Trust Your Gut: A Beginner's Guide To Intuitive Eating Knowing when and what to eat may sound simple, but dieting can mess up our connection to hunger cues. The practice of intuitive eating can help people make peace with food.
Here's what to remember:
- Tune in to your hunger signals.
- Think about what foods will make you feel satisfied.
- When you decide how much to eat, trust your body to let you know when it's full.
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Trust Your Gut: A Beginner's Guide To Intuitive Eating

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Trust Your Gut: A Beginner's Guide To Intuitive Eating

Trust Your Gut: A Beginner's Guide To Intuitive Eating

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MARIA GODOY, HOST:

Hey, everybody. It's Maria Godoy. I cover health and science for NPR. And I'm the host of NPR's LIFE KIT guide to rethinking weight loss. As part of reporting that guide, we asked you for your weight loss stories. And a lot of you told us you had some pretty negative experiences.

LINDA GERHARDT: I'm 35, and I've been on a diet since I was a teenager.

KRISTEN LENTH: I went on my first diet when I was 19 years old because I had put on the freshman 20, in my case.

TALIA COOPER: One year, when I was pretty unhappy, I lost a ton of weight just because I didn't have an appetite. And suddenly, everyone was giving me so much love and attention and asking me what my weight loss secret was. This led to several years of me trying to keep the weight off.

GODOY: That was Linda Gerhardt, Kristen Lenth and Talia Cooper. They told us that even if their diets started off OK and they lost some weight, after a while, their relationships with food got a little messed up.

GERHARDT: Weight Watchers made me something of a binge eater, where I'd steadfastly count my points all week long, weigh in and then binge for the day that I weighed in.

COOPER: It just meant that I got more and more obsessed with food.

LENTH: Thus began a cycle of finding a new diet, losing weight and, eventually, gaining all my weight back, usually with a few extra pounds just for fun.

GODOY: And all of this is, unfortunately, pretty common. Research suggests that around 90% of people who lose weight end up gaining it back. And it can just put you in a really maddening mindset.

GERHARDT: I found myself crying over a 0.2-pound weight gain in the bathroom. That's 0.2 pounds. That's less than a pound.

GODOY: And restrictive diets can also lead to serious health problems, like eating disorders.

LENTH: So I finally decided I just couldn't do it anymore. Dieting just wasn't worth it. And right around that time, I discovered intuitive eating.

GODOY: Intuitive eating - it's basically a strategy for reframing your relationship with food. We heard from a lot of listeners who said intuitive eating helped turn things around for them.

COOPER: And so now I just eat when my body tells me it's hungry, and I don't worry so much about what it is. And I let my body be what it is.

GODOY: OK. So you might be thinking, eat when my body is hungry - really? I know, this sounds obvious.

JUDITH MATZ: We actually come into this world born knowing how to eat. Babies, you know, cry, and they eat when they're hungry. And they turn away from the breast or the bottle when we're full, but so many things can interfere with that knowledge.

GODOY: That's Judith Matz. She's a clinical social worker. She works with clients on intuitive eating. And she says all kinds of things can mess up our natural signals for hunger and fullness - things like work schedules and, especially, restrictive diets

MATZ: And so 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GODOY: Now, if you're thinking of intuitive eating as a way to lose weight, that is not what it's about. 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. So in this episode of LIFE KIT, Judith is going to give us some tips for breaking up with your diet and becoming a more intuitive eater. That doesn't mean you're going to go on an all-potato-chip diet. Although, Judith says that's what a lot of people imagine when they hear of intuitive eating.

MATZ: Oh, if I could eat whatever I want, I would only eat. the high-fat, high-sugar foods. 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.

GODOY: How do you learn to listen to and trust your body? We'll get to that after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GODOY: So intuitive eating - how do you practice this?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GODOY: What does that mean? - to be in touch with our hunger and our bodies.

MATZ: 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.

A lot of times, 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. And 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. So you want to start to notice that gentle signal that says you're somewhat hungry or - hungry is the physical cue that it's time to feed yourself.

GODOY: And how do you figure out what you should be eating?

MATZ: I think something that's really helpful for people to do is to think of a time that you were hungry, and you got exactly what you were hungry for. And think about how that felt. Most people will say they felt content. It felt satisfying. It felt good. And then, you know, 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 - that there's room for all kinds of foods.

GODOY: You know, I have to say that what you describe actually sounds like my husband, who is famous for his cravings. I always say that I'm married to a constantly pregnant man...

MATZ: (Laughter).

GODOY: ...Because that's the only time I've been so attuned to my cravings. And he would rather, like, not eat than eat something that's not exactly what he wants, you know?

MATZ: Right.

GODOY: Like, he won't just go for anything. Yeah.

MATZ: Right, right. So good for him, right? He really trusts those cravings. Sometimes, something pops into your head. And you're like, oh, my gosh. A chicken Caesar salad is exactly what I want right now. And if you can go and get it or you have it with you, that's fantastic. Other times, you may not be as sure. And so you have to kind of slow down and think, what would feel good in my body right now? Do I want something hot or cold? I find temperature is the easiest.

So somebody might say, well, I want something hot. So then you might think, well, do I want something that's hot and mushy or hot and more solid? - so mushy like pasta or more solid like maybe a chicken breast. And the person might say, I want something soft - yup, like pasta. OK, do I want something, like, a more creamy or more tomato sauce? No, I want tomato sauce. Oh, and I need a meatball. I want that protein. And so then they've - then that person has figured out what it is that they're hungry for.

GODOY: Literally, (laughter) I had this conversation with my husband on Saturday night.

