Food for Thought: Intuitive Eating

"Bite into a healthy lifestyle." This is the theme of National Nutrition Month which officially kicked off in March. The advice seems simple enough – strive for a healthy lifestyle one bite at a time, but for so many of us, endless questions arise about a ‘bite’: What should I bite? When should I be biting? Am I biting too much? Too little? Should my bites be organic? Raw? Maybe juiced? And how on earth can I stop biting into Girl Scout cookies?! Finding answers to these questions can be daunting, but luckily, we all have a very powerful navigation tool to help us find a solution: our intuition.

Intuitive eating is food philosophy that encourages the use internal hunger and satiety cues rather than external influences to make decisions about eating. Babies and young children are excellent intuitive eaters. They identify the sensation of hunger, eat, recognize when they are satisfied, and then stop eating. These youngsters don’t have to count calories, decipher the entangled factual information and marketing strategies found on food labels, or deal with the constraints of having a pre-determined time to eat lunch. For a while, they’re shielded from seeing commercials, billboards, and signs promoting foods, needing to consider the cost of groceries, or worrying how their peers perceive their eating habits when choosing if, when, and how much to eat. They just eat. Although it’s impossible to eliminate the external factors that influence our eating, we are able to hone in on our internal cues and given them a louder voice. Here are a few tips to help us rediscover intuitive eating:

Stop Dieting 

This one is at the top of the list because it’s a cornerstone of successful intuitive eating. Many diets outline the type, quantity, or timing of food consumption which can make us feel deprived of fully enjoying our food experience and can leave us feeling guilty when we “break the rules”. Deprivation and guilt: not the greatest feelings to have. Additionally, following diets developed by others to slim down/bulk up/burn fat undermines the significance of input from the true expert on your nutrition, which is you! Even maintaining the thought that a new diet will be developed to help magically achieve our goals can interfere with intuitive eating now and in the future. Let it go.

Recognize the Spectrum of Hunger and Fullness

As humans, we need energy from food to fuel our bodies to carry out the amazing tasks we ask of it every day. Our body gives signals of hunger when getting low on fuel and signals of satiety or fullness when adequately nourished. Signals of hunger may include a growling stomach, hunger pangs, thoughts of foods, and a feeling of emptiness in the stomach. Feeling lightheaded, unfocused, irritable or developing a headache can signal being too hungry which can be dangerous and is NOT the goal. Signs of satiety or fullness can include a slowed pace of eating, resolved hunger pangs/growling stomach, and a sense of fullness. This is the body’s signal to stop eating. Waiting to feel uncomfortably full, getting nauseous, or seeing the abdomen physically distend signals being too full which also should be avoided. Generally, our bodies require a balance of foods within 2 hours of waking and will need more food every 3-5 hours thereafter to function optimally. 

Make a Plan for the Other Feelings

Since the goal with intuitive eating is to eat when hungry and stop when full, it’s important to have a plan to counteract other feelings we experience that we previously managed by eating. Feeling stressed, bored or lonely can trigger us to eat even when not hungry. The first step is to appropriately identify the feeling. The Apple Test can be helpful to distinguish actual hunger from other feelings. If you would eat an apple in that moment you’re likely hungry; if not, it’s probably another feeling. The next step to manage the “other” feeling is take action, not a bite. Although food provides a temporary distraction from other feelings and emotions, it cannot fix them. One example of a plan to manage stress without eating would be practicing meditation. Of course, true physiological hunger can be felt concurrently with some of these other feelings, in which case, please honor your hunger. 

Appreciate the Experiences 

Think again about how babies and young children eat. They smile, they explore the smells and textures of foods, enjoy company when eating, and finish meals feeling very happy and ready to play. Although it is not recommended for adults to adopt the finger painting-like eating habits of young children, there are certainly practices that can help us with intuitive eating. Next time you sit down to eat, try really tasting your food as if it were the first time it was hitting your mouth. Another practice to consider would be to engage with others while eating. Not only can this help slow the pace of eating, giving more opportunity to recognize fullness cues, but it allows us to increase our social connections and cultivate love in the world around us. Lastly, move and play! Enjoy exercise and movement not for the calorie burning benefits, but to celebrate our healthy bodies and the energizing lifestyles we’ve adopted. 

Recognizing we intuitively know many of the answers about eating, let’s celebrate National Nutrition Month and bite into a healthy lifestyle!

Author: Nikki Sanner, RDN