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By: Sarah Schlichter, MPH, RDN

The idea of intuitive eating is gaining popularity – and for good reason. There’s something attractive about listening to your internal hunger and fullness cues and eating foods based on what you want and how it makes you feel.

Like anything though, it’s possible to get carried away and turn this way of eating into a diet, when in reality, it’s supposed to be everything but a diet. When talking with clients, I often discuss which of the 10 principles they struggle with the most. The process of intuitive eating includes learning to distinguish and setting yourself free of dieting thoughts and rules. Awareness is paramount in this process because if you can’t learn to distinguish dieting thoughts and influences, you won’t be able to truly tune into yourself and your needs.

So, how can you help distinguish intuitive eating from dieting? Let’s take a look.

There’s More to Intuitive Eating Than Hunger and Fullness

While learning to honor your hunger and fullness are two of the 10 principles of intuitive eating, they are not what intuitive eating is built on. If we hyper-focus on these principles, we’re more likely to frown upon eating when we’re not hungry, which can play a role in being a “normal eater.”

There are many natural instances to eat outside of hunger, such as enjoying a birthday cake or relishing in the nostalgia of a family recipe. Similarly, it’s okay to eat past fullness sometimes. If we do it on a regular basis, we will learn that it doesn’t feel great and we can learn to check in with ourselves earlier in the eating process.

Looking at these sensations with curiosity, not judgment, is the foundation of intuitive eating because we can be mindful and tune in to how we feel during the eating experience.

RELATED: 5 Ways to Start Incorporating Intuitive Eating into Your Day

Approach Food and Feelings with Curiosity

The dieting mindset teaches us to place blame and judgment on our food decisions. Alternatively, intuitive eating puts the focus on curiosity. Intuitive eating is a constant learning process about our body and our needs, which are fluid and constantly changing.

Maybe one day you’re hungrier than the day before, despite not changing anything in your routine. This is a normal part of being a human! Rather than feeling guilt or shame for eating more than usual, perhaps you can look at the experience through a different lens. Did you sleep enough last night? Did you eat enough protein at your last meal or snack? Did you exercise harder yesterday or the day before? Also, remember to remind yourself that it’s okay if you just have hungrier days for no reason, too!

RELATED: What Is Food Freedom?

intuitive eating

Aim for Satisfaction

Food has many purposes aside from just nourishing us. Food is nostalgic and tied to many emotions and memories as well. Food is a vehicle for communication and social interaction. Why else would we meet friends for lunch or dinner, or spend so much time and energy preparing holiday dinners with loved ones? While we do want food to provide physical sensations of fullness (which can help nourish us and hold us over until future meals), we also want food to provide satisfaction.

It is possible to be full, yet not satisfied, from a meal.

So, how do you differentiate between the two? Fullness is the physical sensation you feel after eating. Maybe you feel some bloating or slight discomfort. Note that this is normal and part of the digestion process. In comparison, satisfaction is more of a mental and emotional feeling after eating. Are you still thinking about food? Was your eating experience pleasurable? Did the food taste good?

Ideally, we want to feel full and satisfied after meals, but it’s okay if not every meal provides both. Look at it as an opportunity to look back with curiosity to determine what you can do differently for future eating experiences. Intuitive eating involves freeing yourself from the black and white rules (“good” and “bad”) and learning to embrace the nuance of eating.

The bottom line is that being flexible with food is part of the intuitive eating experience. Intuitive eating is not a set of rigid rules to follow, but a continuous journey with the opportunity to learn more about yourself, your food preferences, and eating experiences throughout.

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