Prior to this, I was a classic “clean eater” (I know, major eye roll) that was always on the lookout for “healthier” ways to eat, constantly scolding myself for eating whateveritwasthatday, and spending at least one Sunday a month clearing out my cupboard in preparation for the next diet.
My first dietitian job was in a hospital, counseling patients and cringing as I fulfilled yet another doctor’s “obesity counseling” orders, knowing I was getting nowhere and feeling like I was doing more harm than good. I had spent years working on my own relationship with food so I could stop being a slave to the scale, and here I was, coaching others to do the exact thing that caused so much stress and turmoil in my own life.
In the search to not feel like I wasted four years of my life and $40,000 on my career choice, I found intuitive eating techniques. These food principles were created by dietitians (a huge win in my book), had been around for two decades, and had a mountain of research support them.
Finally, a way I could help people actually improve their health without demonizing food or focusing on weight as the main indicator of health.
In learning how to help clients incorporate intuitive eating into their own lives, I dove deep into practicing what I preached. While there are countless ways people have successfully ditched diets and ended their toxic relationships with their scales, here are the top ways I successfully became an intuitive eater.
4 intuitive eating techniques that can improve your relationship with food
1. Follow a loose eating schedule
If you’re used to tracking, counting, skipping meals, or purely eating by a clock, trusting your body to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full sounds more like a pipe dream than a plan. Most likely, you’ve ignored your hunger signals for so long that you don’t remember what they feel like, or they literally don’t exist until your body is screaming at you for food. At this point, eating to comfortable fullness feels impossible.
I started by sticking to routine meal and snack times until I got used to knowing when my body wanted food without the clock. During stressful periods, really hot days, or when I may be exercising more than usual, I still try to make a point to eat at regular intervals, even if my hunger cues are being masked by stress.
Giving your body nourishment on a regular basis helps it to trust that food is coming and hunger signals become easier to identify. It also helps you to stop when you’re full when you’re not letting your energy stores get completely zapped before finally grabbing something to eat.
2. Create balance—most of the time
Honoring your cravings doesn’t mean throwing all nutrition out the window. I know I feel best when I’m pairing protein, fiber, and fat in my meals. If I want something sweet, I’ll eat something sweet, but I try to do so in a way that will leave me feeling good– not overfull or buzzing on sugar.
Combining logic with what I really want to eat helps me enjoy food and still physically feel good. DWhile I may want a classic cinnamon roll the size of my face for breakfast, I know I’ll feel better if I create a little more balance. Pairing it with eggs or a glass of milk adds protein and fat to help slow digestion and provide longer-lasting energy. No food is off limits, but we have the power to eat anything we want in a way that will leave us feeling our best.
Does this mean every time I eat something sweet, I’m reaching for a protein or fat to pair with it? Not at all. It’s just as important to allow yourself to eat just because or just for pleasure sometimes, without adding the extra layer of guilt.
3. Practice eating mindfully
Do you ever get so excited to eat something that you scarf it down and realize you didn’t even enjoy it? Or eat without thinking, and before you realize it, the whole bag of chips is gone?
You can’t honor your cravings or tune into your hunger and fullness without adding some mindfulness to your meals and snacks. Mindful eating starts before anything has even touched your lips.
Make a conscious decision about what you’re going to eat before you eat it. Why do you want to eat it? Are you craving salty or sweet? Something hot or cold? Comforting or fresh? Are you eating just for pleasure, or are you hungry and ready to nourish your body, too? Are you just eating the granola bar in your bag because you’re hungry and it’s all you have? By getting to the root of what you want and why you want it, you can enter each eating experience more in tune with your body and how it responds to the food you’re eating.
4. Include a mid-meal pause
Are you a member of the clean plate club? I know I was. My signal to stop eating was when my food was gone, not when my body had had enough. This one trick made a huge difference in helping me to stop overeating so often and start giving my body the right amount of food without counting, measuring, or tracking.
My signal to take a mid-meal pause is when half of my food is gone. This halfway point isn’t my cue to end the meal, but it encourages me to take a moment and ask myself how hungry I still am and if the food is still tasting good or if maybe I’m now craving a different taste.
Doing this conscious pause makes it easier to stop eating when you’re comfortably full, not just when the food is gone. Since I often crave something sweet after my meals, it’s also a good time to see if the food I’m eating is no longer satisfying and helps me leave a little room for dessert if that’s what I want.