How to Start Intuitive Eating: 4 Key Steps
One of the first things our clients are itching to learn when they want to stop dieting is how to start intuitive eating, so they can *actually* listen to what their body is trying to tell them after years of ignoring it. It’s an important question, and kind of the whole point. Because in order to create a healthy, peaceful relationship with food, you have to start tapping into all those internal cues from your body, as opposed to all the diet rules that got you into this mess in the first place.
But the tricky part of course, is the ‘how’ in how to start intuitive eating. It’s not as simple as flipping a switch, we’re talking years, decades maybe, of conditioning and learned behaviors. So in this post, we’re gonna dive into how to start listening to your body, and the four key steps to begin putting this concept into practice.
But Wait, Why Does Listening to Your Body Matter in the First Place?
This phrase “just listen to your body” is tossed around a lot. And yet, if you look around the diet and wellness industry almost everything contradicts the idea. Avoid carbs! No, carbs give you energy! Eat mostly vegetables! No, eat mostly meat! Eat small meals all day! No, only eat between specific hours of the day!
Hardly anyone suggests eating whatever or whenever your body tells you to eat. That’s essentially a foreign concept if you’ve been dieting for awhile, right? In fact, many diets and “lifestyles” would consider physical reactions like ravenous hunger, mood swings or the keto flu totally normal (as if there’s anything normal about nausea, brain fog, and difficulty sleeping, just to name a few of the symptoms, but I digress…). And the antidote to this response from your body, is to just push through or double down on whatever restrictive plan you’re following. Meanwhile, obsessive thoughts about food increase, your hormones continue to freak out, and you usually, inevitably, find yourself binging on the foods that are very much not allowed.
Decades ago, I thought there was something deeply wrong with me because I could not control my unrelenting drive to eat. Now I understand: I was hungry.— Lindo Bacon (formerly Linda) (@LindoBaconX) March 28, 2018
Tweet by Lindo Bacon
This is what the dieting mentality does to us. It takes us out of our bodies, away from the intuitive wisdom we all have, makes our hunger wrong, and replaces that sense of trust with external rules, suggesting we don’t know what’s best for our own bodies. And it takes a toll on our mental, physical, and emotional health in the process.
If you want to stop obsessing about food, and letting it take up such an enormous amount of time and mind space, you have to learn how to start listening to your body. This is where the practice of Intuitive Eating becomes an incredibly useful tool: the framework we talk a lot about around here, and teach in-depth in our coaching program to help women make peace with food and their bodies. Check out our complete guide to Intuitive Eating, if you want to learn all the ins and outs!
How to Start Intuitive Eating
Know that this is an innate skill – one everyone has and can apply. But there are some specific steps you have to take to remove the obstacles and start building the skill of listening to all the subtle signals your body is whispering to you, which I’ll lay out here. Think of it like excavating a treasure chest from your backyard. You gotta dig a bit, and remove all the rocks and debris in the way before pulling that sucker out of the ground where it’s been buried for awhile.
Step 1: Eat
First we have to recognize that there is a lot of cultural programming around our bodies, forcing us into dieting, which dulls that natural innate skill of listening to our bodies by squashing any hunger cues.
For many, this is inextricably tied to weight loss. They believe that they need to lose weight in order to be healthy and happy, and that they need to diet in order to lose weight. This is a whole ‘nother convo, but comes back to the programming that suggests something is wrong with your body and the way to fix it is to diet.
So in order to be able to tune into those internal cues and eat in a way that works best for your own body, you have to start rejecting all the ‘shoulds’ that diet culture has shoved in your face and actually EAT. That means taking a look at any food rules you’re currently following, and noticing whenever the food police pops into your mind, trying to reinforce those rules.
If you’re perpetually restricting food, whether mentally or physically, and find yourself ravenously hungry on the reg, the only cue you’re gonna get from your body is that you need to eat as much as possible. Biology takes over at that point. And you’re absolutely going to be eating past the point of fullness whenever food is available, because you’ve been restricting. The wild binges, constant cravings, and obsessive thoughts about food… those are all forms of your body fighting back against deprivation. And as long as you keep depriving it, your body will always fight back, and thus the exhausting cycle will never end.
So, you have to keep yourself well-fed. I love you, but you don’t stand a chance against biology (which is why the whole “just muster the willpower” mentality is bullshit, btw). So you may as well start working with your body, instead of fighting against it.
Here you may be thinking something along the lines of: I want to get out of the diet cycle, but if I listen to my body I’m just going to eat every last thing I can get my hands on, and that doesn’t exactly sound promising either.
Not exactly true (which we’ll get into in a sec), but we get it. And honoring your hunger is obviously easier said than done, after years of ignoring or numbing your hunger. In fact, it can feel downright terrifying to give up the rules of dieting, if you’ve been riding that train for a long time. Which is why we spend a lot of time with our clients working through the beliefs and thoughts that pop up and how to handle them when they learn how to start intuitive eating.
Step 2: Observe
Ok, so you’re actively rejecting the diet mentality, trashing all the thoughts that tell you what to eat, when, and how much. You’re honoring your hunger, so you’re not starving all the time.
Once your body and brain calm down because you’re not restricting, then you can start to tune into how different foods make you feel. This is where a fun little term called interoceptive awareness comes into play, and it’s critical as you learn how to start intuitive eating. It’s the sharpening of the signals your body is sending you, so you can make choices based on paying attention to those – as opposed to outside voices and rules or with the goal of weight loss. It looks like noticing physical sensations like:
How did what I just ate make me feel?
