Trina Dalziel/Getty Images/Ikon Images
Trina Dalziel/Getty Images/Ikon Images
Dieting can mess up the body's connection to hunger cues. In fact, chronic dieting can often end up complicating our relationship with food more than it helps us reach a desired weight. Research suggests that the vast majority of people who lose weight on restrictive eating plans, especially ones that are unsustainable, end up gaining it back.
Enter intuitive eating, a simple practice that's meant to help people make peace with food. Here's how it works: When you're hungry, you eat what sounds good to you. When you're full, you stop.
To be clear, intuitive eating is not about weight loss. But there's evidence that eating intuitively can improve self-esteem and body image and have other health benefits. And early research suggests that eating intuitively can help people who struggle with disordered eating.
NPR Life Kit host and senior science and health editor Maria Godoy talks intuitive eating with Judith Matz, a clinical social worker with a focus on helping her clients make peace with food.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Intuitive eating sounds so obvious — eat when you're hungry. Is that really the trick?
We actually come into this world born knowing how to eat. Babies eat when they're hungry. And they turn away from the breast or the bottle when they're full, but so many things can interfere with that knowledge.
Intuitive eating is about reconnecting with signals for hunger and signals for fullness and choosing from a wide variety of foods, so that we're eating the foods that both support our bodies and make us feel satisfied.
Some people imagine an all-potato-chip diet when they hear about this approach. Does that happen?
I've never met anybody, when they listen to their body, who only wants those kinds of foods — the pizza and cookies and cake and candy and ice cream — just like I've never met anybody who only wants veggies and salads and fruit. Our bodies really like variety, and there's room for all kinds of foods when you learn to listen and trust your body.
How do you learn to listen to and trust your body?
The first step is to pay attention and check in and notice if you're physically hungry. And a lot of times, I find that people really aren't sure what that feels like because they've gotten so used to eating by the clock or eating when their diet tells them to. So you want to check in with your stomach and look for a gnawing or empty feeling that tells you that you're hungry.
When I ask people, "How do you know if you're physically hungry?" They'll tell me things like they get a headache. They get crabby, irritable, fatigue, low energy. And all of those signs are that they waited too long. The problem is that when you wait too long to eat and get too hungry, you feel desperate. You'll eat anything, and you're likely to eat more of it than your body needs.
How do you figure out what you should be eating?
Think of a time that you were hungry, and you got exactly what you were hungry for. Think about how that felt. Most people will say they felt content. It felt satisfying. It felt good.
And then think about a time you were hungry, but for whatever reasons you didn't get what you wanted. Maybe you couldn't afford it. Maybe it wasn't available. Maybe you were dieting, and so you ate something else, and maybe you even got full, but you never felt satisfied.
So the key is to stop having rules around food and really listen to your body. Sometimes our body wants fruits and vegetables. And sometimes we want ice cream or pizza — there's room for all kinds of foods.
What about people who need to stick to a certain diet?
Certainly, there are people who have specific health issues, so honoring their body and making a good match might mean making a choice. They might want ice cream on a hot summer night, but because they're dealing with high cholesterol they decide to substitute some sorbet. That way they get the cold and the sweet without getting the fat.
How do you put intuitive eating into practice on the go?
You can see how it makes a difference to keep food with you. So if you're at work and you don't bring any food with you, and then all of a sudden you get caught up in a project and you notice you're hungry but you can't leave, you can see how you would get too hungry, right? By the end of the day, you're really at high risk of overeating.
Bring a food bag with you, and you can put in leftovers from last night, a sandwich, pasta salad, cookies, cheese, crackers, fruit, veggies — whatever you like. At least then there's a reasonable chance that you'll have something that's a good enough match for you, or at least you'll have something where you can have a bite or two to take the edge off your hunger until you're able to get out and get something that will satisfy you.
So you know when to eat, what to eat. The next question is, how much to eat?
If you start eating when you're hungry, there'll be a signal that says, "I'm full." And, again, if you're eating what your body wants in that moment, you'll feel satisfied. And it's easier to stop when we feel satisfied. So the key here is to really tune in and pay attention. This is where the term mindfulness comes in — noticing how the food tastes. And, you know, really enjoy it. Savor it. And then when you notice that your body feels satisfied, then it's time to stop.
What's the ultimate goal of doing that, of getting control of your eating?
The ultimate goal is to feel at peace with food. The word "control," to me, is a diet word — diet mentality — because when you're dieting, you have to use control. You have to use willpower to make yourself not eat something that you want. With intuitive eating, the word I like is that you become "in charge" of your eating. You get to decide.
There might be one day where, at your staff meeting, they've brought in pizza. And it feels like the perfect match, and you have some. And you have the amount you want, and you're able to stop when you're satisfied. Maybe on another day, you weren't expecting that pizza. And you had brought a turkey and cheese sandwich, and that still sounds better to you. And so you can pass up the pizza without feeling deprived or like you're being good or bad or any of those kinds of diet mentality words.
I also just want to clarify that weight loss is not the goal of intuitive eating. As people move on the path of intuitive eating and make peace with food, they will settle into whatever is their natural weight range. And for some people, weight loss may happen as a side effect. For other people, that's not the case.
So it's really about making peace with food?
Another way I like to say it is developing a healthy relationship with food, as opposed to just eating healthy foods. One of the things I want to make sure people understand is that you don't want to change intuitive eating into the new diet, where the new rule is, I can only eat when I'm hungry, and I have to stop the minute I'm full.
For most people, it takes practice to relearn these signals. So you might find that when you first start, there's both relief that you can eat the foods that you truly like but there's also some fear around it. But once you start giving yourself permission to eat the foods you like and you keep them available, people find the cravings diminish.
I want to also make the point that intuitive eating is flexible. It's not like a diet, where you have to do it perfectly — if you make a mistake, you've blown it.
Somebody who's working with intuitive eating starts to learn the language of self-compassion. Oh, I ate more than I needed. I feel uncomfortable. I'm going to do my best to wait until I'm hungry again and keep working on paying attention to that signal of fullness. So you can hear the difference.
It's really important to come back to making peace with food and then working on making peace with your body.
OK. So intuitive eating can help you reframe your relationship with food and your body. Here's a quick review of the five takeaways of eating intuitively:
- Learn how it feels when you're hungry, but don't wait until you're too hungry.
- Think about what food would make you feel satisfied.
- When you're deciding how much to eat, trust your body to let you know when it's full.
- Depriving yourself of foods you love can be counterproductive.
- Intuitive eating is flexible, so don't worry if you mess up.
Alissa Escarce produced the audio portion of this story, which was originally published on May 27, 2019.