Remember when you were just a tiny human being, nestled in a comfortable cradle where you could get the fastest ‘food service’ from your parents with the spew of a cry? It didn’t matter what time of day it was or what they were doing (sorry parents), you would cry for food simply because you were hungry at that moment. You might be asking: What does this have to do with intuitive eating? Well, a whole lot actually! Babies and kids cry to innately signal parents to feed them and ultimately stop eating when they are full. Whether you were satisfied over some finger-licking good applesauce and or a spoon covered in peanut butter, you certainly did not hold back in letting your caregivers know when it was your mealtime (oh, just baby privileges). This came without a second thought. Listening to our hunger cues is part of intuitive eating which has been ingrained in us since we were born. However, as we grow up and discover new ‘rules’ for eating (sometimes even harmful ones), our foundational intuitive eating practices can quickly diminish. How can we nurture or re-nurture these practices to build a healthy relationship with food, ourselves and our bodies? Let’s digest this together!
Intuitive eating can be a long journey and it begins with acknowledging rules we have made for ourselves or adopted which have prevented us from fully enjoying the foods we love or in the amounts we truly need. The first step is to recognize that these rules are present but also to commend ourselves for taking the driver’s seat and steering towards a mindful approach to eating. Starting (or re-starting) this journey means that we can slowly release ourselves from any existing restrictions and learn intuitive practices which will allow us to eat depending on our individual needs. From here, we can explore the importance of having a variety of food and of course, the enjoyment and deliciousness that comes with it! This also includes respecting internal and external hunger cues which have always been there to support our hunger and fullness messages. How can we do this? To start, we can practice these 4 (out of 10 ) intuitive eating principles to appreciate our bodies and our food.
Have you ever found yourself missing a meal to complete a work deadline? Or feeling too overwhelmed or stressed to pick up a meal or cook even when you are hungry? Sometimes we find ourselves in sticky situations where we consciously avoid food for reasons including societal pressure and stress. In these situations, the internal hunger cues are dismissed which can lead to overeating to compensate for the extended period of hunger. Internal hunger cues are our body’s natural signals to eat and involve hormones such as those which stimulate hunger and stomach growling (hello, Ghrelin). We can first practice intuitive eating by honouring these messages sent by our body. At the end of the day, the little messengers (hormones) support us by signalling for fuel needed to perform our daily activities, battle stress and improve cognitive function so that we can tackle that new project! The next time Ghrelin makes your stomach growl, be sure to pick up a delicious, wholesome meal and respond to show your acknowledgement!
You’re at a long-due family gathering and grandma is insisting that you finish the last piece of pie because she would be really happy to see you enjoy her homemade love. The thing is, you already feel full from having the main meal but hesitate to say no because you are worried about how she would feel if you denied it. How can we approach this? Similar to honouring your hunger, it is equally important to recognize the feeling of fullness. The external (environmental) hunger cues are at work here and affect how we respond to food by initiating or continuing to the act of eating. They can come from distractions such as television ads and social media posts or family and peer influences. Simply smelling aromatics in foods and seeing them can also spark this urge. In any of these moments, we might want to ask ourselves “Am I truly hungry and if not, will eating this make me more or less satisfied?” If you gravitate towards an expected feeling of dissatisfaction from eating the food (especially after being full), then take a moment to pause and reconsider eating the food. Tune into your internal cues again to check and perhaps bring yourself into a different environment where the previous environmental cues are less distracting or absent. If peer or family influences are at play such as with grandma’s delicious pie, be honest about your feelings and work-in a sort of compromise such as saving the dessert to have the next day. And now, you’re already halfway through practicing intuitive eating!
Let’s recall a vivid moment when you genuinely enjoyed eating a favourite food. Was it the luscious cream on top of a brown butter cake which made your taste buds tingle? Maybe it was the perfectly spiced shepherd’s pie that brought fond memories of camping with friends? In these moments, we feel connected through the food we eat and with the people whom we share it with. The joys and pleasures of eating in these moments are irreplaceable and most importantly, we can truly immerse ourselves in these experiences. Food is so much more than the sum of its nutritional parts and ability to keep us full. Remember the joyous moments brought by your favourite foods and open up to that feeling (once again).
Does telling yourself that you cannot have a certain food make you want it even more? Is kale being viewed as the mighty superfood and the chocolate chip cookie as the unspoken indulgence that needs to be “cancelled out” with a salad later? If this is the case, it is time to make peace with food and acknowledge that each one serves its own unique purpose, whether for nutritional value, joy, taste or something else! All food can be part of a healthy diet. The key is listening to our bodies, internal cues and external cues to guide a mindful decision. Discover the intention behind these decisions when it comes to food choice. Notice the difference between satisfying a true craving that will bring you joy compared to eating healthy for punishment which can lead to feelings of sadness or helplessness. Restructure the conversation with yourself and get deep into the best reasoning behind your food choice. This can look like saying “I am choosing to have this chicken salad because it is a balanced option and I want to feel energized and productive for my afternoon work” or “By human nature, I am deserving of love and that looks like allowing myself to satisfy my sweet tooth by enjoying this brownie.” How does that feel for food freedom? Allowing ourselves permission to eat without restrictions while being mindful gives our bodies a chance to serve us better and also is ultimately a practice of self compassion. Most importantly, removing the guilt will also feel really good and that’s when intuitive eating can start becoming easier!
Intuitive eating involves finding the right balance that will allow us to sense when we are physically full, satisfied or in need of something more. Starting a new journey is often the hardest part so it is important to first acknowledge a decision towards mindful eating when one is ready. I promise it will be a gratifying one.