Today we are going to talk about some advanced strategies for intuitive eating that are above and beyond just hunger and fullness.
This is a topic that was requested by one of the listeners on the Rebuilding Trust with Your Body podcast and I love this suggestion because there are a LOT of people who have been doing the whole non-diet and intuitive eating thing for a while who are sort of wondering, “Am I doing this right?” or, “Is there more to it than this?” You might be sensing that there are pieces to the puzzle that you’re missing, so we’re going to dive into all of that today.
And even if you’re relatively new to intuitive eating, I want you to see where you’re going and what you’re aiming for. We are casting that vision for the future and showing you what the path ahead looks like.
And while we’re at it I also want you to go and take my quiz. It’s called Discover Your Unique Path to Food Freedom, and it help you identify specific things that you can be working on based on where you’re at right now in your process. So if you’re struggling with the fear of letting yourself eat certain foods, I’ve got things that will help you. And if you’re struggling with overeating and feeling out of control with food, I’ve got specific things that will help you. If you’re constantly going back and forth between being too rigid with food, and then you’re feeling out of control, I can help with that too. So go take the quiz – it’s kind of like one of those Buzzfeed quizzes, so it’s fun and it will only take you about 2 minutes. Then I’ll send you your results packed with resources to guide you based on what your results are. It’s at nondietacademy.com/quiz.
Ok, let’s get down to business.
4 advanced strategies for intuitive eating
Most people hear the term “intuitive eating” and assume it means 1 of 2 things:
- Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full
- Eat whatever you want, whenever you want
Now, eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full is part of intuitive eating at a very basic level. And those are 2 of what we call the “10 Principles of Intuitive Eating” which are outlined in the book. And let’s think about that 2 out of 10 is 20%. Hunger and fullness are only 20% of what we are aiming for. There’s SO much more to it than that.
AND at the same time, it’s important that you are taking the time to connect with those appetite cues and to learn what the nuances of hunger and fullness feel like for you and your body. Because if you aren’t slowing down to check in with your body, you’re easily going to fall into the trap of the 2nd thing I mentioned which is, “Eat whatever you want, whenever you want” – which isn’t intuitive eating, it’s impulsive eating.
But intuitive eating is neither just hunger and fullness, nor is it a free-for-all with food.
It’s about listening to your body AND your wisdom and intellect. It’s about knowing that sometimes ice cream might taste great for dinner, but your body probably also needs something more satiating along with the ice cream in order for your dinner to fill you up and stick with you.
So let’s say that you’re listening to this and you’re like, “Katy, I’ve got that, I know exactly what you’re talking about. I’m doing pretty well with listening to my hunger and fullness, and I allow myself to eat what sounds good without feeling guilty, and I get a pretty decent variety of food.” GREAT. So now you’re wondering what’s next, like is that it?
Well, first of all, it’s AWESOME that you have implemented these things. Let’s slow down for a moment and just acknowledge that. You took a giant leap of faith and chose to step away from dieting and restricting and to instead heal your relationship with food. That is an act of serious bravery in our society that praises thinness at all costs. You might have even broken a generational cycle in your family of body hatred and yo-yo dieting or disordered eating. When I say that this work of healing your relationship with food can be life changing, I’m not kidding. It can change your life, your kids’ lives, and it can even have a ripple effect that you don’t know about for those around you. You might have a friend or an acquaintance that you mentioned this to and it planted a seed for them to do their own introspection and healing. You never know. So give yourself credit for what you have done. It’s incredible.
And then let’s look at what else you might want to work on. If there’s one thing I’ve discovered as an intuitive eater myself, and having worked with so many clients and students over the years, it’s that this process opens the door to so much more personal growth that extends way beyond just your relationship with food. It impacts how you relate to yourself, and how you inhabit your body, and how you approach life.
So let me share 4 advanced strategies with you that are above and beyond the basic 10 Principles of intuitive eating.
Intuitive Eating Strategy #1: Mindset work
A lot of the process in the early stages of intuitive eating is the physical part of allowing yourself to eat when you are hungry, and to stop when you are full, and to reincorporate the foods that used to be forbidden for you.
If you’re not doing the mindset work, you’re selling yourself short. What do I mean by “mindset work?” I mean the work to change the neural pathways in your brain that are driving how you think and feel about food, weight and exercise (which I prefer to call movement). These 3 things represent the “trifecta” – the way you think and feel about food, weight and movement is going to be what drives your behaviors.
