Eating should be easy, shouldn’t it? It should work like this: We get hungry, we eat what feels good for us, and we’re all set. But in reality, eating is way more complicated. Too often, for too many of us, getting a snack or dinner involves confronting a messy pileup of conflicting rules, instincts, signals, and feelings. Ever wished you weren’t eating the thing you were actually eating at that moment? Ever hashtagged your life story #bodygoals or #foodguilt? Ever wanted a straightforward way out of this?
Eating intuitively—also known as eating mindfully or consciously—is a whole different way of thinking about how to eat. Research suggests it can help us get healthier and feel good too (about our bodies and in other ways). Eating intuitively means clearing out some of the stuff in that messy pileup—so, yes, it’s a departure from our cultural norm, something we need to think about and practice. Yet at the same time, eating intuitively is not a new skill.
Eating intuitively or mindfully is about tuning in to our mind and body, figuring out what feels right, and acting on those signals, just as we evolved to do. “Eating intuitively is a way of using your body’s wisdom—your intuition—to guide your decisions around food,” says Lauren Fowler, RD, a Vermont-based nutritionist with expertise in eating disorders. “Instead of following rigid, restrictive diets, intuitive eating is the process of tuning in to your body’s cues for hunger, fullness, and what you want to eat in that moment.”
How eating intuitively helps
For many of us, decisions about how we eat are driven, to some extent, by our body image and ideas about how to control our weight. This is true of people who have a diagnosable eating disorder (a medical condition), and also, to some extent, true of many people who don’t. Using our body image as motivation for how we eat tends to backfire, research shows. In contrast, eating mindfully or intuitively seems to set us up for positive outcomes. In a 2014 analysis of 26 studies in Public Health Nutrition, researchers concluded that eating intuitively or mindfully was a better way than dieting to maintain a healthy weight. It also resulted in improved psychological health, lower blood pressure and “bad” cholesterol, and healthier eating habits when compared with weight-driven diets or nothing at all.
Eating mindfully is not about weight loss. That said, some studies suggest it can help with weight management as a side effect of developing a healthier relationship with food. In another 2014 analysis of studies, researchers found that a mindful eating approach helped participants ditch unhealthy (and ineffective) weight-loss strategies, improve their metabolic fitness, and be more satisfied with their bodies (Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics). That’s a win-win-win.
Why weight-loss approaches can let us down
Some health care providers who specialize in eating-related issues point out that body shame and dieting can contribute to stigma, anxiety, and disordered eating. “Diets require you to ignore hunger or cut out foods you may really enjoy. Often, this leads people into a cycle of obsessing about food or binging on food,” says Fowler.
What works better? “By learning to trust your body [through eating intuitively], you can eat then move on with your day, instead of obsessing or feeling guilty about eating,” says Fowler.
Increasingly, eating mindfully as a positive approach to self-care is influencing medical research and practice. “Learning to eat for your body’s health needs rather than for other reasons, like image or social rules, leads to less stress, and less guilt and shame, and is associated with a number of health benefits,” says Dr. Marc Weigensberg, an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, who researches the psychological and physiological factors that influence obesity and chronic disease risk.
7 steps to becoming an intuitive eater
In some ways, this approach to eating may feel counterintuitive. Can we really lose the baggage associated with body shape and food—baggage so familiar that we may not even see that we’re dragging it around? That’s a valid point. Still, think about this: Eating intuitively is about reconnecting with what our bodies and minds already know how to do. As we practice mindful eating, we may develop a healthy and pleasurable relationship with food, and with ourselves, research suggests. Check out these seven steps.
Tune in to your cues. How hungry are you? What do you want to eat? How or where do you want to eat? Here’s how to check in with yourself before you hit up the vending machine.
Hear what your body is telling you
Once you’ve determined that you’re actually hungry, focus on what your body is telling you, says Fowler. If you can’t stop thinking about a bowl of pasta after track practice, it’s probably because your body needs carbs. Eating mindfully suggests you’re better off reaching for the rigatoni than trying to get by on a simple salad.
