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Can Intuitive Eating Help End Compulsive Eating and Emotional Eating?

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What Is Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive eating means mindfully eating what you want, when you are hungry, and stopping when your body is satisfied. Although this may sound simple, if you have battled your weight for most of your life, chances are that your body is sending your mind signals it doesn't want to hear.

For example, have you ever stood in front of the refrigerator or wandered around the kitchen thinking, "I'm hungry, but I don't know what I want eat"? Chances are you aren't really hungry. If you think to a time when you were really, truly hungry because you hadn't eaten for hours, you probably weren't all that choosy about what you were going to eat.

Also, have you ever done preventative eating? In this case, you think, "Oh, I should eat a big lunch so I can get through the rest of the day and then go to the gym after work." While eating, you don't stop to think, "gosh, I'm stuffed," you keep eating because your mind is telling you that you will need lots of energy in the next few hours. (But, chances are, if you overeat, you'll feel groggy.)

Or, have you ever avoided taking a slice of birthday cake, even if it is your favorite chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, and instead nibbled on some carrot sticks while at the party, only to go home and start binging on anything you can find (stale crackers, gummy ice cream, raw Ramen noodles ... it's all up for grabs).

Intuitive eating promises that you can step away from the behaviors that have left you overweight, while learning to become mindful and trust your body. It sounds like a wonderful dream and physically, mentally, and spiritually beneficial plan for life that I am truly interested in working toward.

Photo by Susan Caplan McCarthy

Eat When You Are Physically Hungry

A key to intuitive eating is to eat when you are hungry. If you are overweight, this is trickier than you may think. For example, if you've ever walked into the break room and noticed that someone brought in doughnuts, your stomach may have grumbled in response to the sight of this treat, even though you went into the room just because you wanted a cup of coffee and you hadn't noticed that you were hungry.

  • Physical hunger comes on slowly, not suddenly.
  • Physical hunger gets you thinking about what you'd like to eat; emotional hunger gets focused on a particular food (I need a donut, bag of chips, burger and fries, candy bar, pint of ice cream, plate of ultimate nachos).
  • When you are physically hungry, food smells and tastes wonderful. When you aren't hungry, or are no longer hungry, food no longer has a distinctive flavor.
  • When you are hungry, you know that you need to eat. You don't think, "What do I want to eat?"
  • Physical hunger isn't connected to emotional distress. If you are thinking, "I deserve a treat; I just want to unwind; I'm bored; I'm tired; I'm lonely," then food won't help. (Well, it will numb your feelings, which seems like it is helping, but in the long run, it isn't an effective solution.)

Directed Eating Can Help You Give Up Dieting

When you go on a diet, your mind (or a book or the individual guiding your meal plans) takes control of what you eat. If you eat a 200 calorie breakfast and a famished a couple of hours later, you force yourself to use willpower, telling yourself that you can't eat until lunch. By the end of the day, you've used up all of your willpower and you binge.

Intuitive eating, or as this author refers to it, directed eating, gives you permission to eat when you are hungry. However, it also tells you that you need to be mindful of when you are satisfied (not necessarily full) so you know to stop.

Willpower ... - or Will You Listen to Your Body?

What is the reason you feel that you are battling your weight? Do you feel that you need to control your body's urges or do you feel that you should listen to what your body needs?

What Contributes to Your Body Being Overweight?

My lack of willpower

radex78 6 months ago

I am eating only three times a day lol

WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

@delia-delia: I wouldn't say that you're weird. I understand the desire to find the key to unlock the answer behind binge eating ... it's like if I could figure out that one thing, everything else would fall into place naturally. My best wishes to you.

WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

@Flora Crew: I do think that it is important to figure out what your body wants to feel satisfied. Sometimes that will be salad, but other times something heartier.

abderrahman-aamoud 6 months ago

hello .............

delia-delia 6 months ago

I say it's my willpower, but I also have a craving for anything made with sugar!...sometimes I'm so desperate I'll eat brown sugar till I'm sick, I just can't stop...I just hate myself for this and wish I knew why I do it. I have no "desire" to eat regular food or salt, no taste of satisfaction from it. Guess I'm weird...

Flora Crew 6 months ago

Good article! However, it seems to me although I could be wrong that the hungrier I am the more dense food I seek out. Like when I first get hungry I think about something light but then if eating is delayed I think about thing that I know will make an impact on my stomach. We talked about this at a cooking class I took recently, and the leader suggested keeping light type food ready to eat to prevent this.

