Our bodies are designed to maintain us at a weight that is perfect for us (although perhaps not perfect by fashion model standards) by telling us when we’re hungry, what we’re hungry for, and when we’ve had enough. But while some people just naturally eat this way, many of us have become desensitized to our body’s signals and need to relearn Intuitive Eating (IE).
In the past twenty years, IE has been the subject of many of scientific studies. They’ve found that rejecting diets, being supported to love and accept ourselves as we are and learning to trust our own intuition when it comes to food choices lead to substantial gains in emotional well-being and quality of life. IE also greatly reduces risks for compulsive eating, binge eating and other eating disorders, and it’s been linked to lower weight, lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels independent of weight loss, and increased glycemic control in type 2 diabetes.
For those who are re-learning IE, Dr. Steven C. Straus, MD, suggests using a scale from one to ten to assess your hunger-satiation level. 1 would be starving, ravenous and 10 would be feeling stuffed to the gills, uncomfortable, maybe nauseated, “out of control”—use your own words based on your own experiences. 5 would be an ideal post-meal level of fullness and satisfaction.
Aim for a 5 at most meals and snacks. After a while, if you habitually eat at a 5 level and happen to pig out, your body will raise your metabolic rate to burn up the extra calories by releasing the hormone noradrenalin. However, when you habitually overeat, noradrenalin doesn’t burn the extra calories and raises your pulse rate and blood pressure instead!
You may find yourself getting hungry nine times a day, especially in the beginning. It’s OK to eat as often as you want as long as you’re genuinely hungry. Most instinctive eaters eat every three hours. They never let themselves starve or deprive their bodies of fuel.
Before eating, ask yourself what you’re hungry for. What taste do you want (sweet, salty, bitter, sour or umami)? What temperature? Raw or cooked? What texture? What consistency?
If you want pizza or a bacon cheeseburger, have it as long as you’re hungry, and you weren’t influenced by seeing it first. Ask yourself, “Did I want this food before I saw it?”
Finally, Straus offers these general guidelines:
1. Do nothing else while you’re eating.
2. Eat in the same place.
3. Before eating look at and smell your food to heighten your awareness
4. Chew! The average American eats a meal in 6½ minutes, but your body may need 15-20 minutes for your satisfaction signals to kick in.
5. Chew empty-handed (put down your spoon or fork and pick it up again when chewing is complete and you’ve swallowed)
6. Avoid the empty calorie “foods”—refined sugar, white flour and alcohol will all throw off your hunger signals.
Other experts on IE have emphasized:
- Learning to distinguish between hunger for food and emotional hunger (for self-esteem, safety, control, relief of boredom, suppressing anger, etc.) and learning to address feelings without food.
- Integrating movement you enjoy into your life
- Cultivating respect and acceptance for your body as it is and letting weight loss be a side effect of building health and healthy eating habits.
- Avoiding foods you’re allergic or sensitive to.
4. Soares FLP. Intuitive Eating is associated with glycemic control in type 2 diabetes.Eating and Weight Disorders. March 2021;26(2):599-608.Jennings KA. A quick guide to intuitive eating. Healthline.com, July 25, 2019.
5. Straus SC and North G. The end of dieting. New Woman, June 1991
“Umami” is a taste description coined by a Japanese chemist who was trying to identify the taste common to asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat. It’s sometimes described as “savory” or “meaty.” The Five Basic Tastes, NewlyWedsFoods.com. June 5, 2017.