Intuitive eating, at its most basic level, is all about just eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full. But in reality, it is far more than just eating to satisfy hunger or recognising fullness. In fact, it’s a really nuanced topic. It’s not white, it’s not black, and there’s a lot of grey stuff in there that you need to spend time and energy thinking about. So, let’s talk about what intuitive eating really is.
Author and dietitian Evelyn Tribole describes intuitive eating as a mind-body integration of instinct, emotion and rational thought. But what does that mean?
It means you lean into your wisdom, your instincts and you learn to understand and process emotions, so then you’re allowing yourself to make rational, conscious, personal decisions. When you practice intuitive eating, you’re honouring your health for more intrinsic reasons. Rather than measuring your health on the external elements like weight loss or body image, you’re looking more into how you feel. It’s not that those things can’t be a part of your journey, but the main focus is from the inside out.
The intuitive eating journey allows you to become an expert on yourself. After all, you understand your thoughts, your feelings and your own life’s experiences better than anyone else and armed with this knowledge, you can decide for yourself what’s right for you. Arguably most importantly, intuitive eating allows you to make peace with food. So, with that, we’re going to focus on the topics of hunger, cravings and fullness; how you decide what fills you up and what satisfies you.
Read on or watch the video here:
Step 1 – Find your place on the hunger scale
We’ll begin with hunger. When my clients speak about eating beyond fullness or getting overfull or “stuffed”, we need to start by figuring out how hungry they were to begin with. We may not be used to listening in to those internal cues of hunger and it might be tricky to master as you start to eat intuitively for the first time.
There are lots of things that may let you know you’re hungry.
You’re starting to think about food a lot.
You might feel an empty sensation in your stomach, like a pit or a hole.
You might even hear it growling.
Some people find they get lightheaded or notice a headache.
Some begin to feel anxious, hangry or experience a lack of energy.
These are all normal responses to the feeling of hunger and somebody else’s response might not be the same as yours.
The goal is to start thinking and listening in to that hunger earlier, when the cues first come up; not leaving it until we’ve gotten so hungry that the first experience of eating would be so fast, we wouldn’t even taste it. And sometimes, if we eat when we’re not hungry, we don’t really know how to stop because we haven’t started from a place that our body is telling us it wants energy.
To avoid this, it’s good to think about a hunger scale and ask yourself ‘Where am I on the scale?’.
Are you just beginning to think about food and noticing smells around you or are you at the other end, where you’re lightheaded and pained in your stomach?
If you want an experience of eating that brings you more nourishment, both physiologically and emotionally, try to eat earlier in the scale.
Here is an article written by Allisey Rumsey that you might also find interesting to read about hunger and fullness.
Step 2 – Scratch that craving itch
Our hunger can change from day to day for any reason, be it your hormones, your sleep or how you wake up. Wanting seconds is normal. Wanting something sweet is normal. Wanting to use convenience food is normal. Cravings are normal too. A craving to me is something like an itch – you just need to scratch it to satisfy it. Some people believe that if we deny it, it’ll go away. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve never managed to ignore an itch. It always needs attention. A craving is a cue from your body that it needs something.
Cravings come at different times of the day and can be triggered by lots of things. You might see something on TV that would create a craving sensation within you. Maybe there’s a certain ritual like when you sit down and you have a cup of coffee with cake. If that ritual is providing you with a sense of nourishment, do you actually need to drop the cake that you’re enjoying? I believe that when you’re attending to that need, you’re eating more consciously and honouring your health by supporting what is a priority for your body at that moment.
When I think of the most amazing times that I’ve eaten, it’s the emotional connection with the people around me that really enhances the eating experience. If you think about when you’re born, emotion is part of the eating process. Food can be part of the story, but maybe the other question you might like to ask yourself is ‘What else is the need within me now?’. If you’ve eaten something sweet or something salty and you notice that a craving hasn’t been satisfied, there might be something else you could do to satisfy the need or emotion you’re experiencing.
I feel we need to learn to not be afraid of cravings. We need to sit with and understand them.
If you have a craving – an itch – you need to learn to tend to it. I often think about cravings in terms of pregnancy. I craved Rice Krispies on my first child and pineapple on my third child. They were cravings that just came and were a very, very strong sensation. Cravings are there all the time, but I think they’re heightened during pregnancy. Maybe we’re more in tune with our bodies when we’re pregnant because we’re conditioned to believe that when you’re pregnant, you’ve got to mind yourself.
