How to Become an Intuitive Eater

intuitive eating

So what is this “intuitive eating” that people are talking about? Well, it’s hard to define since it’s different for everyone. For me, intuitive eating means being free from food rules and being in-tune with my body’s innate intelligence such that I can give it what it needs, and being in-tune with my emotions and spirit to give them what they want as well.

Seems simple in writing, but it’s quite complex in-practice. Going from a place of food restrictions and food rules to a place of no rules and more openness around food is a complex process. To use a running metaphor, it’s definitely a marathon and not a sprint.

Why is it so complicated?

Why has eating and choosing what foods to eat become so complicated? The truth is, it’s not you. It really isn’t. We’ve been bred in a diet culture -- one that tells us what to eat because we “need” to look a certain way or be a certain pinnacle of health. We’ve been told what to eat, when to eat (and when not to eat), and how much to eat. We’ve been told that eating certain foods is “bad” and others are “good” -- that there’s a “right” way and a “wrong” way to eat. That eating highly palatable foods are a sign of weakness and that if do so, it’s a “cheat day.” That we are stronger/better/more “on-track” if we eat the kale and weaker/unhealthier/worse-off if we eat the cupcake.

So yeah, it’s no wonder we feel pulled to eat a certain way or get obsessed with trying to eat in the most “clean” or “healthy” way. It’s all around us.

But intuitive eating is about going against this grain, and ignoring these rules in order to tune back in with what your body needs and what your mind and soul want.

Figuring this out for myself has been a process, and to be honest, I’m not sure we ever “arrive” at intuitive eating. Instead, I believe it’s an ever-evolving process, free of dogma and rules.

Why is intuitive eating important?

When we run into food rules or diet dogma, it’s easy to get steered away from what we truly need and what will nourish our mind, body, and soul.

If diet culture tells us that we can’t eat the cupcake because it’s full of sugar and sugar is unhealthy, then we feel pulled to the cupcake constantly, simply because we can’t have it. It’s like the proverbial carrot hanging in front of us that we always feel like we can’t quite grasp. And then if and when we do, we feel tremendous guilt and feelings of regret. Well what if the cupcake had the same nutrition as the kale? Would you feel that way? Would you always be pining for the cupcake? Or would you have it when you felt compelled to have it, and forget about it at all other times? I would argue that the latter is true.

So how to we shift our mindset to see the cupcake as something not as scary or dangerous or damaging to our health as we often think of it? Allow yourself to have it. And it can be anything (not just a cupcake). When we cut the reigns and allow ourselves to eat the foods that we see as off-limits, they no longer hold power over us. We can then freely enjoy these highly palatable foods and then immediately move with our lives because they do not have a hold on us.

When we can allow foods to take up less brain space, we can let our body’s innate intelligence take over.

Of course we can use food for emotional support. That’s natural and normal. But if a food is only comforting because you have not allowed yourself to enjoy it out of fear or rules, then it’s time to reevaluate your relationship with that food.

Does intuitive eating mean that you shun vegetables? Not at all! In fact, I still eat a LOT of vegetables. I would say most of most of my plates is vegetables. But not all the time. And I don’t feel guilty or like I’m doing something unhealthy or wrong if I have a plate that isn’t full of vegetables (or even if there are no vegetables!).

But my point today is to tell you that you can have both the kale and the cupcake, and when we are free of the hold of both the kale and the cupcake, we can go on spending our energy focusing on the real important things in our lives -- our loved ones and our relationships, our passions and hobbies, our careers, and anything else that fuels our fire.

When we have more food freedom and less restrictions, it also opens up your world to nutrients you haven’t been exposing yourself to with all the rules. Many times, people who are rigid with their food are nutrient deficient, which can lead to plenty of health concerns. Having food freedom is not only important for our minds, but it is also extremely important for our physical health because in doing so, your diet has more variety, so you’re exposed to vitamins, minerals, and probiotics that you otherwise wouldn’t be. So many people who are restrictive in their eating are also nutrient deficient, even if they seem to eat “healthy.” Let this be another reminder that just because someone seems to be healthy, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are, and vice versa!

What intuitive eating looks like for me.

  • Allowing myself all foods at all times in any amounts. This will help you find what is intuitive for you. For a while it will feel cumbersome and unnatural. Things will feel clunky and disorganized. You’ll wonder if you’re doing it right. If you feel this way, you’re doing it right! Eventually, you’ll find out what kinds of foods feel good to you and in what amounts work for you, and at what times you feel good eating them. And what you find will change over time. The great thing about intuitive eating is that it’s fluid and always changing!

  • Not working out on a regimented schedule, and mostly allowing my body and my mood to influence what I do for movement on a given day. I’m going to do a post all about intuitive exercise at some point, but this ties into the intuitive eating process our diet culture has told us that movement and eating is tied together very closely. I’m not saying that it’s not related. But I am saying that what you eat should in no way dictate how you move your body, especially when you’re trying to figure out how to eat and move intuitively.

  • Eating foods that were previously fear foods. The more we do something that scares us, the less power it holds over us.

  • Ignoring the food “rules” from my nutrition education, personal research, and well-meaning friends and family. You know your body best, and you are on your OWN journey. No curriculum, diet, or nutrition dogma should dictate how you feel about food and your mindset around it.

  • Being aware of how foods makes me FEEL. If I know that foods with lactose make me feel less-than-stellar, I take that as information but not as dogma. I still allow myself to have the lactose if I want it, but know that I might have certain symptoms as a result. But also, if I know the cupcake sounds really good to me and will make my heart happy, then I’ll definitely eat the cupcake.

  • Being patient with myself knowing that intuitive eating is a process, and it takes a long time to get there. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, I don’t think there’s ever a finish line for intuitive eating -- it’s always evolving, and that’s because we’re always changing.

  • Purposefully eating foods that are not considered “healthy” by some people’s standards. This is a huge part of the process! By stepping away from labeling foods as “good” and “bad,” you open things up to the possibility that there are no good and bad foods -- there are just foods. Take this thought with you as you open your mind (and mouth!) to any and all foods. By allowing yourself to spend time with those foods and without the boundaries associated with them, you are giving yourself permission to have those foods as you with. And when these foods are free game, eventually the desire for the “forbidden” will disappear, which allows you to be free from their hold.

What are you doing to find food freedom and become intuitive with eating? Let me know in the comments below.