In theory, giving yourself permission to eat what you want sounds thrilling. But in practice, many of my intuitive eating clients find that it’s actually a big challenge at first. Often, they find that they’re hungry but don’t know what to eat.
If you’ve been living by food rules or struggling with an eating disorder for a long time, figuring out what you actually want to eat can feel foreign. Here’s a little more information on why that is, plus some exercises I share with clients who can’t figure out what to eat.
(And psst, if you need a little extra help, go here to request a nutrition counseling appointment — we’re in-network with most Blue Cross Blue Shield plans, which means you might be able to work with a non-diet dietitian at no cost!)
First things first: Commit to eating something, instead of ignoring your hunger
Before we get into strategies for deciding what to eat, let’s cover why it’s so important (and sometimes hard!) to eat when you’re hungry, instead of ignoring the hunger or trying to distract yourself.
Eating when you’re hungry might sound obvious. Most of my clients come to me thinking that they already know how to honor their hunger. They want to skip straight to learning how to know when they’re full, or how to figure out what to eat. But when we dig a little deeper, they realize that they’re actually pretty bad at recognizing hunger.
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We’ve all been conditioned to ignore hunger
Think about it: How many times have you heard things like, “If you feel hungry, you’re probably just thirsty!” Or, “if you’re craving food, you’re probably just lonely! Call a friend instead!” Maybe you’ve been conditioned to go for a walk instead of eating “because you’re probably just bored!” My personal favorite (and by that I mean the opposite): “You’re not hungry, you’re just in need of some self-care. Enjoy a bubble bath!”
I’ll admit, I hate baths (so soggy!). But even setting that aside, this last bit of advice is ridiculous and totally misguided. Folx, eating is a form of self-care. Nourishing your body properly is one of the most basic ways to care for it and show it respect. A bubble bath might get you clean and help you relax (unless you’re like me and you’re ready to get out the second you get in). But bathing won’t make you feel less hungry, nor will phoning a friend or taking a walk. And sure, drinking water might fill your stomach for a little while, but it’s not the solution to your hunger, either.
The only way to feel less hungry is to eat. And if you want to learn to eat intuitively, you must commit to eating when you’re hungry. Every time. That means eating regular meals, and snacking throughout the day.
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How to know when you’re hungry
A grumbling stomach is one sign of hunger, but it’s not the only one. In fact, if your stomach is making loud noises, it probably means you’ve let yourself get a little too hungry. Here are some signs of hunger to look for and honor:
- Grumbling or empty stomach (you’re already familiar with this one)
- Trouble concentrating because you’re thinking about food
- Intense, sudden cravings
Of course, many of these can be a result of other things as well. You might be grumpy because you’re tired. You might be irritable because you’re having a bad day. Maybe you’re distracted by thoughts of food because you’re planning a dinner party (although, honestly, this one usually is a sign of hunger). You get the point. But don’t overlook these other signs. When they come up, take a second to ask yourself what might be causing them, and if hunger could be the culprit.
“OK, I know I’m hungry but don’t know what to eat!”
Whether you realize it or not, you’ve likely spent much of your life following food rules. For example:
- “Go easy on the carbs!”
- “Don’t eat so much sugar!”
- “Always choose the salad!”
- “Eat real food!”
- “Choose mostly plants!”
- “Start every day with a smoothie/oatmeal/a veggie omelette!”
Or, you’ve been following full-blown diets that dictate exactly when, what, and how much you should eat.
So when you commit to intuitive eating and give yourself permission to eat anything you want? It’s no wonder that you struggle to know what that is! Because until now, you’ve always relied on external forces to guide you.
Struggling to figure out what to eat doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. It just means you need some practice making those choices.
Here are some questions to ask when you’re hungry and don’t know what to eat
The information below is adapted from Beyond a Shadow of a Diet, by therapists Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel. They recommend using the following flavor and texture adjectives to narrow down what to eat:
Do I want something hot or cold?
Do I want something sweet or salty?
Do I want something soft or solid?
Do I want something crunchy or mushy?
Do I want something smooth or chunky?
Do I want something spicy or bland?
Going through these questions can help you narrow down what you’re actually in the mood for. For example:
If you want something hot, salty, soft, smooth, and bland you might opt for potato soup or a grilled cheese sandwich.
Or, if you want something cold, sweet, solid, and crunchy, you might choose an apple or some peanut brittle.
When you’re looking for something hot, salty, solid, and mushy, maybe you’ll have pizza, roast vegetables, or a pasta dish.
If you want something cold, salty, crunchy, and spicy, you could have chips dipped in hot salsa.
You get the idea.
You can also use the “no, no, yes” method
Frankly, it’s not realistic to think that you’ll have access to any food you want at any time. Typically, options are limited. Maybe you’re at a restaurant. (Even if there’s a large menu, it’s never all-encompassing). If you’re cooking at home, you probably only have so many ingredients on hand. Maybe your food budget or busy schedule means you have to choose a certain number of meals to cook each week.
In these cases, use the “no, no, yes” method.
- Choose three things you could eat (from a menu, based on what’s in your kitchen, or based on other circumstances)
- Think through each of the options
- Say “yes” to one option and “no” to the other two. Remember that it’s not about making the perfect choice, it’s just about making the best choice in the moment.
After you eat, pay attention to how satisfied you are, and how you feel
Once you’ve made your choice and eaten it, check in with yourself. Ask: Was that satisfying? How do I feel? Would I eat that again? Is there anything that would have made that better?
Over time, you’ll get a better sense of how various foods work for you when it comes to satisfaction, energy, taste, convenience, and more. Deciding what to eat when you’re hungry won’t always be such a chore! But for now, use the exercises above to guide you. Trust that with some practice, your mind and body will learn to communicate and help you make these choices without much effort.
If you’re ready to stop obsessing about food, feeling guilty about what you eat, and succumbing to disordered thoughts, I can help. I’m a dietitian who specializes in eating disorders and disordered eating. I take a weight-inclusive, gender-affirming, patient-centered approach. Learn more about nutrition counseling, offered in Raleigh, NC, and virtually to clients in several states. (We’re in-network with most Blue Cross Blue Shield plans, which means you might be able to work with a non-diet dietitian at little or no cost!) If you’re not ready to commit to counseling but want more information about the anti-diet approach, subscribe to my weekly newsletter.