This is also known as intuitive eating. (P.S. This is a long post, go grab a cuppa and settle down.)
I’m going to start with a disclaimer: you can’t learn to eat intuitively by reading a step by step blog post, or even reading a book. Sure, this will help (I hope) but intuitive eating (IE) is really a ‘learn by doing’ kinda thang. Be prepared for a rocky road, it’s not simple, it’s not easy (at first), like most good things you will question why you’re doing it more than a few times, and you won’t be able to eat intuitively right from the start. But the only way to learn this is to start and just to keep going one step after another. The principles of IE seem simple, but years (decades?) of conditioning have meant our innate ability to eat has been covered by external rules that will take time to undo. Little pathways have been trodden in our brain, and it takes focus to make new ones. A much more comprehensive guide can be found in the Intuitive Eating book by Elise Resch & Evelyn Tribole, which can be purchased on Amazon (here).
Before you start eating intuitively I want you to make yourself a promise. This is probably the most important step, and should you not do this now, you will struggle much more in the future. Make a promise that never again will you diet, try to lose weight (this doesn’t mean you won’t lose weight, just that you won’t focus on it), or eat according to external signals. This includes detoxes, fasts, becoming vegan (you can do this later, should you be so ethically inclined but just not any time soon), cut out food groups or make any other ‘decision’ about food or eating. This is not a rule. This is a decision to commit to yourself. Should you go against it, that’s okay! IE is all about learning to be flexible with your food and with yourself.
- Give yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods.
This is counter to everything you’ve ever heard. When you first start this, every cell in your body screams that you’ll get fat, you’ll never be able to control yourself, you’ll only ever choose junk food and you’ll die of cancer in the next 6 months. Just ignore those voices; keep calm & carry on.
The book goes into a lot more detail, so it would be redundant for me to repeat it (you simply can’t get from one blog post what you’ll get from the whole book) but this step works in a number of ways so I’ll summarise them a little.
Firstly, when you allow yourself to eat anything you’ll probably choose to eat foods you’ve been depriving yourself of while on any sort of restriction. All the foods we’re not “meant” to eat are generally what we binge on, and these are the foods we’ll want when we start this journey (if I had $1 for every client who tells me how much pasta, ice cream & bread they’ve been eating when they start this I’d be a rich woman!). If that freaks you out, and you’re now thinking you shouldn’t do this, then you should definitely do this. The more you eat these foods, the more they’ll become normal, you’ll get habituated, and they’ll lose their sparkle. I now permanently have a tub of ice-cream in the freezer and sometimes it doesn’t get eaten for weeks (other times it’s eaten every night).
Secondly, when you restrict these foods our inner child rebels and screams ‘NO!”. When you start a diet, that child is quiet, sleeping, excited for what’s to come. But just like a kid on a long flight, after the first movie or two you become bored and want off that plane NOW! That inner rebel is demanding, and loud, and eventually can’t be ignored. This isn’t your fault, it’s actually hard-wired into us for survival, which we obviously don’t need any more, but the human body just doesn’t evolve that fast! When we allow all foods, we have no need to rebel, so we gain control back.
Thirdly, giving yourself permission puts trust in yourself. This is such an important part of IE and a really necessary step to learn. We have been taught by the diet industry, the media, well-meaning parents and health care professionals that we don’t know how to eat, that we need to be told what’s good for us, how much of it to have and how often we should have it. But that’s simply not the case. No one needs to tell us when we fall over and scratch our self to heal the skin, no one needs to tell us to breathe, no one needs to tell us to wee and poo. Yet modern first-world humans have brought it upon themselves to tell ourselves how to eat. As though we haven’t been doing it since the dawn of time. All of this conditioning has meant that we suddenly think particular foods are “bad” or that we can only have a certain amount and should eat at particular times. When we break these rules, we jump on the rule-breaking train and break all the rules while we can until the police come back and tell us what to do again. And we continue this pattern, and learn that we can’t be trusted. Here’s the thing: you can be trusted, your body can be trusted.
Your body knows exactly what it’s doing. It’s the rules that muck things up.
