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Relearning How to Eat: How Intuitive Eating Can Heal Your Relationship With Food

An extra slice of cake at a birthday party doesn’t have to inspire a guilt-fueled binge. But after years of dieting, it can be hard to turn off the shame switch in our brains. That’s where intuitive eating comes in.

A framework created by dieticians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, intuitive eating is a method of reconnecting with our bodies’ natural cues and rejecting diet culture’s hold over when and what we eat.

In this episode, host Anita Rao explores the principles of intuitive eating with anti-diet experts.Sandra Aamodt is a neuroscientist and author of Why Diets Make Us Fat: The Unintended Consequences of Our Obsession With Weight Loss (Current, 2016).Vincci Tsui is a registered dietician and certified intuitive eating counselor.Christyna Johnson is a registered dietician and host of the podcast Intuitive Eating for the Culture.

A quick guide to the 10 principles of intuitive eating

1. Reject the Diet Mentality 

We’re constantly surrounded by messages that tell us to lose weight. But going on diets and buying into weight-loss culture actually goes against how our brains and bodies function.

This is something neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt discovered through her own experiences: "I started dieting at about the age of 13 and basically gained and lost the same 15 pounds once or twice a year for about three decades,” she said. “[I] gradually came to realize through my professional work that this is actually my body functioning correctly.”

2. Honor Your Hunger

Restricting your food intake when you’re hungry can trigger your body to go into survival mode. Instead of taking a feast or famine approach to food, certified intuitive eating counselor Vincci Tsui recommends learning to recognize signs of hunger and then responding to them.

“For a lot of people, we experience hunger as sensations in our stomach. For some people, it can feel very different,” she says. “For some people, it's even noticing that they have more thoughts about food, or noticing that their mood shifts — that they get hangry and cranky.”

3. Make Peace with Food

No food is bad or good. When you fight with your cravings and forbid yourself from having certain foods, it can lead to a “Last Supper” eating mentality and guilt when you do have them. Making peace with those foods leads to a more balanced relationship.

“It's really just about taking that emotional power, that emotional charge away from the food so that all foods are morally equal,” says Tsui.

4. Challenge the Food Police

The food police live in our heads, giving us points for eating “good” foods and demerits for “bad” ones (a way of thinking that goes against the third principle!).

College student Bobby Kasmire often calls out food policing when he notices it among his friends and family: “If I ever overhear someone saying, like: Oh, you know, I'll be healthy today and get a salad. I'll be like: Well, you know, if you're not craving a salad, don't get a salad. Like, get what you want."

5. Discover the Satisfaction Factor 

Satiating our bodies is important, but so is finding pleasure in our food. The terms “fullness” and “satisfaction” are often used interchangeably, but the fifth principle is all about recognizing that these are actually two very different sensations.

As registered dietician Christyna Johnson explains: “Fullness is the distinction that happens in your stomach, when you have a particular volume of food in there that your body deems to be satisfactory. … Satisfaction is being like: You know, I think I've had enough of that thing. I'm not craving it anymore, I’m ready for a different flavor.”

6. Feel your Fullness

Our bodies can use a range of physical sensations to let us know that we’re hungry or full. But if you’ve suppressed these sensations through years of dieting, it can be difficult to hear them again.

For neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt, learning to eat intuitively meant pausing during meals in order to refamiliarize herself with her body’s cues: “Those moments of mindful contemplation — for 30 or 60 seconds at a time — were really key to being able to tune back in so that I could begin to use those signals to guide my eating.

7. Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness

Food is a source of comfort — but it can’t be the only way to deal with emotion. Food restriction itself can also trigger emotionally-charged eating. This principle acts as a reminder to not shame yourself for using food as comfort, but also to develop other coping mechanisms for feelings ranging from boredom to anxiety.

8. Respect Your Body

Diet culture is rooted in racism, fatphobia and ableism. Johnson explains that recognizing this fact can be empowering.

“If we keep that in mind, then it becomes a rebellious act of taking care of yourself,” she says. “I'm allowed to exist, and I'm allowed to exist as I am. And I'm going to take care of myself in a way that I think is worthy and honorable, because I deserve to be cared for in this way.”

9. Movement Feel the Difference

Diet culture wants us to believe that exercise is a way of “making up for” the food we’ve eaten throughout the day. The ninth principle, on the other hand, encourages us to think about exercise not as a way to burn calories, but as a way to celebrate and feel good in our bodies.

This principle also prompts us to challenge any rules we may have about what "counts" as exercise. Instead, it’s important to focus on finding the joy in any kind of movement we engage in — from walking on a treadmill to throwing a solo dance party in the living room.

10. Honor Your Health Gentle Nutrition

If you’ve dieted for years, the idea of nourishing your body without lists and restrictions can seem daunting at first. But as we learned from the sixth principle, our bodies have their own ways of letting us know what they need.

For example, Johnson shares that she sometimes sees clients who struggle with issues such as constipation. But instead of handing down a list of rules, she’ll give them options of ways they can increase their fiber intake. “You don't have to eat whole grain bread if that doesn't sound fun to you,” she says. “What about other ways to have whole grains? Are there ways that sound more interesting or satisfying for you to have that whole grain and not feel like you're boxed into this particular rule?”

Find other episodes in the "Resolved" series >>

Find the "Resolved" discussion guides >>

Please note: This episode originally aired on January 14, 2022.

Copyright 2023 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.

Josie Taris left her home in Fayetteville in 2014 to study journalism at Northwestern University. There, she took a class called Journalism of Empathy and found her passion in audio storytelling. She hopes every story she produces challenges the audience's preconceptions of the world. After spending the summer of 2018 working in communications for a Chicago nonprofit, she decided to come home to work for the station she grew up listening to. When she's not working, Josie is likely rooting for the Chicago Cubs or petting every dog she passes on the street.
Anita Rao is the host and creator of "Embodied," a live, weekly radio show and seasonal podcast about sex, relationships & health. She's also the managing editor of WUNC's on-demand content. She has traveled the country recording interviews for the Peabody Award-winning StoryCorps production department, founded and launched a podcast about millennial feminism in the South, and served as the managing editor and regular host of "The State of Things," North Carolina Public Radio's flagship daily, live talk show. Anita was born in a small coal-mining town in Northeast England but spent most of her life growing up in Iowa and has a fond affection for the Midwest.