Interesting, I don’t actually like the taste of what I’m eating right now.
I kinda feel like shit eating this.
How do I want to feel in my daily life?
The “tricky” part (and what diet programs definitely miss) is that these things can change everyday. Sometimes you may feel like eating a rich, hearty pasta dish, and some days you may be leaning more toward a crunchy, colorful salad. And trying to follow all these restrictive rules telling us what to eat and when is often contradicting what our own body is asking for. This is what takes us off course and away from our innate wisdom.
So what we’re doing in building this interoceptive awareness is marrying what we know about taking care of ourselves and listening to what we need in the moment, so that we can honor our body’s signals, instead of silencing them.
To be honest, the hyper awareness when you’re first learning how to start intuitive eating can make you feel a little crazy. You’re paying such close attention to the physical sensations you’re feeling and gathering all this data in order to eat in a way that works best for you. But I promise this phase is temporary. It’s like learning how to drive a car or any other type of skill: when you start out you have to pay close attention to what’s happening, and over time it becomes more natural and habitual.
We go into more detail about this concept in an episode of our podcast, which I’d recommend tuning into if this topic is tugging atcha in a good way:
Step 3: Stop Judging
One hugely important thing to note in this process is that you want to be building awareness without any judgement or criticism. All you want to be doing here is observing what’s going on for you and your body, not anyone else. And you’re the only one who can observe what’s going on, because contrary to what all the nutrition books, and programs, and Dr. Oz have to say, YOU are the best expert on your own body.
The only way to build interoceptive awareness is to remove any guilt, shame, judgement and criticism. Because all that shit is going to influence your experience with food, prevent you from acting from a place of innate wisdom, and be a huge barrier in reaching any sort of peace in your body.
Step 4: Get Support
You may have guessed this one was coming, but we really can’t stress it enough. This shit is so hard; if it weren’t we’d all be walking around unscathed. So sure, you can definitely start to honor your hunger and build interoceptive awareness on your own, and you should! But I can almost guarantee some ~stuff~ is going to come up as you start listening to your body, and it’s the sort of stuff that can keep you stuck in the exhausting restrict-binge-beat yourself up-start over again cycle, which depletes your confidence, happiness and sanity.
Plus, these are just the very first steps in getting started. There’s a lot more to this process of making peace with food, because as we’ve established: it’s not exactly a cake walk if you’ve been struggling with your body for a long time.
Here are a few great ways to get some immediate support:
- If you’re brand new to all this and want an overview of the Intuitive Eating principles, we’ve got a free list for you that you can print out and keep handy as you begin rejecting the diet mentality and tuning into your internal cues.
- If you’ve been practicing building awareness and attunement, and it doesn’t feel like you’re nailing it, we’ve got a great overview of possible reasons why Intuitive Eating isn’t working, so you can troubleshoot what’s going on.
- And if you want to go deeper on your specific situation and get to the root of your struggle with food and your body, set up a free breakthrough call with one of our coaches. We’ll get clear on any obstacles that are in the way of listening to your body, and what you need to do in order to break out of that frustrating diet-binge cycle. We can also share more about our group coaching program, and determine if it would be a good fit for you.
Feeling Unsure or Overwhelmed about how to start Intuitive Eating? Remember This…
Before I leave you to deepen into that interoceptive awareness (such fun homework, I know!), a couple important reminders:
#1: This is a practice. Becoming an Intuitive Eater takes time, and doesn’t happen overnight after years of programming – contrary to diet culture messaging that promises a shiny, happy life in just a few days if you follow the rules. There are not only a lot of false claims, but there’s also big money to be made (which happens when as many people as possible stay stuck in the diet cycle). Think about how many times you’ve joined and re-joined Weight Watchers or something similar after a shitty body image moment.
Jenna Hollenstein, MS, RDN, CDN, a non-diet dietitian who helps people struggling with chronic dieting, disordered eating, and body image, describes this phase as somewhat of a mixed bag. “There’s a poignancy to this,” she says about the practice of Intuitive Eating. “A lot of the time you’re experiencing this joy and novelty and renewed sense of trust. And also anger and grief and mourning for what’s lost. Just remembering that it is a process and a practice and not ever a one-and-done type of thing is so important, just for framing people’s expectations.”
Check out our podcast interview with Jenna here, where we discuss this practice mentality, how to embrace it to discover what you need in terms of food, and much more.
#2: Compassion is key. You can’t bully yourself into feeling at home in your body. Trust me, I’ve tried (and I’m guessing you have too) and it’s not gonna fly. Intuitive Eating is built on self-compassion and honoring your health in a way that feels good, so if you’re having a hard time tuning into your internal cues, try shifting into a more compassionate, loving, positive place and see what happens. It could be the missing key in your relationship with food and your body. Mean girl is not invited to this party, got it?
Now that you know how to start Intuitive Eating, time to put it to practice!
I hope this info is helpful as you begin your journey, and if you have any questions don’t hesitate to leave a comment or email us. As I mentioned this is the number one thing our clients want to know right away, so you’re not alone if you’re wondering too.
Recall those four steps for how to start listening to your body:
- Stop Judging
- Get Support
And those key reminders: to approach it with a practice mindset, and lots of compassion.
If you know getting support is the right move for you, you can set up a free Breakthrough Session on our calendar here. And if you’d like to dip your toe in first, check out our free master class: The 5 Simple Shifts to Break the Diet Binge Cycle.