Many of us don’t only eat when we’re hungry. Boredom, stress, distractions, and poor body image are just some of the many psychological reasons that people may turn to food.
For some, this can be distressing and you may feel a loss of control. However, learning to trust your natural hunger and fullness cues – in other words, to eat intuitively – can help with emotional eating and offer a number of benefits.
From improved body image to reduced mental stress and better overall quality of life, here we’ll explore exactly what intuitive eating is and offer tips on how you can get started.
What is intuitive eating?
Intuitive eating is the concept of eating according to your body’s natural hunger signals. This means eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full. While this concept sounds pretty simple, putting it into practise can be tricky for many people.
As previously mentioned, poor body image, stress, and boredom are just some of the various reasons that can cause people to eat when they aren’t physically hungry. For example, as cliche as it might sound, it’s not uncommon for people to turn to tubs of ice cream, crisps, or chocolate when they feel emotional, for a quick pick-me-up.
The term intuitive eating was first coined in 1995 when a book called, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works, was published. However, the concept also has roots dating further back. Early pioneers of intuitive eating include Susie Orbach, who published Fat is a Feminist Issue in 1978; and Geneen Roth, who has written about emotional eating since 1982.
Before that, in 1973, Thelma Wayler also founded a weight management programme that was centered on the concept that diets don’t work and lifestyle changes are both more important and effective for long-term health.
What’s the difference between physical hunger and psychological hunger?
If you’d like to learn how to eat intuitively, one of the best places to start is to understand the difference between physical and emotional hunger. We’ll cover these below…
- Physical hunger is a biological urge from the body telling you to replenish energy and nutrients. Physical hunger can build gradually and can involve various signals, including stomach rumbles, fatigue, or irritability. These feelings will be satisfied after you’ve eaten.
- Psychological hunger is driven by an emotional need. For example, sadness, boredom, or loneliness can all create food cravings – often for comfort or processed foods. It’s not unusual for emotional eating to cause further feelings of guilt and sadness after.
What are the benefits of eating intuitively?
Research on intuitive eating is still growing, and it’s important to note that many current studies have focused on women only. However, there are a number of promising findings that are worth noting.
Overall, research has linked intuitive eating with healthier mental attitudes, lower body mass index (BMI), and healthy weight maintenance – though, not weight loss.
One of the most significant benefits of intuitive eating is improved mental health. Large numbers of participants in intuitive eating studies have reported reduced anxiety and depression, and improved self-esteem, body image, and overall quality of life.
Intuitive eating approaches have also been found to have good retention rates – meaning people are more likely to continue practising the behaviour than they would a diet.
Intuitive eating has been found to be particularly beneficial for people recovering from eating disorders, or disordered eating patterns. For example, studies which looked at women’s eating behaviours and attitudes towards food found that taking an intuitive approach reduced the likelihood of disordered eating patterns.
5 tips for eating intuitively
Eating intuitively can sometimes feel out of sync with mainstream diet rules – or seem particularly unnatural if you’ve lost touch with your body’s hunger cues. So, where’s the best place to start?
We’ll cover some tips for eating intuitively below…
1. Try not to focus too much on diet trends and rules
Diet trends have been around for decades. Very often, popular diets can lead people to feel that they must only eat certain food groups, and avoid others entirely.
Research has also found that diet rules, such as restrictive calorie counting, can encourage a mistrust of your body’s natural signals – including hunger cues and energy levels.
For this reason, it’s important not to focus too much on diet trends and rules. Not only can rules be unhelpful, but many are also inaccurate. A prime example of this are carbohydrates, which have long been given a bad rap. However, we know from research that many high-carb foods are actually extremely healthy.
Similarly, fruit and vegetables are sometimes demonised for their sugar content – but the natural sugar in fruit is entirely different to the added sugars, which can negatively impact health. Plus, fruit and vegetables are a fantastic source of fibre and essential vitamins and minerals.
There’s also evidence that becoming too preoccupied with diet rules can lead to unhealthy habits. For example, have you ever found that as soon as you start focusing on dieting, the more you think about food, and the more you end up eating? Studies even suggest that feeling guilty or shameful about your food choices can lead to overeating and make it even more difficult to lose weight.
Ultimately, while some foods are naturally healthier and more nutritionally rich than others, it’s often best to keep things simple by focusing on eating a healthy, balanced diet, rich in whole foods. The diet and nutrition section of our website is full of useful tips for this.