Check in with yourself every few hours
“You can work on this by checking in with your body every few hours to prioritize nourishment,” says Fowler. “You’ll find that you may be able to focus better, have more energy, and feel better throughout the day with consistent fuel.” To get into the habit of consistent check-ins, consider setting up an alert on your phone and packing nutritious snacks to have on hand throughout your day.
As you eat, focus on fullness
“A very small percentage of people have the full time and attention to eat a pea and say, ‘Am I full yet?’” says Dr. Brian Wansink, author of Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life (William Morrow, 2014) and director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, New York. Pay attention to portion sizes up front, and check in with yourself to see if your body wants seconds or if you’re actually full.
“[Intuitive eating has helped me] listen to my body when it tells me I am no longer hungry instead of stuffing myself because the food is too good.”
—Senior, Oswego, New York
Eating mindfully is about enjoying your food. If you’ve been thinking about treating yourself to a post-exam cupcake or slice of pizza, go for it. Cherish that mouthfeel. Equally, relish the kale chips and salad. And don’t just crunch them down and give yourself a pat on the back. Instead, savor the healthy food you’re eating and the feeling of satisfaction. “I like to look at how can you get the most satisfaction out of eating,” says Elyse Resch, MS, RD, a nutritionist who co-created Intuitive Eating—a specific program and brand. “I begin with satisfaction because, to me, that’s the driving force of Intuitive Eating. It has an impact on all your meals.”
It’s also important to choose higher-quality foods, if available. This isn’t always an option, of course. Budget is a major consideration for most of us. That said, if you love the cupcakes your mom makes, don’t spoil your appetite with the subpar version from the grocery store. “When you realize all food is fair game, why waste your time on anything that’s going to be inferior? As the intuitive eater emerges, you start going for better foods,” Resch says.
“[Eating consciously] allows me to really enjoy my food and ensure that I eat enough without eating too much. It helps me listen to the signals my body is sending me. I feel at peace when I’m able to live right in the moment and enjoy my experience to its fullest.”
—Senior, Muncie, Indiana
Guess what? Eating intuitively is not about “good” or “bad” foods. You’re allowed to eat those Instagram-worthy desserts. You get to move away from self-denial and punishment. “Valuing yourself, and being gentle and compassionate with yourself, are keys to success,” says Dr. Weigensberg.
Think of foods as giving you the same feeling emotionally, no matter what the food is. It’s OK to find the happy feels in a bowl of ice cream—and also in a crunchy carrot. “All foods should be emotionally equivalent. That doesn’t mean they’re nutritionally equivalent, but you should be able to feel that you can look for the same pleasure and satisfaction out of any food without judging it,” says Resch. Eating intuitively means you’re not beating yourself up when you indulge.
“I’ve never felt better. Even on my so-called ‘cheat days,’ I am conscious and aware and still have very little regret afterwards. I have lost [weight] because I am simply following my body’s needs and listening to what my body tells me. I’ve never felt better about myself.”
—Sophomore, Logan, Utah
Intuitive eating is about forming a better relationship between your body and what’s on your plate. Let go of goals that emphasize counting calories and dropping pounds, and find the joy in food and your own self.
“Rather than jumping on the latest fad diet, obsessing about a number on the scale, or worrying about the size of pants you wear, it’s helpful to instead focus your energy on healthy behaviors that you can engage in, regardless of body weight, and try to make these a regular part of your lifestyle,” says Dr. Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut. When we diet, our intuitive wires get crossed, suggests a 2013 study in Eating Behaviors. Dieting participants in the study actually associated eating with satisfying an emotional need more strongly than with satisfying their hunger.
Think about the immediate benefits and be happy about long-term ones. Immediate benefits are more motivating than distant ones, so think about the ways that eating affects your feelings of pleasure, satisfaction, and self-care in the short term. Eating intuitively also sets us up for ongoing health and well-being, including long-term weight management, according to a 2016 study in JMIR Research Protocols. Participants who practiced eating intuitively experienced improved eating behaviors and more positive mental health, and they were still on track when researchers followed up three months later.