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    The challenge of listening to what my body needs me to do

    flinnie lm 6 months ago from Alabama USA

    I have lost and gain weight. I tried willpower and listening to my body. Willpower only last so long. It's best to listen to what our body need us to do.

    spgamble12 6 months ago

    My brain! Or perhaps more accurately - my emotions.

    anonymous 6 months ago

    stress eating

    WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

    @lewisgirl: It is difficult to listen to your body when it is changing. Much luck!

    Carol Houle 6 months ago from Montreal

    I think it's wine and chips.

    lewisgirl 6 months ago

    I wasn't always overweight; since menopause, it has been a real struggle and now I am dealing with chronic acid reflux and really trying to listen to my body. Still trying to figure it all out.

    WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

    @esmonaco: Congratulations of your weight loss! It's good to know that weight loss doesn't have to be tied to extreme diets.

    esmonaco 6 months ago from Lakewood New York

    I agree with with what you say here 100%, I've always been up and down with my weight. Over the last 4 years I've lost 60 pounds and kept it off by doing exactly what you are saying here. I don't deny myself anything I just eat in moderation

    WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

    @Dressage Husband: As someone who has always been overweight, it is heartening to hear from people who haven't struggled with their weight that intuitive eating is their natural way of eating. It gives me hope to work all the more on developing these skills.

    Dressage Husband 6 months ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

    I have never been overweight and I think I have always eaten intuitively after reading your description. I think you may well have found your answer!

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      Use Hypnosis to Support Intuitive Eating

      The book makes wonderful sense and the information is built on the ideas behind intuitive eating. McKenna also supplies a hypnosis CD to help you better assimilate the ideas of eating when hungry and stopping when full.

      Photo by Susan Caplan McCarthy
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      Photo by Susan Caplan McCarthy

      Eat What You Really Want to Eat

      This is a tough one. I know, you are thinking, what if I only want to eat cupcakes and burgers and pizza and Doritos and ice cream and, and, and.....

      This step catches me time and again because I think I'll only want to eat junk food. However, I've learned it doesn't. Proponents of intuitive eating suggest that if you eat what you want, even if you don't think you should be eating that food, you will regain your body's trust that you aren't going to starve or deprive it. When food starts to lose its emotional component, you realize that you want to eat healthful foods that give you energy.

      Photo I took of a food I've learned I can avoid with ease.

      For example, a suggestion that I've read numerous times, tells you to keep a no-no food in the house. You know what this food is; this is the food that traditional diet books tell you to get rid of when you are planning on "being good." I adored Goldfish crackers. The bar my husband and I went to would set carafes of Goldfish crackers along the bar. And, I nibbled on them there although I would never, ever buy them. One day, I said, I'm going to follow this suggestion from intuitive eating and buy not just one but three bags of Goldfish crackers.

      The packages sat at the back of the kitchen cabinet for maybe a week and then I had a bad day and I ate, yes, all three bags. My body didn't feel good after eating that much salt. The odd thing is, I've almost never eaten these crackers since that day. Not because I don't trust myself to buy them (because I have a couple of times), but because I remembered how awful I felt after eating them. If I really want Goldfish crackers, I will buy them; but, now I notice that I don't really care all that much for the flavor.

      I have found that I have to work through individual trigger foods individually. I try to follow the other "rules" of intuitive eating, eat what I want, when I'm hungry, and be mindful so I notice when I'm satisfied. This is an ongoing process.

      Eat Mindfully

      If you pay attention to what you are eating, you will enjoy the food more. Chances are you will even start to notice when you are feeling full, or better, satisfied. Instead of zoning out in front of the television while eating, and only stopping when you hit the bottom of the package, you give yourself permission to eat what you enjoy.

      • Sit down. If you are walking around, you probably aren't paying attention to what you are eating.
      • Eat in a designated eating zone which discourages you from eating while sitting on the couch or in bed.
      • Use a smaller plate that isn't too small. Go to an antique shop and you'll notice that dinnerware from your parents' and grandparents' eras were much smaller than the plates you own today.
      • Make your meal visually appealing. Use a cloth napkin or a real plate instead of a paper plate. Serve yourself a plateful of food that looks appealing.
      • Turn off the television don't answer the phone, don't text, don't read. If you are eating with others, pause every so often to check on how your body feels with the food you've already eaten.
      • Set your flatware down between bites. Put the sandwich or slice of pizza on the plate as you chew. Don't take another bite until you've chewed and swallowed the previous bite.
      • Eat the best part first. If you don't like green beans then you may eat them off your plate in a sort of bribe to allow you to then eat your mashed sweet potatoes. Eat the potatoes first and consider why you are wasting calories on a food you really don't like. You can also ask why you are forcing yourself to eat when that goes against intuitive eating. Serve yourself broccoli if you prefer that to green beans.