I’m going to ask you to gently condition yourself from now on when it comes to cravings and say, ‘OK, I’m going to get more in tune. I’m going to mind myself. I’m going to listen to myself’.
Step 3 – Take time to understand what “fullness” means to you
On to step three of eating: How do you know when you’re full? Many of us start to hear thoughts or questions like, ‘how full am I?’. You might start feeling a distention in your tummy. You might start noticing you are a little bit uncomfortable. But, in the earlier process of feeling full, you’ll notice that you’re not eating as fast or you’re beginning to slow down. I have a lesson for that. You will begin to notice a sensation in your stomach, a general ease of self that things are settling down. You’re not thinking as much about the food.
Tuning yourself into what fullness means for you takes time and kindness. Even scientists find it difficult to explain and measure . The ways your hunger and fullness present themselves within you are different. It will take time to start listening back in because we’re not used to that. We’re used to somebody telling us to eat 400 calories of this meal, or to fill this much of the plate, or to use measures that somebody else has told us are right for us.
What further distorts our understanding of fullness is a long time history of diets, or restrictive eating or feelings of shame when we mishear the cue and overeat.. I invite you now to start thinking about what full feels like. Are you noticing that your eating has naturally slowed down? Or have you gotten to the point where you’re nauseous and have to open your pants? Get used to those feelings, because you’ve got to dance between them all before you begin to settle down to what feels right for your body.
When you think about hunger and fullness, can you check in before and after? You might actually be physically full, but not satisfied. Is that true fullness? I would suggest not, because if you’ve eaten a perfectly “healthy” meal and you don’t feel satisfied by all the tastes in your mouth, or you don’t feel full, then you will stay thinking about food until your next eating period. Is your food choice conscious or supportive of your body in this instance?
In the beginning, when you’re working with hunger and fullness, I recommend intentionally setting your mind towards satisfaction in your meals. That satisfaction can come in lots of ways. Ask yourself if there is something else that you need. That’s the satisfaction element. Think about your senses of eating again. Do you want something salty? Do you want something bitter? Do you want something sweet? Was there an umami sense – that pleasure to taste – in the meal that was missing? Maybe those are the things we have to think about when we think about satisfaction – to tantalise all the taste buds. Maybe there is something else you need to satisfy you in that moment, maybe it’s to eat with someone else or dinner by the tv.
The feeling of fullness involves having a feeling of satisfaction. What do I mean by that? Well, satisfaction might look like a dessert one day and the next day it might look like an ice-cream. It might look like second helpings or a big spread on a table. It might simply look like something you stopped to allow yourself to eat on any given day. We don’t have to put so much expectation on satisfaction because when we tune into it, it comes to us. It will almost tell you that you have met your body’s needs for the day.
This is very important when it comes to really making peace with food and the feeling of fullness. It’s all part of building a healthy relationship with food. We’ve got to allow it to come in on a level where we’re not judging it. We’re just thinking about food as food and we’re not judging it as good or bad. We’re listening in more to what our body wants at any given moment.
A final helping of advice
We’ve been talking about hunger and fullness and the sensations that each of those feelings bring us. We’ve spoken about honouring our health by tuning into what our bodies are telling us, and also what our minds are telling us in the earlier stages of eating. We want to understand that eating is driven by an emotion and a physical hunger. We want to stay connected with our bodies through this process, being aware of the eating experience, working towards enjoyment and learning to stop when we’re full.
We’re now starting to link and lean into what the body wants and doesn’t want. We’re going to make mistakes along the way, but we’re going to start being kinder to ourselves as we make those mistakes.
When I say mistakes, I mean that for a long time, we’ve probably told ourselves that we have to abide by this “perfection” model when we eat. We’ll gently move away from that language of mistakes over time, but initially we tell ourselves that we’ve made a mistake. As you become more neutral about the eating experience, that mistake language might fade away. You might hear yourself think it was just an eating experience. Perhaps you didn’t get as much enjoyment out of it as you wanted, but it was an eating experience.
As you practice your journey, please don’t feel guilty if you find this natural and instinctive approach towards eating difficult. It is difficult, because it’s the nuance in the middle that makes it difficult. Seek support.
If you would like to reach out, I am happy to answer any questions you might have. If you feel ready, I also do one-to-one coaching, as well as group coaching; and will be launching a new program later in the year. For more information on this or to enquire about my coaching sessions, catch me at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch via DM on my social channels.
While you are here, why not grab your copy of my ‘Love your Gut’ guide here where I share some tips and practical advice on how to care for and nourish your gut.