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Simple strategies for healthier, holistic eating

If eating “right” means getting bogged down with calories, macros, or scale readouts, and feeling bad about not hitting #goals, then forget it. That’s diet culture fueling inner negativity and we can do better for ourselves.

“Don’t let the myriad of numbers on any nutrition panel make you feel like food must be categorized into ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ categories,” says Claire Chewning, a registered dietitian and nutritionist. “This is nutrition that informs, but never restricts.”

Instead, embrace intuitive eating, a truly holistic approach to shutting out all that unhelpful noise — and math! Intuitive eating is a philosophy that’s all about sustainable nourishment, respecting your body, and honoring you as you.

What is intuitive eating?

  • It rejects diet culture.
  • It promotes food as pleasure, not guilt.
  • It respects all shapes and sizes and specifically your body.
  • It helps you recognize your body’s cues for hunger and fullness.
  • It helps you revise habits you want to change, but without policing food.
  • It helps liberate you from food’s control.
  • It makes you more mindful of food as fuel rather than filler.
  • It helps you see exercise as holistic movement, not just a calorie-burning effect.
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You might have a few reasons to revamp your eating practices. But intuitive eating is less about what you eat and more about how food helps fuel your life.

Here’s how to nix the brainwashing of diet culture and find true sustenance and satisfaction with food. We’ll show you how one small change at a time can help you craft your own intuitive eating strategies. Plus, we’ve got real tips for improving nutrition on a budget or if you live in a place where fresh food is hard to come by.

By becoming aware of what you eat, when you’re eating it, why you’re eating, and how certain foods make you feel, you can decide what intuitive eating goals make sense for you.

Keep a temporary food journal

You don’t have to keep track of a bunch of numbers or journal long-term. That can be unrealistic and even problematic.

“Calorie counting and being extremely meticulous with recording your food can also turn into a disordered eating pattern,” says Catherine Brennan, a registered dietitian. “Rather, the purpose of a food journal is to act as a tool to help you eat more intuitively.”

Food journal jottings

  • Date/time/meal
  • What did you have?
  • How hungry were you before eating?
  • What mood were you in when you ate?
  • How satisfied were you with your first bite?
  • Did you eat all of the meal/snack?
  • What was your fullness level afterward?
  • Did you like it?
  • When did you feel hungry again?
  • Did you experience any emotions after eating?
  • Did you experience any physical feelings after eating (e.g., GI distress)?
  • Notes on flavors
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After a few days of journaling, maybe you recognize a pattern of waiting until you’re basically “hangry” before you take a lunch break, causing you to grab the first thing you see — something that maybe isn’t even all that appealing to you.

“Your body is very smart,” Chewning says. “However, if you’re too busy or distracted to notice its cues, you’ll always be looking for sources of external validation — diet books, calorie trackers, etc. — for your food choices.”

If this is the case, you can set a goal to get a jump on hunger.

Our bodies send us signals when we’re hungry. Maybe it’s a pang or even slight bit of nausea. Likewise, we feel something when we’re full, too. Maybe a pressing at our waistlines or a sense that it’s harder to breathe.

These are the more extreme signals, when the gut is basically sending a smoke alarm to your brain that you should either eat or stop. But likely you get a subtler prodding.

Paying attention to those first hints, called initial hunger, and your cues for fullness will help you rely on your body to guide you.

Personal cues hunger-fullness scale

You can make your own hunger-fullness scale, listing your personal symptoms.

RatingState of hunger or fullnessWhat are your personal cues?
10Feeling ill.
9Uncomfortably full.
8Very full.
6First signs of fullness.
5Feeling normal. Not hungry or full.
4First signs of hunger.
3Definitely hungry.
2Very hungry.
1Extremely hungry.

Once you’ve crafted your scale, your goal is to stick to the middle range. Seek out food when you’re moving from 4 to 3, and stop eating when you reach 6 and 7.

These cues can also help you home in on whether a craving is really about an emotion, such as sadness, boredom, or nervousness. Ask yourself if you’re experiencing those physical cues you’ve marked in the 4 and 3 slots. If not, you may be experiencing an emotional hunger rather than a bodily one. This can help you decide if you really want to eat something.

Mindfulness practices at mealtime can help you take intuitive eating to the next level

“Mindfulness is important for keeping us in the moment of how we feel when we are eating,” says Deanna Minich, a certified functional medicine practitioner. “If we’re aware, there’s a greater chance of making an impact on our food choices and even the amount we are eating. We’ll also feel more satisfied with the eating experience.”

Mastering mindful mealtimes

  • Cook or prepare food yourself if possible (or do this occasionally).
  • Don’t scroll through social media when eating.
  • Turn off Netflix, Hulu, etc.
  • Eat away from your desk, cubicle, or office.
  • Pay attention to the smell, taste, and texture of your food.
  • Analyze the flavors and why they go well together.
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Let’s say you recognize a pattern you want to alter.

