By Ali Nicole

The holiday season is just around the corner, and amongst the merriments there will undoubtedly be much to do made around eating festive foods. Along with the traditional cakes, pies, cookies, and once-a-year main dishes, there will be messages from all sides about what to eat and how to eat. Magazines, social media, and that one critical uncle will be encouraging portion control or abstinence to avoid those holiday pounds and at the same time television, co-workers, and the cousin who is certain you don’t eat enough insist on indulgence and fun.

Which do you choose? The answer is easy. Choose you.

The concept of being present with the body, understanding your hunger and fullness signals, and trusting in yourself to make the right choice for you based on no external rules or judgments has a variety of names and theories behind it. Intuitive eating, coined by nutrition professionals Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995 focuses on rejecting diet culture and returning to trust in one’s self to develop a healthy relationship with food. “Intuitive,” is sometimes replaced with the word “attuned” but focuses on similar principals. 

The practice of mindfulness, an ancient eastern practice often attributed to Jon Kabat-Zinn, is also applied to the practice of eating and preparing food to increase connectedness with the in-the-moment experience of food on the body and mind without judgment. 

Whatever the name—intuitive, attuned, mindful—all ideologies encompass the importance of a healthy relationship with food to benefit mental wellness. This starts with recognizing and accepting that you are the only person who can make the right decision for what to put into your body and you will be the one actually experiencing it at any time. But many of us have become disconnected from this.

From early in life, we have many judgements on food, eating, and body shape and size coming from all around us. Messages as common as “clean your plate,” “calorie deficit,” and “junk food” versus “healthy food” lead to an ingenuine experience with food, eating, and connection to natural body signals and states. 

Over time, the messages build up and disconnect you from your body’s needs and wants by placing judgments on the natural experience of eating and losing trust in yourself to make the choices you feel are right.

Defining foods as “bad” or “good,” “healthy” and “unhealthy,” can also impact satisfaction, eating choices, fullness levels, and overall comfort with food. While there are certainly nutrition differences across food types, something all of the aforenoted eating philosophies make room to learn about, that does not create a moral choice between one food or another. When foods come with pre-conceived notions of right or wrong, those judgments enter into the decision of what to eat, how much, and when to eat it.

The result of food judgment can lead to the aforementioned rebound eating, guilt, and lack of trust in yourself. If chocolate cake is “bad” and you want a slice but “can’t” have it, you may later eat the entire sleeve of chocolate rice cakes to try to satisfy the craving. Inadvertently, you’ve eaten more than you would have if you just had the cake and you’re still left unsatisfied. If you manage to avoid the craving for weeks on end, you’re more likely to indulge in half the chocolate cake rather than the one slice, making you feel uncomfortable, guilty, and certain you have no self-control.

Self-control is exactly what intuitive, attuned, or mindful eating is encouraging but it looks different than the self-control we are used to in diet and “health” culture. Rather than controlling your cravings, portions, macronutrients, and calories, with these eating philosophies you’re controlling your thoughts and choices based on internal cues rather than external ones. When listening to your body and suspending the critical voices inside and out, you’ll come to the right choices for you that are the most satisfying, most filling, and most nutritious because they’re led by only you.

These concepts may seem scary to many people, especially given the reality that sometimes we don’t eat for hunger or fullness, we eat for emotions and connectedness, too. That is also a principle built into all of these theories. At times we eat because we’re feeling something that we want to go away and food is a comfort for many. The response to that goes back to being present with yourself and checking in with hunger and fullness signals. If hunger isn’t present but an uncomfortable emotion is, it’s a sign to start working on coping skills that don’t result in unwanted eating patterns.

It’s not just negative emotions food can be tied to – positive ones like fun, excitement, and joy can as well. As I mentioned, the holidays are coming up and amongst the merriment and joy, you may be eating mindlessly all the treats as you connect with others, shop, or craft. Practicing learning your hunger and fullness signals, suspending judgment, and being present in the moment can help you take note of this and keep it managed the way that makes you feel comfortable.

You might be wondering where weight and nourishment fit in. Though these philosophies differ some, the general consensus around weight is that it is determined person-to-person based on being comfortable in one’s own body, not based on external standards. In other words, no one can tell you what the right weight is and if you’re eating in an attuned way, it will be right for you. To help with that, it can be great to learn about nutrition. Understanding food is different than judging it, and it is a great tool in being able to recognize what your cravings can mean and your body’s patterns.

If this overview of intuitive, attuned, and mindful eating methods intrigued you, know that this is just the tip of the iceberg. 

You can seek out more guidance from the direct sources, like the official written guides and licensed health professionals who practice these concepts, like dieticians or mental health therapists. It is a new way of thinking and living, yet something that, deep down, we all know. I know it has made a difference in my quality of life, nutrition, and wellness and maybe it can be a tool in your mental wellness toolbox too.