What does it mean to eat intuitively?

This article appeared in the SumoSalad blog in 2019. Click here to read the original.

What does it mean to eat intuitively?

It’s really about eating to your body’s natural hunger cues, making decisions around food that support your health whilst still allowing for a little indulgence every now and then. It is not a license to eat whatever you want whenever, but it’s also not about restriction. It’s eating to support health and vitality in a way you can maintain for life.

Personally, it has taken me the better part of my adult life to get to a point where I can say I eat intuitively. It’s sad that many of us have forgotten how to listen to our bodies, relying more and more on programs/experts/trainers outside of ourselves to tell us what, when and how much to eat.

How do you find the balance between eating what you want, but still making sure you’re getting enough of the nutrients you need?

It can be tough trying to find a balance between hitting all your nutrient needs, eating foods you enjoy and managing a busy schedule. I find people most struggle with snacks and portions when it comes to eating intuitively. While I discourage restrictive dieting, I also don’t encourage eating all day. Our bodies are designed to go a little hungry in between meals. Sometimes when you are first trying to eat intuitively, it can help if you follow a loose food plan like making sure each meal has protein, fat and carbs and then allowing flexibility within that. That way you can be sure that each meal should be enough food to get you through to your next meal.

Can you explain how and why this style of eating challenges traditional diet culture?

We know that diets don’t work and the majority of people gain any weight they lose back. Diets are also terrible for your mental health because you tend to either be on or off them, which means if you have the mindset that breaking the diet means a free for all, you will be doing so much more damage both mentally and physically. If you tell yourself that you can’t have something or that you broke your diet, this leads to self-deprecation and self-destructive behaviours like overeating/binging. But if you are not on a diet then there is nothing to break and you can have a piece of birthday cake and move on. It’s much better to focus on other indicators like sleep, energy, how your clothes feel on you and mood – these are the real signs of overall health. The scale is useful only really to check in every now and then to make sure the number isn’t creeping up without you noticing.

Why is it harmful to label foods as “bad”, “naughty” or “good” foods, rather than just food?

I like to think of foods being on a spectrum of health – at one end you have super health-giving foods like kale, watercress and spinach. Moving down the scale you have other veggies, fruits, beans, wholegrains, all the way down to the other end where foods you really shouldn’t be eating too often live, like processed pastries and sweets. You want the majority of your foods from the top half. But it’s OK to splurge every now and then. Food rules are things we have learnt from the media, but they don’t exist in reality. Food is food, we give it labels, but it doesn’t inherently have them. Each time you eat, you are either adding to your health or taking away from it. It’s about making sure that 80-90% of the time you are adding to it.

What are some simple ways we can tap in to our hunger cues?

Take a few quiet moments to check in with your stomach, take a few deep breaths and you will find you can determine quite well if you are hungry or not. True hunger also starts in the throat rather than the stomach, so another good indication is to notice where your hunger is being felt.

People often mistake hunger for other feelings like boredom/anxiety/procrastination. If you’ve had a meal around 2-3 hours previously and are feeling hungry, it’s probably not true hunger. If it’s been five to six hours since your last meal then it’s likely your body starting to release ghrelin (the hunger hormone) to start getting you ready for your next meal.

There are also tools like the hunger scale, in which you rate your hunger on a scale of 1-10, 10 being starving and 1 being uncomfortably full. The aim is to only eat when you get to an 8 and stop when you are about a 3 or a 4.

Any final tips for getting started with eating intuitively?

In my experience, if you can get into a habit of sticking to three meals a day, with minimal to no snacking, then this has a snowball effect on the rest of your diet. Choose meals you will look forward to eating, choose foods you love. Remember it’s OK to feel a little bit hungry sometimes. Choosing meals that are healthy and satisfying will make it easier – and enjoyable! But, don’t berate yourself if you don’t stick to your meals straight away, or if you have a piece of birthday cake for your co-worker’s birthday, for example. Negative self-talk causes much more damage than that piece of cake anyway!

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