Science tells us our eating habits are tough to overhaul all at once. Instead, we work better when we opt for one simple and sustainable change at a time, research shows. And that concept is in line with intuitive eating, which is all about solutions for fueling your body that fit your life long-term.

We also do best when we take an existing eating habit and recycle it into a better one, develop a cue for it, and then repeat it regularly, according to a study.

Here’s a foolproof formula for habit formation, using hunger cues as a goal:

1. Decide on a goal.I want to get a jump on hunger.
2. Pick ONE daily habit to change.I wait until I’m so hungry for lunch I can’t think straight.
3. What’s the cue?I feel the first signs of hunger around 11 a.m.
4. What’s your new habit?I will honor that cue and start my lunch break.
5. Have you changed the habit? Yes
6. Pick the NEXT habit to change to meet the SAME goal.I don’t think about dinner until I’m staring at my fridge.
Step 7

Repeat steps 2 through 6 until you’ve met your goal. Then set a new goal!

“Smaller changes are going to be ‘stickier’ in that they are achievable and lead to a feeling of success,” explains Minich. “When we can conquer the small, it gives us the momentum to continue to make lifestyle changes.”

Plus, every little positive change we make in our eating has a ripple effect on our overall health, Minich adds.

How long will this take?

The old adage says it takes about 21 days to form a habit, but research shows you may need as long as 10 weeks. So be easy on yourself if things don’t stick right away. Give it time. If you land the habit faster, great! Move on to a new one.

Set goals for yourself, not others

More intuitive eating habits don’t have to be about losing weight, unless that’s a specific health aim for you. And they don’t have to be about “clean” eating either. Your goals should be individualized, not based on industry buzzwords.

If you’re looking for a little guidance on boosting nutrition or energy as part of your intuitive eating practice, one solution is to aim for more real foods. Research shows that’s the best advice out there.

But let’s get real about eating real

We’re not going to be chomping on raw carrots all day — how sustainable would that be? We can still aim for the “realest” of foods by glancing at labels — and not overanalyzing them — to see what we’re putting in our bodies. Opt for choices with fewer ingredients when possible and ones you can pronounce.

“When looking at sugars, be sure to check the ingredient list to see if the sugars are coming from a natural source,” Chewning says. Fructose is fruit sugar, and lactose is dairy sugar, for example.

Aim for food combinations that include some protein and dietary fiber, too, Chewning adds. These nutrients work to keep you satisfied and help stabilize blood sugar levels. So, by all means, dip those carrots in some hummus.

Experiment with what works for you, makes you feel full, and also makes you happy

If that’s not kale, but it’s kale chips, then so be it. “When it comes to making sustainable changes in your habits and health,” Chewning says, “balancing nutrition with enjoyment and room for personal preference is very important.”

Don’t think of your habits or goals as all-or-nothing

You don’t have to cut out sugar — unless you have a medical reason to. And you don’t have to resign yourself to never ever have another kolach again, just because you’ve decided it’s not actually getting you through your morning. Intuitive eating is more about making sure you’re the boss of that fruit-filled puff pastry, and that it doesn’t have power over you.

Another reason intuitive eating paves the way to healthier eating is because the philosophy can be empowering.

For people who live in food deserts or are tight on cash, intuitive eating practices can help one focus more on their health and less on what others define as healthy. We know that budget or additional constraints can impact food choices. You may not have time to cook meals, the cash to buy in bulk, or regular access to fresh food. Or you might have concerns about spoilage.

Don’t believe that you have to eat “fresh” to eat healthy

“Frozen fruits and vegetables can actually be just as nutritious as fresh fruits and vegetables,” Brennan says, “as they’re often flash frozen at the height of freshness and thus retain their nutrients.”

Plus, fortified cereals are high in micronutrients. One study used a combination of nutrient-profiling and diet optimization techniques to determine popular low-cost foods that can be used as staples to ramp up nutrition.

The truth is that you don’t have to shop just the outer rings of the grocery store to eat healthy. Intuitive eating is very much about finding what works for you, and that includes what works for your budget and lifestyle at any given time.

Nutrient-dense, budget-friendly food finds

  • milk
  • yogurt
  • eggs
  • beans
  • potatoes
  • carrots
  • cabbage
  • citrus juices
  • fortified cereals
  • canned foods
  • frozen foods
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Intuitive eating doesn’t stop with food. It’s a full mind-body practice that eventually extends to how you exercise and feel in touch with your body. Food is fuel for everything we do. And you can start working right now towards cultivating an intuitive eating philosophy that’s all yours. Just remember to tackle one thing at a time.

Jennifer Chesak is a Nashville-based freelance book editor and writing instructor. She’s also an adventure travel, fitness, and health writer for several national publications. She earned her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill and is working on her first fiction novel, set in her native state of North Dakota.