2. Practise mindful eating
These days, it’s not uncommon to be distracted while we eat. However, since it takes the brain up to 20 minutes to recognise when we’re full, distracted eating habits can be problematic – and in many cases, lead to mindless eating that isn’t in check with hunger cues.
Mindful eating is a practice designed to help people focus their full attention on eating. This involves things like eating slower, without distractions, and recognising the taste, smell, and texture of your food. Research has linked a number of benefits with mindful eating, including improved portion control, healthier eating habits, and a greater appreciation for the food we eat.
When it comes to eating intuitively, mindful eating can be especially helpful because it can increase our awareness of feeling full, and help us understand the reasons behind why we might reach for food.
For example, in this study, people who ate their meals in front of the television consumed 36% more pizza and 71% more macaroni and cheese than those who ate without distractions. These results were also put down to the fact that eating without distractions can cause you to eat slower.
Check out our beginner’s guide to mindful eating to find out more.
3. Honour your hunger
One of the most useful things you can do when it comes to intuitive eating is to honour your hunger. Keeping your body well-fed and with enough energy will not only leave you feeling ready to face the day, but can also reduce the temptation to overeat later on to compensate.
There’s extensive research to suggest that ignoring your hunger signals can have a negative impact on eating habits. One reason for this is that skipping meals can cause dips in blood sugar, which are linked with increased food cravings and disruption of the body’s natural hunger cues. Low blood sugar also causes the body to start producing cortisol (the stress hormone) – which is a common trigger for emotional eating.
Honouring your hunger can also lead to a greater awareness of hunger cues and encourage you to trust your body and its signals.
4. Find ways to work through your feelings without turning to food
Many of us have turned to food for comfort, reward, and stress relief. In fact, according to research, 38% of adults said they’d overeaten in the past month due to stress – with half reporting they’d engaged in these behaviours weekly or more.
For many people, emotional eating can trigger a cycle of guilt (particularly because, more often than not, it’s processed foods like pizza, crisps, and ice cream that we reach for), which is then followed by more overeating. Naturally, this can make it difficult to eat intuitively.
If this is something you struggle with, it can be helpful to take the time to recognise triggers that cause you to eat emotionally, and consider alternative methods for working through your feelings.
Researchers have highlighted that some of the most common triggers for psychological eating include boredom, stress, socialising, poor sleep, and eating hyperpalatable foods (processed foods like crisps and sweets). Activities like journaling, meditating, and spending time amongst nature are thought to be some of the most useful methods for overcoming psychological eating.
If you currently struggle with emotional eating and would like some guidance, you might find some useful information in the healthy mind section of our website. We’ve got articles on everything from tips for coping with stress and anxiety to ways to maintain emotional balance.
Often, once you’ve got a better hold on emotional eating, it can become a lot easier to recognise, and tune into, your physical hunger cues.
5. Learn to respect and love your body
When you start to love and respect your body and feel grateful for what it does, your whole perspective on food can shift, which can make it easier to eat intuitively. This is because research has identified a link between poor body image and our ability to read physical hunger cues.
For example, this study looked at brain responses to gut and heart signals. It found that people who experienced greater body shame and preoccupation with weight had weaker brain responses to internal body signals and stronger responses to external signals – such as those popularised in diet culture.
It can also be annoying to notice that some people can eat much more than you without their body changing. But it’s important to remember that there’s no reason to compare yourself to others or put yourself down – and how we look on the outside isn’t always an accurate reflection of our health anyway.
Learning to accept and love your body can reduce the temptation to restrict yourself in unhealthy ways in an effort to change it. Some people find it useful to work on shifting their mindset from eating to change their body, to eating to nourish it.
For further help on this, you might like to have a read of our article; 15 things you can do to start loving and accepting your body. We also have an article on body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) if this is something you struggle with.
From boredom and stress to negative body image, there are various reasons why we might turn to food for comfort or feel out of check with our natural hunger signals.
However, while this cycle can feel difficult to get out of, the good news is that practising intuitive eating can help you to build new, healthier habits. Plus, it’s pretty simple to get started too.
For further reading, head over to the diet and nutrition section of our website. Here you’ll find everything from essential vitamin and mineral guides to healthy breakfast ideas.
What are your experiences of intuitive eating? Is it something that you’d like to try? We’d be interested in hearing from you in the comments below.