Intuitive Eating Principles: How to Find Satisfaction in Everyday Eating

Satisfaction is considered the hub of the wheel in intuitive eating, but what does that mean? For those of us with a history of disordered eating, the concept of eating what you want, in the amount that you want, when you want (while paying heed to hunger and fullness cues) can feel like a tall order. When your food choices have largely been determined by extrinsic values, like a points system, carb counts, or weight goals rather than intrinsic ones, ordering a burger and fries (with a Coke, #pleaseandthanks) can feel equal parts daunting and ridiculous. 

Let’s break it down. 


Satisfaction isn’t (only) about eating “forbidden” foods.

In my dieting days, I thought the only foods that were truly delicious were “forbidden” foods like salt and vinegar chips, pizza, and sour gummy candy. While I enjoyed salads, I never thought of them as crave-worthy. Perhaps you feel similarly? 

While pleasure is central to the intuitive eating process, safety is an important consideration. It’s tough to derive pleasure from foods we don’t feel safe around. You can work toward a more relaxed relationship with food while working through your restrictions in the present moment. It takes time to neutralize the morality our culture attaches to food (see “sinful” or “guilt-inducing”), shelve the weight loss goals, and to integrate true unconditional permission. 

Satisfaction can mean eating cheeseburgers and fries, if you like, but you may prefer or need to start with more manageable steps, like eating safe foods to satisfying amounts (rather than measuring), playing with condiments (like rooted garlic mayonnaise and cheesy dips), and broadening the variety you currently consume before moving on to more challenging meals. 

Satisfaction is fluid. 

“Nothing’s certain in life but death and taxes.” Surely you’ve heard that old adage, too? Satisfaction follows suit. The foods you found satisfying in childhood (like Mom’s tuna casserole) may no longer appeal to your adult self, in the same way that what you enjoy now may not be as enjoyable even ten months from now. 

Intuitive eating has truly taught me that our desires are flexible; in the winter I may crave heartier meals and more complex flavour profiles, while I may be perfectly content with a simple egg sandwich come mid-July. My palette is constantly widening in response to new recipe attempts, travels, restaurant meals, and interactions with people whose food interests may vary from my own. 

The foods you find satisfying at the beginning of your intuitive eating journey may not be the same foods you derive satisfaction from several months in. 

Satisfaction is context-dependent.

What passes for a satisfying breakfast on a weekday morning may look vastly different from the satisfying 3-course meal you enjoy on a European vacation. Not every meal is going to be gourmet. There’s nothing wrong with starting your day with a simple bowl of oatmeal, or ending it with some scrambled eggs and toast. The most important thing, always, is adequate, regular, and consistent intake, and it’s okay if that happens to also mean boring, economical, or quick. 

At the same time, you’re welcome to cook a more elaborate meal if you enjoy it, or if you have some extra time and want to cook up something special. 

And while we’re on it, satisfaction isn’t limited to pizza and pasta, either. Many outsiders commonly (and falsely) believe intuitive eating is anti-health. While you may crave more fun foods at the beginning of the work and eat disproportionally more cookies than celery, a salad with chicken or a vegan burrito bowl loaded with vegetables may also be satisfying. Intuitive eating, after all, isn’t about the food, but about the mindset you carry about nutrition. 

Satisfaction is a sign of privilege. 

Even though satisfaction may be an intuitive eating principle held near and dear to many folks, what it means to you depends largely on your privilege. Some of us can afford to eat the take-out we like, eat at nice restaurants, and make balanced meals on the regular. For many others, satisfying may mean sating our hunger at the very basic level. 

You may not always have access to the foods you prefer, particularly if you are traveling to different countries, experiencing changes to your income, or, hey, in the midsts of a natural disaster. Years ago, when I lived in Tallahassee with my then-partner, we lived on corn tortillas, ham, grits, cheese, pasta, yogurt, cereal, strawberries, big bags of grapefruit, and vegetables we stocked up on for cheap at a produce stand on the outskirts of Plant City. 

