Updated: Dec 3, 2019
Have you ever been on a strict diet and noticed how difficult it was to keep your sanity? How long did it take before you regained the weight you had lost during the diet?
Forbidding ourselves to eat certain types of food makes it all more exciting. Once our diet finishes, we are likely to binge on everything we "weren't allowed" to eat before.
Not labeling food as either "good" or "bad",
Mindfully observing how hungry or full our body truly feels,
Ensuring that we eat food that makes us satisfied and
Learning how to identify and control our emotions,
we can form a healthy relationship with food and make more objective choices, that are best for our body.
With the abundance of food choices, we often find ourselves in the two extremes: going on a strict diet and trying to avoid certain types of food at all costs, or giving in to temptations and having way too much to eat.
Neither of the two makes us feel great, though. When we diet, we find it difficult to avoid food that we think is bad for us and keep trying to suppress our cravings. When we finally give in, we binge crazy amounts of "forbidden" food, making us feel like failures to our commitment and we freak out about how unhealthy we were and worry about how that will affect our weight.
We are also highly dependent on our schedules and are used to eating at certain times, even though some days we may feel very hungry way before lunch, and other days we might still feel full from breakfast when the lunch time comes.
As children, we normally have an innate hunger and satiety feeling, which is often very precise.
However, when we learn to eat, exercise, and experience our bodies from external factors, such as diet programs, scheduled exercise, tracking our weight, or our emotions, we start ignoring our internal feelings about when, what and how much we need to eat and move (1).
We have much more choice and temptations nowadays, compared to a couple of decades ago. Our stores are filled with varieties of options and wherever we go, there are lots of restaurants, cafés, bakeries and fast food chains around, making us hungry just by passing by. Our emotions also play a big role in giving in to our cravings.
This, combined with our strict attempts to diet, can all make us give in to our cravings, as the quick solutions are easily available.
Some food, like processed snacks, is very easy to overeat. We might feel horrible after having eaten lots of chips, candy, cookies and ice cream while hanging out with our friends one night. We might then punish ourselves by only committing to eating "good" food for the rest of the week.
Most of the time, it involves boring food that doesn't really satisfy us, like a sad dry and tasteless salad with no dressing or carbs on a side.
This "healthy" food often just makes us hungry again within a few minutes. It's just a matter of time until we binge on all the snacks we can find.
The key to having a well-balanced diet and good mental and physical health may not involve a strict diet at all. It may actually be stepping away from strict schedules and our emotions, and intuitively realizing what our body truly needs at all times.
A professor in psychology who runs a clinic of mindful eating shared that two months in to the program of learning how to eat things in moderation, they let patients bring their favorite snack to the clinic. A client of theirs brought his favorite candy bar and as he started eating it, he quickly put it away (2).
Being mindful of his internal sensations, he noticed that the nuts were stale, he didn't enjoy the quality of the chocolate and the bar tasted overall too greasy (2).
Intuitive eating, combined with mindful eating, creates a balance in our eating habits and takes us back to relying on our own internal feelings of hungriness or satiety, that we were born with. It creates the conditions for healthy eating and healthy relationship with food.
How to eat intuitively?
1. Stop labeling food as good or bad
All food is a source of energy and nutrients. Although different kinds of food may have different quality of that energy and nutrients, it doesn't mean it must either be good or bad.
By labeling food as good or bad, we develop an unhealthy relationship with food. We may only eat food we don't like, just because we have labeled it as "good", rather than eating something we'd enjoy just because we labeled it as "bad" (2).
The labeling itself can be very subjective. For example, we may decide to eat only gluten-free food even if we are not intolerant to gluten. We would think that this type of food is best for us even though we might miss our on important nutrients by totally restricting ourselves from this category.
The fact that we see snacks like chips, chocolate or cookies as "forbidden" and "bad" food, only makes them more exciting in our minds and we become likely to cheat on our diet by binging on them from time to time.
The key is to start looking at food in an non-judgemental way and understand that sometimes our body requires crispy fresh salad with an olive oil dressing, and other times it could really use some chocolate.
And both are totally fine.
