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  • by Alexandra Inman & Stephanie Dang

How Do You Know When & How Much to Eat? Intuitive Eating 101

One of the most common questions client come in to us with is “How many calories should I eat?” or “How often should I be eating in the day?” Oftentimes, they’re looking for guidelines or rules around when and how much food to eat.

There are a few problems with relying on external rules to guide your eating habits. How much you need to eat varies a lot; not just from day to day, but from morning to night. How much activity you’ve done that day is just one factor that can influence how much you need to eat. Additionally, having strict rules to guide your eating habits are hard to follow on a day-to-day basis - especially on those days where you’re not following your normal routine. How about those days where you have gone on a long hike? Or when you didn’t sleep well the night before? What about when you are on vacation? How about during cultural celebrations? More than that, it’s just not a mentally or emotionally pleasant way to live. Food should be nourishing and enjoyable, not a source of stress or anxiety.

"When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers" - Ellyn Satter

So what is the answer to the question of how much and when you should eat? Intuitive eating.

You can read more about the principles of intuitive eating by clicking here. However, the basic idea of intuitive eating is that your body innately knows how much and how often it needs to eat for optimal health and function. Everyone is born with this function - just look at babies, they eat exactly the amount they need to in order to grow and develop. However, in our current culture of dieting, a lot of us have been taught to ignore our body’s hunger and fullness signals and, instead, follow external rules or guidelines. Ignoring our body’s cues and signals might make them harder to pick up on, or even result in a cycle of restriction followed by binge eating. Often, this ultimately results in feelings of guilt and/or shame.

"We define healthy eating as having a healthy balance of foods and having a healthy relationship with food." - Evelyn Tribole

Intuitive eating is about honouring your hunger and respecting your fullness. One of the simplest ways to get started with intuitive eating is with the hunger-fullness scale. The hunger-fullness scale goes from 1 (absolutely starving) to 10 (nauseatingly full).

Hunger-Fullness Scale

  1. Starving, weak, dizzy

  2. Very hungry, cranky, low energy, stomach growling a lot

  3. Pretty hungry, stomach growling a little

  4. Starting to feel a little hungry, starting to think about food

  5. Satisfied - neither hungry nor full, focused on a different task, not thinking about food

  6. Pleasantly full

  7. Full, slightly uncomfortable

  8. Stuffed

  9. Very uncomfortably full, stomach hurts

  10. Nauseatingly full, feel sick, bloated

Here’s how to use this scale:

  • When you are getting ready for a meal or snack, ask yourself “Where am I on the hunger-fullness scale?” Ideally, you will be somewhere between a 3 and a 4.

  • Halfway through your meal or snack, pause for 10 seconds and ask yourself again “Where am I on the hunger fullness scale now?”

  • Eat until you are a 6 or a 7, then stop eating.

  • This may mean you leave some food left on your plate or it may mean that you help yourself to seconds. Both are 100% okay!

  • Some days, you may find yourself feeling full after small meals and snacks. While other days can feel like you’re eating a lot without feeling full. Both are normal and natural fluctuations in hunger and fullness.

  • Try this exercise for 3-4 days, or until you feel you’ve picked up on your hunger and fullness cues.

  • Remember, your hunger-fullness cues may change over time so you can always repeat this exercise if and when you feel that it will be helpful!

If you do this exercise, but aren’t able to identify your hunger or fullness cues. Start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Do you eat regular meals and snacks?

  • Do you skip meals and snacks, even though you’re hungry?

  • Do you graze on food all day long without ever feeling hungry?

If you don’t honour your hunger or respect your fullness, your body’s cues can become confusing or hard to identify. If you’re having difficulty finding your hunger and fullness cues, please book an appointment with us - we would love to help you find them again!

Sometimes, you may find yourself eating even though you aren’t hungry or eating past the point of being full. You may find your eating habits are directed by how you’re feeling emotionally rather than hunger and fullness. If this is becoming concerning to you, we highly recommend seeking the help of a licensed counsellor in addressing the underlying emotions that may be driving your eating habits.

With intuitive eating, you can trust your body to know exactly when and how much it needs to eat rather than stressing trying to follow external rules or cues!

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