The way I understand Intuitive Eating (hereafter referred to as IE in this post) at its most basic level is this:
Eat (whatever you want and whenever you want) when you are hungry, and stop when you are full.
That’s it. Now there are ways to go deeper into the actual practice of IE, like keeping a food/mood journal, practicing mindful eating by only eating when sitting down and never eating while you’re distracted (i.e. on the computer or watching tv or reading), etc. But let’s just stick with the simplest explanation for now, which is listening to your hunger/fullness signals and not depriving yourself.
This has worked wonders for me. Now, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, it’s not easy or quick to adopt (at least, it wasn’t for me). It might be hard to allow yourself all those “bad” foods you’ve been trying to deprive yourself of for so long. Even if you haven’t been successful at depriving yourself for more than a day or two at a time, you’ve probably been conditioned to think of foods as “healthy foods” or “junk foods”, so you feel guilty when you reach for the Cheetos instead of the carrot sticks.
For people who have lost the ability to eat in response to their body’s needs, IE can be a huge leap of faith. You may be scared that your appetite is so huge that it will never be satisfied. You may worry that all you’ll ever want to eat is cake and Cheez Whiz (not together, hopefully) and that you’ll gain weight and spiral into a miserable cycle of eating and eating and gaining and gaining and never being able to stop.
I had these fears.
And I’m not going to lie to you and say everything was smooth and easy, or that I ate “crazy” for a couple days and then got over all my cravings. In fact, for the first several weeks, my new IE “diet” was primarily made up of homemade chocolate chip cookies. I kid you not. I baked and ate them every single day, without fail, for more than a month. It was what I wanted, and as long as I was eating when I was hungry and stopping when I was satisfied (HARD to do at first, and even now), it was “legal”.
I definitely overate when I was learning, and I still do. It’s okay to overeat sometimes–everyone does it. Sometimes that’s part of intuitive eating. It’s not about being perfect.
But you have to learn to eat without judgment. This is so, so huge. IE is, in a large part, about rewiring your brain, getting rid of the “overeating–>guilt–>restriction” mentality. I threw out all the food rules I had memorized over the years (and I could write an entire book on all of those rules), and ate cookies when I wanted cookies, chips when I wanted chips, veggies when I wanted veggies, and meat when I wanted meat.
Eventually, you will get tired of the Cheez-its and brownies. At some point, your body starts to crave other, more substantial, and more nutritive things. And by putting all foods on an even playing field and removing the labels (good/bad, healthy/fattening, etc) that you had given to everything, you disempower those foods that once seemed to hold you captive. Cheesecake is no longer a special, sinful food that you know you shouldn’t be eating so you binge on it whenever you actually let yourself have any. Once you break down those mental barriers and let yourself have anything you want, a lot of those forbidden foods lose their allure.
You might find out that you don’t even care for some of the foods you’ve been depriving yourself of. Once I actually allowed myself to eat them deliberately, I found out that I’m actually not that fond of Oreos. Or any storebought cookies. Or Hershey’s chocolate. Now, if I want chocolate, I don’t binge on chocolate chips and hope that satisfies my craving. If I want chocolate, I’m going to get myself the real stuff, the good stuff–because I deserve it.
That’s what it really comes down to–learning to love and respect yourself, and transferring that love and respect into how you feed yourself. Getting rid of all the mind games you’ve been playing with yourself and finally being totally and completely honest about what it is you really want and need (which often isn’t even food–we’ll probably talk about that sometime soon).
There are a hundred things that could be said about IE, and a hundred people who have said it better. But hopefully this is a decent starting point. Feel free to weigh in, I’d love to hear your thoughts.