What is intuitive eating?
Intuitive eating is the process of re-learning how to eat intuitively.
That is, re-learning how to use our body’s innate signals to guide our eating. Imagine a baby, they cry when they are hungry and push the breast or bottle away when full. We are all born with this innate ability to nourish ourselves naturally throughout life.
As we grow, our eating is not only guided by a biological drive, such as hunger and fullness, but also by emotion and rational thought. We make eating decisions based on nutritional need as well as social connection, food knowledge and our unique values. Intuitive eating is an interplay of these different factors.
If our world supports our ability to seek satisfaction from food and trust in our body to find it’s healthiest size, we will grow up eating intuitively and food will be another part of life that doesn’t require much effort. But if the messages we get from our world conflict with our body’s innate cues, we can start to distrust the messages we get from our body and eventually lose touch with them.
Why does our intuition get taken away?
We live in a world that idealises some bodies while shaming others. Consider for a moment the messaging that you hear regularly about bodies. What is considered an ideal body? Now consider the bodies that you see regularly on any given day. How do they differ from the “ideal” we are taught?
Our world does not represent the normal diversity of bodies that exist. When our body type is not represented accurately we can feel there is something wrong with our body. When this messaging occurs on repeat, it is normal to feel we need to change ourselves to fit in.
Let’s now think about messages relating to food. “Guilt-free”, “good and bad”, “sin foods” and “cheat days”. These are all normalised ways to speak about food, but unfortunately they tell us that there is a right way to eat and a wrong way to eat. Of course, what is considered the right way can vary greatly depending on the source.
How food and body messaging influence each other
In advertising and popular media, perceived healthy food is often paired with thin bodies and perceived unhealthy food is paired with larger bodies. This sends a message that body size is tied to what we eat, thin people eat only “healthy” foods and larger people eat more “unhealthy” foods. It tells us that weight is our choice and dependent on our food choices. Although, this is not supported by research or lived experiences.
Though, it’s not surprising that we form beliefs that our body should look a certain way and “unhealthy foods” are associated with body size. This messaging finds acceptance in our culture through being disguised as health messaging, but with no evidence to support it. It really just creates a hierarchy of worth based on body size and food choice.
If we buy into this messaging, we might believe that a smaller body is more worthy and eating the “right foods” can make you more worthy too. Of course, this superficial way of thinking just isn’t compatible with the many bodies and personalities that make us all unique.
Why do we feel so out of control around food?
Following external food and body rules conflicts with our body’s innate ability to control our weight and food intake. The rules around food make us doubt our own ability, and we try to eat according to the rules.
We may not allow ourselves to enjoy a snack even though we feel hungry, we restrict hearty foods even though this satisfies our hunger, and we try to shrink our bodies rather than letting our body sit where it truly feels best.
When we try to control our eating in this way, our body sees this as restriction of an essential need: food. This is a threat to survival and it responds with a cascade of biological and psychological drives to increase our desire to eat and enjoy food.
Imagine you are knocking on a friend’s door with an important package to deliver. At first, you would likely knock gently to let them know you are there. If they don’t answer, you may figure they are busy with something more important right now so you wait for a better time. Though, when there is still no response you start to knock louder, you start to do everything you can to get their attention, and you make sure they can not possibly ignore you.
This is what your hunger drives are doing.
This out-of-control feeling you may have felt is due to your body simply trying to get your attention. Your body is just telling you what it needs and, when we stop ignoring the signals and start working with our bodies, the feeling will become less intense.
Reclaiming the trust
Intuitive Eating is a framework that guides you back to understanding and trusting these innate signals, as well as our unique emotional needs and thought pathways.
To do this, an intuitive eating approach works to:
- Let go of unhelpful messages from the world around you.
- Tune back in and trust your innate signals for hunger and fullness.
- Cope with emotions while removing guilt from eating.
- Reclaim pleasure and connection from food.
Many people fear that letting go of rules around food and body will mean you eat only unhealthy foods, when we are used to following rules it can be hard to imagine what letting go of rules is really like.
In reality, intuitive eaters actually eat a wider variety of foods, experience less binge eating and have improved health markers. They also report better body image, improved confidence and greater overall life satisfaction.
What should eating feel like?
If focusing on health, weight and eating is causing you stress, then it’s simply not healthy.
- Normal eating is about trusting our hunger cues and respecting our fullness. Though, not beating ourselves up if we miss the mark. That’s normal too.
- Normal eating is about choosing a salad because that’s what we feel like right now, but also about choosing pizza because that’s what will hit the spot. There’s no right or wrong.
- Normal eating is about understanding our body and which foods make us feel good. Though, also choosing to eat for other reasons without any guilt. Guilt does not belong in eating.
- Normal eating is flexible, looks different for everyone and an opportunity to understand your unique body.
How can I become an intuitive eater?
If you are putting so much time into eating the “right foods”, avoiding the “wrong foods” and dealing with the inevitable guilt when you slip up, this can feel exhausting. You can learn to reclaim trust in your body.
Intuitive eating starts with unpacking your current rules and beliefs about food and bodies and letting go of those which are not helpful. We then open up space to explore foods, behaviours and coping tools that are healthy for your physical and mental health. This approach is not a quick fix, but it’s this commitment that makes it sustainable and creates a better life.
Three helpful tips to get started are:
- Ditch the guilt around food. Unless you stole the food, you don’t need to feel bad for eating it. Guilt does not belong in eating and it’s simply not helpful for creating healthier behaviours.
- Speak kindly to yourself, even if you’re not entirely happy with the way you look. You can’t care for a body you don’t respect.
- Tune into your body’s signals. Even if the sensation feels uncomfortable, it’s just your body trying to communicate with you.
Of course, to really dive deep it's normal to require support initially. That's why I designed my Empowered Women Academy - a 12 week Intuitive Eating program with all the tools you need to make peace with food and body.
Food has played an important role in society for thousands of years, not only in nourishment but also in culture, connection and comfort. Today, more than ever, we all deserve to have a peaceful relationship with food and live in harmony with our bodies.
Emma Townsin is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor. She works with women to ditch obsessive food and body thoughts to find peace, freedom and value in themselves. Her Empowered Women Academy is a 12-week intuitive eating program for women who are ready to find peace with food and body.
To get started, book a free 30-minute consultation today.
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