The categories and tags on this blog have been updated. Which means some of the links on this post may be broken. You may instead use the search function on the site to try to find the page. Or if you’d like to be notified when this post gets updated to match the current structure of the site, join the email list. You’ll get a weekly email with some behind the scenes info and you’ll get notified when a new post is released or an old post is updated.
I’ve taken October to dive a little deeper into some ideas on the foundational practice ‘Eat‘. Last week we talked about mindful eating. That post is all about a way of eating once the food is in front of you. A couple of weeks ago, we talked about what some healthy patterns of eating look like. We’ve even talked about emotional eating. But what we didn’t talk about was how to intuitively decide on what to eat, and when.
The book on intuitive eating was written by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch. They define intuitive eating as: “Intuitive Eating is a personal process of honoring health by listening and responding to the direct messages of the body in order to meet your physical and psychological needs”.1 They also have 10 principles to guide people towards intuitive eating.
Today I’ll be sharing the way that I think and talk about intuitive eating, and a couple of ways you can build up your intuition around food.
First things first, what is intuition?
Intuition is that instinctual reaction to a situation. Intuition is a little voice in your head whispering to you. Intuition is when your stomach clenches at the thought of doing something. It is our gut instinct. So of course, anything wrapped up in our gut has something to do with eating. 🙂
Intuition is our subconscious pattern recognition system. Our brains are a pattern recognition machine. We are always seeking to find the connections between everything that happens.
Life is an infinitely complex system. Even our own bodies are amazingly complex. We would struggle to keep track of everything in our conscious thoughts and make accurate predictions. Yet, our intuition is actually pretty good at figuring it out.
If I followed my intuition all the time, I’d only ever eat junk!
This is the main worry that we usually have about mindful eating, intuitive eating, or any time we think about not restricting. It is the byproduct of a food culture that tells us that we cannot be trusted around food that tastes “too good”. We use the excuse that we love food too much to ever eat those tasty foods in moderation.
Have you ever had several days in a row, like on a road trip, where you only ever ate at restaurants? The burgers and fries, ice cream and cakes, eggs and sausage, they all taste so good. But then after a couple of days, you start to want something a little lighter. At the next meal you get a wrap with some veggies in there, or a stirfry, maybe you even crave salad. If you’re nodding along, then congratulations, you’ve experienced intuitive eating!
So what stops us from following our intuition?
We get away from intuitive eating when we buy into the messages that we cannot be trusted to enjoy food. When we start ignoring our instincts and the signals that our body is sending us, we lose touch with our intuition. This usually happens once dieting starts.
Dieting (restricting what or how much you eat) almost by definition is not intuitive. That doesn’t mean that an intuitive eater eats everything all the time. An intuitive eater might choose not to eat deep-fried foods, like the dieter, but the difference is in the why. A dieter won’t because they believe it is too many calories/fat/salt and so they can’t (even if they want it). An intuitive eater who doesn’t eat the onion rings could be for a variety of reasons. They might:
- not like onion rings
- find that deep fried foods don’t sit well in their stomach (perhaps it feels “heavy”)
- not feel like having them right now.
- want something else
- find that having onion rings right now would bet too much today
- want some vegetables instead to get more colour on their plate
The key difference is that the dieter looks longingly at the onion rings. They wish they could have it, they smell it and want to have it. It stays in their mind. The intuitive eater truly does not want it. If they smell it, it might smell good (or it might not) but they still don’t want it. They don’t think about the onion rings after they’ve decided they don’t want it. The dieter has rules and is rigid. The intuitive eater focuses on self-care and is flexible.
How do we get back in touch with intuitive eating?
There are a few steps you can take. You can choose to do them one at a time, in the order below, or in the order that catches your attention, or you could try a couple at a time. Remember though, there is a danger to trying to do too much at once. Without further ado, here’s the list:
1. Practice mindful eating
The basic idea of mindful eating is to pay close attention to how the food tastes and feels. To eat when you are eating, and nothing else. Of course, mealtime conversation is also a great way to connect. So there is a need to balance out the close, careful, full attention with your need to connect with others. I go into more detail on how to do both in last week’s article. https://foundationsforthegoodlife.com/mindful-eating/ . When you are mindful while you are eating you are giving your subconscious better quality information. The better information you feed your subconscious, the more accurate its pattern recognition becomes. In other words, by being mindful, your intuition will become better at predicting what the best thing for you would be.
