How to Eat Healthfully All the Time

Try these simple techniques to help you become an 'intuitive' eater

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, LD, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

We've all been there: Stuffed from dinner, yet still eating dessert or snacking mindlessly on a bag of chips in front of the television. Then, after the last bite, we feel frustrated, weak, and out of control.

Beating yourself won't stop it from happening again. To gain control over this kind of overeating and enhance your weight loss journey, you must learn how to intuitively eat for good health.

What Is Intuitive Eating?

To eat intuitively, you must stop obsessing over food and pledge never again to go on a "diet" (That's because dieting creates a preoccupation with food, making it the "enemy"). You must also work toward truly understanding hunger, fullness, and your feelings about food and your body.

Most of us aren't intuitive eaters, but fall into one of three other categories, according to Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, author of Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works:

  • Careful Eaters are vigilant about every morsel of food that enters their mouths. The problem is with their rigid rules. Careful or healthy eating can be "code" for dieting.
  • Professional Dieters are perpetually dieting. Even when they are "off a diet," they're thinking about the next diet. They may engage in "Last Supper" eating when they have chocolate or some other forbidden food. They believe they will never eat that particular food again -- for tomorrow they diet. So better eat it all now!
  • Unconscious Eaters often engage in multitasking while eating. They are disconnected with their bodies' needs, and unaware of hunger or fullness. There are many subtypes of unconscious eaters, including the chaotic unconscious eater, who lives an overscheduled, stressful life; and the emotional unconscious eater, who uses food to cope with emotions.

No matter what type you are, you can learn to eat more healthfully by eating intuitively, Tribole says. She offers a simple set of guidelines to help overcome the "disconnect" that most people have with hunger, satiety, and food:

  • Reject the "diet mentality," because diets don't work.
  • Honor your hunger. If you don't, it will trigger overeating.
  • Make peace with food. Give yourself permission to enjoy the pleasures of food.
  • Rid yourself of the "food police" mentality that labels certain foods as "good" or "bad." Replace it with positive self-talk that recognizes we all need occasional splurges.
  • Get in touch with your body's signals of comfortable fullness. This is one of the hardest changes to make. We all sometimes eat past the point of fullness, for emotional reasons or just because the food tastes so good.
  • Discover the satisfaction factor. Savoring every mouthful will help you feel full. Sometimes, the first two bites of a food are the most satisfying.
  • Learn how to cope with your feelings without using food. Try doing something physical instead.
  • Accept your body, and make sure your weight loss expectations are realistic.
  • Find pleasure in activity. Focus on how good it feels simply to move and be active.
  • Choose foods that are good for your health and that you enjoy. Eating is about pleasure, not denial.

Handling Hunger

To help you master these techniques, try rating your hunger on a scale of 1-10 (with 1 being almost full and 10 being ravenous) every time you reach for something to eat. Ask yourself if you're really hungry, or if you're satisfying an emotion, bored, or simply eating out of habit. The closer you get to recognizing real, physical hunger, the more control you'll gain over your eating.

But, it's also important not to let yourself get too hungry. If this happens, you're more likely to make poor food choices, experts say.

"Try not to go more than four to five hours between meals," says Tribole. "Otherwise your ravenous hunger can result in a binge, and it is usually not a healthy one."

So plan in advance, always keep healthy snacks on hand, and schedule snack breaks to energize you and help keep your hands out of the cookie jar.

Master Mindfulness

Also, say goodbye to wolfing down meals, and eating while standing up or in the car. Eating intuitively requires mindfulness. When you grab-and-go or gulp it down, you don't really taste or enjoy the food. This makes it almost impossible to recognize fullness.

Pamper yourself, sit at the table, use nice plates, put on some relaxing music, eliminate distractions, and enjoy the pleasure of the meal. I know this may not work for every meal, every day, but eat this way whenever you can.

Being mindful also helps you avoid falling into "eating amnesia" where hand-to-mouth becomes automatic and before you know it, you've devoured a bowl of nuts.

Here are some more tips to help you become more mindful and in control:

  • Plan meals and physical activity in advance.
  • Stock your pantry and refrigerator with delicious, nutritious foods. If you want a special treat, go out and enjoy a small portion, but don't bring it home to tempt you.
  • Spend some time each day in quiet meditation -- reflecting, breathing, and relaxing.
  • Serve meals on pretty luncheon-sized dishes that make portions look larger.
  • Package snacks in small bags or containers for portion control.

Go Easy on Yourself

Studies have shown that support from others is an essential ingredient for making behavior changes. Old habits die hard, and new ones require persistence and reinforcement. The love and support of family, friends, and members and staff of the Weight Loss Clinic can make the journey much easier.

Remember, if you try to be perfect or to change everything at once, you're likely to fail. Instead, take baby steps to make small changes you can live with forever. Make a healthier lifestyle -- not a lower number on the scale -- your ultimate goal.

SOURCE: Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, author of Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works.

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