How to become an intuitive eater?

Updated: Jun 29, 2020


This is an important place to start, because we’re all surrounded by diet culture, and any lingering diet mentality will make it difficult to trust your body’s cues and learn to eat intuitively. This is where you can really assess your own history with dieting. It might be all you’ve known, for years or even decades, and the thought of leaving it behind can be scary. You might even view many of your past diets as successes, but when you look back on the experience, ask yourself: was it sustainable? Did the weight loss last? Was it restrictive and did it leave you feeling miserable and deprived? It’s important to acknowledge the harm that diets cause, and that even when it feels familiar and comforting to go back to one more diet, they are never the answer. Diets cause harm both to our physical health and to our psychological and emotional health, including decreasing metabolism, increasing binges and cravings, increasing risk of eating disorders, and decreasing confidence and self-trust.


Diets force us to ignore or suppress our hunger, so much so, that many people find it difficult to detect hunger signals when they first quit dieting. Intuitive eating guides you to begin to tune in to those signals once again, and to honour them by adequately nourishing your body. Ignoring hunger for too long can trigger a primal drive to eat past the point of comfort, so it’s important to learn to detect various levels of hunger, and to try to eat before you feel ravenously hungry. Intuitive eating will teach you to listen for the many signals your body can use to tell you it’s hungry (including light-headedness, stomach pain, irritability, and headache), and to distinguish from gentle to ravenous hunger.


This principle is one of the most misunderstood of the ten principles, perhaps because we’re so afraid of feeling “out of control” around the foods that we’ve limited or avoided for so long. Making peace with food is about giving yourself unconditional permission to eat. It’s about throwing out the old rules about what’s allowed, or off-limits, and allowing yourself to eat any food that you choose to eat. The problem with having “off-limits” foods is that it leads to feelings of deprivation, which can turn into intense cravings or bingeing. When all foods are allowed, the cravings eventually subside, and bingeing is usually not an issue. When first giving yourself permission to eat previously forbidden foods, there is often a period of time when it feels like you’ll never stop craving this food. It can feel scary, and many people fear that this phase won’t end. I promise, it will. With time, you’ll grow bored of these foods, and they just won’t have the same appeal that they had when they were restricted, and your body will start to crave a variety of foods that make it feel its best.


Ah, the food police: that voice in your head that praises you for eating “good” foods and fills you with guilt for eating foods you judge as “bad.” Years of dieting have likely made the food police hard to ignore, as every bite of food is judged as healthy or unhealthy, clean or unclean, and consequently you judge yourself as good or bad based on your food choices. This voice has got to go in order to be able to eat intuitively and free yourself from feelings of guilt and shame surrounding how you eat. This principle guides you through challenging the negative thoughts and diet rules that surface when you eat, and to replace them with rational and positive self-talk that allows you to eat without fear or judgement.


With this principle, you’ll learn to detect signs that your body is comfortably full, and to eat mindfully so that you’re able to pause and determine how your food tastes, and what your current hunger level is. Rather than feeling like you need to eat until your plate is empty, or adhere to portion sizes determined by some diet, you’re able to judge how much food your body needs based on your hunger and fullness signals, and feed your body appropriately. Having made peace with food is crucial here, so that you can stop eating when you’re full, leaving food on your plate when necessary, and know that you’ll be able to eat that food again when you choose to do so. Part of feeling your fullness is also recognising what comfortable satiety feels like, such as a feeling of stomach fullness, or feeling satisfied and content. It’s important to note, here, that because these are principles, and not rules, you can’t break them. It’s perfectly okay to eat past full sometimes, or to eat when you’re not hungry.


Have you ever eaten a meal, and gotten to the point where you feel full, but it just feels like something is missing? That something is the satisfaction factor! When we eat something unsatisfying, it often has us searching through the fridge and the pantry after we’re finished, trying to fill the void that’s left when our meal doesn’t quite satisfy our cravings. Eating enough food, but not feeling satisfied, still leaves us feeling deprived, which is a big problem with dieting. Intuitive eating allows us to choose foods that we find pleasurable, by asking ourselves what we really want to eat, and by eating in a mindful way that allows us to savour our food and have an enjoyable eating experience.


This can be one of the most difficult principles for many chronic dieters, who have spent a lifetime trying to change their bodies, never feeling satisfied with their weight or appearance. Diet culture tells us that thinness is important, and that we can all have the ideal body if we eat “right” and try hard enough. Part of rejecting the diet mentality is rejecting this messaging. Thinness is not better or worthier, and we are not all meant to have thin bodies. Learning to respect your body means recognizing that your body is good and worthy no matter how it looks. It’s also about realizing that you are so much more than a body, and that your worth is not predicated on how you look or what you weigh. Your body deserves respect, nourishment, and care no matter what. Respecting your body means that instead of being concerned with weight, you can focus on adopting healthy behaviours. You don’t have to believe that you’re beautiful, or like every part of your body in order to show it respect. Even if you’re not quite ready to accept your body as it is, you can begin to treat it with respect by acknowledging that it deserves to be fed, treated with dignity, dressed comfortably, and to move in ways you enjoy.


Exercise can benefit our bodies in so many important ways, but the problem for many chronic dieters is that exercise has become merely a way to punish the body, burn calories, or lose weight, and so it feels like a chore rather than an enjoyable part of the day. Exercise doesn’t have to be militant and exhausting in order to “count.” Any kind of movement that you enjoy and that feels good is worth pursuing and can enhance your health and your life.


This principle comes last for a reason: if we haven’t completely ditched the diet mentality and made peace with food, trying to incorporate nutrition too soon can turn intuitive eating into just another diet. But when you’re ready, gentle nutrition looks like making food choices that honour both your health and your taste buds, while making your body feel its best.


I have left this one until last because it is the most important - you can only become a powerful intuitive eater, as described above when you do not use food as the main way to manage your emotions. However know that turning to food for comfort on occasion is completely normal and healthy. Explore new ways to deal with anxiety, loneliness, boredom, and anger that do not involve eating, so that you have a larger toolbox of techniques to find comfort and distraction when it’s needed.

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