Learning to Eat Intuitively Is a Great New Year’s Resolution
Published on December 27, 2021
By Ariane Resnick, CNC
If you’ve been looking for a safer and more sustainable choice to going on a New Year’s diet, we have one for you. Demonstrated in clinical studies to do everything from improve self-compassion to aid with recovery from eating disorders, intuitive eating is a simple, free idea that has huge benefits.
It’s as straightforward as it sounds: intuitive eating is the practice of simply choosing the foods you eat, the quantities you eat of them, and the times you do so based on your own intuition. It isn’t nearly as new age-y as it may sound: rather, intuitive eating is a personalized approach to food that involves no restrictions or dieting, but offers numerous long-term health benefits (including weight loss, if that’s your goal). Here, we’ll explore how to eat intuitively, along with the evidence supporting how it works. Most importantly, we’ve got a collection of intuitive eating tips to help you thrive.
Intuitive eating vs. mindful eating
The first thing you may be thinking is that intuitive eating sounds a lot like mindful eating. After all, rethinking how you eat rather than focusing on food portions is a main point to each. That’s where the two differ, though. “Intuitive eating is centered around making peace with all types of food, and it encourages you to remove guilt and restriction that may come along with eating certain foods,” says Andrea Mathis, MA, RDN, LD, Owner of Beautiful Eats & Things. “It also encourages you to listen to your body and eat what feels right for you. Eating mindfully focuses on enjoying your food choices and choosing foods that make you feel good, physically and mentally. This may include eating without distractions and savoring each bite of food.”
That isn’t to say that eating mindfully isn’t important, too. “Mindful eating is different from intuitive eating in the sense that apart from just satisfying your physical hunger like in the case of eating intuitively, you are also mindful of the kind of food you are eating,” says Daniel Boyer, MD, Physician with The Farr Institute. “This may help you make the right choices when choosing a healthy diet that is nutritious to the body.” You may benefit in various ways from eating mindfully and intuitively; the two are not mutually exclusive.
Intuitive eating benefits all genders
Statistically, more women try to lose weight than men on an ongoing basis, and women are more likely to suffer from eating disorders. Additionally, women are more likely to have issues with hormone balance on diets like keto. Because of these factors, knowing how specific diets and eating plans will affect all people, not just men, is vital to a healthy society.
The idea of having permission to eat however your body feels is best is one that many women have found uncomfortable. Once women have moved past this challenge, though, intuitive eating can have incredibly positive results. As the authors of one meta-analysis published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics put it: “Studies had positive results, demonstrating improvements in eating habits, lifestyle, and body image as measured by dietary restraint, restrictive dieting, physical activity, body satisfaction, and drive for thinness. Participants also experienced improved psychological health as measured by depression, ineffectiveness, anxiety, self-esteem, negative affect, and quality of life.”
Dr. Boyer believes that both dieting and eating issues may increase with age, which makes intuitive eating an excellent choice for older populations. He says, “as you grow older, emotional stress may increase, and also misinterpretation of both physical hunger and emotional hunger could all lead to eating disorders. This makes IS (body signals for hunger) more accurate when it comes to predicting eating patterns and body weight.”
Intuitive eating benefits for people with chronic health conditions
Intuitive eating has been studied for chronic illness, with much success. One study found that it offered beneficial outcomes for patients with type 2 diabetes, specifically helping to improve glucose control.
Mathis says it makes sense that intuitive eating is beneficial for diabetics because intuitive eating helps us understand our body’s own hunger and fullness cues, which is important in any healthy relationship with food, especially for those with diabetes. “Having diabetes does not mean eliminating foods that you love,” Matis says. “In fact, restriction can lead to increased cravings and higher glucose levels. Including the intuitive eating principles in your daily life have been associated with lower levels of triglycerides, and lower glucose levels.” It’s also proven useful for parents-to-be suffering from gestational diabetes, as well as for people who lead sedentary lifestyles.
The impact for younger people
For young people, diet culture can be a difficult area to traverse. Intuitive eating has been shown to be one way that young people can have better relationships with food, along with fewer eating disorders. “Teaching young patients to listen to their bodies and honor their hunger and satiety signals can set them up for a healthy relationship with food,” says Mathis. “Having a healthy relationship with food can help to decrease the onset of disordered eating patterns.”
Beyond diet culture, younger populations are often heavily concerned with body image. Intuitive eating is proven to have a positive impact on body image, and to lead to less stress around body size. This benefits people of all ages, but setting younger populations up to feel accepting of their bodies and satisfied about them is a gift that is free to give.
How to get started with intuitive eating
The first step into intuitive eating is learning how to get in touch with your body in relation to food. “It’s key to trust your instincts when it comes to dieting by not depending on diet guides by diet books or any food expert on when, what, and how to eat,” says Dr. Boyer.
I’m a certified nutritionist, and the below is an excerpt from my book How to Be Well When You’re Not:
If there’s one thing I don’t like to do, it’s take the fun out of food. For this reason, I’ve never been into food diaries. Just as weighing your food can suck the joy from it, keeping track of every nibble and bite seems equally tedious.
Conversely, the first step to my food plan only works without recorded notes if you have a fabulous memory. If you do, great! Please, don’t write anything down. For everyone else, start keeping track of what you eat — not to count calories, but to discern what’s working for you. You don’t need to track exact quantities, but do track main ingredients, or any additives (including spices) that you suspect you may be having an issue with.
Underneath each meal or snack, write a sentence or two about how you felt immediately after eating. When you go to record the next thing you ate, write more about the previous one, specifically about how you felt in the hours following that meal or snack. Don’t worry, this isn’t a long-term task! If your diet has any kind of regularity, it will take at most a week to get the answers you need about what your food is, or isn’t, doing for your healing.
Eating mindfully during this period will further help you understand what foods do and don’t work for you. Increase your mindfulness simply by making a point of being present in the moment, through simple steps like sitting at a table, not standing at the fridge, and really noticing what your food tastes like.
After you have finished the important step of journaling and reviewed your notes to discern what does and doesn’t work well with your eating habits, you’ll have a much stronger sense of what your body craves and when the best times to eat are for you. From there, you’ll continue on the path of honing your intuition around food. It will get progressively easier, and eventually, intuitive eating will become practically automatic.
Intuitive eating encourages you to make food choices that honor your health and taste buds while making you feel good, as Mathis says. And remember to give yourself grace if your diet isn’t ideal: No one eats perfectly 24/7, and that’s okay.