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How to Transition to Intuitive Eating After a Low-Calorie Diet

Intuitive Eating promises that if you eat when you are hungry, eat what you want and stop when you are full, you will settle at your ideal weight and stay there with minimal effort. To those of us who go into combat daily with our appetite and restrictive eating rules this sounds like heaven.

For people who have been on a low calorie diet for a long time, Intuitive Eating is one of the most difficult diet strategies you could undertake. But the promise of making peace with food and breaking free from the never ending cycle of under-eating/over-eating makes Intuitive Eating a strategy that is worth the effort .

Here is how to transition from restrictive eating on a low calorie diet to Intuitive Eating without falling head first into an endless binge.

Know Where You Are Coming From

The first step is to assess your starting point. How many weeks/months/years have you been eating according to some pre-determined system that counts calories, portions, or food groups? If it has been a long time, then expecting to be able to adopt the principals of Intuitive Eating without any issues is unreasonable.

You need to take ease yourself in gently or you will feel out of control and quickly scurry back to the safety of a traditional diet.

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Eat When You are Hungry

Step 1 Modification: Only eat when you are physically hungry.

The simplest thing about this approach to conscious eating is that the cue to eat is familiar and unmistakable. It is when your stomach is empty and starts to rumble. True hunger is the physical sensation you have tried to ignore when you have been limiting what you eat. When you start to feel physical hunger look at the clock and then wait 30 minutes until you eat your meal.

Things to avoid
- having a post workout meal if you are not hungry
- eating every 3 hours if you are not hungry
- not eating when you are hungry because it was only a short time since you ate
- delaying your next meal until a pre determined time on the clock
- eating because you still have calories left for the day
- not eating when you are hungy because you have no calories left for the day
- carb loading or free meals
- starting this journey when you are pre-menstrual

Step 2 Modification: Explore what happens when you eat when you are not hungry.

We all have times when we eat when we aren't actually hungry, so learning how to manage your feelings and behaviour is an important step.

After you are comfortable with the first step, you can try eating at the other times when you 'want' to eat but you are trying to satisfy some other hunger that is non-physical or when you feel like you are entitled to eat because you've earned it (you've been so 'good'). Expect to overeat or feel out of control in these situations so that when it happens (and it will) you don't beat yourself up for being weak willed or undisciplined. Learn from the experience and either move back to Step 1 or try again when you are feeling more confident.

Step 3: Eat when you are hungry, know yourself.

The ultimate goal is to be in tune with what your body needs and to make the best choices. There are no rules except that you need to always treat yourself with respect. You can still decide to manipulate the energy in vs energy out equation for fat loss but don't disconnect with yourself through continuous chronic under or over eating. Be in charge, not just in control.

Eat What You Want

Step 1 Modification: Eat your favourite 'healthy' food.

It is too early in the process to take away all the boundaries and decide spontaneously what it is you want to eat. If you have deprived yourself of your favourite treats for years, you will only want to eat mountains chocolate and icecream. And you will eat them, forget how to stop, end up in a binge and then give up the whole idea that Intuitive Eating might free you from your diet misery.

Instead, choose 5 or 6 of your favourite meals that you normally eat (when you are on a diet) and choose from them as you go through the day.

Things to avoid
- altering the ratios of food groups you are used to -- for example don't switch from low carb to high carb right now
- eating your trigger foods - if you know sugar makes you crave more sugar then stay away from it
- not having enough food with you -- have an 'emergency' meal with you at all times
- giving up cafeine or your supplements
- continuing to eat the things you don't really like in your diet -- for example those particular vegetables you are sick of

Step 2 Modification: Don't log it all and don't sweat the small stuff.

Grant 'free' status to some of your food and don't count it anymore. The best choices are vegetables, condiments and high fibre food like bran. If you measure out a few grams more or less of the things you are counting, then just leave it. Forget cutting 5g off your chicken breast so it is exactly the perfect weight.

Step 3 Modification: Make one meal a day either a treat or unmeasured.

Allow yourself one meal a day of what you want that isn't normally in your plan. Remember to continue to only eat when you are hungry. Things that are satsifying and filling are best, as you can easily eat too much chocolate if you are hungry.

If that sounds too difficult, then just have one meal that you don't log or measure. Grab a slab of steak and a pile of veges and don't worry about what it weighs. Gradually you can do this for every meal.

Step 4: Eat mostly what your body wants (nourishing food) and sometimes what you soul wants (decadent food).

This is the ultimate goal of Intuitive Eating. You are free to eat whatever you want depending on your personal goals, and no longer need a book or a web page to decide for you.

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Stop When You Are Full

Step 1 Modification: Eat slowly and mindfully.

Knowing what it means to be full is the hardest part of the Intuitive Eating approach -- especially if you have been dieting for an extended period of time. The first step is to concentrate on eating slowly. One way to do this is to always sit down to eat and to focus solely on just eating.

Conscious eating while not doing anything else might not work for everyone (I tend to eat faster because I want to get back to what I was doing). Alternatively, eat a few mouthfuls and then pause while you do something else (read, talk, watch TV). You still focus on mindful eating, but you slow it down by interrupting yourself along the way.

Things to avoid
- getting too hungry before you eat -- if you are ready to eat your own arm then you will find it extremely difficult to eat slowly
- large plates -- if you are filling a large plate with food you might be eating too much
- eating in the car, in a meeting, in a rush -- don't eat when you can't focus your attention on the task of eating mindfully

Step 2 Modification: Notice how long it takes to get hungry again.

The size of your meal (and the quality) will determine how long it takes to get hungry again. You can adjust the portion size to make the gap between hunger coming back longer or shorter. If you are hungry again one hour after eating you probably need to eat more or to eat more filling foods.

Step 3 Modification: Save some for later.

If you have served up too much, or start to feel full before you've finished your meal, save some for later. By allowing yourself to eat the rest of it as soon as you feel peckish again (you don't have to go through the 30 minute wait) means you won't feel like you are missing out on anything.

Step 4: Stop when you are full.

Once you are familiar with feeling pleasantly full and not stuffed you can simply stop eating when you've had enough. You are free to choose however much you want (sometimes you'll want to be full, sometimes you'll want to be light and not full of food).

Keep Going

The early days of attempting Intuitive Eating after an extended low calorie diet will feel like you are on the edge of losing control at any moment, but like any new skill, it takes practice. By taking small progressive steps rather than changing everything all at once, you can make the transition as smooth as possible.

Remember that you don't need to be perfect and you will makes mistakes. Just keep trying because ending the fight with food, and with yourself is worth all the hard work.

What About You?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Hendrika from Pretoria, South Africa on January 10, 2012:

I will have to go slow on this one, but I am sure it is worth it. My biggest problem at the moment is that I do not even know when I am hungry and I also do not know when I have had enough! So, wish me luck, I have to get off this yo-yo dieting!

peterdros on August 04, 2011:

here in Greece we have this problem, we when we dont actually hungry. But i don't think that we can get it over because Mediterranean food is so good!!!!!

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