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Eating should be easy, shouldn’t it? It should work like this: We get hungry, we eat what feels good for us, and we’re all set. But in reality, eating is way more complicated. Too often, for too many of us, getting a snack or dinner involves confronting a messy pileup of conflicting rules, instincts, signals, and feelings. Ever wished you weren’t eating the thing you were actually eating at that moment? Ever hashtagged your life story #bodygoals or #foodguilt? Ever wanted a straightforward way out of this?
Eating intuitively—also known as eating mindfully or consciously—is a whole different way of thinking about how to eat. It can help us get healthier by various measures, and feel good too (about our bodies and in other ways), research suggests. Eating intuitively means clearing out some of the stuff in that messy pileup—so yes, it’s a departure from our cultural norm, something we need to think about and practice. Yet at the same time, eating intuitively is not a new skill.
Eating intuitively or mindfully is about cuing into our mind and body, figuring out what feels right, and acting on those signals, just as we evolved to do. “Eating intuitively is a way of using your body’s wisdom—your intuition—to guide your decisions around food,” says Lauren Fowler, RD, a nutritionist with expertise in eating disorders, based in Vermont. “Instead of following rigid, restrictive diets, intuitive eating is the process of tuning into your body’s cues for hunger, fullness, and what you want to eat in that moment.”
How eating intuitively helps
For many of us, decisions about how we eat are driven, to some extent, by our body image and ideas about how to control our weight. This is true of people who have a diagnosable eating disorder (a medical condition), and also, to some extent, true of many people who don’t. This motivation for food choices tends to backfire, research shows (see right). In contrast, eating mindfully or intuitively seems to set us up for positive outcomes. In a 2014 meta-analysis of 26 studies in Public Health Nutrition, researchers concluded that eating intuitively or mindfully was a better way than dieting to maintain a healthy weight. It also resulted in improved psychological health, lower blood pressure and “bad” cholesterol, and healthier eating habits, compared with weight-driven diets or nothing at all.
Eating mindfully is not about weight loss. That said, some studies suggest it can help with weight management as a side effect of developing a healthier relationship with food. In another 2014 meta-analysis, researchers found that a mindful eating approach helped participants ditch unhealthy (and ineffective) weight-loss strategies, improve their metabolic fitness, and be more satisfied with their bodies (Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics). That’s a win-win-win.
Why weight-loss approaches can let us down
“Weight bias” or shame is disempowering and reduces our ability to take care of ourselves, according to a 2014 study in the I (and other studies).
Some health care providers who specialize in eating-related issues point out that body shame and dieting can contribute to stigma, anxiety, and disordered eating. “Diets require you to ignore hunger or cut out foods you may really enjoy. Often, this leads people into a cycle of obsessing about food or binging on food,” says Lauren Fowler, RD.
What works better? “By learning to trust your body [through eating intuitively], you can eat then move on with your day, instead of obsessing or feeling guilty about eating,” says Fowler.
Increasingly, eating mindfully as a positive approach to self-care is influencing medical research and practice. “Learning to eat for your body’s health needs, rather than for other reasons like image or social rules, leads to less stress, and less guilt and shame, and is associated with a number of health benefits,” says Dr. Marc Weigensberg, an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, who researches the psychological and physiological factors that influence obesity and chronic disease risk.
7 steps to becoming an intuitive eater
In some ways, this approach to eating may feel counterintuitive. Can we really lose the baggage associated with body shape and food—baggage that is so familiar we may not even see that we’re dragging it around? That’s a valid point. Still, think about this: Eating intuitively is about reconnecting with what our bodies and minds already know how to do. As we practice mindful eating, we may develop a healthy and pleasurable relationship with food, and with ourselves, research suggests. Check out these seven steps. Click on each one for more info and students’ perspectives.
Tune in to your cues. How hungry are you? What do you want to eat? How or where do you want to eat? Check in with yourself before you pick up lunch in the cafeteria or hit up the vending machine. While you’re eating, be attentive to when your body becomes satisfied. No matter how good that froyo is, too much just makes you feel sick.
