I get lots of great questions about intuitive eating and Health at Every Size, but there’s one that sticks out: How to eat intuitively when I don’t trust my intuition about food?
It’s one that I’ve heard a few times recently. And, it’s an excellent question! Intuitive eating sounds great, but what if you don’t trust your body and brain to tell you what to eat? The good news is that you don’t need to have an answer to this question before starting your intuitive eating journey. Answering this question is the journey.
This post originally appeared in my free weekly newsletter. Sign up for regular advice on intuitive eating, food freedom, and body acceptance.
Healing your relationship with food takes time!
Think that intuitive eating is only for people who have A+ intuition when it comes to what, when, and how much to eat? You’re wrong. Of course it seems that way. Intuitive eaters made the decision to quit dieting, then spent considerable time and effort learning to trust their bodies.
What I’m saying is: Learning to hear and trust your intuition is the main part of the journey towards intuitive eating.
I’ll be honest: Unlearning all the diet and food rules you currently abide by (consciously or not!) takes some time. It’s not just about “mindful eating” or paying attention to how food makes you feel. If you sometimes feel guilty about eating something, or if you find yourself adding up calories in your head despite your best efforts not to, THAT’S OK. It doesn’t mean you can’t learn to be an intuitive eater, it just means you’re not as far along in the journey yet.
If you struggle with intuitive eating, you’re not alone.
Diet culture is pervasive. The CDC estimates that about 50 percent of adults in the United States tried to lose weight last year. And, a 2008 survey done by UNC-Chapel Hill and SELF Magazine found that 3 out of 4 women struggle with disordered eating.
Plus, many of the people giving out nutrition advice are stuck in disordered eating patterns themselves. One study found that as many as 50 percent of dietitians have significant orthorexic tendencies (defined as an “unhealthy focus on healthy eating”).
If you think that something is wrong with you because you can’t seem to break out of diet culture, you’re wrong. It’s absolutely normal to struggle! But that doesn’t mean that you can’t make peace with food.
(And psst…if you need a little extra help, go here to request a nutrition counseling appointment. We’re in-network with most Blue Cross Blue Shield plans as of October 2022, which means you might be able to work with a non-diet dietitian at no cost!)
If intuitive eating was only for people who already had a good relationship with food, what would be the point?
That would be like saying that you’re only allowed to learn chemistry if you perfectly understand chemistry already. Or that you’re only allowed to do a couch-to-5K if you’ve run a 5K before. That’s just not how it works! The whole point of learning is that at the end of the journey, you’re able to do things that you weren’t able to do before.
If dieting and unattainable beauty/body standards didn’t exist, intuitive eating would just be called “eating,” and there wouldn’t be books, podcasts, newsletters, and research articles about it.
To be an intuitive eater, you must stop trying to lose weight.
If your goal with intuitive eating is weight loss, you’ll never be able to truly make peace with food. You’ll overthink your hunger and fullness cues, and instead of honoring your hunger, you might sometimes ignore it intentionally. Ultimately, your food choices will be driven by your desire to eat less, which is the opposite of eating intuitively. Here’s more about why you can’t use intuitive eating for weight loss. And, here’s how to improve your body image through body acceptance.
Acknowledge that dieting and strict food rules are getting in the way of your other values.
Another important step towards intuitive eating is realizing that dieting isn’t serving you. You can do this by taking stock of your values and figuring out how dieting is or isn’t serving you.
Sake stock of your values and realize that your career and your relationships are both extremely important to you.
Think about how your food rules affect your relationships. Do those rules sometimes make you feel disconnected from other people at a meal or at a gathering? Do they make it hard to be present? What about your career? Do thoughts about food, weight, or diets distract you from your work?
When you realize that dieting is holding you back in so many ways, it’s easier to give it up.
There are 3 intuitive eating principles that are helpful to focus on when you start out.
Registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch came up with the 10 principles of intuitive eating to guide your process. All 10 are important. But if you’re struggling to tune into your intuition about food, here are 3 to focus on.
1. Honor your hunger.
You can start out by taking notes on what it feels like to be hungry.
Hunger sometimes leads to a rumbling stomach, but that isn’t the only signal. Other signs of hunger include feeling tired or unable to focus, getting a slight headache, feeling weak, and seeing stars when you stand up after a long time sitting or laying down.
You might not feel all of these signals. And, you might feel different signals! Spend a few days really paying attention to how you feel — physically, mentally, and emotionally — when you haven’t eaten for a few hours. How is it different than the way you feel about an hour after a meal?
Knowing what hunger feels like makes it easier to identify when you’re hungry. This is helpful, because eating when you’re hungry means you’ll never get to the point of feeling famished, which can make you feel out of control around food. When you eat every time you’re hungry, you’re more likely to stop eating when you’re comfortably full. (Although, I’d encourage you to focus more on hunger than fullness at the start!)
2. Challenge the food police in your head.
So often, our internalized thoughts about “good” and “bad” food override the signals our bodies send about what to eat. For example, maybe you think about what you want for lunch, and a sandwich sounds best. But then, your “food police” thoughts chime in and say something like, “that’s too many carbs, a salad would be better.”
Voices like that might seem like they’re your intuition, because they’re coming from your own head. But really, they’re just diet culture messages that you’ve internalized. Instead of giving in to these voices, question them. When you have a food police thought, write it down. After a few days or weeks, you’ll start to notice patterns. You’ll probably identify certain foods that your food police tell you not to eat. And, maybe you’ll see patterns in when and how the food police show up.
Once you get the hang of it, start ignoring the food police.
Being able to identify the food police is step one. Actually ignoring those thoughts and rejecting the diet mentality is the next step. This part feels really tough at first, but it’s key to trusting your intuition.
