For many of us, our relationship with food is complicated — if not, disordered. Think: Cleanses. Detoxes. Emotional eating. Calorie counting. Binging and purging. Guilt, guilt and more guilt.
It’s exhausting to try and keep up. And almost always impossible. Plus, it takes the joy out of what should be a pleasurable activity.
Now imagine this:
If you feel hungry, eat.
If you feel full, stop.
It sounds so simple. But the sad truth is, eating is no longer an intuitive activity. Why? Combine our fast-paced life with all those mixed messages we receive from advertisers and it can be hard to cut through all the noise.
The good news is, we’re here to help you quiet those nagging voices in your head, so that you can listen — really listen — to what your body is telling you.
Follow these 7 steps to get back on the path of intuitive eating.
1. Start by banning the word “diet” from your vocabulary. We’re all for healthy food and portion control, but diets? They certainly don’t have a reputation for being healthy. Plus, low-fat options tend to be high in sugar, not to mention they aren’t satisfying or sustainable, often resulting in binge eating later. And when you think about this sobering statistic (i.e., 97% of those who diet to lose weight gain it all back) you’ve got to ask: What’s the point of resisting all that (real) food you love?
2. Eat real food. If you think all food is real, think again. Processed foods with mile-long ingredient lists full of words you can’t pronounce are not what we would place in the “real food” category. So try your best to eliminate convenience foods (anything that comes in a package or wrapper), making sure to replace them with whole foods that are high in protein and healthy fats: avocado, eggs, whole fat yogourt, seeds, nuts, fish, meat and more. It’s okay to enjoy high-carb foods in moderation, but stick to low-glycemic carbs most of the time. Or better yet, say “yes” to a low-carb lifestyle.
3. Listen to what your body is telling you. If you’re hungry, eat. Don’t deny your body food if you feel hungry in between meals. Chances are, it’ll only make you eat that much more once lunch or dinner rolls around. Start by drinking a glass of water, and if that doesn’t do it, reach for a protein-rich snack to keep you going. On the flip side, if you notice yourself absentmindedly reaching for a treat between meals, ask yourself: Am I actually hungry right now? Or am I simply bored, low energy, or just trying to pass the time? If you determine you aren’t hungry, try going for a walk, making some tea, doing a stretch, or calling an old friend. Anything to get your mind off a mindless habit that’s wreaking havoc on your natural eating patterns.
4. Pay attention to how you feel during and after a meal. In a world of oversized portions, it’s important to give ourselves permission (or a reminder!) to stop eating when we feel full or, even better, 80% full. Too many of us simply eat because food is in front of us, which can leave us feeling bloated and result in unwanted weight gain. While it can be tough to break the habit, you’ll reap the reward of leftovers (read: free lunch!) the next day. Once you’ve finished your meal, notice how you feel (physically AND mentally) both directly after eating and a couple of hours later. Keep a record to find patterns. If you notice you feel terrible after eating a rice dish, for example, try switching to brown rice to see if it alleviates any symptoms. The better you get to know your food triggers, the easier it is to eat intuitively.
5. Eat mindfully. Don’t worry, we aren’t telling you to meditate over lunch. But we are asking you to stop multitasking. That means no more eating in front of a computer screen (because deadlines!). Step away from your desk, and head to the kitchen, the cafeteria or the park — any place that allows you to focus on the food in front of you. Admire its presentation, inhale its aroma, taste its flavors, and notice its texture, temperature, and even the satisfying sound of a crunch. Using your five senses to truly experience your meal is the definition of mindful eating. Not only does this help you feel full and keep you satisfied longer, researchers are finding there’s a connection between mindful eating and keeping our weight in check.
6. Totally optional! Practice semi-regular fasting. Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of fasting, so we want to reiterate that this one is 100% optional. But fasting every now and then helps us establish a better relationship with food and re-trains us on how to recognize real hunger cues (instead of eating out of boredom or habit). Plus, it has some pretty amazing health benefits too — intermittent fasting can help minimize insulin resistance, inflammation, and reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and heart disease. Note that intermittent fasting is not considered a diet — but rather a change in your eating pattern that helps you become a more mindful eater. Ready to try it? First, be sure to visit this page to see a list of people that should NOT practice intermittent fasting.
7. Forgive yourself. We all have those moments when temptation gets the better of us. Maybe we devoured a chocolate bar to get over the 3 o’clock slump. Or perhaps it was that entire pizza we ate because it was JUST. SO. GOOD. It’s okay — we all slip up sometimes. The best thing to do in these cases is to record how you feel (see #4), mostly because it’s a really great way of talking yourself out of it the next time temptation hits. (You might typically forget how bloated and uncomfortable you feel when you binge on a whole pizza… but if you have it down on paper, it’ll be easier to stay on track.)
Ready to start eating intuitively? Great! It all starts with listening to your body. Put away those diet books and clear your pantry of “low-fat” options. Stock up on real, whole food and give yourself permission to be present and savor every meal. Start recognizing and recording how foods make you feel, and once you find a pattern, make any necessary changes to your diet. If you’re finding it really hard to recognize your body’s cues, you may want to consider fasting to re-train yourself. And finally, remember that no one is perfect. If you have a slip-up, forgive yourself and move on. It’s all part of being human.
If you feel hungry, eat (real) food.
If you feel (80%) full, stop.
Simple as that!