Intuitive eating invites us to unlearn external food rules that keep us stuck in our heads, and reconnect with our body’s cues and messages for what, when, and how much to eat.
It teaches us to give ourselves unconditional permission to eat the foods that diet culture forbids so we stop feeling obsessed with them. It shows us ways of caring for ourselves that don’t revolve around self-flagellation, restriction and deprivation, and helps us offload the guilt, shame and anxiety that can follow us around after we eat a so-called ‘bad food’.
Intuitive eating is a framework, made up of ten principles that helps us heal our relationship with food and our body. It’s a set of self-care principles that allow us to reconnect with our eating instinct and build a life outside of body shame and food anxiety to give us the headspace and freedom to be present with the things that really matter to us.
In my new book, I walk you through the principles of intuitive eating and share practical steps that help you re-learn how to eat intuitively and liberate yourself from diet culture; here are some pointers to get you started.
1. Give yourself boat loads of self-compassion
Undoing the damage that diet culture causes and building a new, more positive relationship with food and your body is like swimming upstream. Learning to gently hold ourselves while we figure out what intuitive eating looks like for us gives us the best chance of digging deep and sitting with the discomfort of unlearning a lifetime of diet culture’s BS.
2. Slow down!
There’s no certificate or medal at the end of Intuitive Eating, so what’s the big rush? My clients who really take their time to work through each of the principles spend less time in the process overall. If you try and skip over principles or speed through them, you end up having to go back over them, again and again so give yourself permission to go slowly.
3. Hold a Fitbit funeral
Letting go of external influences over our eating, like fitness trackers, calorie counting apps and scales, can feel really scary and overwhelming, but it’s also a critical step in reconnecting with internal cues. Give yourself the space to process and grieve letting go. You don’t have to ditch them all at once either; start by having one day or workout without them and slowly build up from there.
4. If you get stuck: go back to basics
Whenever people come up against road bumps with intuitive eating, I always encourage them to go back to the first one or two principles e.g. rejecting diet mentality and honouring your hunger. It’s never a waste of time.
5. Really pay attention to hunger cues
This is the foundation of Intuitive Eating, if you haven’t nailed this part then everything else will be harder. Diet culture teaches us hunger is just in our bellies, but it can also show itself in low energy, feeling cranky or irritable, losing focus and concentration or a headache. An emptiness in the pit of our stomach is usually a sign that we’re over-hungry and more likely to faceplant into a pint of Ben and Jerry’s than eat an actual meal (side note: no shade to B&J’s, just might not be the most satisfying meal!). Spend a lot of time with this principle, really tuning into those more subtle signals your body is sending you and honour them!
6. Practice food neutrality
This doesn’t mean all foods have the same nutritional value – a carrot and a cookie provide a different mix of nutrients. What it does mean is give them the same moral value. Don’t label foods as bad or good, healthy or unhealthy, clean or dirty, even real, fake, processed or junk. Use neutral language around food. You can enjoy the cookie and the carrot. Desserts nourish your soul!
7. We have a distorted idea of what intuitive eating will look like when we get to the last principle; gentle nutrition
We assume that our intuition will tell us to eat salads and green smoothies with the occasional ‘treat’, but gentle nutrition doesn’t mean eating ‘clean’ plus a cupcake. Sometimes gentle nutrition means having a bowl of cereal for dinner because we’re too zapped to cook. Other times it means having a pizza with pals because nourishing ourselves socially is an important form of self-care. Tl;dr – intuitive eating isn’t another diet or wellness fad that you need to get ‘perfect’. It’s a self-care framework intended to be flexible and fluid!
Be very critical and discerning about who you follow. Does this person make you feel good about yourself? Are they adding value? Try filling up your feed with supportive messages around intuitive eating and Health at Every Size, follow body liberation advocates and activists and normalise body diversity. Watch out for people sending conflicting non-diet messages who are really just perpetuating diet culture but calling it a ‘lifestyle’.
9. Reframe emotional eating
Diet culture teaches us to vilify emotional eating and turns it into a problem that needs to be fixed. But food and emotions are inextricably linked; case in point – my six month old makes the happiest grunting sound when he eats banana or sweet potato. It’s human to turn to food for comfort. Try looking for what’s beneath the behaviour; are you feeling overwhelmed or anxious about something? You don’t need to take food out of your emotional toolkit (especially if you don’t have much else in there), but what can you add to it? Maybe some grounding techniques or the aforementioned self-compassion? Remember though, it’s always OK to go and cry into a piece of cake!
10. Lastly, try to have fun!
Diet culture takes so much from us, our time, money, energy, and sense of wellbeing. Intuitive eating is about having more: more freedom, more headspace, more self-care, more fun and more joy!