Wondering How to Start Intuitive Eating? Meditation Could Help You Improve Your Relationship With Food

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Wondering How to Start Intuitive Eating? Meditation Could Help You Improve Your Relationship With Food
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We’re in the second month of 2022, which means many people who made restrictive diet-centric New Year’s resolutions in January—swearing to never again let sugar pass their lips, vowing to “eat clean” and only consume single-ingredient foods, doing keto for real this time—are potentially feeling like failures for their lack of weight loss and/or “willpower.” If you’re raising your hand, find comfort in this: Evidence shows that most diets don’t actually work when it comes to long-term weight loss (and can be harmful to your physical and mental health, too). But in more encouraging news, there’s an alternative—an invitation to hop off the diet treadmill, make a different kind of fresh start, and commit to something radically different: Developing a healthier relationship with food and your body through the complementary practices of intuitive eating and meditation.

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That’s the premise of the Anti-Diet Course, a recently launched meditation program on the Ten Percent Happier app that’s specifically tailored to help people heal their relationship with food and learn how to start intuitive eating—a holistic, evidence-based framework for eating. Intuitive eating is the ultimate anti-diet. The series is hosted by certified intuitive eating counselor Christy Harrison, R.D., author of the book Anti-Diet, and app cofounder Dan Harris (who started practicing intuitive eating after interviewing Evelyn Tribole, a co-founder of the philosophy). Each session of the Anti-Diet Course focuses on one or two of the 10 principles of intuitive eating, pairing a brief educational conversation with a short meditation (led by Harrison) to help listeners contemplate and embody that principle. (Ten Percent Happier is making the course free until February 15—just download the app to get started.) 

Intuitive eating is a process of relearning how to eat and relate to food in the natural, easy, embodied way we do as babies—before we started making choices around food informed by powerful external factors like the thin ideal, the demonization of certain food groups, and the general assumption that people should always be striving to eat and weigh less. Unlike diets, intuitive eating is not sold as a quick and easy fix. It’s slow, nuanced, potentially transformative work that involves tuning out the cacophony of diet culture, challenging your own deeply entrenched beliefs about food and bodies, getting intimately in touch with your body’s innate wisdom, and changing thought and behavior patterns you may have been practicing for years.

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Though it may seem surprising, the ambitions of intuitive eating are well-served by several forms of meditation (an umbrella term describing contemplative practices, like mindfulness meditation, where you train attention in ways that can help quiet your ever-chattering mind and tune into your inner wisdom). We spoke to Harrison and meditation teacher Jade Weston, a senior meditation producer at Ten Percent Happier who helped develop the Anti-Diet content, about why the two practices are so aligned and how meditation and mindfulness can help people improve their relationship with food.

SELF: In a general sense, how can meditating support people who are starting to practice intuitive eating?

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Harrison: Meditation is such a missing piece with a lot of intuitive eating work—it was so important and helpful to me in my own recovery from disordered eating and in learning to practice intuitive eating. Meditation can reinforce and support intuitive eating in the sense of helping bring people more in tune with their own inner wisdom and their internal cues. And learning to notice and recognize outside noise and then let it go, which is crucial in healing from diet culture—and cultivating a more intuitive approach to life in general.

How can mindfulness help you start to first notice and then disentangle yourself from diet culture?

Harrison: The noticing is so key. When people who are new to this whole experience ask me what’s the first step they can take towards intuitive eating, I’ll often say: Noticing and becoming aware of how you’re following diet rules or how diet culture is showing up in your mind. The first official principle of intuitive eating is to reject the diet mentality, but outright rejection is really tough at first for a lot of people. In order to reject it, to step outside of it, we have to become aware of it and how it’s showing up for us and get enough distance from it—then we can start to question it. So at first, it’s actually just becoming aware. In what ways am I still buying into diet culture or stuck in a diet mentality? Maybe even unconsciously. Meditation can really support starting to build that awareness because it helps us become more aware of our own minds.

Weston: From the meditation teacher perspective, we have to develop mindfulness to really understand our habitual patterns of mind. We often have these thought patterns pertaining to our relationship to food that have been so conditioned by the culture that we live in—inner programming that we’re reacting to all the time without even realizing it. So if we want to change our habits in terms of our relationship with food, we need to understand what that subconscious programming is so that we can start to direct self-compassion towards the challenges that it causes for us, and start to consciously counter that programming.

How can dropping into the body help us get unhooked from the diet-culture beliefs embedded in our minds?

Harrison: With diet culture, we’re so indoctrinated into this idea that food has to be calculated and measured, or you have to eat according to a certain type of plan or protocol. Oftentimes, there are residual rules from other diets that you’ve been on in the past, too—like you’re counting carbs, but you’re also still counting calories, and you’re also trying to not eat after a certain time at night. There’s just so many numbers and so much intellectual spinning of the wheels that happens—a total disconnection from the body’s wisdom and what our real needs are.

Weston: Our culture really values an intellectual approach to wellness. And when Christy talks about an intuitive relationship with food, it’s more of a body-wisdom approach. If I’m hungry, I could go into an intellectual process and say, “Well, the last time I ate was this time and I know I’m only supposed to eat three meals a day, so intellectually, I should not be hungry right now.” Whereas, if you’re attuning to body wisdom instead of intellectual wisdom, you might say, “Oh, I can sense the sensations of hunger. There’s a lot of valuable information there.” Learning to actually trust your body’s wisdom—meditation is an incredible asset in being able to build that skill.

