Maybe you’ve been dieting, maybe you’ve been binge eating. Maybe you have uncontrollable cravings, or overeat because of emotions or boredom. Maybe you want to heal your relationship with food, or lose weight without having to diet.
If any of these sound like you, intuitive eating can help!
It may sound too good to be true, but science supports it: a big review of 20 scientific studies found that intuitive eating leads to weight loss and increases in happiness; improvements in body image, quality of life, and self-esteem; and reductions in binge eating and restricting, depression, and anxiety1. And these benefits are maintained even for years afterwards. It’s also much easier to stick to than any diet plan: 92% of people stick to it long-term.
It just works.
This guide is for those of you who want to get started with eating intuitively. I’m basing this advice off of my own experiences with breaking a cycle of bingeing, restricting and weight gain by learning to eat intuitively, plus evidence from scientific research on it and experience from my psychology/neuroscience PhD.
Read on for 11 tips to start intuitive eating!
(All the little numbers like this link to studies that are in a reference list at the end!)
1. Break the rules.
Throw out any and all diet rules that you might be consciously following, or subconsciously incorporating into your eating decisions. The only “rule” you should follow is:
Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full.
No more rules on when you should eat, like no eating after 9pm, or always eat breakfast first thing in the morning. No more rules on how much you should eat, like eat small frequent meals or eat a big breakfast and a small dinner.
You don’t even need to follow nutrition rules on what you should eat, like having a balance of fat, carbs, and protein in a meal or eating lots of fiber. That can come later on!
Right now, the goal is just to undo the years of intuitive eating unlearning we’ve gone through, whether it’s thanks to diet culture or childhood rules. Over time, intuitive eating actually makes you crave healthier foods on its own2.
2. Eat mindfully.
Do you ever drive somewhere routine, then wonder how in the world you even got there because you were spacing out the whole time?
We tend to do that with eating all the time. And it really gets in the way of feeling satiated.
Eating in front of the TV is fun, I know. But mindful eating–paying attention to the process of eating–has been shown to be really helpful for binge eating, weight loss, and healing your relationship with food3.
You don’t have to do it forever once you get the hang of intuitive eating. But at the beginning, eliminating all distractions (this includes talking and using your phone!) and really focusing on eating is essential for learning to listen to your body’s signals. It’ll also make your meals more satisfying, and you’ll actually like them more4, because the feedback from your brain is a huge contributor to feelings of satisfaction.
3. Eat what you want to eat, not what you “should” eat.
When you’re first starting out, the most important thing is to just allow yourself to eat. Eat what you want, as much as you want of it, when you want it. Without guilt or shame.
This may involve baking and eating entire batches of cookies at a time. (It did for me, at least!)
The key here is to let yourself eat whatever super unhealthy, decadent, “bad” foods you’ve been craving and forbidding yourself from eating. Once they stop being forbidden, they lose their power over you. In fact, you may find yourself eating less overall because you’ll feel more satisfied when you eat whatever it is you’re actually craving. (If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably tried to eat healthy substitutes for the thing you’re craving, and end up eating more than if you’d just eaten the cookies in the first place!)
During this process, it’s important to try your best not to feel guilty. It’s easier said than done, of course, but if you ever want to beat yourself up over eating something “bad”, just remind yourself that it’s part of the process. Just about everyone who has restricted their diet in some way or another has experienced this.
For example, research shows that in people who have restrictive mindsets around eating (“restrained eaters”), being deprived of chocolate makes them overeat chocolate way more than people who don’t have restrictive mindsets5. So right now, focus on training yourself to be one of those nonrestrictive eaters. You’ll reap the benefits–like peace of mind, self love, health, and weight loss–later on.
Remember: It’s not your fault if you want to eat tons of chocolate, cookies, fast food, etc. It’s years of diet culture and labeling those as forbidden foods. All you need to do now is release yourself from guilt and trust the intuitive eating process.
Now, healthy eating is important, of course… but an important part of healthy eating is having a healthy mindset around eating. And you can’t do that if you’re forcing yourself to eat things you don’t enjoy, or feeling bad for eating things you enjoy.
So right now, focus on fixing your mindset. Later, it’s easy to reintroduce the healthy foods if you don’t find yourself naturally craving them. (And I’ll tell you how 🙂 )
4. Practice self-compassion.
If you’re on the more scientifically-minded side like me, you may be skeptical about this tip actually helping much. But research supports it: being kind to yourself actually stops overeating while it’s happening6. (In fact I plan to dedicate a whole post/video to these studies at some point, because it’s so cool!)