      Check Out Geneen Roth's Books

      Geneen Roth is one of my favorite writers on the subject of overeating. She discusses her own issues with weight and she points out that intuitive eating isn't an easy solution, particularly if you are eating non-diet foods that others feel someone who is overweight shouldn't be eating. Each book is an honest reflection of her experiences.

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      Stop Eating When You Feel Satisfied

      Another tough skill for the overeater to learn. First, try to notice that after a few or several bites of food that it loses some of its flavor. Other actions that you can try as a way to help you notice if you are still hungry include:

      Take half of the food you would normally put on your plate. If you usually take two servings, take one. If you usually eat pre-portioned diet meals, then ignore the suggestion to take less because you'll probably just feel more deprived.

      After you have consume half of what is on your plate, take a break. Stand up and get a drink of water. Sit down and sip some water, judging if you are still hungry.

      If you have people monitoring how much you eat (even if they intend on being helpful), you will probably feel too stressed to notice signals of hunger and satisfaction. You will need to address this situation if you find yourself paying attention to someone else instead of your own needs.

      Photo by the author.

      Some people have a foolish way of not minding, or pretending not to mind, what they eat. For my part, I mind my belly very studiously, and very carefully; for I look upon it, that he who does not mind his belly will hardly mind anything else.

      — Samuel Johnson
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      Some of My Story

      I was a slightly chubby kid who became an obese adult. Snacking on treats from the vending machine was a way to deal with the boredom of a series of frustrating jobs. When I was 27 and my mother had a series of strokes, sneaking food became a way to unwind from working toward a master's degree, teaching freshman English classes, and trying to do more to help out my parents.

      Food became a drug, a way to feel numb instead of looking at the emotions I was feeling. I started carrying around a backpack because I could sneak bags of chips and packages of cookies into the house without anyone noticing. Of course, everyone noticed that my weight was skyrocketing, but I could ignore that stress by eating a Sara Lee pound cake.

      In my 20s, I started experiencing migraines. Most days, I would force myself to go to work and pretend I was okay. This was just another way I ignored the signals from my body.

      I would love to say that I've tried intuitive eating and it worked for me and the excess weight just fell off. Nope. Listening to my body is a skill I'm still working to develop, not just for weight loss but for understanding that when my body is in pain I need to take care of it and when I need to sleep, I shouldn't push myself to one more thing.

      One of my parents took this photo of me when I was in a dance recital at age 5 or 6.

      What tips would you offer people about developing the skills associated with intuitive eating?

       Last updated on March 10, 2014

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      Have You Tried Intuitive Eating or Are You a Natural Intuitive Eater? 47 comments

      Coffee-Break profile image

      Coffee-Break 6 months ago from Ottawa, Ontario Canada Level 3 Commenter

      I think I am a natural intuitive eater. Stress and strong emotions are the worst enemy of intuitive eating. Great subject to write on, and a great lens.

      TapIn2U profile image

      TapIn2U 6 months ago Level 4 Commenter

      I'm an intuitive eater specially now that I'm conscious on eating and living healthy. Sundae ;-)

      TerriCarr profile image

      TerriCarr 6 months ago Level 5 Commenter

      When it comes to snack foods, I can easily keep eating beyond what my body needs or wants.

      Dressage Husband profile image

      Dressage Husband 6 months ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada Level 5 Commenter

      I am I believe a totally natural intuitive eater and it works for me at 61 nearly 62 I am the same weight as at 14 and have never changed by more than a pound or so!

      savateuse profile image

      savateuse 6 months ago Level 2 Commenter

      Congratulations on LOTD!

      This is such as important topic as many of us do find it difficult to resist the urge to snack: "I'm in the kitchen, therefore I eat"...

      I think intuitive shopping is important too. If someone has junk food in the kitchen, chances are that they will eat it. So, I try to avoid walking down the chips/candy/cookie aisles in the supermarket. That way, the junk food isn't in the house!

      WeeCatCreations1 profile image

      WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

      @savateuse: Thank you! Mindless eating because we're bored and looking for something interesting to fill the time can be a challenge. Keeping snack-y food in the house does make it easier to turn to those foods when looking for something to eat - even if we aren't hungry.

      Erin Mellor profile image

      Erin Mellor 6 months ago from Europe Level 3 Commenter

      I'm working on it, my body makes much better food choices than my emotions do.