When I moved to Toronto, my grocery staples included cartons of eggs bought for two dollars at my local drugstore, discounted produce at the grocer, rice, and many, many legumes. I simply couldn’t afford meat, cheeses, and more expensive ingredients that I now gratefully enjoy. 

Satisfaction may become more nuanced in time.

Intuitive eating is a practice, not a one hit wonder of a diet. It takes time to incorporate the principles and to unlearn all of the lessons of diet culture. As you move through the process, you may find within you a growing curiosity regarding about different ingredients, recipes, and cooking styles. I’m always excited to see how my interest in food changes from week to week: sometimes I’m all about chicken fajitas and burrito bowls, while the next I may crave steak and mashed potatoes or a Greek salad with shrimp skewers and lemon potatoes. Sometimes I only want to snack on chips, while other times I enjoy charcuterie plates or crackers and hummus. Give yourself space and permission to discover, learn, and grow. 

That’s always been the most satisfying part of the process for me. 

5 Ways to Improve Your Body Image Without Losing Weight

Many people I speak to regarding intuitive eating are magnetized by its 10 principle framework around making peace with food and body. For those possessing histories fraught with dieting, weight cycling, and self-loathing, the prospect of intuitive eating feels Heaven-sent. 

Prospective clients will share how they’re open to challenging the diet mentality and examining their own complicated history with body size and shape manipulation. Perhaps they’re intrigued by (and even excited at) adopting an all-foods-fit philosophy. Maybe they want, as Jen Knoll so beautifully captured, to extricate themselves from wellness culture and the temple of clean eating. 


But shelving the weight loss goals and accepting your body the way it naturally is? That’s something else entirely. 

While many folks come to intuitive eating carrying hopes of weight loss or weight maintenance — so expected given the pressures our culture places particularly (though not exclusively) on women — this perceived conflict prevents some from doing the deeper work inherent to the intuitive eating process. 

I say perceived because just about everyone I speak to not only wants to make peace with food, but they want to feel better in their bodies

And you know what? 

Weight loss doesn't offer this, because weight loss cannot correct poor body image. 

I know this because I’ve worked with women (and some non-binary folks) in all kinds of bodies. I’ve worked with women in smaller bodies who hate the way they look, and women in higher weight bodies who love their curves. There are plus-size models rocking crop tops and body con dresses, and thin women who feel self-conscious wearing anything other than an over-sized sweater and loose-fitting yoga pants. 

So if you feel you need to lose weight before starting intuitive eating, are concerned about potential weight gain during the intuitive eating process, or can’t imagine liking — never mind loving — your body the way it is, I’d say you’re actually in the right place. 

Here’s 5 tips to help you to improve your body image today — in your today body:

  1. Spend more time with people who have a positive body image. While fat talk — you know, where (predominantly) women trash talk their bodies to glean social acceptance and a positive social standing — can lead to body dissatisfaction, a study revealed that those with a positive body image purposefully chose not to associate with peers who engaged in negative self-talk and intentionally surrounded themselves with people who spoke positively about their bodies. Also, here’s a hot tip: studies have also shown that engaging in fat talk doesn’t make you more likeable. What do we hope to gain from being so mean to ourselves? The short of it: do your best to hang with people who are not dieting.

  2. Detox your social accounts. While studies have shown Instagram can and does make us feel worse about ourselves, you can actually use Instagram in two meaningful ways — to support point #1, as well as to more broadly conceptualize beauty. I recommend unfollowing accounts that leave you feeling worse off than before especially if the account owner engages in self-objectification, and sourcing accounts that uplift you. I personally recommend: @aerie, @thirdwheelED, @kristinabruce_coach, @ifd_bodies, @chr1styharrison, @trustyourbodyproject, @ragenchastain, @fyeahmfabello, @mskelseymiller, @summerinnanen, @fierce.fatty, @_kellyu, @nourishandeat, @4thtribodies, @bodyimagemovement, @bodyposipower, @sonyareneetaylor, @thelindywest, @thefatsextherapist, @diannebondyyoga, @yrfatfriend, @kenziebrenna, @bodyposipanda, @nadiaaboulhosn, @tessholliday, @beauty_redefined, @virgietovar, and more. Short of it: expose yourself to all kinds of bodies of different races and ethnicities, sizes, ages, abilities, etc. This kind of exposure is a critical step to making peace with our own bodies.