The last (but not final) point I’ll touch on with this is that when you give yourself permission to eat all foods, you’re giving yourself permission to eat vegetables and fruit too. Everyone skips to ice cream and pasta when they think of all the food they can eat, but allowing yourself permission to eat any food you like means you can choose a salad, or some steamed veg, or a fruit platter for dessert, and you don’t have to eat them just because you’re on a diet (and don’t have to avoid them just because you aren’t). We eat for a whole heap of reasons, and nourishing ourselves is just one of those – both with foods full of vitamins and minerals, and foods that taste delicious.
- Eat according to your hunger and your fullness
This sounds so simple. It is SO hard. Again, our conditioning has taught us we don’t know how much to eat, and we don’t know how often to eat. Your metabolism won’t break if you don’t eat 5 times a day, by the way. It simply doesn’t work like that. Your metabolism doesn’t slow down because you’re not eating frequently enough, it slows down when you don’t have enough calories in and your fat cells are diminishing. It has absolutely nothing to do with how often you eat.
If we’ve been dieting for a long time, it’s not easy to know what hunger feels like. Often people think hunger is when you’re starving, but waiting until you’re that hungry to eat will mean you overeat and generally search for high-calorie foods. Then you learn that if you eat when you’re hungry you’ll overeat. You need to find the in between. Start rating your hunger out of 5. 0 is not at all hungry, 5 is ravaged. Eat at a 2 or 3.
Similarly, it’s hard to know what satisfaction and fullness are. We either eat just enough because we’re constantly told we eat too much and so eat just until hunger goes away, or we eat too much because we’re too hungry, or breaking a rule, and then we feel uncomfortable. Just like hunger, you want to rate your fullness out of 5. 0 is not at all full, 5 is quite uncomfortable. Eat until a 2 or 3.
- Deal with your emotions without food.
Emotional eating is common. But a lot of the time, it’s an excuse. You want to break your diet because you’re hungry and sick of chicken and salad, so you make up an excuse – you’ve had a big day, you deserve it, you’re bored, you’re emotional. Once you start allowing yourself all foods and eating according to hunger and fullness you might find (like I did) that emotional eating just disappears.
Some may not though. Eating can be a coping strategy we’re taught from babies (if in doubt when the baby is screaming, shove some milk in its gob). Eating is distracting, and we get immediate pleasure from it.
Eating might also be a defence mechanism. It’s not unusual for people with a trauma history, especially sexual trauma, to eat as a protective mechanism, as a shield to keep people away. This is understandable. If you think this is why you eat, I’d suggest having a chat to a professional about it.
If you do eat emotionally, before getting rid of it as a coping strategy, you’re going to need some new ones, or you’re not going to cope when you’re feeling emotional, and you’ll resort to your old crutch. (Which is totally fair enough). So experiment with things that make you feel good. Write a list (I love lists). My favourites are:
- Have a bath
- Go for a walk
- Play with my dogs
- Call a friend
- Meditate or do yoga
When you know you’re not hungry but you’re reaching for a snack ask yourself “what do I really need?”. The answer is never food. Eating will not get rid of the need, and then you’ll just feel uncomfortable + whatever you were feeling before.
4. Eat mindfully
The scientific literature shows incredible evidence for the health and wellbeing benefits from mindful eating. I’ll do a whole post on it soon but for now I’ll say this:
- Sit down when eating
- Eat off a plate
- Eat without distractions
- Eat slowly
- Pay attention to your food
- Chew slowly
- Stop halfway, and check in with how the food tastes and how full you are
This step is just as important as the others. When you eat distracted, or standing in the kitchen, or straight out of the fridge, or while driving, or at your desk you’ll likely eat more, enjoy your food less and reach for something else afterwards. You can’t check in with how full you are because your brain needs to pay attention to register that it’s eating. If you currently don’t ever eat at a table undistracted, give yourself a goal of once a day, and just increase it slowly.
The most important thing is to be easy with yourself, remember there are no rules with IE, these are only guidelines and you can’t mess it up. It’s a learning experience where you’re getting to know yourself again, and that can take time, years and years even, maybe our whole lives. It starts with changing the way you eat, and it bleeds into your entire life, you’ll see changes in areas you never knew were affected by your dieting and restrictive eating.
If you have questions or comments, please let me know below. Alternatively you can always email me firstname.lastname@example.org, or attend one of my workshops or retreats. If you find yourself struggling with intuitive eating after reading the book, I offer coaching and more info can be found (here).