In today’s society, we see messages about food and body image on a daily basis. One billboard says, “eat this, not that!” while a magazine makes us believe we need to look a certain way to feel great. Instagram feeds are full of “quick fixes” and perpetuate unrealistic body standards. These messages can be toxic. They can ruin our relationship with food and make us feel like we need to “go on a diet” or restrict what we are eating. They can drive us to loathe our bodies, making us feel like we will never attain perfection, satisfaction, or happiness. Are you currently caught up in these messages? If so, it might be a good time to start practicing intuitive eating, a way of honoring and nourishing our bodies without guilt or shame.
Simply put, intuitive eating is about listening to your body. It is about recognizing when you are hungry and stopping when you are full. It is about paying attention to your body’s needs. It is about tuning out messages that affect your relationship with food and letting go of negative thoughts and emotions around eating. Intuitive eating can be helpful, especially if you are recovering from an eating disorder, in re-establishing a healthy relationship with food. Here are 5 ways you can practice intuitive eating.
- Respect and honor your body. Your body is a complex system, so complex that some functions are poorly understood. It is also a highly regulated system, with set pathways to signal your brain to do what is necessary to sustain life. Your brain possesses the remarkable capacity to signal you to eat when it needs fuel and stop when you get enough. Although you have this system in place, it can be disrupted by other outside signals including commercials, billboards, or advertisements that reinforce the societal norms to look/eat a certain way. These signals can cause you to look at food differently and develop unhealthy thoughts about your body. If you ignore these cues by restricting or eating beyond cues of fullness, this can lead to dysregulation and an unhealthy relationship with food. Trust that your body knows what it wants and honor the biological cues it is sending to you. Ignore the false information that is being fed to your brain by society. Take time to carefully listen to what your body is telling you.
- Stop restricting or allowing a “cheat” day. Restricting a certain food can lead to intense cravings of that food as time passes. Eventually, you will get tired of the overwhelming craving and you will probably indulge in the food you are trying to avoid. More than likely you will overindulge since you have been avoiding that food for so long. This might be followed by feelings of lack of control, guilt, embarrassment or disgust. Instead, allow yourself to indulge in the foods you enjoy every now and again. Give yourself the unconditional permission to eat what you want and when you want it. Get rid of your “cheat day” and find balance in moderation.
- Quit your fad diet. Throw away your diet books! They only lead to false hopes and disappointment. Diets don’t work; they are short term and may lead to weight loss initially, but usually result in weight regain long term. Pay close attention to the fake information companies spread about quick fixes, miracle foods, and fast weight loss scams. Think about it: if there was a diet that worked, everyone would be on it. Get rid of the “diet” mentality and the restriction/cheat days that come with it. Find peace in allowing all foods to fit into your daily eating habits. Find balance in eating a variety of foods that nourish your body.
- Ditch emotional eating. Many people associate food with emotion; you might eat comfort food when feeling down, eat because you are bored, or binge because you are stressed. Getting in the habit of using food for dealing with your negative emotions will only lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. It is important to recognize when you feel these emotions and find more positive coping mechanisms instead of turning to food. Ultimately, food cannot help alleviate these negative emotions long term. Learn to address your negative emotions with the help of a mental health professional instead of using food as a relief.
- Joyful movement. Find activities that you enjoy! If going to the gym or following a strict workout routine isn’t bringing you happiness, it will not be sustainable long term. The ultimate goal is making sustainable changes when it comes to movement. Whether it is walking in nature, taking your dogs to the park, or running a marathon- do what makes you happy and brings you joy. Be mindful of how this makes your body feel; does it help you sleep? Make you feel more energized during the day? Find what works best for YOU. Avoid using exercise to compensate for feelings of guilt around food; move your body for the right reasons.
Intuitive can take lots of practice, it is not easily achieved. It is about consciously being mindful of your thoughts and emotions around food, honoring your body’s signals and hunger cues, and getting rid of the “diet” mindset. It requires you to look at food as nourishment and an enjoyable cultural experience, not as an innately evil thing that will destroy your body. Practice being at ease with your body and moving it in joyful ways. Before you know it, you will be at peace with food. For help with intuitive eating, see one of our registered dietitians.