Intuitive eating is an approach to food, nutrition and health which regards eating as a form of self-care rather than self-control. Some of the ways that people can show self-care through food is by focusing on cues inside themselves such as hunger, what their energy needs are, what they prefer to eat, and what feels good to their own body. If you picked up that food rules are not in vogue here, you’re onto it; neither are shame or guilt associated with eating – or not eating – certain foods.

Chances are, you had that with food at one stage: in infancy. How many babies have you seen rejecting mum’s milk because it had too many calories? Or waiting to cry out for food until they were so ravenously weak that they couldn’t latch onto the nipple? As infants, we cried when we were hungry and drank (or later, ate) until we had enough. At that stage, we turned away from the breast, or tossed the mashed pears off our tray. It was a relationship with food that was guided by an instinctual sense of when, and how much, to eat. However, as the years went by, what happened?

We were told we had to eat all the Brussels sprouts or no dessert (message here? Brussels sprouts are “good” for you, and dessert is – at best – a “nice-to-have” for those deserving souls who ate the “good” food). We went to school and were fat-shamed or taunted about our bodies by classmates. We opened to media and social media promoting unattainable standards of “beauty” and thinness. In other words, events at each stage of life pulled us away from that early sense of trusting that our body is ok and that it will tell us what it needed, food-wise.

1. Reject the diet mentality.
We are surrounded by a pervasive mindset that our health and happiness, and even our life and our very worth, are enhanced if we conform to a certain standard of health and beauty: one of being thin, fit, and able-bodied. There’s an argument that, by adhering to such norms, we are likely to be able to achieve greater overall health and higher self-esteem. So, we end up comparing ourselves to others, or worse, to our own idealised version of how our body “should” look.

Sadly, it doesn’t work. The National Centre for Biotechnology Information conducted research which showed that when middle-aged women dieted and labelled foods as “good” or “bad”, the resultant sense of deprivation heightened their obsession with food, which engendered overconsumption. In the yo-yo cycle of dieting that developed, overeating led to a sense of guilt, self-hatred, and failure. Feeling like a “failure” at dieting led to feelings of frustration and depression, whereupon the desire to eat, or overeat, again became central.
Diet culture goes beyond thinness and health to proclaim that upon “successful” dieting we have moral superiority, meaning that, not only are some foods “good” and others “bad”, but we ourselves are “good” or “bad” for eating them. How sustainable can our relationship with food be if the only purpose of it is to manipulate the size of our body? We answer “not very”!

2. Honour your hunger.
Our human bodies need regular, consistent fuel. Going too long without food decreases the probability that we will be able to make conscious, intentional choices about what to eat when we are again in the vicinity of food. Thanks to evolution, a primal hunger eventually kicks in and we stuff food down the gullet in an out-of-control way. Those who diet chronically know that, because they need to deprive themselves of food to succeed at the diet, they often endure pangs of hunger. However, when those pangs are chronically ignored, the body stops sending such signals, and we end up feeling extremely hungry – ravenous! – by the time (more intense) hunger signals do register consciously. All of this works against being able to listen to the body, take in food when it is hungry, and stop when satisfied, as the intuitive eating principles require.

3. Make peace with food.
Is this scenario familiar? The dietitian hands the client a list detailing “allowed” and “forbidden” foods. The list occurs not because the client is allergic to or intolerant of any of the foods, but because the dietitian (following the latest diet science revelations) has determined that the client’s weight loss goals will be achieved by following these food rules.

4. Challenge the food police
The food police? Yes, those relentless voices inside your head, or that of your client, which continue to insist that pastries are “bad” for you and broccoli is “good”. This principle of intuitive eating makes a blanket statement, “All foods have value.” Some foods (ok, probably broccoli) are richer and denser in nutrient value than others. However, those other foods may have value because they keep us connected to our cultural traditions, or they are central to celebrations which it serves our mental and emotional wellbeing to observe. Still other foods may not be what is deemed “the best choice”, but in a given situation, they may be the only choice: preferable to coming into an uncontrolled “hangry” state.

5. Discover the satisfaction factor
Eating was meant to be enjoyable, for if there were no motivation to eat, the very existence of our species would be threatened! Yet the felt need to diet can take away that intrinsic pleasure. Discovering the satisfaction factor speaks to the totality of things we can do to enjoy mealtime. The first question to ask yourself here is not what they are eating, but how: what kind of environment – including your awareness – surrounds your meals?

6. Feel your fullness
How full are you right now? More importantly, what scale might you employ to discern whether you are at an appropriate level of fullness?

7. Cope with your emotions with kindness
Those stuck in a cycle of restriction and weight gain know all too well about the possibility of eating as a coping mechanism: that is, using comfort food to assuage difficult emotions. From the perspective of intuitive eating, there is nothing wrong with occasionally using a food to bring up one’s mood. The dangers, rather, lurk in other places:
1. If you are using food as their sole coping mechanism. In this case, it most certainly will be overused, leading to eating disorders, food addiction, and, at the very least, a cycle of restriction and bingeing/overeating of some foods.
2. If you are restricting yourself from some foods. Sadly, the mere fact of restriction evokes in a person a sense of loss of control, and the concomitant desire to have a certain food. It is easy to crave that food when not physically hungry, but emotionally so.
3. If you are physically hungry, but not recognising it. In this case, any emotionally-charged situation is likely to be more difficult to deal with.
Obviously, food won’t fix emotional dilemmas, at least not permanently. The solution, then, when you find yourself turning to food, is to ask questions to explore what’s really going on. Try these:
• Have I been eating enough over the last few days?
• Is it possible that I have been too busy to eat consistently?
• Have I been restricting certain foods?
• Am I feeling tired? Frustrated? Stressed?
• What do I really need: better relationships? Connection? Or just a meal?
8. Respect your body
Here’s information: as human beings, we come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Not all of these meet modern standards for what a “beautiful” body “should” look like. But those who wish to eat intuitively must respect the principle of respecting their body, no matter what it looks like. Reality check: most of us will never look like the models on the covers of fitness magazines (who may not look like that themselves: their appearance may be photoshopped); we shouldn’t have to. With intuitive eating, we lean into that idea and refuse to feel bad about it. All bodies deserve respect and dignity. Accepting this, and our body, makes it easier to feel better and make choices that are logical (not emotional) and aligned with our highest good. Food is a way to honour the body. Another way is to consciously spend time appreciating the body for all the things it does do for us.

9. Movement – and feel the difference
What kind of movement do you enjoy? What do you really dislike? The reality about exercise is that it’s a whole lot easier to keep up exercise regularly when we enjoy it, because then we are working with the power of intrinsic motivation.

10. Honour your health with gentle nutrition
Take your mind back to any previous experience with diets. Do you recall what was foremost among the advice? Usually, it’s about eating certain foods first, and only later – maybe – eating other, less favoured foods. Intuitive eating goes another way. It says, tap into hunger and fullness signals first. Get emotional awareness around food, along with body respect. Make peace with food and the way you care for yourself.