Over the past few years, I have been intrigued by a concept that has popped up in the health and fitness realm called “intuitive eating.” In a strong critique of diet culture, intuitive eating gives a person unconditional permission to eat what they desire.
Of course, there is more to the story — this isn’t a reckless excuse to eat whatever you want. Intuitive eating is about finding peace with the food you are consuming. Instead of shaming yourself for eating a specific way, it requires paying attention to your body, seeing what it physically needs or wants, and going from there.
The practice requires us to intentionally ask questions like, Am I actually hungry, or is this an emotional hunger that I am looking to solve with a meal or snack? It follows those questions with a healthier response than unthinkingly turning to comfort food. If you are craving sugar, for example, it’s okay to recognize that desire for what it is and eat it — until, once again, you pay attention to when you are full.
After months of intrigue, I decided to give it a shot. I recently finished a graduate program that included elements of intentionality and greater awareness about decision making. Intuitive eating is a very introspective process that requires actually pausing instead of living on autopilot. As someone who tends to move at double speed, I knew it would be a challenge to stop and check in with myself.
At first, I wanted to try intuitive eating for an entire week. Whenever I attempt something new, especially relating to trends or fads, I tend to dive in fully. A friend of mine, however, recommended I start with just one meal. She reminded me that this process was easier said than done. Admittedly, I felt the challenge to do more and decided to compromise on just one day of intuitive eating — how hard could that be?
I quickly realized that the first step, before anything else, was to remember to intuitively eat. It seemed that I was in a hurry every time I ate a meal that day. As much as I wanted to avoid it, I realized I was living on autopilot, whether it was to shove a bagel into my mouth to make it to work or to arrive in time for my intramural volleyball game. The first realization, before anything else, was that I needed intentionality to engage this process.
I am aware that we don’t always have control over when we can eat. In busier times of life, it is necessary to seize the window of opportunity we have to fit in a meal. Even before I started eating that day, I realized I needed to dedicate brain power to the first, fundamental question: Was I hungry, or not? And what should I do from there?
Luckily, I caught myself as I was preparing my breakfast. As someone who doesn’t normally eat breakfast, I was surprised to find that I was hungry, actually, and wanted something substantial to eat. That bagel I talked about before? It did the trick for me. Any other day, I probably would have ignored that physical cue of hunger in the business of my morning. Paying attention made me realize a new way of taking care of myself: in this case, the form of energy-rich carbs.
I swung in the opposite direction during lunch. I ate a little bit later than normal that day, and didn’t need to pause to know I was really hungry. I ate the bits and pieces of my lunch, navigating my emails and to-do lists. I realized about 75 percent of the way through my meal that I was approaching fullness. Part of intuitive eating is measuring your level of fullness on a scale, and I was quickly leaning toward a 7.
I was surprised to find just how easily I ate when I wasn’t hungry or wasn’t paying attention. Yet another interesting thing happened. Not only did I barely catch that I was full, but a part of me still felt a pull to just power through and finish my lunch. I wanted to eat my mini-Oreos, even if I wasn’t hungry enough to fully enjoy them. Though I do enjoy mini-Oreos, there’s no question that intuitive eating called me out on this habit.
The intuitive eating process helped me put aside the pieces of my lunch that I could save. I knew I could return to them in a few hours, or maybe tomorrow, or possibly lose my craving for them altogether. Granted, I wound up eating the mini-Oreos a few hours later — but I ate them when I was actually hungry, which I took as a victory of my intuitive eating day.
My friend was right: intuitive eating was easier said than done. I wasn’t fully prepared to call myself out for some of my eating habits — even as someone who has a healthy relationship with food, I had to examine my approach to food and disentangle it from habit or emotions and other factors.
The most important benefit I’m gaining from intuitive eating is practicing intentionality and being present-minded by attending to my body’s needs and rhythms. The process is giving me the opportunity to develop more patience and self-awareness, which has benefits beyond my physical health.