Practice compassionate self-talk. Treat yourself like you would treat your best friend or partner if they were feeling the same way.
A lot of fitness and diet culture focuses on treating yourself like a tough-love coach would: try harder, suck it up, no pain no gain. Maybe this can work for a select few people, but I think for most of us, this kind of mindset just perpetuates feelings of guilt and not being good enough.
Next time you feel like you failed, remind yourself of the struggles you’re overcoming, the ways you succeeded, and how all that really matters is that you’re trying. No one’s perfect, and the journey to healing your relationship with food is really difficult… everyone stumbles.
Love yourself just where you are, and celebrate the growth you’re experiencing (or about to experience).
5. Start learning your hunger & fullness signals.
The ultimate goal of intuitive eating is to follow your hunger and fullness signals, but for many of us, the problem is that we forgot what they feel like. I’ll do a full post on this too, but for a shorter version for now–experimenting on yourself can be a great way to figure this out.
One helpful thing is to realize that there are hunger signals besides just hunger pangs or a growling stomach. Maybe you get shaky, grumpy, suddenly tired, or a bit dizzy. For me, I get a fun cocktail of tired, grumpy, and shaky.
The goal is to learn what your signals are, and the feelings that lead up to them. (Because I certainly don’t advocate letting yourself get dizzy regularly, but rather you should learn when you’re about to start feeling that way so you can eat and prevent it!) Now, I can tell what happens before I get grumpy/tired/shaky, so I can prevent it from happening without eating sooner than necessary.
Try eating a meal later than you usually would, or skip a snack you’d usually have. What do you feel? If the beginnings of stomach growls or other hunger signals don’t start for a few hours, then you were probably eating earlier or more than you needed.
That may sound like torture because a lot of us are afraid of hunger pangs, especially if we’ve ever dieted. But no need to be scared of them anymore: they’re a useful signal, and you can eat immediately, as much as you want, once you get one!
Do the same thing with fullness: try eating a little more than usual and see what cues your body gives you that you ate too much. Besides feeling overstuffed, maybe you feel sluggish or sleepy an hour later, maybe the idea of food sounds disgusting to you.
Then, once you’ve started to identify your hunger and fullness cues from these little experiments, use those cues to guide when and how much you eat.
6. Say no to habit.
You may have longstanding habits that get in the way of you being able to learn your hunger and fullness cues. For me, that was eating first thing in the morning–I would always do it, thinking I was hungry, but I realized it was just the habit. One morning I finally decided to try not eating until I was completely sure I was feeling actual hunger signals.
Turns out, when I thought I was “starving,” I was actually just thirsty!
Running little experiments on yourself can be key for learning to eat intuitively. Practice breaking your habits, and see what you learn.
Maybe you don’t actually need an afternoon or late night snack. Maybe you actually need a bigger lunch than you can fit in your current tupperwares.
7. Quit counting calories, measuring portions, etc.
Unlearn what you think you know about food. Contrary to popular opinion, calories don’t count (much). There are a LOT of scientific studies supporting this.
You also don’t need to eat certain portions of food. Serving sizes are arbitrarily created by companies for marketing purposes.
Throw away your calorie journal. Delete Myfitnesspal. Free yourself. Use that time you would have spent counting calories to take a nap, meditate, cook something healthy or fun, or pet your dog.
I was a calorie counting addict–I counted my calories every day for over 5 years. 5 years! On Myfitnesspal, I had a recording streak of over 1200 days (the only reason it wasn’t longer is because I went on a vacation out of the country and didn’t have service!) If I can quit it, so can you.
8. Don’t clean your plate, and don’t be afraid to take seconds (or thirds).
A plate is just a thing that holds your food. Its size shouldn’t have a say in how much you eat!
Sometimes, we don’t know exactly how much food to dish ourselves: only your body can tell you how much you need, once the food’s in your mouth. (You may be skeptical, but I swear, after practicing intuitive eating my body is a finely-tuned energy-sensing machine. It knows exactly how much I need to eat, somehow.)
If you dish yourself too much, stop eating once you’re satiated. Stop once another bite doesn’t sound that exciting.
I was taught to clean my plate. That led to years of overeating, especially at restaurants.
Just breaking that simple habit made such a huge difference to me. I started breaking the habit by always leaving a bite left on my plate after eating (I give it to my fiance when I can, but don’t be afraid to throw it away or compost it)! Now I regularly have leftovers, even in teeny tiny containers if it’s only a little bit left, which makes for a nice snack the next day.