Some questions to ask yourself:
- Do you still feel guilty for eating certain foods? If so, that means there’s still some judgment there that you can work on. We want to aim for all foods to feel morally neutral. So we would want you to have the same emotional reaction towards cherry pie as you do towards some roasted broccoli and as you do towards a turkey sandwich. You might have feelings about these foods in terms of your taste preferences towards them, but we want them to all feel morally equal.
- Am I suggesting all foods are nutritionally equal? No, obviously they’re not. But the fact that different foods have different nutrients is a wonderful thing, and not something to be afraid of. I have the same emotional energy towards the different appliances in my kitchen, and I appreciate that my fridge does something different than my microwave, which does something different than my dishwasher. Try to channel that energy towards food. The ice cream is different than the broccoli, which is different than the turkey sandwich, and that’s great. No food is inherently good or bad. Different foods support our needs at different times, and that’s great.
- Do you feel like you’re being “good” if you aren’t eating much, and like you’re being “bad” if you eat more than usual? If so, that suggests that you still have some mindset work to do around the idea of what certain amounts of food do to your body. The idea that you’re being “good” if you eat less than usual would suggest that you are hoping that you’ll lose weight, or that you are subconsciously subscribing to the idea that there’s virtue in not needing very much or not taking up much space. Women in particular are taught that it’s more attractive or desirable to be dainty, or to “eat like a bird.” And you know what that does? It takes our power away. When we are sitting around all dainty and famished we don’t have the energy or the strength to get stuff done. We act as if we both literally and metaphorically don’t deserve to take up space. Well, I’m here to tell you that you DO deserve to take up space, and the world needs more of you and your ideas and talents, not less of you. The goal of intuitive eating isn’t for you to eat as little as possible to be satisfied. It’s for you to be unapologetically well nourished. BAM. How’s that for a mic drop moment?
- Do you ever find yourself looking for reasons that you need to limit or restrict certain foods? Do you notice physical symptoms in your body like joint pain or headaches and assume that it must be caused by the foods you’re eating? I’ve been seeing this a lot lately where people will accept the fact that diets don’t work, that they need to let themselves eat the foods they enjoy so they don’t binge on them, but they’ll do this for a while and then they’ll start convincing themselves that they’ve gone too far, or that they’ve had their fun and now they need to tighten the reins. Are you still hung up on the idea of there being foods that are “healthy” or “unhealthy” for you? (Even if you’ve accepted the idea that it’s ok to have some of the foods you deem “unhealthy?”) This is going to bite you in the butt, and so it’s worth working on.
- Now, as a dietitian I am trained in what’s called “medical nutrition therapy” or MNT. And that’s honestly most of what we learn in school. It’s essentially where we learn about how nutrition impacts certain health conditions in the body. So we learn about what dietary changes can help with things like diabetes, and high blood pressure, and kidney disease, and how to manage swallowing issues or digestive issues and things like that. So am I saying that there’s never any reason for food restrictions? No, of course not. There’s a time and place for having certain boundaries with food.
- But this is different than you self-diagnosing yourself with gluten intolerance, or telling yourself you must need to cut out processed food or sugar, or convincing yourself that “eating clean” is the way to go. It’s not. If you find yourself pulled in this direction, I encourage you to get curious about where that’s coming from, and to even consider meeting with a dietitian who could steer you towards what would actually make a difference or not. We can absolutely listen to the wisdom of your body and what it needs in order to function well – and that’s very different than looking for reasons to limit foods because deep down you still feel guilty for eating them. One last example of mindset work…
- This is where you may have to get uncomfortably honest with yourself. Do you have any anti-fat bias going on? I am intentionally using the term anti-fat bias because it’s what Aubrey Gordon teaches. She’s the co-host of Maintenance Phase and the author of 2 excellent books. Her newest one is titled, “You Just Need to Lose Weight” and 19 Other Myths About Fat People. This is the term she recommends, but some other terms you might hear are fat phobia, weight stigma and weight bias. Most of us have at least some of it. Some of us have a lot of it. The other day I posted on Tik Tok about this and one person commented, “Wow you’re really stroking the ego of fat people.” As if that’s a bad thing. Like, yeah, I guess I am – do fat people really need more shame? Couldn’t they use a little empathy, and validation, and frankly for people with thin privilege to stand up for them? Good grief. That person’s comment really shows that they don’t think fat people deserve to have respect or high self-esteem. And why? Simply because they are fat. And my point in the video was that some people are going to be fat no matter what they do – because that’s how biology and genetics work. So let me ask you this – does this make you uncomfortable? Does the idea that fat people have always existed, and will always continue to exist make you uncomfortable? Do you bristle at the idea that you might never be as thin as you want to be? Do you think to yourself, “But what about HEALTH?!” Ok, but let’s remember this – health is more complicated than weight. And another person’s body and another person’s health are none of our business. We assume that when we see a fat person that they must be unhealthy, but how do we know that? Have we seen their medical records? Even if you did, is that any of your business? These questions might make us uncomfortable, myself included, but we need to push back on the anti-fat bias. And honestly, tackling this piece of mindset work might be the most important one of all.