  3. Offer yourself small acts of kindness. Massages and pedicures are nice and all, but also considerably more advanced, expensive, and time consuming forms of self-care. As far as small acts go, think of applying a favourite body lotion, listening to your favourite song, wearing lipstick (if that’s your thing — it’s totally mine), buying yourself flowers, or ordering your favourite coffee beverage. While we often think about body image in binary ways (love my body vs. hate my body), small acts of kindness can slowly shift us away from self-loathing and toward body appreciation, trust, and respect. When engaged regularly and consistently, we can begin building a different kind of relationship with our bodies — one founded in self-care vs. self-control.

  4. Choose joyful movement. While exercise can be challenging for so many people (do I need to go on?), joyful movement — that is, pleasurable exercise — is helpful for stress relief and may be a way of taking care of our bodies. What kinds of activities, if any, do you enjoy? Perhaps it’s throwing a frisbee, going for a walk with a friend, joining a yin yoga class, riding your bike on a hot summer’s day, rollerblading with your BFF, or jumping on a trampoline. If you are currently in treatment for an eating disorder or disordered eating, please speak to your treatment team prior to engaging in exercise.

  5. Eat regularly, adequately, and consistently. Nourishment is a really vital part of our body image — it’s actually not possible to cultivate a positive body image when we’re malnourished or dieting. By feeding your body and taking a flexible approach to eating, you’re actually strengthening your body image. Bite by bite, you’re helping yourself to like your body a bit more. It may feel counter-intuitive, especially if you feel very connected to the diet-centric paradigm, but listening to and taking care of your body is vital to seeing yourself more positively (or less negatively.)

Which of these tips is your favourite?

3 Ways Self-Compassion Optimizes Recovery From Diet Culture

If you ask me, self-compassion is integral to the recovery process, whether you have a diagnosed eating disorder or not; that’s why it’s included in my signature service. 

I know you might be thinking…

Do I really need to learn self-compassion if I want to stop dieting?

Will applying self-compassion practices actually help me to feel better about my body and more confident about my food choices?

Aren’t there more interesting books to read or cool shows to catch than a book on self-compassion? (Just me?)

I understand the resistance to learning self-compassion. Perhaps you too? It sounds cheesy, maybe a bit lame. When the book was recommended by my therapist some time ago, I looked flatly at my library copy before consenting to give it a go. Most unexpectedly, I got so. much. from. it. Never judge a book by its cover…or its title.

In a culture that encourages us to push our limits to the edge in every conceivable way (lest we be “lazy”, an ableist construct), being kind to ourselves may feel awkward and unfamiliar. If I forgive myself and take the pressure off, won’t I just hang around doing nothing all day? Will I accomplish anything? Will I slack off at work and lose interest in being promoted to Senior Manager? Will I ever move out on my own?


Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash

I liken self-compassion to intuitive eating. Intuitive eating shows you how to make peace with all foods. Although newly minted intuitive eaters fear they will live off pizza and ice cream for the rest of their days, they’re often surprised to discover a spectrum of “craving lives” within them. Yes, we crave cheeseburgers, potato chips, and chocolate, but it’s also possible to crave so-called “healthy” foods such as cauliflower, grapes, and salads. Hot tip: the latter most easily occurs when you create unconditional permission to eat everything rather than resisting your favourite foods only to force-feed yourself carrot sticks. 

Like intuitive eating, self-compassion — in my experience — allows for unconditional permission to be who you really are, to fully accept all parts of yourself, and to find worth outside of extrinsic achievement. It also creates space for nurturing community vs. competition.

Using the 3 principles of self-compassion, I’m exploring how self-compassion supports recovery from diet culture:

Encouraging Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgment

Leaving diet culture can bring up all kinds of feelings. Gaining weight in our thin-obsessed world can feel like failing. When our clothes no longer fit the same way, we may feel shame and guilt about our habits, behaviours, and ultimately ourselves. Intuitive eating can feel like learning a new language, and the journey is riddled with challenges and new discoveries as we learn the rhythms (or lack thereof) of our bodies. We may eat past fullness. We may feel as though we have an insatiable sweet or sweet tooth. In the absence of clear direction, we may lack confidence around food or feel as though we’re free falling. 

