improves your health
Our bodies have evolved over thousands of years to survive - and this means being able to guide us to meet our needs. Until recently, we never had diets, plans or guidelines to tell us how to eat, when to sleep or how often to move but instead we relied on our body’s communication to guide us.
In our culture, many of us do not trust our body’s communication leaving us relying on external rules such as diets and plans to guide our self care practices. The problem with using external rules is we all have very different needs to best support our bodies. Even individually, on a day to day basis, we need different nourishment.
No one else can ever know what is best for your body in each moment.
When we rely largely on external messages, we create confusion between body and mind. Your body sees unmet needs as a threat which triggers increased stress hormones. When your body is focused on seeking it’s basic needs, you will have less ability to engage in more rewarding, and health promoting, areas of life.
Greater interoceptive awareness leads to reduced stress hormones, greater health-promoting behaviours and a higher quality of life. Interoceptive awareness is your superpower to understanding exactly what you need, to not only survive, but also thrive.
What does interoceptive awareness feel like?
Your interoceptive awareness will guide you to meet your most basic needs such as urinating, movement, rest and nourishment as well as providing a felt sense of all your emotions. Every emotion is experienced through unique sensations within your own body. By understanding your basic needs but also your emotional needs, interoceptive awareness is your superpower to improving your physical wellbeing but also your emotional intelligence.
To explore what it feels like, let’s consider having a full bladder, an interoceptive awareness most of us are familiar with. We might feel a tightening sensation in the bladder area and perhaps this becomes lower down or even painful as the bladder becomes more distended. Feeling this sensation and understanding what it means is interoceptive sensitivity. To be able to get our needs met, we need to trust that this message is accurate and be in a situation we can respond, which is called interoceptive responsiveness.
Now imagine a time you need to pee but there is no access to a bathroom. It is likely your thoughts all start to turn to controlling the urge and finding a bathroom, it feels difficult to focus on other thoughts or feelings.
If you ignore the urge to pee, your thoughts will become consumed by finding a bathroom.
Let's now replace a full bladder with the sensations for hunger, an interoceptive awareness many of us have lost attunement with due to a reliance on diet rules. We feel hunger through sensations in our body but if our interoceptive awareness is poor, we may not feel or recognise the sensations until they become extreme and ravenous, making it difficult to focus on anything else.
There is a common fear that if we eat when we are hungry, we will not stop eating. When we are used to ignoring our hunger and feeling the extreme, ravenous hunger with our thoughts being highly focused on food, it is no wonder we doubt our ability to nourish ourselves without rules. But when we develop a trusting communication with our body, we will feel much more relaxed around food. In the end, your body seeks to feel comfortable but firstly needs to feel safe.
How to improving your interoceptive awareness
A powerful framework based on interoceptive awareness is Intuitive Eating. A framework that guides us back to using our own body's communication to guide our eating, emotional coping and other self care.
We don’t eat in isolation. Food and the experience of eating plays an important role in emotional regulation, satisfaction and pleasure, social connection, celebration and comfort. This is why improving our overall interoceptive awareness is essential to healthy eating and reducing stress towards food.
In intuitive eating, each principle focuses on either removing obstacles to interoceptive awareness or improving your interoceptive awareness. To reconnect with your body's sensations, you must first recognise and let go of outside rules that are telling you not to trust your body. Then using mindfulness techniques you learn to tune back in and feel your body's internal sensations.
The foundation of intuitive eating is interoceptive awareness with all 10 principles of intuitive eating focused on either improving interoceptive awareness or removing obstacles to interoceptive awareness.
3 key steps to improve your interoceptive awareness to reduce food stress
Even if you have felt disconnected from your body for many years, it is possible to improve your interoceptive awareness to improve your relationship with food. Here’s 3 steps to support your mind-body connection and make food a less stressful experience.
1. Ditch diet rules
Improving your interoceptive awareness is learning to feel, interpret and trust your body's internal sensations to be your number one guide. Dieting, or following food rules, teaches you the exact opposite - to ignore internal sensations in favour of outside messages. In fact dieting often plays a key role in taking away your interoceptive awareness.
2. Tune in with curiosity
Curiosity gives you the power to re-learn the language of your body instead of fighting against it. The sensations you feel in your body, even uncomfortable ones, are simply your body communicating wiht you. Getting curious allows us to remove judgement and guilt toward our behaviours or an eating experience and instead consider what your body is communicating it needs. The next time you feel cravings or heightened emotions, get curious about what your body is communicating.
3. Eat when you are hungry
It doesn't matter if your last meal was 30 minutes ago or 6 hours ago, if you are hungry, you probably need more food. If you unsure, the best approach while learning is to try eating at least every 4 hours and see how it feels. If you feel there might be a different sensation you are mixing up with hunger, you can explore that too but first your body needs to know it will get food when needed.
Written by Emma Townsin, Registered Dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor
Emma is the founder of Food Life Freedom and the host of the Food & Life Freedom Podcast. For personalised support to stop stressing over health and heal your relationship with food and your body, learn how you can fast track your way food and life freedom.
Ricciardelli, B.L. (2016). A systematic review of the psychosocial correlates of intuitive eating among adult women.
Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch (2020). Intuitive Eating 4th Edition, St Martins Publishing Group.
Get 25% OFF emotional eating
Go on a food de-stress with weekly anti-diet support straight to your inbox. PLUS get 25% OFF my brand new course "The anti-diet guide to overcoming emotional eating" - coming December 2023!
I agree to receive email communications from Food Life Freedom