Research has shown that restrictive diets don’t lead to long-term healthy weight. While this may, in part, be because reducing food intake is not sustainable over the long term, unresolved unhealthy relationships with food may also be involved. For example, subconscious childhood messages to “clean our plates” of food we didn’t put there and enforced mealtimes that required us to either ignore our hunger until dinnertime or eat at a certain time—even if we weren’t hungry—may have led, eventually, to poor communication with our hunger GPS.
Intuitive eating is based on the premise that the body has an innate wisdom about the quantity and type of food required to maintain an appropriate weight and achieve nutritional health. It has been associated with less disordered eating, more aspects of positive body image such as body appreciation, and improved emotional functioning.
Essentially, intuitive eaters eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re satisfied. No food is off-limits unless it’s restricted by a specific health issue such as a food allergy or diabetes, for example, and intuitive eaters eat what and when they choose. In other words, intuitive eaters don’t consider the potential impact that a food might have on body weight.
This isn’t to suggest that intuitive eaters aren’t concerned about their health. On the contrary: people with higher body appreciation tend to focus on body function (what the body can do and feel) rather than body image (appearance) when making food choices.
The body’s goal, always, is to achieve allostasis or balance. When it comes to eating, a multitude of mechanisms are at work to sensitize us to food cues when energy reserves are getting low. For example, the appetite hormones ghrelin and leptin and other circulating molecules are directed by the hypothalamus, which is the control center in the brain.
Another example is interoceptive sensitivity, which is the extent to which we can detect internal bodily sensations. Lower interoceptive sensitivity has been observed in anorexia, binge eating, overweight and obesity, as well as depression. Intuitive eating is associated with higher levels of interoceptive sensitivity.
Amping up interoceptive sensitivity can be a challenging process, not only because we may have unconscious food programming, but also because we may jump to conclusions about what body sensations to expect when we’re hungry, for example, or what the sensations we experience might signal. We also may have trained ourselves to ignore physiological responses like hunger, stress, and pain. Mindfulness therapies may be useful in helping to re-establish the mind-body connection.
Signs of hunger
A rumbling tummy is not the only sign of hunger. Other cues include
- light-headedness or shakiness
- loss of focus
- thinking about food
Tips for eating mindfully
- Take small portions; refill as required.
- Sit to eat.
- Focus on food: no screens!
- Put down utensils between bites.
- Chew thoroughly.
- Notice flavor and texture.
- Stop eating when satisfied.
Written by Lisa Petty, PhD