What is Intuitive Eating?

STACK Expert Kait Fortunato explains why 'intuitive eating' may be a better alternative than following a strict dieting plan.

Dieting is tough. The restrictions, the rules, the portions—it can all be overwhelming. Wouldn't it be great if there were a way to eat healthy but also have dietary freedom? That's the idea behind a concept known as intuitive eating.

What is Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive eating is defined as an "approach that teaches you how to create a healthy relationship with your food, mind and body, where you ultimately become the expert of your own body."

Rather than following external cues to tell you when and what to eat, you rely on internal body cues. Think about it: When you're on a diet, you're often being told how many calories to eat and when to eat them, a process that largely ignores your own personal hunger or fullness. When you eat intuitively, you let your hunger dictate meal times and make choices based on both your health and your enjoyment.

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A 2014 study published in The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics looked at the outcomes of the intuitive eating, non-dieting approach vs. those of people who restrict their dietary intake. The researchers found that "interventions that encourage intuitive eating decrease unhealthy eating behaviors such as dietary restraint and binge eating, signifying a healthier relationship with food."

Improvements were also identified in blood pressure, blood lipid levels and cardiorespiratory fitness. Furthermore, intuitive eating often reduces depression and anxiety, increases self-esteem and improves body image.

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Granted, a lot of our hunger/fullness cues get interrupted by daily routines. Maybe you have a 10:30 a.m. lunch break at school, so that's when you have to eat. Many college meal plans allow you to eat only during certain times. Also, physical, stomach hunger can easily be confused with and interrupted by other hungers, such as head hunger, mouth hunger and emotional hunger. When you see a TV commercial for pizza and all of a sudden you are hungry for pizza, that's head hunger. When you try a taste of something delicious and want more, that's mouth hunger. And when you are upset or stressed and look to food for momentary comfort, that's emotional hunger.

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How Can I Incorporate Intuitive Eating into my Lifestyle?

Intuitive Eating

More often than not, athletes require more fuel than non-athletes to support their activity levels. So following a menu or meal plan geared to the general public likely won't cut it. Athletes need to learn to trust and respect their hunger to support their bodies' active needs. Here's some tips that can help you move into intuitive eating.

  • Keep snacks on hand so you can eat when hunger strikes. How can you satisfy your hunger between meals if you don't have food with you? Having snacks handy is a great way to get closer to eating intuitively.
  • Identify trends by journaling. Keep a food log and focus on tracking hunger and fullness (instead of calories) before and after meals. This will help you identify trends and become more aware of your own hunger. The hunger scale should rank from 1 (absolutely starving) to 10 (uncomfortably full). Ideally, you will want to start eating at around 3 or 4 on the scale and stop eating at around 7 or 8. This will take some practice, but it can be a big help over time.
  • Eat without distractions. Eating while on the computer or while watching TV can distract you from paying attention to your hunger and fullness. Be in tune with your body while you eat.
  • Work with a registered dietitian. An RD can help you learn more about intuitive eating and how to integrate it into your life.
  • Be sure to eat enough in the beginning. Getting used to eating based on hunger cues can take time, and you might find yourself eating less early on. This is normal, but it's important to still eat enough to support your level of activity. If you occasionally have to eat without being hungry, don't be afraid to do it.

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Schaefer, Julie; Magnunson, Amy B. "A Review of Interventions that Promote Eating by Internal Cues." Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dieteics; May 2014, Volume 114 Number 5 pp 634-760.

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: DIET