The holidays can be a time for overindulgence, but you don’t have to go crazy at the gym to keep the pounds off, and you don’t have to count calories either. Christmas cookies, eggnog and Grandma’s mile-high chocolate silk pie (with all the whipped cream) are fair game if you practice intuitive eating.

Intuitive eating is an approach to eating that involves having intention while you eat, awareness of when you eat and mindfulness of what you eat — being fully present with food. When you learn how to eat intuitively, you are keyed into your body’s needs and able to maintain your weight or even lose weight. Sina Teskey, RD, clinical dietitian, shared four intuitive eating tips to help you get started.

1. Use a Hunger-Discovery Scale

Gauge how hungry or full you are based on a scale of one to 10 (see intuitive eating hunger scale below). This will help you be mindful of what your body needs and how much you should eat. Aim to keep your hunger level between four and seven.

The idea is to eat when you start to get hungry and stop when you’re satisfied, but not uncomfortably full. The more hungry you get, the more likely you are to overeat. It's also important to not skip a meal thinking that you'll be able to eat more later. The total intake from that one meal will likely be more than what you would have had from a first and second meal together. 

Intuitive eating hunger scale

“When babies are born, they have the perfect hunger-fullness scale,” Teskey said. “Babies drink milk, and if they are full, they stop. If they eat too much, they spit it up. But society changes how many of us behave with food. We eat for tradition, comfort and for every emotion — happiness, sadness, celebration — so some of us have lost the innate ability to regulate our food intake subconsciously.”

When using this intuitive eating tool, think of yourself as having an internal thermometer that you want to keep at a comfortable temperature. By using an intuitive eating hunger scale, you can relearn your body’s cues. “Test yourself before, during and after you eat. It’s not something you have to do all the time, but it will refocus you,” Teskey said.

2. Be Aware of Your Plate and Utensils

A lot of satisfaction from a meal can come from what you see on your plate, but that may not always reflect the amount or type of food that you need. Ask yourself how hungry you are and what foods you are hungry for. Then, intentionally plate your food. Chew slowly, savor your meal and avoid multitasking while eating.

Being mindful of where your utensils are during the meal can also help prevent overeating. “Have you set your fork down?” Teskey said. “Try to take a pause or two during a meal.”

3. Avoid Labeling Foods as “Good” or “Bad”

Dietitians call this food judgment, and it can lead to overeating or even an eating disorder.

“If you tell yourself a food is bad for you, it may encourage you to overeat it,” Teskey said. “Maybe you have decided you have blown your diet for the day, or maybe you want to stock up because it is a food you think you shouldn’t have again. These thoughts cloud your ability to notice when you’re full. This is especially hard with all of the holiday dishes we tend to make only at this time of year.”

Teskey said referring to certain foods, particularly those that are rich or sugary as “treats” can also be a form of food judgment. “If it’s a piece of cake, then it is dessert,” Teskey said. “Don’t give the food the power; you should not have to do anything to deserve it. Listen to your body. It knows what it wants.”

4. Relax

Try not to stress over the holiday gift shopping or the in-laws coming to visit. Stress can sabotage your intentions to learn how to eat intuitively.

“Stress in the short-term causes that fight or flight reaction,” Teskey said. “In the long-term, it increases cortisol production. Cortisol is the hormone that causes you to feel hungry. It increases your insulin, and when that drops, you want to eat.”

Being mindful of when and how you eat can take away some of the anxiety and stress that can accompany the spreads of indulgent foods you often see during the holidays. Through intuitive eating, you can change your attitude toward food and dieting and develop healthier eating habits you can stick to throughout this season and into the new year.

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