March 13, 2021

Using Eating Intuition to Navigate your Relationship with Food

by Lauren Hoover, MS RD

We live in a culture obsessed with dieting and attaining a certain body type, yet we are surrounded by hyperpalatable foods (i.e., foods that are high in fat, salt, and/or sugar) and constant messaging that promote the consumption of these foods. The multibillion-dollar diet and food industries spend enormous amounts of money attempting to influence our behavior. Their success results in people feeling frustrated and out of control around food. As such, listening to internal hunger and satiety cues can be challenging. More often, we make decisions on what, when, and how much to eat based on external cues such as our schedule, our environment, and past dieting behaviors. Our Registered Dietitians work with Members to navigate this complex environment. A key component of that work is developing a skill we call Eating Intuition.

Eating Intuition refers to your ability to listen to what and how much food your body needs. It also involves finding a balance between fueling yourself with foods that promote long-term health as well as foods that you eat for pleasure. By developing Eating Intuition, you are better equipped to to disconnect from confusing external cues that drive behavior and instead reconnect with your natural hunger and satiety signals, so that you feel in control and at peace with food and your fueling habits. Mastery of Eating Intuition also allows you to maintain a healthy weight range for your specific body with minimal effort from a nutrition perspective.

While eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are satisfied may be a simple concept, we all know that it can be very difficult to do. There are three primary reasons why it can be so difficult to listen to our body’s needs: 1) history of dieting 2) a hyperpalatable food environment, and 3) a conditioned habit of eating in response to uncomfortable emotions (i.e., stress/emotional eating).

  1. History of dieting: If you have a history of dieting, you have likely ignored your hunger cues on purpose to control when and how much you eat. Repeatedly ignoring your body’s signals can diminish your ability to recognize when you need to eat and how much food your body needs. While allowing yourself to feel ravenous occasionally is not harmful (e.g., becoming distracted by work and not realizing you missed lunch), doing this regularly is problematic. By the time you reach ravenous hunger, your body has already released hormones that drive you to find food quickly and to eat a large quantity. This survival mechanism evolved through enduring periods of famine and feast over hundreds of thousands of years . While famine is not a risk in most modern societies, your body does not know the difference between self-imposed famine (i.e., intentional calorie restriction) and actual famine. As such, your body will act in response to the threat of not having enough food in the same way, which often leads to eating past satiety and commonly to the point of being uncomfortably full.
  2. Hyperpalatable Food Environment: We live in a food-obsessed culture. We are flooded by food advertisements. Whether you are scrolling through Instagram or watching your favorite TV show, food messaging is hard to escape. To make matters worse, we have constant access to delicious food. From fast food restaurants, gas stations, and convenience stores on every corner to incredible restaurants always within reach (especially in Chicago!), our brains are inundated with messages of food that trigger an urge to eat whether we are hungry or not. Food abundance is a relatively new aspect of human history that our bodies recognize as a period of feast. Dieting (i.e., self-induced famine) makes food messaging more powerful because it triggers survival mechanisms that drive us to take advantage of feasting opportunities. These thoughts and subsequent behaviors tend to become automatic unless we put effort into slowing them down and assessing our needs.
  3. Conditioned habit of eating in response to emotion: Although we often assume our emotions cause us to eat, the conditioned urge to continue the behavior of eating in response to an emotion, stress, or boredom is what drives us. The behavior develops as follows: 1) someone eats in response to an emotion for the first time, 2) the food (likely a hyperpalatable food) triggers the pleasure pathway in the brain, 3) the brain registers it as a rewarding experience to be repeated, 4) the brain begins wiring a neural pathway to eat in response to a stimulus or cue (i.e., emotion, stress, boredom). These behaviors become hardwired habits that can be challenging, but not impossible, to change.

While these three barriers may appear difficult to overcome, it is possible to rewire our brains to recognize and follow hunger and fullness cues again by implementing Eating Intuition skills. Our Registered Dietitians help Members implement strategies to develop strong Eating Intuition. It is important to note that depending on your dieting history and relationship with your body, rewiring your brain with healthier behaviors can take varying amounts of time. So, be easy on yourself as you rebuild your relationship with food and seek support from an expert who understands your desire to develop a healthier, happier relationship with food.

Assessing your hunger regularly strengthens Eating Intuition skills. The more aware you can be about what your body tells you it needs (whether that be food or something else entirely), the more likely you will be to avoid overeating or eating for non-hunger reasons.

Eventually, your ability to dial into your natural hunger and satiety cues will become habitual. Using the Hunger Scale, the goal is to fuel at a 3-4 and stop at a 5-6 most of the time. It is important to note that on occasion you will reach a 7-8—and that is okay. There is no reason to beat yourself up and fall into all-or-nothing thinking of being “good” or “bad.” Overeating from time-to-time happens to everyone. The important thing is to move on and bring awareness and mindfulness back for the next time you eat.

Strengthen Your Eating Intuition:

  • Take time to assess your hunger before, half-way through, and after a meal
  • Hang a copy of the Hunger Scale on your refrigerator or keep a picture on your phone as a reminder to assess your hunger and listen to what your body is tells you
  • Practice mindful eating so that you are better able to identify where you are on the Hunger Scale. Try the following strategies:
    • Slow down! Chew food thoroughly and take breaks between bites by putting your fork and food down.
    • Hydrate! Make sure that you are hungry and not, instead, thirsty. It can be easy to mistake thirst for hunger. Sipping on water between bites can help you slow down too!
    • Remove distractions! Although it is tempting to scroll through your phone and watch television, these distractions encourage eating too quickly and make it difficult to recognize satiety.
    • Tune into your senses! Pay attention to the taste, smell, and feel of your food to help you connect with your internal cues and make the meal more pleasurable.
    • Be grateful! Bring a sense of gratitude to your meal to increase pleasure and satisfaction. Recognizing that you are fueling your body with what it needs to function, be healthy, and perform can be a powerful way of connecting with those internal cues.

In Real Health, 

Tavierney & Lauren 

SHIFT Registered Dietitians 


eating intuition, nutrition tips

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