Can you talk about the role of interoceptive awareness—the capacity to feel the sensations inside our bodies—and the mind-body connection in meditation and intuitive eating?

Weston: In meditation, the process of sitting and feeling the body definitely improves interoception because we might be able to tap into sensations in the body that we previously weren’t aware of, including hunger, fullness, and satisfaction. There’s so much information available to us on the intuitive level when we’re willing to drop in and just feel what’s going on in our bodies in real time—and then notice the thinking patterns that often come up in response to those feelings. And vice-versa. There’s a feedback loop between the way we think about our bodies and how our bodies feel that goes both ways.

Harrison: That feedback loop is so important. Intuitive eating often feels daunting to people. Sometimes my clients feel so disconnected from their bodies to begin with, they’re like, “How could I possibly listen to my body?” But when they start to get in touch with their internal cues and that interoceptive awareness starts to flourish, it’s exciting and propels them forward in their intuitive eating practice.

How could that mind-body feedback loop help people with being better connected to their hunger, for instance?

Harrison: Hunger doesn’t always just manifest as growling in the stomach. It can be thoughts of food, difficulty concentrating, feeling fatigued, feeling anxious—there are all these ways that our mind and body get involved and show us hunger cues. Fullness cues as well—sometimes people will feel sad that a meal’s ending or that they’re getting full. So that’s a sign they might notice more mentally or emotionally than physically—but then, over time, they can start to connect how that feels in the body.

I think of sensorimotor therapy, a form of psychotherapy where you’re intellectualizing and talking about feelings, but then the therapist will be like, “Where do you feel that in the body?” and you can start to locate where certain emotions are and how they are showing up. It can be similar with intuitive eating. Like, “OK, I’m thinking about food, I’m fantasizing about my next meal. Are there any physical sensations that go along with that? Oh, I’m sweating a little, I have a bit of a headache, there is an emptiness in my stomach that I didn’t notice before.”

Sometimes with diet culture, people who are chronic dieters can get so used to just pushing past those subtle signals. They’re not aware of hunger or satisfaction until it’s really extreme, especially with hunger. Starting to notice it at subtler levels can actually help us take care of ourselves better and intervene sooner—so that we’re not getting to this desperate place where hunger is so extreme that we feel the need to eat a lot, and then we feel out of control, and beat ourselves up, and that whole cycle.

Meditation can help you not only tune into your body, but also impact how you feel about it, too, right?

Weston: In meditation, we have the opportunity to cultivate genuine gratitude and respect for the body—which is not the leading message that we get in our culture when we’re taught how to think about and experience our bodies. When we actually take the time to contemplate how much our bodies do for us and how amazing it is that we have these bodies that function well enough for us to be alive, we can develop more appreciation. We can consciously choose to build gratitude and respect for our bodies as a habit of mind, which has the potential to help us experience more harmony in the way we experience being in our bodies.

How can meditation help people navigate the inevitable emotional bumps in the road on their journey to intuitive eating? 

Harrison: The quieting or calming effect that meditation can have can help us navigate the width of our emotional lives a little more effectively. That can come in handy with intuitive eating because there are so many ups and downs in the process—especially when people have been weight-stigmatized and had a lot of trauma around their relationship with food and their bodies. Having a tool to help you ground, feel less anxious, and navigate those moments of anxiety is really helpful for people to be able to stay the course with intuitive eating and fully engage with it without freaking out and feeling like, “I can’t do this. This is too much.”

And it gives us a way to be compassionate with ourselves. People can beat themselves up with intuitive eating: “I’m supposed to be rejecting the diet mentality. Why am I still doing this? I’m so bad at this.” Meditation can help you interrupt that feeling of self-judgment a little bit and say, “Okay, I’m just noticing what’s coming up. I’m not having to actually change my behavior wholesale right now. This is just a first step towards deciding what changes I really want to make.”

SELF: What would you say to someone feeling a little hesitant or fearful about the whole journey of reconnecting with their body or starting up a meditation practice?

Weston: The way that I frame meditation practice for people who are learning is that it’s really a process of making friends with ourselves. Really getting to know our own minds and choosing what kinds of thoughts and values we want to cultivate. When we have that self-knowledge, we can choose how we want to show up in life. It’s a process that can feel daunting at first but, ultimately, it’s a really joyful process—it’s so empowering when we start to understand our own minds and are then able to make choices about how we want to live.

Do you think the relationship can work in the reverse, too, with intuitive eating deepening a meditation practice?

Harrison: I’ve seen a lot of people who come into intuitive eating not having a meditation practice and, through working with me, get exposed with little meditations here and there on self-compassion or recognizing and honoring hunger. Through that practice, they become awakened to the power of meditation and how helpful it can be in increasing their intuition in other areas of life as well. I often say: intuitive eating, intuitive everything. Once you start relating to food and your body in a more intuitive way, becoming more attuned, and paying attention in that certain way, it opens up horizons for being more intuitive around other forms of self-care, including meditation.

Weston: I really love how the intuitive eating approach is not just about weight management or health. It’s really about, how do you live more fully? It’s a very holistic, whole-life approach, rather than a compartmentalized, fake silver bullet. There’s a common saying among mindfulness practitioners: “How you do anything is how you do everything.” And if we can bring our whole selves—our mind-body connection, our very human longing for satisfaction and acceptance, our vulnerability around the toxic messaging we’ve internalized—to our relationship with food, there’s such a tremendous potential for healing overall.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. Inspired to experiment with intuitive eating and meditation? Our intuitive eating overview and beginners’ guide to meditation can help you get started.  

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