So that’s the first advanced strategy – mindset work. You want to make sure that you’re really continuing to keep your head in the game and to stay curious and mindful of the knee-jerk reactions you have to certain foods, and to those moments when you look at yourself in the mirror and make a negative judgment about your body – and to ask yourself, “Where is this coming from?” The more of these automatic negative thoughts (which sometimes we call ANTs) that you can catch in the moment, the more you’ll be able to challenge and reframe them and over time they will become less powerful and happen less frequently. Some of the thoughts that you’ve had about food and your body truly will go away over time, and some of them might still occasionally be there. But by doing the mindset work you’ll get to where these thoughts don’t have the power to determine what you will or won’t let yourself eat, or how you feel about yourself for the day. You’ll have more of an ability to see the thought for what it is, and to challenge it and reframe it, or to just let it go and move on. These old diet mentality thoughts don’t have to impact your behaviors anymore. And that’s really empowering.
Intuitive Eating Strategy #2: SELF-COMPASSION
Self-compassion is one of the most powerful, yet misunderstood, tools for personal growth. Most people hear the term “self-compassion” and they think that it sounds really fluffy, or silly, or that it implies that you’re letting yourself go.
And I’m here to tell you that it’s anything but those things.
Self-compassion is an extremely well-researched approach to how we treat ourselves. Kristin Neff is a researcher who studies self-compassion and she defines it as:
“A self-attitude that involves treating oneself with warmth and understanding in difficult times and recognizing that making mistakes is part of being human.”
She also specifically mentions that self-compassion is NOT self-pity or self-indulgence. And it’s not the same thing as self-esteem.
The way that makes the most sense for me personally to describe self-compassion is treating yourself the way that you would a friend. If your friend binged on an entire box of Cheez It’s would you tell her, “Your such a worthless piece of trash. Why don’t you have any willpower?” Of course not! You’d probably say something like, “Oh my gosh, that sounds miserable. What was going on?”
Do you hear the difference? The first one was full of so much self-criticism, shame and blame. How does that approach make you feel? Awful, right? And ironically, often people will turn to food or other unhelpful behaviors to cope when they’re feeling that way and it perpetuates the cycle. With the second approach towards a friend, most of us naturally turn to empathy, compassion, curiosity and support. THAT’S what we want to work on providing for ourselves.
Let’s say you are getting dressed one morning and your pants are tight, and you have this instant reaction of shame, and frustration and maybe even anger or disgust with yourself and with your body. In that moment, self-compassion might sound like this, “This is hard right now. It doesn’t feel good to have tight pants, and society tells us that weight gain is a sign of failure. I know that’s not true, and I’m going to find something to wear that is more comfortable, and instead of beating myself up I am going to be extra kind to myself today.”
Let’s break this down a little further. The first step with self-compassion is to notice when you are suffering. And I don’t want you to get into a suffering contest where you’re comparing your suffering to someone else’s. Yes, it’s probably true that there are people who have it much worse than you do. The suffering contest isn’t one that we’d want to win. How awful would that be? So it’s important to recognize and validate that your suffering is real. And we of course don’t want to blow it out of proportion either. Just to validate that you are in a moment of difficulty.
And then from there to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. When we are triggered it sets off our sympathetic nervous system which is what puts us into that fight or flight mode. That’s where the shame and “I’ve got to punish myself or fix this” will often come from. When you notice yourself feeling this way, I want you to put your hands over your heart, one hand on top of the other. In fact, if you can, do it right now with me. Notice how this simple gesture makes you feel. For me it has an instant calming, comforting and soothing effect. And with your hands on your heart take a few deep breaths. This is going to get you grounded and back in touch with your wise mind. We’ve now activated your parasympathetic nervous system, which is all about being calm and relaxed. It’s from this calm and relaxed place that you can now choose how you want to respond to what’s happening in the moment.