Three ways to build body awareness
1. Hear what your body is telling you
Once you’ve determined that you’re actually hungry, focus on what your body is telling you, says Lauren Fowler, RD, a nutritionist with expertise in eating disorders. If you can’t stop thinking about a bowl of pasta after track practice, it’s probably because your body needs carbs. Eating mindfully suggests you’re better off reaching for the rigatoni than trying to get by on a simple salad.
2. Check in with yourself every few hours
“You can work on this by checking in with your body every few hours to prioritize nourishment,” says Fowler. “You’ll find that you may be able to focus better, have more energy, and feel better throughout the day with consistent fuel.” To get into the habit of consistent check-ins, consider setting up an alert on your laptop or phone.
3. As you eat, focus on fullness
“A very small percentage of people have the full time and attention to eat a pea and say, ‘Am I full yet?’” says Dr. Brian Wansink, author of Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life (William Morrow, 2014), and director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, New York. Pay attention to portion sizes up front, and check in with yourself to see if your body wants seconds or if you’re actually full.
“The college environment isn’t good for weight management. Students are pressed for time with studying, and fast food is both convenient and tastes good, which satisfies one temporarily.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Temple University, Pennsylvania
“[Intuitive eating has helped me] listen to my body when it tells me I am no longer hungry instead of stuffing myself because the food is too good.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, State University of New York at Oswego
Eating mindfully is about enjoying your food. If you’ve been thinking about treating yourself to a post-exam cupcake or slice of pizza, go for it. Cherish that mouthfeel. Equally, relish the kale chips and salad.
How to put the fun back into food
Enjoy everything, not just the treats
This goes both ways. Kale chips? Don’t just crunch them down and give yourself a pat on the back. Instead, savor the healthy food you’re eating and the feeling of satisfaction. “I like to look at how can you get the most satisfaction out of eating,” says Elyse Resch, MS, RD, a nutritionist who co-created Intuitive Eating—a specific program and brand. “I begin with satisfaction because, to me, that’s the driving force of Intuitive Eating. It has an impact on all your meals.”
Choose higher-quality foods if available
This isn’t always an option, of course. Budget is a major consideration for most of us. That said, if you love the cupcakes your roommate’s mom makes, don’t spoil your appetite with the subpar version from the café. “When you realize all food is fair game, why waste your time on anything that’s going to be inferior? As the intuitive eater emerges, you start going for better foods,” Resch says.
“[Eating consciously] allows me to really enjoy my food and ensure that I eat enough without eating too much. It helps me listen to the signals my body is sending me. I feel at peace when I’m able to live right in the moment and enjoy my experience to its fullest.”
—Fifth-year undergraduate student, Ball State University, Indiana
Eating intuitively is not about “good” or “bad” foods. If you’re truly listening to your instincts, giving your body what it needs is something you do naturally, proponents of mindful eating say. Making peace with a slice of cake and striving to make healthy choices are not mutually exclusive.
Here’s why you don’t need those old rules
All foods are available
Guess what? You’re allowed to eat those Instagram-worthy desserts. You get to move away from self-denial and punishment. “Valuing yourself, and being gentle and compassionate with yourself, are keys to success,” says Dr. Marc Weigensberg of the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.
Think of foods as emotionally equivalent
It’s OK to find the happy feels in a bowl of ice cream—and also in a crunchy carrot. “All foods should be emotionally equivalent. That doesn’t mean they’re nutritionally equivalent, but you should be able to feel that you can look for the same pleasure and satisfaction out of any food without judging it,” says Resch. Eating intuitively means you’re not beating yourself up when you indulge.
“I’ve never felt better. Even on my so-called ‘cheat days,’ I am conscious and aware and still have very little regret afterwards. I have lost about 15 pounds because I am simply following my body’s needs and listening to what my body tells me. I’ve never felt better about myself.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Utah State University
Intuitive eating is about forming a better relationship between your body and what’s on your plate. It means letting go of goals that emphasize counting calories and dropping pounds, and finding the joy in food and your own self.
