Instead, I'm practicing a technique called intuitive eating, and learning to listen to myself.
Thanks to a lifetime of chronic anxiety, my hunger cues went missing around the time that slap bracelets became a thing. Because of this, my eating habits have never felt natural.
I set alarms to remind myself to eat: Yes, I’d forget otherwise. And because I never feel hungry, I also never feel satisfied during or after eating—I’m just glad when it’s over.
So when I started hearing chatter about intuitive eating, a plan created by registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole, R.D., and Elyse Resch, R.D.N. circa 1995, my ears perked up.
I immediately wanted to find out if intuitive eating could bring some life to my blasé relationship with food, and hopefully, help me reconnect with my hunger cues so I could start following my natural alarms instead of my digital ones.
What Is Intuitive Eating, Exactly?
Intuitive eating is all about ditching the diet mentality—no calorie counting, no restrictions, no guilt—and learning how to eat thoughtfully by understanding your body’s cues. “The overall philosophy is that your body knows what it needs, and if you tune in and listen to your body, you can effectively honor those needs,” says Connecticut-based registered dietitian Alyssa Lavy, R.D.
While many people mistakenly think this means they can eat whatever they’re craving in whatever quantities they feel like, Lavy is quick to set people straight. Intuitive eating encompasses respecting your hunger and fullness cues, as well as choosing foods with which your body will be at peace. (For example, if you’re lactose intolerant, steering clear of cow’s milk or ice cream because you know it won’t make you feel well.)
There are no strict guidelines to intuitive eating, but there are 10 principles that define the overall philosophy. Some of these include rejecting the diet mentality, making peace with food, honoring hunger, feeling one’s fullness, and honoring the body with good nutrition.
Intuitive Eating vs Mindful Eating
There are plenty of similarities between intuitive and mindful eating—which is a slightly different strategy promoted by The Center for Mindful Eating. Both promote being present and intentional about food choices, enjoying the pleasures of food, and honoring hunger and fullness cues.
But intuitive eating encompasses more within its philosophy. Besides mindfulness, it focuses on the psychological aspects of eating, explains Julie Rothenberg, R.D., Miami-based nutritionist and certified intuitive eating counselor. It helps a person eliminate food rules and diet tools, work through the judgments they may place on themselves for eating a certain food or amount of food, disconnects emotions from eating, and has an entire body and exercise component. “Intuitive eating is formed as a non-diet mentality and philosophy, whereas mindful eating can still be used within a dieting context,” says Rothenberg.
My Two Weeks Trying to Eat Intuitively
Applying the philosophies of intuitive eating proved to be a battle in the beginning, thanks to the perfectionistic control freak camped out in my brain. Even though I’m against how regimented and rules-based healthy eating has become (in most contexts), the thought of relinquishing all control wigged me out.
My relationship with food has always been precarious, and I was concerned that a lack of hard-and-fast rules would be just as risky as having too many: How would I monitor my progress? Or know that I’m giving my body enough nutrients? And with no internal road blocks in place, what was to stop me from raiding the junk food aisle for the next two weeks straight?
But the real panic came into play when I shut off all of my “don’t forget to eat” alarms to rely solely on my hunger cues, not fully trusting that my appetite would bother to acknowledge my existence.
For many who want to try intuitive eating, the fear is that they’ll go overboard on portions or pull a Cookie Monster. My fear was that I wouldn’t eat at all.
The first few days of intuitive eating were touch and go. While I didn’t feel hunger in the traditional, stomach growling sense, I did feel naturally drawn toward the kitchen at periodic intervals throughout the day. I respected each time my intuition sent me gentle reminders to eat something, and followed through with the foods I was most compelled to chow down on in the moment—even when doing so led to eating an entire package of bacon.
My mind was a total buzzkill throughout the process, however, with an inner monologue so over-analytical and judgemental that my intuition could barely get a word in edgewise. The one good thing that came from the mental tug-of-war was that it helped me gain a new understanding of why I retaliate against needing to eat by spending as little time in the kitchen as possible.
Every time I opened the fridge door, my mind would go into overdrive. The running commentary consisted of annoying remarks that criticized the food’s nutritional value, whining about how much of an effort would have to be put into making a meal, and catastrophizing over how messy the kitchen would become.
In an effort to cut off the post-apocalyptic thought bubbles, I had made eating something to get over with quickly. The result? Years of feeding my anxiety instead of my appetite.
You’d think I would have internalized this, being a writer, but the words you say to yourself matter—and soon after this simplistic-yet-powerful lightbulb moment, I stopped catering to (and bargaining with) my judgemental thought process.
Don’t get me wrong, the thoughts still made an appearance, especially as my food choices became more random (ranging anywhere from a spinach salad for breakfast to nachos and beer for dinner). But once I started following the mantra, “What my body wants, my body gets,” their power over me started to dissipate.
By week two, intuitive eating started to feel more natural. I was avoiding the kitchen a lot less, and didn’t feel as much resistance toward making myself healthy meals—no matter how many dirty dishes I created in the process.
Again, words matter: I stopped asking myself, “What should I have?” and started asking, “What do I want?” The foods I was most drawn to would win out—whether it was a quinoa burger or slice of pie—with no analyzing or judging from my brain’s peanut gallery.
My food choices started to become more thoughtful and nurturing as I neared the end of the second week. When I decided against eating an entire cheesecake, for example, it wasn’t because I “shouldn’t” do such a thing, but because I knew that the subsequent sugar crash would sap my energy for days and I straight-up wanted better for myself. (Pre-intuitive eating me would’ve hoovered it anyway because cheesecake.)
I started looking at food with a sense of curiosity, as opposed to nauseating dread. I actually had the energy to try new recipes (that I’ve had bookmarked since 2014, but whatev), to learn new techniques (I can finally seed a pomegranate like a boss), and try new foods (pass the seaweed).
I’m also better able to tell when I’m about to eat junk food because I sincerely want to, or I’m simply putting off making something healthy. (The making healthy food thing didn’t win out every time, but hey, I’m work in progress.)
At the end of week two, my hunger cues are still MIA—and my sense of urgency to get eating over with still creeps in on super-stressful days—but intuitive eating has taught me that these things take time, and that improving your health isn’t the all-or-nothing proposition we tend to treat it as.
Being that I’ve made more progress with my eating habits in the past two weeks than I have in the past two years, this is a process I’m definitely going to stick with.
Bottom line: I'm finding my body really does know what it needs, what it doesn’t, and what I should steer clear of. I just need to be willing to listen.