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The Benefits of Intuitive Eating and 10 Steps to Get Started

author image August McLaughlin
August McLaughlin is a health and sexuality writer with more than 10 years of experience as a nutritionist. Her work is featured in the Huffington Post, DAME Magazine, The Good Men Project and more. She specializes in eating disorders and loves connecting with readers and writers via her blog and social media.

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The Benefits of Intuitive Eating and 10 Steps to Get Started
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A study published in the August 2014 issue of Public Health Nutrition involving 1,600 middle-aged women showed strong links between intuitive eating -- an approach that involves observing and responding to your body’s food-related cues -- and having a lower body mass index and positive emotional health. It also indicated potential nutritional and cardiovascular benefits. “Intuitive eating is about creating a healthy relationship with food, mind and body,” says Evelyn Tribole, a renowned intuitive-eating expert and registered dietitian in Newport Beach, California. The concept may seem simple, but poor body image, a hectic lifestyle and long-term unhealthy habits can make it difficult. Read on to learn more about the benefits of intuitive eating and practical ways to get started.

BENEFIT #1: Sustain Weight Control
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Between 40 and 50 percent of women are dieting at any given time, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), and about 95 percent of them will regain all the lost weight (or more) within five years. “I think a lot of people are aware that dieting doesn’t work,” says Evelyn Tribole, registered dietitian, “but they don’t realize that it makes things worse.” Eating intuitively means trusting your body, which won’t cue you to eat too little or too much. You’ll end up desiring appropriate amounts of specifically healthy food and exercising because it feels good versus simply for calorie burning, says Tribole. This results in a sustainable healthy lifestyle, of which weight control is a natural byproduct.

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BENEFIT #2: Reduce Disordered Eating
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According to NEDA, many people, including about half a million teens, report struggling with disordered eating -- a disturbed eating pattern that can include compulsive eating, restrictive dieting, health-food obsession and other factors that detract from health and happiness. Intuitive eating could help manage disordered eating, lowering your risk for complications, such as full-fledged eating disorders, depression and obesity. In a study published in Appetite in January 2013, researchers analyzed the eating habits of 2,287 young adults. Participants who reported trusting their body’s hunger and fullness cues had lower odds of eating-disorder behaviors compared with those that did not have this trust.

Related: 10 Ways You May Be Shortening Your Life

BENEFIT #3: Gain Health and Happiness
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One common myth about intuitive eating is that, because you can eat whatever you desire, your life will likely become an endless buffet of sweets and fast food, but this isn’t the case, says registered dietitian Evelyn Tribole. “Here’s what’s so shocking to a lot of people: Healthy eating feels good!” While you can enjoy low-nutrient fare while eating intuitively, you’ll naturally focus on foods that promote physical and emotional wellness -- such as fruits, veggies and whole grains -- as you grow more attuned to your body, explains Tribole. This paves the way for improved immune function, cardiovascular health and moods -- unlike low-carb diets, for example, which can cause agitation. If you’re accustomed to dieting, eating intuitively will also free you up to invest more time and energy into your personal passions.

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STEP #1: Start by Seeking Satisfaction
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A restrictive diet keeps you from tuning in to your body’s needs by encouraging you to focus on rules, such as limiting calories, carbs or other nutrient groups. “Knowing you can eat that ice cream sundae takes away the urgency,” says Evelyn Tribole, a renowned intuitive-eating expert and registered dietitian. If listening to your body rather than restricting seems daunting, start by aiming for satisfaction. “It’s not satisfying to undereat, and it’s not satisfying to overeat,” says Tribole. If you desire less-healthy food, such as dessert for dinner, she suggests trying it. Over time, or perhaps immediately, you’ll crave more substantive meals. Regardless, occasional indulgences won’t hurt you -- and they can actually help. Avoiding foods you crave is known to interfere with weight and appetite control, according to an Eating Behaviors report published in January 2012.

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STEP #2: Honor Your Appetite
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Contrary to the dieter’s mindset, hunger pangs aren’t the enemy, they are your body’s cue that it’s time to refuel. “We have to recognize that hunger is normal,” says Evelyn Tribole, registered dietitian. “Every time you mess with it, you’re teaching your body not to trust you.” Rather than aiming to suppress or ignore your appetite, respond by eating a desired snack or meal. If you ignore the pangs they may diminish, only to return in full force a little later. A Journal of Adolescent Health study published in January 2012 showed a strong correlation between skipping meals or undereating and weight gain in teens and young adults over a 10-year period. To avoid these risks, start viewing food as fuel and a means of self-care, with hunger as the invitation.

Related: Healthy 10-Minute Dinner Ideas

STEP #3: Respect Fullness
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Rather than stopping eating once you’ve consumed a certain amount of calories or cleared your plate, intuitive eating encourages respect for fullness. Just as hunger is a signal that it’s time to eat, satiation indicates you’ve had enough. “I had no idea what being satisfied felt like,” says Lisa M., a Los Angeles aerobics instructor who overcame compulsive dieting through intuitive eating. “I only knew starving and stuffed.” Lisa M. began checking herself while eating to see if she was satisfied. Eventually the cues became second nature. “It’s like a little tickle,” says Lisa M., to which she might respond by eating another bite or two or stopping. “I haven’t had that icky stuffed feeling in years, which is so freeing.”