Meditation teacher Tara Brach uses the acronym RAIN to help us remember what to do. It stands for:
- R – Recognize
- A – Allow
- I – Investigate
- N – nurture
When you are having a difficult moment when it comes to food or your body, use RAIN to help you access self-compassion and treat yourself the way you would a dear friend. This will change SO much for you, I promise. It extends beyond just food and body-related stuff too. I use this all the time in my life – whether it be related to work, or parenting, or marriage, or stuff with friends, struggling with sickness. It really is a powerful tool.
Intuitive Eating Strategy #3: BODY WISDOM
This is where we are going to go a step further beyond hunger and fullness and asking yourself what sounds good. We are also going to factor in the wisdom of your body to help you predict how food will make you feel, what your body needs (in addition to what you might want), and gentle nutrition.
You see, our bodies contain an incredible, mind-boggling, amount of wisdom. Yet most of us are walking around so disconnected from our bodies that we aren’t even tuned into this wisdom. Diet culture teaches us in tons of ways not to listen to and not to trust our bodies. How many times have you heard, “You’re probably not hungry – you’re just thirsty.” And it teaches you to not trust your hunger. Or we try to trick ourselves into not eating by filling up on things like coffee, diet soda, or rice cakes.
We are even disconnected from our energy levels. Our hustle culture is running on a lot of adrenaline, caffeine and other stimulants in an attempt to offset that fact that we are tired. A lot of us aren’t getting enough sleep, aren’t having enough downtime, and are carrying around so much stress that even if we do get the chance to rest it’s hard to actually relax. If we were listening to the wisdom of our bodies, we would recognize this and we would consider how to better get our needs met.
So let’s explore this as it relates to food. I was doing a live training the other day for the students in my Intuitive Eating Workbook Study Club, and we were talking about making peace with food. One person commented that she’s trying so hard to not have judgments about food, but she also has some digestive issues that require her to limit certain foods. And her brain is trying to tell her that she’s restricting and that this is diet mentality. And this isn’t diet mentality at all. If you have a digestive condition, such as IBS or Crohn’s, you might have to stay away from (or limit) certain foods that cause your symptoms to flare up. This isn’t diet mentality – it’s honoring what your body needs. And yes, it might feel depriving at times, and there might be a grieving process around that. When you can see it through the lens that you are taking care of your body, and that it’s not about labeling the food as “bad” or “unhealthy” and therefore this is different than diet mentality. Diet mentality is when we are labeling and judging food in that moralistic way.
Something I encourage you to practice for a couple of weeks is checking in with yourself about an hour after you eat. Ask yourself:
- How satisfying was the food I ate?
- How do I feel right now? Is my stomach upset in any way?
- How’s my energy level?
- How full am I? Do I think this is going to stick with me until my next meal or snack?
The idea here is to get more familiarized with how the food makes you feel after-the-fact. You’ll start to recognize which foods tend to upset your stomach. As an example, for me I’ve noticed that after I’ve had 1-2 cups of coffee my stomach is done with it for the day. Any more than that and it makes me feel crummy. Another thing I’ve noticed is that if I eat a big heavy meal at lunch time I feel really sluggish in the afternoon. So for lunch I’d rather have cold food like a sandwich or a salad. And if I’m having something like leftovers I’ll usually have a smaller portion of it than I would at dinner. I’m not judging the food as good/bad, I’m simply factoring in how I want to feel after I eat it.
Another example of this that I might have shared before on the podcast. Several years ago we went out to brunch with some friends. It was the middle of summer, and in Missouri in the summer it tends to get really hot and humid, so it was one of those rather gross days outside. Trevor, my husband, loves breakfast food, especially if it involves gravy. So when he saw a dish on the menu called the gravy train he hopped right on. After brunch he went home and mowed the lawn and he came in with an awful look on his face. He said he felt super sick from being so full and being out in the heat. So, if he had listened to his body wisdom he might have been able to predict this was going to happen and order something different, or eat less of the gravy train at brunch. Or maybe he would have waited until later in the day to mow so his food could digest. There’s no right or wrong answer in these situations, it’s all about noticing what your body is telling you and considering how you can compassionately respond.
We can also apply body wisdom alongside gentle nutrition. One example of this is what we call practical eating or practical hunger. This is when you might not be super hungry right now, but you know that you aren’t going to have the opportunity to eat again for a while so you choose to eat something to prevent yourself from being ravenously hungry later. Maybe you’re a teacher and your lunch break is at 10:45am (I know some schools have these early lunches because they have to get so many students through lunch), and you might not be hungry for lunch at 10:45am, but you know that by the time you get off work at 4pm you’re going to want to chew your arm off. So you eat your lunch at 10:45 because you are aware of how your body operates. This is gentle nutrition. Most people think gentle nutrition just means adding in more fruits and veggies or finding reasons to limit certain foods. Gentle nutrition is more about being intentional and proactive about providing your body with what it needs (instead of focusing just on giving yourself permission to eat what sounds good).