MATZ: Yeah.

GODOY: We were on vacation, and it did lead him to pasta (laughter).

MATZ: It did lead him to pasta. OK.

GODOY: Yeah, yes (laughter).

MATZ: And, you know, I think another important part of this then - you can see how it makes a difference to keep food with you. So if you're at work, you know, 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? - and end up - you know, by the end of the day, you're really at high risk of overeating.

If you bring with you - I call it a food bag. And you can put in, you know, 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GODOY: Now, Judith notes that if you have specific medical concerns, honoring your body also means honoring your health. So if you're craving ice cream but you have high cholesterol, maybe you go for some sorbet instead. So you know when to eat, what to eat. The next question is, how much to eat?

MATZ: 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.

GODOY: So the point is, really, to get in touch with your body and its hunger cues and really figure out what your cravings are. But what's the ultimate goal of doing that? - to get control of your eating.

MATZ: 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 with the pizza without feeling deprived or like you're being good or bad or any of those kinds of diet mentality words. And I also just want to clarify that weight loss is not the goal of intuitive eating...

GODOY: Right.

MATZ: ...That 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.

GODOY: It's really about making peace with food.

MATZ: Making peace, and...

GODOY: So it's not a good or bad thing.

MATZ: Right. And 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, because for most people, it takes practice of relearning these signals. So you might find that when you first start eating, that there's both relief that you can eat the foods that you truly like but that 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MATZ: One of the keys is to know that if I stop eating those cookies and I'm hungry for them tomorrow, I can have it again. So often what we see are people saying, I should never eat cookies. And then once they start, the thinking goes that, as long as I'm eating them, I better - I might as well eat them all now because starting tomorrow, I can never have them again. And people...

GODOY: The diet starts tomorrow - right (laughter).

MATZ: Exactly. And people might feel bad about that. What's the matter with me? I have no willpower. But it is absolutely a natural psychological and physiological reaction to deprivation. You know, when certain foods are forbidden, they start to glitter. So you walk by - you know, you're at a party, and they have that cake that you haven't been allowing yourself. And, you know, you start thinking about it. But if you have sweets around you all the time, they start to lose that glitter.

GODOY: Is it something that maybe when you're beginning, you shouldn't have all those - like if cookies are your down - you know, like the thing that you can't stop yourself from eating, should you not keep them in the house to begin with, like all over the place...

MATZ: I have to say...

GODOY: ...You know, until you've got a hold of it?

MATZ: I have to say...

GODOY: You know?

MATZ: ...It's an - it depends on each person. The key is that once you start bringing it in, trusting this process - because if you say, well, I'll bring in a box of cookies. But if I over eat them, I'll take them away again. The knowledge that they're going to go away again creates that deprivation.

GODOY: I see.

MATZ: I had one client where chips were her thing. And she just got a bunch of bags. She had some in the pantry and some in another place to store them. And in the beginning, she ate - went through a couple bags. But by the - you know, couple weeks later, she found that when she had a sandwich, she liked a few chips with it and the rest were just sitting there.

Now, for some people, it might take longer for that to happen. For other people, it just happens, you know - more organically sooner. 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.

With intuitive eating, you do your best to eat when you're hungry and eat something you're hungry for, stop when you're satisfied. But let's say, you know, you don't stop when you're satisfied, and you keep going. On a diet, you might say, oh, my gosh. I blew it. Well, as long as I blew it, I might as well keep going, right? And then I'll go...

GODOY: (Laughter).

MATZ: ...Eat more, you know - more candy or ice cream or whatever. Or you might - tomorrow - kind of as a punishment or to undo what you think of is the damage - skip eating all day. And then by night, you're kind of set up again to over eat. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MATZ: It's really important to come back to making peace with food and then working on making peace with your body.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GODOY: OK. So intuitive eating can help you reframe your relationship with food and your body. Let's review how it works. Takeaway one - learn how it feels when you're hungry but not too hungry.

MATZ: A lot of times 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.

GODOY: Takeaway two - think about what food would make you feel satisfied.

MATZ: What would feel good in my body right now? Do I want something hot or cold?

GODOY: I'm thinking cold, maybe strawberries. Takeaway three - when you're deciding how much to eat, trust your body to let you know when it's full. Takeaway four - depriving yourself of foods you love can be counterproductive.

MATZ: You know, when certain foods are forbidden, they start to glitter.

GODOY: Takeaway five - intuitive eating is flexible, so don't worry if you mess up.

MATZ: It's not like a diet where you have to do it perfectly - if you make a mistake, you've blown it.

GODOY: The key is to make peace with food and learn some self-compassion.

For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our next episode on food labels - you know, non-GMO, cage-free, free-range. We'll tell you what those labels actually mean and which ones don't mean what you think they mean. If you like what you hear, make sure to check out our other LIFE KIT guides at npr.org/lifekit. And while you're there, subscribe to our newsletter so you don't miss anything. We've got more guides coming every month on all sorts of topics. And here, as always, is a completely random but useful tip. This time, it's from Kelsey Page of NPR's audience relations team.

KELSEY PAGE, BYLINE: If you're making a smoothie and you find that your frozen fruit is getting the rest of the smoothie too frozen for your blender to blend, you can add in just a little bit of warm water right before you're about to blend it. And the warm water loosens everything up, makes it the perfect temperature for the blender to blend it all up. And in the end, you've get a perfect smoothie.

GODOY: Now I'm thinking cold smoothie (laughter). If you've got a good tip or want to suggest a topic, email us at lifekit@npr.org. I'm Maria Godoy. Thanks for listening.

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