“[People criticizing my weight] made me more depressed and less motivated to make myself healthier. I ended up just eating more unhealthy food.”
—Senior, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
“[Eating consciously] has helped me with portion size and making better choices in general. I don’t notice any difference on the outside, but I definitely feel different.”
—Junior, Honolulu, Hawaii
As scary as it sounds, try totally disconnecting from media while you eat. No Instagram, no texting, no binge-watching. Intuitive eating is all about getting maximum pleasure from your meals. At the very least, that means remembering you ate them. When we’re distracted, we eat more, and we continue to eat more through the day, according to a 2013 review of studies in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Researchers think that’s because we literally forget what we nommed down earlier in the day.
Distracted munching can lead to accidental binge-snacking. That’s when you plonk yourself down with a bag of chips in front of the TV, and suddenly the bag is empty. In a 2012 study in Health Psychology, when there was no visual guide to portion sizes, students ate 50 percent more chips than did students who were cued into portion size through combinations of different-colored chips. Try serving your food on a dish and make a point of enjoying each mouthful.
Are you noticing how these steps reinforce each other? “When one is present while eating, that is a much more satisfying experience than being distracted while you’re putting the food in your mouth,” says Resch. “And let’s be honest: That fourth piece of pizza never tastes as good as that first piece of pizza.”
Eating while distracted results in increased calorie intake, a 2013 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests. Again, eating intuitively isn’t directly about weight management—but for some, that’s a side effect because mindful eating can help us let go of attitudes and approaches that weren’t helpful.
“Mindful eating helps me maintain my weight. [It] also helps me stop binge snacking. By eating more nutrient-rich food, I have way more energy than usual.”
—Junior, Davis, California
Setting boundaries is not only OK, it’s part of the process. If someone is pressing food on you, you always have the option to say, “No thanks.” You don’t need to explain. But if you feel awkward or are concerned about seeming high-maintenance, offer to take some home for later. “A major portion of Intuitive Eating is to realize that you have a right to have your needs met, and that includes speaking up,” says Resch.
That said, part of the pleasure of food is social. Eating intuitively can be helpful when your baby cousin offers you a cookie he baked himself or your teacher makes a big-deal dish for the holiday celebration. With no food rules, you can do what feels right—which may be a full serving, a taste, or “Not for me, thanks.”
“I find intuitive eating works well if you are strictly adhering to eating that way. However, once out with friends, out to dinner, etc., it becomes difficult to follow.”
—Senior, St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador
“For me, this is a more advanced piece of eating mindfully. Now, before I go out with friends, I think about the ways that their eating used to influence mine—like stealing half their fries, even when the fries weren’t that great. I even practice saying, ‘Not for me tonight, thanks.’”
—Recent graduate, Boston, Massachusetts
If eating intuitively has emotional health benefits, as some research suggests, it may support our overall happiness. For example, mindfulness—savoring the moment—can become a way of valuing a brisk walk around the block or that quirky interaction involving the classmate you don’t quite gel with. “If you’re looking to mindful eating as the basis of your relationship with food, it will leach out into other aspects of your life,” says Resch, “like finding meaningful experiences in life, and in your work and relationships.”
“[Intuitive eating] has helped with my psychological wellness. I, along with many others, have suffered with the emotions tied to food and eating. Mindful eating has helped me to eat better and without my emotions, and therefore has helped me like myself more.”
—Junior, St. Louis, Missouri
Brian Wansink, PhD, professor of marketing; director, Food and Brand Lab, Cornell University, New York; author, Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions
for Everyday Life (William Morrow, 2014).
Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, CEDRD, nutritionist; co-author, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003).
Lauren Fowler, RDN, nutritionist, Vermont.
Marc Weigensberg, MD, associate professor, University of Southern California, Keck School of Medicine.
Rebecca Puhl, PhD, professor, Department of Human Development and Family Studies; deputy director, Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, University of Connecticut.
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