Journaling is a great way to get back in touch with your intuition more broadly. There are many different kinds of journals
Morning pages – Write whatever comes to mind and don’t stop. The name comes from The Artist’s Way by Julia Roberts, and she recommends 3 pages every morning. You could also do a “brain dump” any time of day and write down whatever you may be thinking about.
Record keeping – Write down what happened. Enough said, but you’ll get the most benefit out of keeping the journal if you reflect as well
Gratitude journaling – write down 3 things you’re grateful for or 3 sentances on one thing you’re grateful for.
Thought records – This is a cognitive behavioral therapy tool that can help you see more clearly what you are thinking in the midst of a difficult situation or emotion.
Try out the different versions and adapt them to fit you. The great thing about journaling is that we are often unaware of the thoughts that are floating through our head. Journaling takes those thoughts and puts them on paper so you can really see them. It also gives you a little bit of distance to be able to think about those thoughts differently. (I’ll note as well that some people like using their phone or a computer, but I prefer pen and paper. It works way better for me.) 2
3. Food and symptom journal
A food and symptom journal is a more specific form of journaling3. It can be especially useful to reflect on the connection between your eating and drinking and your hunger, fullness, and any unpleasant gut symptoms you might have. (I’m especially thinking of people who have bloating, heartburn, diarrhea, or constipation). This journal can improve your intuition by giving you a chance to reflect on how you feel outside of your meal. It is just like we talked about with mindful eating. Reflecting on and touching base with how you feel in a mindful way gives your subconscious better quality information.
By the way, if you see a dietitian for your digestive health, there is a good chance that this is a tool you’ll be using. I recommend it all the time!
4. Practice listening to your intuition
This really is the key to learning to trust your intuition again. Take a moment before you eat to ask yourself what it is that you want. Just like I’ve said before, and I will say again, it is simple but not easy. It might be years or decades since you last listened to your intuition, but you’ve done it before. You might not remember it, but all babies are the ultimate intuitive eater. They haven’t had a chance to learn what is “normal”. All they know is “I’m hungry, put food in my belly,” or “I’m full, stop.” That intuition, that instinct, is still there, even though it might be buried.
The second step is to choose and act. You can choose whether or not to listen to the thought that you had. Consider what would be the compassionate choice. Then follow through on your decision. If you find yourself indecisive, just pick a choice and go with it. Flip a coin if you must.
The third step is to pause.
- Immediately after you eat, and throughout the day, pause and notice how you feel. Do you feel “good” (however you define that)? Do you think the decision that you made was the best that you could have made in that moment?
- Be curious, be compassionate.
- If you don’t feel good, and you think that maybe your decision the wrong decision, simply make a note of that.
- Ask yourself what the best possible decision would have been, listen to what thought arises. Make a note of that,
- Finally, let it go. There is no need to feel bad that you didn’t make the best possible decision. You did what you thought was right in the moment. Now that you have reflected on the result of that decision, you’ve given that information to your subconscious. You don’t need to consciously think about it anymore, move on with your day.
The pause can happen in the moment, reflecting in your mind, or it can happen on paper while you journal. Do whichever feels right to you.
There are only three steps, repeated continuously. Ask yourself what you want, what you need, and reflect after you’ve acted on the decision.
Intuitive eating is a way of choosing what and when you will eat or drink. It is a way of following your intuition, or your subconscious pattern recognition. This can be the most powerful tool in your quest to eat healthfully and feel your best. If you are struggling with trying to figure out how to incorporate intuitive eating into your life, or you are worried that it actually might not work for you, consult with a dietitian. This is especially helpful if you have restrictions for medical reasons. All of the dietitians I’ve had the pleasure of meeting love intuitive eating and love when people want to try it.
Let me know in the comments below, what are your thoughts on this idea of intuitive eating?
And if you liked this, be sure to sign up for the email list. You’ll get a workbook on Making Big Change Possible, and you’ll find out as soon as the next post is up. Next weekend I’ll be talking about what yoga has taught me about intuitive exercise!