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What Does It Mean to be an Intuitive Eater?

Intuitive Eating:  a practice of eating according to the body’s natural hunger and fullness cues. 

When is the last time you really listened to your body when you were hungry or full?  Intuitive eating is nothing new, we have been doing it since we were babies.  We would cry when we were hungry and turn away from food when full. Throughout our lives, we learn other cues that can override our natural instinct to eat and stop eating: time, emptiness of a plate, peer pressure, social situations, being told “one more bit”, etc. Being on the go or too busy to always listen to what our body needs decreases mindfulness at meals and reduces our ability to be great intuitive eaters.  We are living in a time when eating is based on convenience.

“Dieting” has a negative connotation associated with restriction, deprivation, and being hungry.  Intuitive eating has historically been used in eating disorder clinics, but it is becoming more prevalent with dietitians in the hopes of teaching individuals how to have a better relationship with food.  It’s difficult to start eating intuitively out of lack of trust for your body’s natural hunger/fullness, fear of weight gain/loss, skewed hunger/fullness and the increased need for awareness in the early stages of relearning intuitive eating. However, starting with a hunger and fullness scale as a way to become more in tune with how hungry and full you feel can be the first step in becoming a better intuitive eater.

Hunger and Fullness Scale

1.    Feeling extremely hungry and may be shaking or light headed
2.    May feel more vulnerable, anxious or may have a headache
3.    Stomach is growling, but eating isn’t perceived as emergent
4.    Slightly hungry
5.    Neutral
6.    Satisfied
7.    Comfortably full
8.    Uncomfortably full
9.    Stuffed
10.    In pain/feeling sick

As you are learning the scale, start by identifying how hungry and full you are at one meal daily. Before you start eating, how would you rate your hunger? And half way through the meal, how full are you? After you finish the meal, how full are you? Raising awareness at just one meal a day will help build the habit of tuning in more often throughout the day. Eventually, this will become a natural part of your daily life where you can feel hunger, eat, and recognize satiety.

Eating varies from person to person and day to day within each individual. There is no right or wrong answer when learning more intuitive eating strategies. You will likely notice you experience excessive hunger from time to time, and you may feel overfull on occasion. That’s okay. The goal with the hunger/fullness scale is to tune in, make active decisions about your food, and respect your body.

To further build on the hunger and fullness scale, check out the Ten Principles for Intuitive Eating developed by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.

  1. Reject the Diet Mentality:  It’s easy to fall into the fad diet trend. However, these are typically too restrictive and may not be beneficial for athlete’s overall health and performance. Often, fad diets can increase risk for dehydration (or malhydration), low blood sugar, and increase risk of injury.
  2.  Honor Your Hunger:  After long, intense exercise some athletes may feel hungry right away or some may not feel hungry until the next day.  While there is no “one size fits all” for hunger/fullness, recovery from exercise is an important part of continued athletic progress. Hunger and fullness cues can be altered based on hydration, elevated body temperature from exercise, and decreased gastric motility from exercise. Work with your registered dietitian to optimize your fuel while still listening to your hunger/fullness cues.
  3. Make Peace with Food: For many athletes and non-athletes, the media, peers, or coaches influence your daily intake or thoughts around food. One food group is not superior to another. Every food and every food group can and does fit into your diet. Some foods are needed in excess depending on the type of exercise performed.
  4. Challenge the Food Police: Advertising has an impact on the nutrition information that many athletes see on a daily basis. There are no inherently good or bad foods. Favorite foods can fit into even the highest level of athlete’s diet.
  5. Respect Your Fullness: Do you find yourself indulging in large meals at the end of the day after intense exercise? Or do you restrict throughout the day if you know you will be eating out that night? Consuming the right amount of food and nutrients throughout the day is a great way to prevent those large indulgent meals you may have later on in the day. Contrary to popular belief, eating regularly helps control hunger and limits episodes of overeating.
  6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor: Love the food you eat! We eat for fuel, flavor and fun and can find satisfaction in each of those areas.
  7. Honor Feelings Without Using Food: Yes, we’re talking about emotional eating here (also called “stress eating”). It’s common for stress or other emotions to have an effect on appetite (either increased or decreased). If you find yourself eating without hunger going long periods of time without food, you may be altering food intake out of emotion. Other self care strategies like journaling, deep breathing, meditation, exercise and more can help you better manage emotion while responding to your nutrition needs separately. If these are new concepts to you, a counselor or therapist can help you develop healthy strategies for emotional management.
  8. Respect Your Body: Body insecurity is common, even at the Olympic athlete level. Rather than focusing on how you look, focus on what your body can achieve. We all have different genetics that produce a variety of shapes and sizes. Rather than changing your genes, focus on making them work for you in the best way possible.
  9. Exercise—Know the Difference: Why do you exercise? If you are training but not enjoying it, maybe it’s time to change your routine. You are more likely to reach your athletic goals if you are enjoying the exercise you are doing. And yes, everyone can find an activity they enjoy from personal training to hula hooping!
  10. Honor Your Health: If you are frequently sick, more injury prone, or have irregular menstrual cycles, it may be an indication that you are not adequately fueling your body. Consult your registered dietitian to assess if your fueling strategy is meeting your needs.

Questions on intuitive eating? See the link below or contact a registered dietitian for more information.

More information on intuitive eating: