Nutrition science and intuitive eating are on two sides of the same coin. The coin is eating healthfully. One side of it emphasizes logic and scientific studies (funded by corporations like Coca-Cola, ConAgra Foods, General Mills, and the Egg Nutrition Center…) whereas the latter approach emphasizes eating relying on the instincts you were born with (but may need to develop now from reading too many diet books).
The problem with nutrition science, apart from rampant bias, is that it separates us from our foods and dampens our intuition. When you think logically about what you eat, you don’t pay attention to what your body is asking for. You pay attention instead to the quantity of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, magnesium, B-vitamins, etc.
There is much merit to the basis for nutrition science. It is a discipline as important to our understanding of nature as is chemistry and physics (it also involves both chemistry and physics). But– and this is a big but–much of the nutrition science we rely on today is fragmented, reductionist, and not viable for drawing accurate conclusions about what to eat.
As examples, consider the debate on saturated fat. On one side of the coin are plenty of doctors and health agencies who believe saturated fat consumption should be reduced for heart health. But there are plenty of studies supporting the opposing view. To top it off, there are other coins in the discussion! (I used to like coins as a kid hence all the coin analogies). There’s Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine*, two disciplines I’m a huge fan of because they are compatible with intuitive eating and are truly holistic ways of thinking about health. In those disciplines saturated fat doesn’t exist. Foods exist. But their fatty acid composition is not a factor.
Then there’s the low-fat versus low-carb debate. Each is a religion of its own. But they both can work for weight loss, blood sugar regulation, and improving health for the obese (but perhaps not a healthy person). If you base your diet on “nutrition science” there is a very strong chance that there is a flaw to your logic, because you probably don’t interpret them correctly or even understand the statistical methods, and haven’t considered opposing points of view. I see this all the time, so don’t take personal offense to it. If you do, you’re biased anyway. I’ve seen a myriad of diets supported by “science” that simply miss the big picture. Your intuition is much better at informing you as to what the big picture is.
And just a final note before we talk about how to do this, intuitive eating is a science in and of itself. It follows the scientific method, which is simply to observe, ask questions, and test things out, to figure out what’s working and what’s not working. If you truly study your needs by following your intuition, you can learn far more than from reading diet books or nutrition studies.
So how does one transition from logical to intuitive eating?
To start eating intuitively you must learn to view food without any labels. It’s going to be all about feel, not logic or science. FORGET ALL THOUGHTS OF HEALTHY OR UNHEALTHY. You can still read food labels, but the purpose of intuitive eating is to let your body tell you what you want to eat without judgment. This whole time, people are doing the opposite; they’re trying to tell their body what it wants. And they’re wrong.
That’s why intuitive eating is something everyone should be doing in my opinion (Most people do. It’s just the health-conscious folk that over-emphasize logic). It’s crazy to me some people don’t eat intuitively and they follow rules, based on “science” and philosophy. This is counter to what your body truly wants. Your body does not lie, thus, following it is a good idea.
To start intuitive eating follow the five steps below. Note, an article like this does not do intuitive eating due justice, as learning to eat without rules is very difficult for the chronic dieter. You can’t just read this article and know how to do it. You have to implement what I’ve written and start following your body. It’s through this experience with yourself that you’ll learn how to eat intuitively. Hint: it takes a lot of habit change. It takes a lot of letting go. And it takes discomfort. Doesn’t sound fun doesn’t it? Well that’s exactly why it’s so rewarding once you get it.
Step 1: Develop your intuition
Your intuition is there to guide you throughout whatever it is that you’re doing. Looking for a book to read? You’re using intuition. At a crystal shop? You’re using intuition. Thinking about a friend and they communicate with you soon after? That’s intuition and consciousness.
To develop your intuition you must turn off the thinking mind and turn on the feeling mind. And to do this, meditation can really help. You can meditate sitting down, formally, or while engaging in an activity where you don’t have to pay attention to much, like walking, driving a vehicle, taking the subway, doing groceries, etc. Still your mind and let any thoughts that come to you arise without thinking about them. Do not ruminate. Do not go in circles. Shut your brain up and listen. Listening increases your awareness. And by listen, we’re not talking about your ears. We’re talking about perception.
There are several meditation exercises that can enhance your intuition, but I’ll share one simple one for intuitive eating. As you sit in a comfortable posture with your feet on the floor, or in full or half lotus pose, closing your eyes, hands on your knees in a desired mudra (hand position), bring your awareness to different parts of your body. Start with wherever you want, but to avoid getting distracted consider starting from the head and going to the toes. I prefer to bring awareness to parts of my body in random order, but this can be distracting so I do not recommend starting with it.
If thoughts, sensations, and memories rise up, do not live through those thoughts. Don’t fall into the wormhole. Try instead to observe the fact that they came up. That’s it. This is called mindfulness. That’s all there is to that exercise.
Additionally, as you go through your day, start being mindful of the feelings you get about things. So if it’s groceries, and something attracts you, ask yourself why that happened and let the answer that comes first guide you. If it’s a person, perhaps you feel a certain way about them. Ask yourself why. Go deeper and try to understand it.
To enhance your intuition, set the intention to enhance it. If this sounds cliche or boring to you, trust me, setting an intention is like catapulting your consciousness into the universe. This is a well agreed upon way to enhance intuition by those who are empaths, energy healers, and professions who do this type of work. Your intention will be heard, and random things will start happening and you will start seeing results. It’s the law of attraction. Setting intentions in general is great, but for this, set one intention during your evening intention setting practice or whenever you have time and space to be mindful and present without distractions, to develop and strengthen your intuition.
I try to set intentions every night. It keeps me going and causes unexplained phenomena to happen the next day (or over the next few days) which help me achieve whatever it is I intended to.
Step 2: try a lot of foods.
Your intuition can change based on what’s in your environment. So if the only food in your environment is plantains, yucca, and fish (like these villagers in Peru I visited years ago), you will not crave elk. But if you try a wide variety of foods, you will remember the aspects of different foods and how it made your body feel. Then next time you’re hungry, your intuition will have more choices.
This step is the process of forming a food memory. You do it throughout your life. But for the purposes of intuitive eating, add a little more variety than usual to your diet. Evaluate what food groups you eat regularly, and find deficient areas and add them in. For example, I personally haven’t been eating many grains. I’ll eat potatoes, rice, and different kinds of noodles, but I’m not eating a lot of whole wheat or other grains like quinoa.
Last time I tried quinoa, I enjoyed the way my body felt. I didn’t enjoy it because I read about its health benefits. Reading about the health benefits is something you should completely stop doing for the time being in order to eat intuitively. Another reason why that dampens your intuition, apart from detaching to the food and thinking too scientifically about it, is that it can cause attachment. You may find out that quinoa is good for blood pressure. Then you’ll eat it and try to love it, for that reason alone, even if it doesn’t make you feel that great. This is something people do on a regular basis. They don’t follow their body, but they follow a rule they read somewhere and are now addicted to it. Letting go is hard.
Step 3: Get hungry, and honor your cravings
It gets easier now. Once you’ve developed your intuition and have a good food memory, your intuition will tell you what your body needs next time you get hungry. When this intuitive insight comes to you, acknowledge it fully. Even if you’re craving cake and you don’t like cake because of the sugar, acknowledge that you had that craving.
So many people, because of their religious adherence to a food rule or dietary ideology, ignore their intuitive cravings. This will cause imbalance and deficiencies. I thought it was simple to eat intuitively, but it took a lot of time to fully let go of past beliefs.
I realized just yesterday actually that I never add as much milk and sugar as I actually want in my chai and coffee because I’m still a little afraid of sugar. But the way tea is drunk in India and by my parents, there is plenty of milk and sugar and it tastes better. So are you craving that Starbucks frappuchino? Then stop deliberating and go fucking buy that frappuchino.
Most people (and doctors) will tell you that’s a bad thing, but there’s a comforting aspect to it that’s actually quite healthy for us. These people also have no idea about metabolic damage caused by dieting. People are just parroting one-size-fits-all garbage advice about sugar that doesn’t apply to everyone. Sugar just needs to be used in moderation. Avoiding it completely is actually quite unhealthy because there’s no comfort or nourishment in the food. Imagine never eating fruit. That would be sad.
The hardest thing about intuitive eating in this step is to set aside thoughts of “health benefits” or adverse consequences of eating certain food items. Go with what you truly want. Let whatever comes up come up. And do not judge it because your body does not lie.
Step 4: eat and evaluate
Once you’ve identified what you want to eat, confront your inner demons, flip them off, and eat it. Then, see how you feel. Did you feel more energized? Did you develop a headache? Your headache went away? Are you sleepy? Are you bloated? If any symptoms arise, you’ll know. This is where being mindful is extremely important again. Some symptoms you have from food may not be too obvious. But just pay attention after you eat and you’ll figure out how you feel.
Now, pay attention to how you feel as you eat the food too. It’s taste and your desire to eat it are very important.
Step 5: Repetition
Repeat your experiments. Repeat your experiments. Repeat. Your. Experiments.
Repetition is the only step in the scientific process that can really lead to any observation or theory becoming “proof” of something. So in other words, after you’ve developed a craving (step three), then followed through with it (step four), try the same food again when you crave it. Do you feel the same as last time? Different? Not different? Remember it.
Things can change, and that’s okay. You might drink a coffee in the afternoon and feel like shit. Another day you might feel better. It’s okay. Just pay attention. That’s crucial with intuitive eating. It’s all about understanding what your body is telling you and this requires you to be a scientist of your own body’s signals.
So, there you have it. Those are my five steps for eating intuitively. It took my a lot of time to stop thinking about the health benefits of foods when I ate them. But I tried to eat intuitively because I figured that following my cravings would result in better health. I was a restrictive dieter, and maybe you are too. And now, I’m focused on the big picture. This picture does not make use of the nutrition science minutiae we constantly see in the news. The big picture also finds “health benefits” irrelevant. A lot of health websites only talk about minutiae, and in my opinion they’ll never get to the truth.
If you haven’t read 5 Myths of Intuitive Eating, that may provide additional insights on going about intuitive eating in a smooth way. Happy intuitive eating.
*One book that completely changed my thinking about food is “Between Heaven and Earth.” It’s a a summary of what Traditional Chinese Medicine is about and the format is really great for developing a basic understanding of TCM and applying some of the information to your life.