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By: Sarah Schlichter, MPH, RDN

Intuitive eating is an evidence-supported, mind-body approach to eating. It’s based on following your internal cues rather than external, societal cues for eating. While it’s much more complex than “eat when you’re hungry” and “stop when you’re full,” learning those principles, specifically, can be great opportunities to tune into the mind-body connection.

Becoming an intuitive eater takes time. However, it’s not all or nothing and there are several ways to practice the intuitive eating mentality. Here’s how.

1. Tune into How Foods Make You Feel

Are you full and satisfied after breakfast? Does it keep you sustained for 2-3 hours, or do you find yourself reaching for a snack shortly after? Are you constantly hungry or tired? Is food providing you energy? These are all questions to help check in with your body. How are you feeling? What do you need? Are you too busy to pack or eat an afternoon snack? That afternoon snack may give you that burst of energy you need to finish the day, so ignoring that afternoon hunger cue isn’t doing you any favors. Food can and should energize us. Try to eat more of the foods that energize you and make you feel good.

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2. Acknowledge Hunger Signals

In our society, hunger has sometimes been villainized or frowned upon as an inconvenience. However, just like the need to yawn, sleep, or go to the bathroom, hunger is a biological need. Our body does a good job of giving us hunger signs, yet it’s easy to become accustomed to ignoring them if we don’t know what we’re looking for.

While hunger can certainly manifest as a growling or grumbling stomach, it may also surface in other ways. Headaches, irritability, an inability to focus on anything other than food can also be signs of hunger. Even if it is not always possible to eat in the moment, being prepared with portable snacks is a great way to temporarily acknowledge hunger until you’re able to eat a balanced meal.

what is intuitive eating

3. Add Spontaneity To Your Routine

Do you wake up and make the same thing for breakfast every morning, without even thinking about it? We can be on autopilot in the morning in order to do everything we need to do to kick off our day and head to work. But what if that smoothie you prep the night before isn’t what you really want in the morning? Maybe it’s not substantial enough for breakfast and you find yourself hungry an hour later. What would it look like if you ate something you actually wanted in the morning?

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Meal routines can be a good thing, but a pre-packed and pre-determined lunch may not be what your body craves one day. And while we have to balance practicality with giving our body what it wants, it can be worth exploring how we feel if we break free from routine. Are you used to packing a sandwich for lunch every day? Do something different and order what you really want. It can feel freeing (and challenging) to decide what you truly want to eat in the moment.

what is intuitive eating

4. Get In Touch with Your Emotions

How do you handle stress, boredom, or sadness? Do you always turn to food? In many ways, eating is emotional, so it’s nearly impossible to fully separate your food from your feelings. However, it’s necessary to have other coping strategies for feelings like loneliness, boredom, and sadness. What other outlets can you utilize? Some popular alternatives include journaling, reading, calling a friend or family member, going for a walk, taking an exercise class, meditating, or engaging in a hobby you enjoy.

Realizing that food won’t solve these feelings and finding other ways to distract or nurture yourself will play an important part in your relationship with food – and with yourself.

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5. Are You Satisfied or Just Full?

There’s a difference between fullness and satisfaction. While fullness may be a physical sensation we feel after eating, satisfaction is more of a mental sensation. Satisfaction refers to the pleasure we derive from an eating experience. And eating what we want in the moment in an environment that is inviting and conducive. While eating a lot of vegetables may fill you up, physically, will they leave you satisfied if you actually wanted a chicken sandwich? Probably not. Satisfaction usually refers to a balance and variety of macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, and fat).

In short, eating should be both a pleasurable and satisfying experience. You may even find that it takes less food than you originally thought to reach satisfaction. Cultivating that mind-body approach will help satisfy what your body needs in the moment.