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Most kids are born naturally knowing how to eat in response to their internal, intrinsic cues of hunger and fullness.

A baby cries when it’s hungry. It stops crying when it’s given food, and turns away when it’s had enough.

Kids get hungry and throw a tantrum, but then stop eating in the middle of a meal because they get full or find something more interesting going on. Nobody taught us that as kids.

We are born knowing intuitive eating: we rely on our intrinsic cues of hunger, fullness, cravings for foods, certain textures or flavors or aromas.

How learning nutrition messes us up

But then at some certain point we lose those cues. We start “learning” nutrition. Our parents pressure us to eat more of some foods and less of others. We get rewarded for eating “good foods” by being allowed to eat “bad foods” (“eat your vegetables and then you can have candy”).

Depending on the family, culture, church, or school you grew up in, maybe you were taught to eat a variety of foods. Maybe you learned how to count calories. Portion control. Counting fat grams. Reading labels. Using dietary charts or guidelines. All of these are external, extrinsic cues.

As we grow up we are taught that we cannot trust our intrinsic cues to tell us when or what to eat and instead need “expert guidance” from a list of foods or prescribed calorie count. We are taught that our food intake needs to be micromanaged or we will lose control.

External cues can be helpful in certain situations but also can cause us problems. Let’s say we pick a calorie count to stick to. We start reading labels and doing math. But what if one day you go to a state park and walk 10 miles? Your body likely needs more calories that day. On another day you might be sick on the couch all day and not need to eat up to the prescribed calorie intake. So actually aiming for a certain number of calories to tell you what or when to eat actually doesn’t make any sense.

How to get back in touch with intuitive eating

The deal is: if we can pay attention to intrinsic cues of hunger and fullness, of craving and desire, we will realize that our body knows exactly how much it needs each day. The key is LISTENING. Intuitive eating is about re-learning the cues we naturally had as children.

Hunger/fullness scale 1-10

Some folks find this hunger and fullness scale useful. But many of us find ourselves overstimulated and distracted and not fully able to pay attention to our bodies. Learning to listen to our bodies is a long and complicated process that will not happen overnight.

My advice? Get on a regular eating schedule. Set mealtimes and stick to them. Do this for a few weeks. Especially if you’ve been smothering those internal cues for years with dieting or starving and binging.

It takes time for your body to understand that it’s going to get regular meals. Then the hunger and fullness cues start to re-emerge. This helped me to re-find my hunger and fullness cues when I was recovering from dieting.

Mindfulness before, during, and after eating is so key here. If you need help getting grounded and back into your body, this audio recording can help. My advice is to listen to this right before you’re about to eat, and continue to listen to it while you begin eating. Start with something small like a snack (that’ll be about the right amount for the length of this exercise).

Download MP3

What is normal eating?

When we don’t respond to our internal cues (and eat when we are not hungry or don’t stop eating when we’re full) that’s worth noticing too. We can stay curious and non-judgmental. In other words, no need to turn this into another dieting rule. We can start by being more aware and allowing for flexibility.

I want to close this with a definition of “normal eating” from Ellyn Satter, who writes about intuitive eating and competence in recognizing internal cues of hunger and fullness:

Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it -not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.

In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.

See you tomorrow!


What’s next? The next major pillar of Health at Every Size is joyful movement. Tomorrow we’ll learn why so many of us don’t have the motivation to exercise and what we can do about it. We’ll explore finding a movement practice that works for you.

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