- WHAT?! Can I then eat all the chocolate I want?!
- When the feeling of guilt and obsession is gone, one of the largest triggers that makes us overeat is removed (2). We may not even be so interested in the chocolate anymore, since we know that it's there and we can have it anytime but we will probably choose to have something more nutritious most of the times instead.
2. Check-in with yourself a few times a day
Especially when you feel cravings.
Mindfully observe how you are feeling. Tune in to your body a couple of times a day and just observe. On a scale of 1-10 how hungry, or full are you at the moment?
Instead of following a strict meal plan, eating at specific times of the day and specific portion sizes, make sure you eat when you become truly hungry and have as big or small of a meal as your body needs at that moment (2).
What type of food could your body use right now? Do you feel like eating something warm/cold/fresh/hearty? Are you feeling any emotions at the time? Could they be influencing your preference at the moment?
Try to really understand what your body needs at the moment. Sometimes when I crave candy, I actually just need a cup of tea to sip on while watching a movie.
Other times, I really want chocolate and no apple replacement could ever make me as satisfied as having a piece of chocolate at that moment. I just embrace it and eat what I want to eat instead of restricting myself.
Stop eating when you start feeling full and save the rest of the food, or take a doggy bag at a restaurant. That way you won't even feel bad for throwing away food and can look forward to eating the delicious meal again, when you are hungry.
3. Make sure you eat satisfying food
Don't eat a sad salad when you'd really like a pasta with creamy sauce. If this is the food your body needs at the moment, especially during the cold season, even endless bowls of salad may not satisfy you, while a small bowl of pasta would.
Food is one of the main things that naturally brings joy to our life. We get rewarded with dopamine for eating food, since eating has helped us to survive throughout the ages.
If we restrict ourselves too much from eating food that we like and only eat things that don't satisfy us, we risk depriving ourselves of one of the biggest joys in life (2).
You can still eat very nutritious meals that are ALSO satisfying. The key is to eat what you like and make sure to include nutrients that you like and tolerate.
4. Develop a strategy to understand your emotions
This is to stop emotional eating, and better understand your internal, physiological needs (2). Sometimes, when you crave candy, you'd really be better off doing something else to get more energy.
The key is to develop an understanding for when your body is truly, physically hungry and when it's just an emotional craving.
The next step is to develop a strategy for dealing with your emotions in a different way than though food.
For example, you could take up meditation (read my blog post to learn about the benefits of meditation), or practice yoga (read my blog post on benefits of yoga), or take up any kind of exercise, or meet a friend, have a cup of tea, read a book, or do any other activity that you find fun.
Next time you feel bored, sad, anxious, stressed or tired, try taking a short walk, have a conversation with someone, or journal instead of reaching out for a sweet snack straight away.
Then, the time after that, try having the snack. Compare the two effects and see which effect you enjoyed more.
Intuitive eating is proven to improve our relationship with food and help to draw our focus inwards, rather than being controlled of external factors when it comes to nutrition.
By seeing all types of food in a neutral manner, mindfully tuning in to your sensations throughout the days, making sure that you are enjoying the food you choose to eat and developing a strategy to understand and deal with your emotions so that you are eating on physiological needs, you will create conditions for your body and mind to be healthy.
Intuitive eating also decreases cravings, as you can to eat all types of food, making you no longer obsessed over "good" or "bad" food.
Stay tuned for more science-backed evidence and tips on mindfulness that I will post in this blog.
I am very interested to hear your opinion and tips on what you'd like to read about in this blog. Therefore you are more than welcome to leave a comment here, or contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Laura | MSc in Medical Science, Creator of The Greater Mindfulness
1. Bush, H. E., Rossy, L., Mintz, L. B., & Schopp, L. (2014). Eat for Life: A Work Site Feasibility Study of a Novel Mindfulness-Based Intuitive Eating Intervention. American Journal of Health Promotion, 28(6), 380–388. https://doi.org/10.4278/ajhp.120404-QUAN-186
2. Mathieu, J. (2009). What Should You Know about Mindful and Intuitive Eating? Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(12), 1982,1985,1987–1982,1985,1987. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2009.10.023