Dr. Kristin Neff, esteemed self-compassion researcher, notes that “self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals.” Self-compassion can encourage flexibility and diverse emotions and feelings where previously there was only rigidity.

Using self-compassion, you may accept that intuitive eating is fundamentally challenging and that you will make mistakes along the way as you learn to integrate the modality. Of course you will; it’s all new! By being warm and understanding, rather than berating yourself for not getting it “right” from the beginning, you may experience, as Neff indicates, “greater emotional equanimity.” How much more likely are you to stick with intuitive eating (or stop dieting) if you approach yourself with understanding and kindness than with judgment?

Common Humanity vs. Isolation 

In my practice, I often talk about how isolating diet culture can be — and how competitive. How can you ever feel like you’re enough when you believe your body is a project to be maintained according to external values rather than cared for as determined by your internal wisdom? 

Diet culture hurts all of us. We’re either shamed for the way our bodies look (particularly if we’re not straight-sized), or experience the ramifications of internalized fatphobia. Rather than appreciating the diverse beautiful bodies around us, we body check and compare, evaluating whether we “measure up.”  When things aren’t as we would like or expect — for example, our bodies don’t look the way we’d like them to, or we don’t feel as though we crave the “right” foods as other people seem to — it’s easy to become frustrated. It can feel as though we’re the only ones making “mistakes” — that what we’re doing it all wrong and by extension, something is wrong with us. 

What’s wrong with me that I can’t stay on a diet? Why can’t I crave only “healthy” foods? Why can’t I stop overeating or bingeing at night?

The reality? Very few people (if any) can stay on a diet or maintain a level of restriction over the long-term. Diets aren’t just failing you; 95% of diets fail (as in, weight is re-gained, usually with added weight, within 2-5 years.) If diets fail most people, can we create space for the possibility that maybe we’re not meant to stay on diets? Maybe our bodies aren’t designed for physiological or psychological restriction? 

While diets can traumatize (yes), and making the decision to stop dieting can bring up all kinds of painful feelings, perhaps it will help you to know that you’re not alone in this. People have had the very same experiences as you. People have been hurt and shamed for their size and shape. People have struggled with the same feelings you’re now struggling with. You are not alone

I often think of this principle. Embracing the non-diet approach requires daily practice and commitment. It can feel isolating when it seems as though everyone around you is on a diet, talking about weight loss, or engaging in diet thoughts. Thinking about the greater body positive community, all of the reasons I stopped dieting, and my core values deepens my commitment and keeps me focused on self-care vs. self-control. 

Mindfulness vs. Over-identification 

As Neff says, “self-compassion requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. This equilibrated stance stems from the process of relating personal experiences to those of others who are also suffering, thus putting our own situation into a larger perspective.” Can we observe our negative thoughts and emotions without trying to suppress or deny them?

When events don’t go as planned or we start to feel out of control or uncertain in our lives, food and body become default targets for control — particularly if you have an eating disorder or dieting history. Diets aren’t so much about health (or even weight) as much as they are about coping with stress and anxiety. If our objective is to move away from controlling food and body, and working toward creating food and body trust, it can be helpful if not essential to name our feeling and honour them without judging them (or ourselves). 

Your turn: If you practice self-compassion, how has it helped you to improve your relationship with food and body? Leave the answer in the comments!



Further Reading:

  1. The Neuroscience of Compassion by Avriel ReShel

  2. The True Nature of Compassion by Dr. James Doty

  3. One Passage from ‘Shrill’ by Lindy West Memoir Transformed my Approach to Body Acceptance by Sadie Trombetta

  4. Weight Gain in Intuitive Eating: 4 Strategies to Cope by Vincci Tsui, RD

  5. Self-Compassion vs. Self-Criticism by Annina Schmid Counselling

Sarah BernecheComment