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      WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

      @Dressage Husband: I envy you! Except for when my dad lifted weights when he was younger, he was always 143 pounds, give or take a couple of pounds ... I wish I inherited that ability to eat intuitively/good metabolism/??? from him.

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      WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

      @Erin Mellor: Oh, yes.

      WeeCatCreations1 profile image

      WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

      @TerriCarr: Sugar, salt, and fat make mindless eating somewhat rewarding ... until you hit the bottom of the bag and realize that you feel bloated and queasy.

      WeeCatCreations1 profile image

      WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

      @TapIn2U: Being conscious of what you are eating, the entire time you are eating it, is a wonderful skill to have.

      WeeCatCreations1 profile image

      WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

      @Coffee-Break: Stress and strong emotions make it difficult to hear your body's needs. Thank you!

      writerkath profile image

      writerkath 6 months ago Level 3 Commenter

      This idea is new to me, and something definitely worth exploring. You have piqued my curiosity about this! Thanks! (And, congratulations on your LOTD!) :)

      esmonaco profile image

      esmonaco 6 months ago from Lakewood New York Level 7 Commenter

      I have a cousin who is a doctor, he told me this a long time ago, people tend to be programed to a specific time to eat. He said you should only eat when you're hungry. Very informative work here Thanks and Congratulations on LOTD! Very Well Deserved :)

      WeeCatCreations1 profile image

      WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

      @writerkath: Thank you! It is interesting to consider how many of the intuitive eating skills you possess and which ones you want to develop.

      WeeCatCreations1 profile image

      WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

      @esmonaco: Thank you!.

      Merrci profile image

      Merrci 6 months ago from Oregon's Southern Coast Level 8 Commenter

      Congratulations of LotD! Well deserved, and something so many of us can relate to! I'm trying to be more intuitive, but need a lot of work on knowing when to stop! This is very helpful with great suggestions. Thanks for sharing it.

      Ibidii profile image

      Ibidii 6 months ago from Northern California Level 6 Commenter

      Congratulations on LOTD! Lots of good info here. I will have to see if I can be hypnotized! I keep a food journal and I can see I am an emotional eater. I now am in tune with that and try to not over eat the bad things when that is going on. I hope to be able to step up my exercise this year swimming since there is a pool at my apartment complex! Yay! :)

      lewisgirl profile image

      lewisgirl 6 months ago Level 2 Commenter

      I find when I am really engaged in a project, intuitive eating kicks in. Because, I will work and work, until my body says it is hungry and even then I find it hard to stop to go eat. Keeping busy is the key for me. Great lens! Congrats!

      tonyleather 6 months ago

      I have always subscribed to the idea of eating only when I am genuinely hungry. I am not slim, but nor am I too heavy. It seems to stay balanced, in the main.

      Diana Wenzel profile image

      Diana Wenzel 6 months ago from Colorado Level 6 Commenter

      The important thing for me is to eat smaller portions more regularly throughout the day. If I wait too long, and I am exceptionally hungry, I will eat the first thing I see (which is not usually something very nutritionally fulfilling). This is the first I have heard of intuitive eating. Thanks for the introduction and congrats on Lens of the Day! I wish you well as you continue your quest for healthy living and eating.

      Faye Rutledge profile image

      Faye Rutledge 6 months ago from Concord VA Level 5 Commenter

      I think this would be a great way to lose weight. Congratulations on LotD! Great lens and info.

      delia-delia profile image

      delia-delia 6 months ago Level 5 Commenter

      Congratulations on LOTD! This is great info and hope to apply it to my craving of sweets! I know it's a mental game with me, but now I have something to go by.

      Sensuintell profile image

      Sensuintell 6 months ago

      Oddly, after I broke my foot (and sprained my ankle) and was immobile for two months, I found that I began eating intuitively. I have no idea why. But I was on a health eating track for a month prior to the incident. Afterwards, four months after I broke my foot, I found that my weight had not changed at all, not one pound. Interesting.

      Gypzeerose profile image

      Gypzeerose 6 months ago Level 5 Commenter

      This is one of the best articles I have ever read about how to obtain and maintain a healthy weight. I appreciated your suggestions on the many ways we can learn to listen to our body, which I think is really wise. I particularly appreciated your suggestion on getting your trigger foods and bringing them into your house. I can see how avoiding them just makes the situation more intense and strengthens the appeal that the forbidden item has for us. I am going to buy some Krispy Kreme glazed donuts and try it out! the Along with all that you have said let me point out that scientists don't always know what is best for us. For the longest time they said that avocados, eggs and olive oil were not good for you because we are avoiding fat - now we know that is not all of the picture at all. Congrats on your LOTD - and best of luck to you on your perfect weight journey. Social bookmarked to several sites.