Another example of gentle nutrition and body wisdom would be medical conditions. Let’s say you have PCOS or diabetes. With those conditions we know that blood sugar is a concern. Your blood sugar and your hemoglobin A1c are forms of data and feedback from your body. We can integrate that data alongside other data from your body such as your hunger and fullness and your food cravings. Perhaps you’re craving a big plate of pasta. Diet culture would say, “That’s too many carbs! You can’t have pasta!” Which isn’t true at all. Even with these medical conditions your body still needs carbohydrates to work properly. What we want to do is recognize the wisdom that your body has communicated through your blood sugar and A1c, and then to apply gentle nutrition to help the food work FOR and not AGAINST your body.
So we might try pairing some protein with your carbs. Maybe instead of a huge plate of pasta, you have some pasta with meatballs for protein, and a side salad. Now instead of just a bowl of carbs, we’ve got the pasta still there, and we’ve paired it with some protein, fiber and fat to help it digest more slowly which will slow down the increase in blood sugar.
I encourage you to view medical stuff as data and feedback from your body. Your body is communicating to you about what it needs, and when we can respond with kindness and compassion it allows us to tend to our body’s needs without shaming and blaming ourselves (which is so counterproductive anyway).
Intuitive Eating Strategy #4: GETTING YOUR NEEDS MET OUTSIDE OF FOOD.
What on earth do I mean by this? Well after working with hundreds of clients and students over the past 12 or so years, I can confidently tell you eating issues often aren’t about the food. The food is often the symptom of the underlying problem. So yes, we have to address the food – but we also need to address what’s going on outside of food if we want full healing to occur.
If you aren’t getting your needs met in life outside of food, you’re infinitely more likely to use food in dysfunctional ways – whether it be restricting, dieting, binging, purging, sneaking food, compulsively eating it, obsessing about food, cooking or baking constantly. There are so many ways this shows up for people, but the common thread is that they are using their relationship with food as a way to cope with things outside of food.
Here are some common examples of things I’ve seen over the years. People often use food or dieting to cope with:
- Being unhappy in their marriage
- The mental load of parenthood
- Hating their job, or working too many hours
- Unresolved trauma from their past
- Dysfunctional relationships with family members
- Not having enough boundaries in their life, having a hard time saying no to things they don’t want to do
- Being lonely, isolated and disconnected. Yearning for deeper and more fulfilling relationships.
- Not knowing how to cope with uncomfortable emotions in general.
- Not having enough downtime or fun in their life.
This list could go on and on. The point is, these are often the things that we are subconsciously avoiding dealing with when we are focusing all of our energy on food, our weight, dieting, exercising, and all of this food and body-related stuff.
It’s when we learn how to recognize what these things are, and to do the work to directly address these things in our lives, that the need for using food and body behaviors will start to go down.
I know this might sound absurd or off-base, but I swear to you it’s true. Eating issues are issues of disconnection – disconnection from our bodies, disconnection from our feelings, disconnection from our needs, disconnection from others.
If you’ve never been to therapy, I highly encourage it as part of your healing process. Therapy is more accessible now than ever. The pandemic forced therapists to figure out how to work virtually, and many of them are still offering virtual visits, and a lot of them still offer the traditional in person services. I know it can be expensive to go to therapy, but it’s truly one of the most beneficial things you could do for yourself. Many therapists offer reduced rates, or have interns who can see people for a lower cost, so don’t be afraid to ask for more affordable options if you need it.
One last tip on this and we’ll wrap up. When it comes to figuring out what your unmet needs are outside of food, it can be helpful to ask yourself this question: What would I be thinking or worrying about (or avoiding thinking or worrying about) if I wasn’t obsessing about food or my weight?
The answer might surprise you. I encourage you to do some journaling about this and see what comes out on paper when you explore this concept.
So let’s recap the 4 advanced strategies for intuitive eating:
- Mindset work
- Body wisdom
- Getting your needs met outside of food
I want you to send me either an email or a DM on Instagram to tell me which one of these you’re going to work on first. Like, I actually want to hear from you. I personally read all of my messages, and nothing makes me happier than connecting with people who listen to this podcast.
Did you know you can listen to all this information in audio format?
I covered it all in episode 61 of the Rebuilding Trust With Your Body Podcast!
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Search for episode 61 – Advanced Strategies for Intuitive Eating
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