A common component of disordered eating is strict rules about food: What, when, and/or where one can—and cannot—eat. This is a hallmark behavior in individuals struggling with anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder (although someone can have rules about food without having an eating disorder).
Cultivating an intuitive approach to eating can help bring an end to the regimented food rules. Intuitive eating “takes the blinders off” the narrow focus of what foods are seen as “good” or “bad” and shifts the focus to listening to your body and eating what feels right for you. For some, that shift from rule-centered eating to self-centered eating is a pivotal moment in their eating disorder healing journey.
What is intuitive eating?
Coined in the 1990s by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, “intuitive eating” describes an approach to eating that encourages a positive relationship with food, rather than focusing on controlling your weight.
In this approach, you are encouraged to listen to your body and eat what feels right to you. Of course, if you have a true allergy or sensitivity to something, absolutely honor your need to avoid that food. But in general, the idea is to be open, listen to your body, and re-learn how to let hunger and satisfaction guide what you eat.
Here are 5 ways to cultivate an intuitive eating mindset in your house:
- Think of the dinner table as a place of curiosity
If you have an eating disorder, you may be out of practice being able to listen to your body to hear when it is hungry or full. So patience and listening are important qualities to cultivate to become a more intuitive eater. I invite you to adopt the word “listen” as your mantra.
How can you encourage more listening at your table? Maybe suggest a new tradition where everyone shares a favorite moment from the day at the beginning of dinner. Be sure everyone gets a chance to share. Listening in all its forms is a skill that will help you and your family better listen to yourselves.
- Eat a wide variety of foods
Eliminate food rules unless they’re necessary for an allergy, sensitivity, or cultural or religious reasons. This is especially important if you have a child whose eating habits you are concerned about. Are you eating a wide variety of foods yourself? Children model the behavior they see in their parents, so if Mom is avoiding high-fat foods or talks about her weight or portion sizes at the dinner table, this can encourage or reinforce eating disorder behaviors in the child.
So eat a variety of different foods and try to keep the conversational focus of the table on enjoying different types of food, rather than discussing what you can’t or shouldn’t eat.
- Encourage autonomy at the table
This is a good guideline for parents—whether or not your teen is exhibiting disordered eating habits. Teens often don’t have a lot of control over their lives, and it is important to honor their right to choose what they eat. If your teen feels like you are trying to control what they eat, it may only strengthen their resolve to stick to rules and behaviors that they have come up with, as a way of exerting their own autonomy.
Autonomy at the dinner table is something to encourage from a young age. The idea of autonomous eating is now being introduced to babies. When they are ready for solid food, some intuitive eating experts encourage allowing the baby to direct their own eating.
No spoon feeding or pushing certain foods on them. The child sits at the table with the family and sees them eating a variety of foods, which sparks their curiosity, and they will play with the food, touch it, and ask for it.
- Notice guilt, move toward acceptance
It’s important to notice when guilt or shame creeps into eating. If you ate three bowls of ice cream, rather than allowing yourself to get sucked into a spiral of guilt, be compassionate. Change the narrative to “Maybe I needed three bowls of ice cream.” The words we tell ourselves are important, and addressing the guilt or shame when you feel it may help you move out of intense guilt (which can feel bad) into acceptance (which can feel neutral) more quickly. That happened, I acknowledge it, and I can accept it.
In the case of a parent seeing binge eating or restricting in their teen, the feelings that might come up for them might look more like concern or a desire to help their child make healthier choices. Again: Just as it is important to allow your child the autonomy to feed themself, it’s important to allow your child the space to eat without feeling judged or guilt-tripped by their parents.
- Talk about the food
The key idea here is to increase enjoyment and satisfaction. Sometimes we are so distracted that we eat quickly, without noticing the flavor, texture, or look of the food that we’re eating. Talking about your meal can help bring you back into the present moment and initiate a dialog between your senses and your mind, which is the connection you want to strengthen.
Some ideas of things to talk about: Ask the chef about the spices you think you taste in the casserole. Make note of the beautiful color palette of the Caprese salad and pesto pasta on your plate. Notice if the dish you’re eating reminds you of something you’ve eaten before, and compare the similarities and differences. Discuss food you are inspired to make or eat in the future.
Discussion is a form of play, and bringing playfulness back to eating is a nice way to loosen up around something that might otherwise feel difficult or rigid.
Hopefully, these suggestions have sparked your curiosity to try them. Each meal that you can create greater peace and satisfaction is a win!
Are you ready to speak to someone about your eating disorder?
Evolve Wellness Group is a collective of therapists and nutritionists who are experienced in helping people heal from eating disorders. Connect with us for a free 15-minute call.