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STEP #4: Eat (or Check In) Regularly
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Your body and mind work best when you eat at regular time intervals. Skimping on carbohydrates or calories, conversely, leads to foggy thinking, negative moods, excessive hunger and irritability. Until you’ve grasped intuitive eating, using a schedule to monitor yourself can help regulate your appetite and habits while still giving you a sense of control. “When people want specific guidelines, I say make sure you don’t go more than five hours without eating,” says Evelyn Tribole, registered dietitian. “Or at least check in every three to five hours.” If you’re hungry upon check-in, consider the intensity. “There’s that pleasant, almost polite hunger, and then there’s the really uncomfortable hunger you’re going to pay for,” explains Tribole. Strive to eat before hunger escalates.

Related: Sign Up to Receive the FREE LIVESTRONG.COM Weekly Health and Fitness Newsletter

STEP #5: Move to Be Moved
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Staying active is part of respecting your body -- a pillar of intuitive eating. If “enjoyable exercise” seems like an oxymoron, rethink your approach. Similar to an unsatisfying diet, forcing yourself to engage in exercise you dislike can work against you, making it difficult to perform well or maintain. “Physical activity that is enjoyable to you will help improve your health, boost your mood and give you more energy,” says registered dietitian Tina Marinaccio -- far more so than bullying yourself into working out. It also makes exercise something you look forward to. Prioritize pleasurable activity most days, suggests Marinaccio, keeping in mind that gyms and treadmills aren’t essential. Dance, hike, walk your dog or clean your house to upbeat music.

Related: 13 Foolproof Ways to Make Your Workout Fly By

STEP #6: Stock Up on Healthy, Tasty Food
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While listening to your body matters most for intuitive eating, surrounding yourself with tempting, low-nutrient food could work against you. Research published in the International Journal of Obesity in 2011 shows that seeing and smelling pizza for 60 seconds caused lean and overweight people to significantly desire it and other foods. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends stocking up on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, milk and other lean protein sources, including fish, for health and lasting weight control. Keep nutritious snacks like trail mix and fruit in your office, car or purse. When your sweet tooth calls, purchase a single serving of dessert rather than an oversize value pack, which you may keep eating simply because it’s there.

Related: 10 Tricks to Save Money and Waste Less of Your Fresh Fruits and Veggies

STEP #7: Understand Emotional Eating
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Eating for emotional reasons occasionally is common and unlikely to cause major harm. When you habitually eat to quell boredom, find comfort or manage stress or negative moods, however, you hold increased risks for obesity, Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. It’s important to learn to recognize the difference between emotional food cravings and physiological hunger. If you’ve eaten recently when hunger strikes, ask yourself whether you ate too little or if emotions are to blame. If it’s the latter, seek another means of coping, such as talking to a friend, taking a nap or exercising. “When you’re clear about the biological aspects of hunger and fullness, it all figures itself out,” says Evelyn Tribole, registered dietitian. In other words, intuitive eating can help manage emotional eating by increasing self-awareness.

Related: 10 Ways You May Be Shortening Your Life

STEP #8: Do Away With Distraction
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Eating mindlessly while you’re driving, watching TV or working, for example, makes it difficult to enjoy food or accurately assess your hunger or fullness. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in February 2011, 44 people ate lunch while playing electronic solitaire or without distraction. Thirty minutes later they participated in a taste test. Participants who played the game were less satiated after lunch and ate significantly more food during the taste test than their undistracted counterparts. They also had difficulty recalling what they’d eaten. If eating mindfully seems daunting, Evelyn Tribole, registered dietitian, recommends starting with one distraction-free meal per day. Gradually, Tribole explains, your meals “will become sacred time you look forward to.” Eat sitting down in a pleasant atmosphere with as little distraction as possible.

Related: Healthy 10-Minute Dinner Ideas

STEP #9: Seek Support
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If you find intuitive eating difficult or simply want to do all you can to improve, seek support. Discuss your goals and progress with an encouraging loved one, or work with a qualified professional, such as a dietitian or psychologist. “A good professional, just like a good teacher, can help guide us through our ignorance into greater self-knowledge,” says Jan Harrell, a clinical psychologist and author in Ashland, Oregon. Such awareness allows you the freedom to become who you wish, says Harrell, including someone who eats intuitively rather than someone who diets or routinely overeats. The more challenging intuitive eating is for you initially, the more rewarding it will likely become over time.

Related: 13 Foolproof Ways to Make Your Workout Fly By

STEP #10: Moving Forward With Gentle Nutrition
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Focusing on nutrition too early can make it difficult to forge a trusting relationship with your body once you start eating intuitively, says registered dietitian Evelyn Tribole. Once you’ve begun to understand your body’s hunger and fullness cues and done away with any dietary rigidity, however, you can begin to assess just how healthful your lifestyle is. Ask yourself gentle nutritional questions like, “Am I eating enough fruits and vegetables?” A healthy diet also emphasizes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein-rich foods, such as fish and beans, and healthy fat sources, such as nuts and avocados. Enjoyment and body respect should also be included on your moving-forward checklist. “You only have one body,” says Tribole, “and it has done a lot for you.”

Related: 10 Tricks to Save Money and Waste Less of Your Fresh Fruits and Veggies

What Do YOU Think?
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Have you heard of intuitive eating before? Do you eat intuitively? If so, what benefits have you experienced? If you’re considering the approach, how will you start? Let us know by posting a comment below.

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