      Carol Houle profile image

      Carol Houle 6 months ago from Montreal Level 2 Commenter

      I can buy bags of cookies, candies and cake and never touch them. If I don't bring chips into the house, I still won't eat the sweets, I'll eat something else that's salty. Crackers, soup with extra salt... It's a real problem.

      I will try intuitive eating now. I also read that sometimes thirst for fresh water will make you go check the fridge and food pantry, not knowing what you're looking for. Thanks for the information. And congrats on your LOTD.

      MelanieMurphyMyer profile image

      MelanieMurphyMyer 6 months ago

      Unfortunately, I do all that and it still doesn't work. :(

      Designery profile image

      Designery 6 months ago

      interesting article about psychology of eating.

      WeeCatCreations1 profile image

      WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

      @MelanieMurphyMyer: I understand.

      WeeCatCreations1 profile image

      WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

      @Sensuintell: Very interesting. I've read how changes in your life can cause habits to change in The Power of Habit.

      anonymous 6 months ago

      Excellent lens. A lot of really good information here. Congratulations on getting LotD!

      WeeCatCreations1 profile image

      WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

      @Merrci: Thank you. Learning to hear what your body is try to say is difficult.

      WeeCatCreations1 profile image

      WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

      @Ibidii: Thank you. Good luck on your journey of being kind to your emotional eating-self.

      WeeCatCreations1 profile image

      WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

      @lewisgirl: Yes! Staying busy with things that truly interest you is a great help. Thank you.

      WeeCatCreations1 profile image

      WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

      @tonyleather: Congratulations of hearing your body's needs and staying balanced.

      WeeCatCreations1 profile image

      WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

      @anonymous: Thank you.

      WeeCatCreations1 profile image

      WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

      @Diana Wenzel: Thank you. I also find that if I get too hungry I don't make the best choices. It can be difficult to find that point between getting hungry and ravenous.

      WeeCatCreations1 profile image

      WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

      @delia-delia: Thank you and good luck!

      WeeCatCreations1 profile image

      WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

      @Carol Houle: I do find that a craving for salty foods can mean that I need more fluids ... like I'm trying to make myself drink water. Everyone's cravings are different, which is why I hope that intuitive eating can offer personal guidance as opposed to just trying to follow generic rules from a diet book.

      WeeCatCreations1 profile image

      WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

      @Gypzeerose: Thank you for your support. I have found that allowing myself trigger foods does diminish their appeal ... but I've also eaten more than my fair share of trigger foods while learning that lesson. Good luck to you.

      GrammieOlivia profile image

      GrammieOlivia 6 months ago from Toronto Level 7 Commenter

      Great lens, congrats on LoTD, well deserved! I don't know what my path is to losing weight, I know that once I get in the garden, I will forget to eat a lot of the time. I think because my mind is focused on something other than my hunger.......

      joycepearljones 6 months ago

      Eat protein in the morning. Focus on trying to eat 7- 9 servings of fruits & veggies per day . Put some of these veggies & fruits into smoothies Or make juices without added sugar.

      Buy a Juicing recipe book.

      I did this when I had cancer in 2009.

      I wore a size 10 then.

      I began this nutrition program when I was taking chemo. I take the product Juice Plus which is 17 fruits and vegetables in a capsule. Once you start and a lot of fruits and vegetables in their natural form or lightly steamed or cooked, You begin craving it and not craving the bad food as much.

      Begin a qigong meditation practice

      Walking in garden to become more mindful .

      Yes hypnosis is helpful & seeing a psychologist


      WeeCatCreations1 profile image

      WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

      @joycepearljones: Thank you for all your suggestions. Be well.

      WeeCatCreations1 profile image

      WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

      @GrammieOlivia: Doing something you love is a great way to occupy your mind so you don't think about food. Thank you!

      nathanjaquez 6 months ago

      Thx for the stuff...

      flinnie lm profile image

      flinnie lm 6 months ago from Alabama USA Level 4 Commenter

      Congrats on LOTD. Because of many health problems I need to keep my weight down. It can be hard keeping the weight off and not overeating. I like your tips, thanks for sharing. Great lens.

      WeeCatCreations1 profile image

      WeeCatCreations1 6 months ago Hub Author

      @flinnie lm: Thank you.

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