Make this about feeling good now and in the future
Focus on looking after yourself and feeling good
Always think health. “Rather than jumping on the latest fad diet, obsessing about a number on the scale, or worrying about the size of pants you wear, it’s helpful to instead focus your energy on healthy behaviors that you can engage in, regardless of body weight, and try to make these a regular part of your lifestyle,” says Dr. Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut. When we diet, our intuitive wires get crossed, suggests a 2013 study in Eating Behaviors. Dieting participants in the study actually associated eating with satisfying an emotional need more strongly than with satisfying their hunger.
Think about the immediate benefits and be happy about long-term ones
Immediate benefits are more motivating than distant ones, so think about the ways that eating affects your feelings of pleasure, satisfaction, and self-care in the short term. Eating intuitively also sets us up for ongoing health and well-being, including long-term weight management, according to a 2016 study in JMIR Research Protocols. Participants who practiced eating intuitively experienced improved eating behaviors and more positive mental health, and they were still on track when researchers followed up three months later.
“[People criticizing my weight] made me more depressed and less motivated to make myself healthier. I ended up just eating more unhealthy food.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Temple University, Pennsylvania
“[Eating consciously] has helped me with portion size and making better choices in general. I don’t notice any difference on the outside yet, but I definitely feel different.”
—Third-year undergraduate, University of Hawaii at Manoa
As scary as it sounds, try totally disconnecting while you eat. No Instagram, no texting, no binge-watching Stranger Things. Paying attention to what you’re eating is the whole point.
Why focus makes food so much better
Focus on your food
Intuitive eating is all about getting maximum pleasure from your meals. At the very least, that means remembering you ate them. When we’re distracted, we eat more, and we continue to eat more through the day, according to a 2013 review of studies in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Researchers think that’s because we literally forget what we nommed down earlier in the day.
Beat the binge
Serve your food on a dish and make a point of enjoying each mouthful. Distracted munching can lead to accidental binge-snacking. That’s when you plonk yourself down with a bag of chips in front of the TV, and suddenly the bag is empty. In a 2012 study in Health Psychology, when there was no visual guide to portion sizes, students ate 50 percent more chips than than students who were cued into portion size through combinations of different-colored chips.
Get more enjoyment out of eating
Are you noticing how these steps reinforce each other? “When one is present while eating, that is a much more satisfying experience than being distracted while you’re putting the food in your mouth,” says Resch. “And let’s be honest, that fourth piece of pizza never tastes as good as that first piece of pizza.”
Reap the calorie benefits
Eating while distracted results in increased calorie intake, a 2013 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests. Again, eating intuitively isn’t directly about weight management—but for some that’s a side effect, because mindful eating can help us let go of attitudes and approaches that weren’t helpful.
“Mindful eating helps me maintain my weight. [It] also helps me stop binge snacking. By eating more nutrient-rich food I have way more energy than usual.”
—Third-year undergraduate, University of California, Davis
Once you’re cuing into your instincts, it gets easier to stick up for them—even when Mom sends a care package full of treats, or your friends want to split a second pizza when you’re already stuffed.
Why it’s OK to honor your values
Stick up for yourself
Setting boundaries is not only OK, it’s part of the process. If someone is pressing food on you, you always have the option to say “No thanks.” You don’t need to explain. But if you feel awkward, or are concerned about seeming high-maintenance, offer to take some home for later. “A major portion of Intuitive Eating is to realize that you have a right to have your needs met, and that includes speaking up,” says Resch.
Honor the social aspects of eating in ways that work for you
That said, part of the pleasure of food is social. Eating intuitively can be helpful when your baby cousin offers you a cookie he baked himself, or your professor makes a big-deal dish for the holiday celebration. With no food rules, you can do what feels right—which may be a full serving, a taste, or “Not for me, thanks.”
“I find intuitive eating works well if you are strictly adhering to eating that way. However, once out with friends, out to dinner, etc., it becomes difficult to follow.”
—Fourth-year graduate student, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador
“For me this is a more advanced piece of eating mindfully. Now, before I go out with friends, I think about the ways that their eating used to influence mine—like stealing half their fries, even when the fries weren’t that great. I even practice saying, ‘Not for me tonight, thanks.’”