Learning not to eat everything on the plate can be really, REALLY hard to learn, but it is so rewarding once you do. Try fast-tracking the process and serve yourself way more than you know you can eat, so the serving size holds even less control over how much you eat. That way you HAVE to put some back, and can’t convince yourself you need to eat the whole plate.
On the flip side, if you finish your plate and you’re still not satiated, you should absolutely serve yourself more. If you run out of the meal you were eating, eat something else. Don’t deprive yourself–don’t let a predefined portion tell you how much to eat!
9. Trust the process.
An important part of intuitive eating is just believing it’ll work. Mindset is a huge part of the battle with everything you do, not just intuitive eating.
Placebo is one hell of a drug. Just the belief that something is working can make it work, even if it wouldn’t have otherwise7.
On the other hand, if you believe something won’t work, you reduce how effective it is even if it would have worked otherwise… or even have bad effects that wouldn’t have happened otherwise8.
Here’s a simple daily life example: if you believe someone likes you, you’ll be nicer to them and act like their friend, and they’ll grow to like you more even if they didn’t actually like you before. And the opposite is true too: if you believe someone dislikes you, you might act cold and distant, making them like you less.
Your mindset affects your world because it changes what you think and do, and even physiological processes7,8.
Because half the goal of intuitive eating is psychological, putting faith in it can really do wonders. It has worked for SO MANY people1, and it worked for just about all of us back when we were young… before rules and guilt took over our eating. Luckily, you don’t have to go just based on faith or anecdotes or placebo, because a lot of research–like all the papers I’ve been citing in this post–supports it.
If you believe it’s working, your cookie binge becomes a part of the process instead of a failing. Your current weight is just your starting weight before intuitive eating can work its magic, not something you’re stuck with. And that mindset actually makes it work faster, because the sooner you release the guilt and shame, the sooner you can eat intuitively.
10. Throw yourself into something you love.
Many of us looking to do intuitive eating are obsessed with food. Trust me, I understand, I was there for 10+ years.
A HUGE help for me was throwing myself into other passions: photography, cooking, animal activism, blogging, and writing, for example. The more excited you get about other things in your life, the more you’ll be thinking about them instead of food.
I used to always be thinking about my next meal… sometimes before I was even done with the current one. Now, eating is sometimes a bit of a chore for me because it takes time away from my passions, and I occasionally forget to until the hunger signals start getting quite strong!
11. Exercise: especially if it’s fun.
Exercise is not only great for your mental and physical health, but it can give you the reward hormones you might have been using food to get. It can help deal with overwhelming emotion, boredom, and other causes of overeating. It even suppresses your appetite, so it can help you make sure you’re eating out of actual hunger and not just mental appetite9.
A key difference from how you may have treated exercise in the past is that you should choose something that you enjoy, not something that burns a lot of calories! Exercise should be fun, not a punishment.
Maybe it’s a slow stroll in nature, maybe it’s dancing or yoga or swimming or basketball. Whatever you find the most sustainable and enjoyable.
If you don’t find any exercise particularly fun, then you could try motivating yourself by focusing on the health benefits. Or just do some stretches!
But, try not to let guilt creep in. Don’t feel bad if you miss a workout. Don’t feel like you need to push yourself to go faster or harder. If it’s fun and stress-free to keep improving your times or the amount of weight you can lift, go for it. Go at a pace that feels good, mentally and physically.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Reversing years of dieting, rules, guilt, shame, and suppressing our body’s signals takes time. But it is so worth it, for our relationship with food and our body, our physical and mental health, and our daily quality of life.
I know many of you are here looking to lose weight: if you have weight to lose, it will happen. (I even lost fat while already at the lower end of a healthy BMI, in line with my ab-related goals, just by shifting what I ate!) But take it one step at a time: you have to get your body’s trust back and heal your relationship with food first, and then losing weight without trying becomes a breeze.
Following these 11 tips should allow you to get most (if not all) of the way to intuitive eating, but there’s always more to learn and more ways we can grow. I’ll be continuing this series of blog posts to cover specific issues that might be especially difficult to deal with, how to fine-tune your intuitive eating and shift towards more weight loss if you’ve already got the hang of the basics, and more.
- https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10865-014-9610-5, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0965229910001044, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1499404611002648
- https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12671-011-0048-3, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12671-012-0154-x
- https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01867.x, https://www.jneurosci.org/content/25/45/10390.short
- https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306452207001819, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3167012/