When you first start intuitive eating, it’s best to keep food choices simple. If you ask yourself what you want for lunch and your first thought is “sandwich”? Eat a sandwich. Once you get more comfortable, you can start taking other things into account if you want — things like gentle nutrition, what activities you have planned for the day, etc. But for now, just go with your first thought and don’t second-guess it.
And if you’re hungry but have no idea what you want to eat? That’s actually pretty common. When you’ve been ignoring your own needs and cravings for so long, it can be hard to tune into them. Here are some things to try when you’re hungry and don’t know what to eat.
Acknowledge any food guilt that you have.
Ignoring the food police in your head will likely lead to some feelings of guilt. You’ll probably be eating things that you avoided or strictly limited before. Ultimately, the goal is to stop feeling guilty about food by giving yourself unconditional permission to eat anything, in any amount that feels good for you. That can happen!
But it’s not going to happen overnight. Think about it: You’ve been believing in certain food rules for years. It’s been drilled into you that certain foods are “good” and others are “bad.” You might think of yourself as an “emotional eater” just because you eat for pleasure and comfort sometimes. You’re not going to be able to ignore all that right away.
Acknowledging that you have these feelings of guilt about certain foods is a step in the right direction. Again, write these feelings down! Be curious about what foods trigger the most guilt, and why. Usually, you can map this guilt back to a certain thought that you have. Maybe it’s from a past diet (feeling guilty about bread because of an old low-carb diet, or feeling guilty about processed food because of your “clean eating” phase).
Continue to challenge the food police and work through your food guilt until both start to fade.
Once you understand which foods make you feel guilty and why, work your way through all that information. Honestly, your own sense of logic is your best friend here! When you look at all of your thoughts about food guilt written down, you start to realize how silly they are. Heck, sometimes the thoughts even contradict each other!
For example, you might feel guilty about eating processed food because of an old “clean eating” phase, as I mentioned. But, you also might choose Quest Bars, a very processed food, over things like chocolate and cookies (less processed), because it has “better macros.” That’s an example of two old diets (clean eating and macro tracking/”flexible dieting”) that contradict each other, both holding power over your food choices.
This part of the process takes a long time, because you’ll have to constantly challenge the food guilt that comes up. You’ll have to spend time reasoning through why you feel guilty. Then, you’ll have to remind yourself why those reasons don’t really make sense.
3. Discover the satisfaction factor.
Once you end your food guilt, your options for what to eat get broader. When you don’t avoid or feel guilty about any foods, you can eat anything, at any time! That’s great, but it’s also a lot of choice.
That’s where the satisfaction factor comes in. When you’re deciding what to eat, you won’t always just eat the first thing that pops into your head. You’ll decide based on what sounds the most satisfying in that moment. You can decide this based on how different foods make you feel (based on your own experience), and by how energized you think you need to be afterwards. For example, if you have a busy, active day ahead, you’ll probably choose something that keeps you satisfied for longer. If you have an easier day and know you could eat a snack whenever you want, you might opt for something that sounds good but won’t keep you full for as long, because it won’t have to.
But, remember that it’s not the hunger-fullness diet!
Knowing when you feel satisfied is also key in figuring out when to stop eating. When you’re eating a food, take note of how excellent it tastes for the first few bites. Then, notice that it starts to taste a little less delicious after you’ve had enough to satisfy your hunger or your craving.
Sometimes, you might choose to eat beyond that feeling of satisfaction. Maybe because it’s a food you only get to eat during a certain holiday or season. Or, because you really love it. Heck, maybe just because you want to! But often, that feeling of being satisfied is a signal to your body and brain that you’ve had enough to meet your needs.
Satisfaction is one sign of fullness.
A rumbling stomach isn’t the only sign of hunger, and a very full stomach isn’t the only way to feel fullness. The satisfaction factor I described above is another way to decide whether or not you’ve had enough. But, it’s not the only way. If you stop feeling hungry, or if your thoughts drift away from food and onto something else? That might be a sign that you’re full.
Eventually, you’ll work towards gentle nutrition.
Once intuitive eating begins to feel comfortable, you can start adding gentle nutrition to the mix. Don’t rush towards this step! The rest of your intuitive eating journey will be so much harder if you still don’t eat when you’re hungry, don’t know what’s satisfying, or still have lots of guilt about food.
If health is important to you, it’s likely that you’ll want to include nutritious foods in your diet. That’s great, and it’s absolutely in line with the principles of intuitive eating.
Gentle nutrition is about feeding your body the nutrients it needs. You can do this without stressing yourself out or sacrificing the satisfaction and joy that food can bring. Gentle nutrition means choosing nutritious foods on your own terms, without just blindly doing what some diet tells you.
Honestly, gentle nutrition looks different for everybody, so it’s tough to explain exactly how to do it. One example might be adding vegetables to a meal you love that doesn’t usually have vegetables. This way, you get the satisfaction of that meal, plus the nutrients that vegetables add.
Food freedom and body acceptance are possible for everyone. That’s not to say that it’s always easy.
If you’re ready to stop obsessing about food, feeling guilty about what you eat, and succumbing to disordered thoughts, I can help. I’m a dietitian who specializes in eating disorders and disordered eating. I take a weight-inclusive, gender-affirming, patient-centered approach. Learn more about nutrition counseling, offered in Raleigh, NC, and virtually to clients in several states. (We’re in-network with most Blue Cross Blue Shield plans as of October 2022, which means you might be able to work with a non-diet dietitian at little or no cost!)
If you’re not ready to commit to counseling but want more information about the anti-diet approach, subscribe to my weekly newsletter.