—Recent graduate, Tufts University School of Medicine, Massachusetts
Becoming an intuitive eater is a healthy approach to total wellness, so think big picture. There may a spillover effect here. The habits you develop to guide your eating may support your emotional health, work, and relationships too.
Notice how mindfulness can improve other experiences too
Reap the emotional benefits
If eating intuitively has emotional health benefits, as some research suggests, it may support our overall happiness. For example, mindfulness—savoring the moment—can become a way of valuing a brisk walk to the store, or that quirky interaction involving the classmate you don’t quite gel with. “If you’re looking to mindful eating as the basis of your relationship with food, it will leach out into other aspects of your life,” says Resch, “like finding meaningful experiences in life, and in your work and relationships.”
“[Intuitive eating] has helped with my psychological wellness. I, along with many others, have suffered with the emotions tied to food and eating. Mindful eating has helped me to eat better and without my emotions and therefore has helped me like myself more.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Saint Louis University, Missouri
Is eating intuitively a treatment for eating disorders?
Can eating disorders be fully cured? It’s not clear. Some nutritionists and health care providers see disordered eating as a chronic condition that calls for ongoing management and attention (in this regard, it is similar to diabetes or alcohol dependence). This may be because the underlying feelings about food and self-image are persistent. “I have seen so many people who are trying to heal from an eating disorder who really don’t heal, because their mind-set has not been shifted from feeling bad about food,” says Resch.
Disordered eating is about rigid food rules, and tends to involve an all-or-nothing approach to eating. This can hike up the pressures associated with food. Someone who declares an entire food group off-limits (carbs, dairy, or added sugars)—without a medical reason—puts themselves into a state of constant vigilance and self-denial. That’s difficult to sustain, especially when we’re tired or stressed. Feeling bad about eating a few candies (a forbidden food) may lead us into an all-out food binge.
Eating intuitively can help break those negative thought processes and behaviors, proponents say. “Intuitive eating work in eating disorder recovery is [about] making peace with food in order to break free of all the food rules,” says Fowler. The research is promising. A 2014 meta-analysis of 24 peer-reviewed studies suggested that an intuitive approach to eating could help treat binge eating, anorexic tendencies, and self-shaming in participants, while improving participants’ self-esteem, body satisfaction, and self-acceptance (Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics).
That said, if your body image or eating issues are persistent, seek support at your student health center or counseling center. “People meeting diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder probably can’t think or try their way out of their problem, at least not without professional help,” says Dr. Davis Smith, staff physician at the University of Connecticut.
“I’ve been struggling with body images issues for the past few years, and once I discovered I can reinvent myself through healthy delicious food and fitness I’ve never looked back.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Lambton College, Ontario
“It helped me stop bingeing on foods when I didn’t need to. I learned to stop eating when I was full and to not eat snacks just for the sake of eating. I dealt with body weight issues because of my fluctuating weight due to bingeing, so this concept has been very helpful in keeping me grounded in what truly matters.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Stanford University, California
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“Mindful eating is so important to me, especially in an age that is obsessed with dieting. Paying attention to how you eat, and why you eat, is more important than strictly controlling caloric intake. I listen to my body and eat when I am hungry, and use mealtime to turn off electronics and focus on food and friends. I get to enjoy my favorite foods (like frozen yogurt!) and still stay healthy and satisfied. This also helps me maintain a healthy relationship with my body.”
—Marielle Martinez, second-year student, Florida Southern College
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Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, CEDRD, nutritionist; co-author, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003).
Lauren Fowler, RDN, nutritionist, Vermont.
Rebecca Puhl, PhD, professor, Department of Human Development and Family Studies; deputy director, Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, University of Connecticut.
Marc Weigensberg, MD, associate professor, University of Southern California, Keck School of Medicine.
Brian Wansink, PhD, professor of marketing; director, Food and Brand Lab, Cornell University, New York; author, Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life (William Morrow, 2014).
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Student Health 101 survey, January 2017.
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