This is the fifth post in a 10-part series looking at the principles of Intuitive Eating. Last week’s post was on Principle 4: Challenge the Food Police

Eating is supposed to be pleasurable and satisfying. Yes, food is our fuel, but when we eat satisfying food in a pleasant environment, the pleasure we experiences ADDS to our satisfaction. And food satisfaction and pleasure not only adds to our happiness, it makes it more likely that we will happily eat a variety of nutritious foods. That makes the fifth principle of Intuitive Eating, “Discover the Satisfaction Factor,” so essential.

There are many factors that can interfere with food satisfaction:

  • Not choosing the food you really want to eat. For example, let’s say you’re in a restaurant and you choose the salad when you really want the burger…or vice versa (you choose the burger and you really want the salad).
  • Eating when you aren’t hungry. Gentle, comfortable hunger enhances our eating pleasure, which in turn enhances satisfaction.
  • Eating when you are too hungry. You become so focused on filling your empty stomach that you might barely taste your food AND you may easily eat past the point of comfortable fullness, and the resulting discomfort can dim your satisfaction.
  • Eating while arguing or stressed. This interferes with the pleasure of the eating environment, and likely distracts you from the sensory qualities of the food itself.
  • Eating while distracted. If you barely notice that you ate, you won’t be satisfied even if you are physically full.

Satisfaction is so important to being an intuitive eater that dietitian Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, the creators of the Intuitive Eating model and the co-authors of “Intuitive Eating,” it to be the hub of intuitive eating, as you can see in this illustration:

Why satisfaction and pleasure are essential

I want to share a client story that illustrates how satisfaction relates to some of the various principles. When “Mary” started working with me she had very strong emotional eating tendencies that stemmed from childhood, when her emotional needs were not met. Food was her only source of comfort and pleasure. She had also been dieting for decades and when she was at a higher weight, she would withdraw from activities that brought her pleasure, because she was so embarrassed.

One of the first things we discussed was her need for pleasure and beauty and creativity in her life, and about resuming activities that gave her joy, which included everything from cooking classes to going for walks in her neighborhood to taking dance classes. We also explored the idea of gentle nutrition, which allowed her to stop trying to follow a paleo diet and pull out some of the vegetarian cookbooks that she had once enjoyed cooking with.

We also gradually started to explore making peace with dessert. This started with allowing herself to enjoy a dessert guilt free when she and her husband dined out. She found that when she really allowed herself to enjoy the dessert, she didn’t always finish it. Sometimes she did, but sometimes she would stop partway through because she found she was totally satisfied.

What Mary was not ready to do (at first) was resume baking at home, because she was certain that she was addicted to sugar, and told me that she couldn’t make a whole dessert without wanting eat and eat and eat. Today, she regularly bakes wonderful desserts, but never overeats.

She’s come to understand that her emotional eating served an important purpose as a child, and that as an adult, so much of her “emotional eating” was driven by the fact that she was constantly hungry when she was dieting, so that she would compulsively overeat when anything stressful happened in her life, or when she was in the presence of extremely appealing food.

Because she’s given herself full permission to choose foods that satisfy her and eat enough food to fully satisfy hunger, she no longer experiences out-of-control eating episodes. She said to me, “I really thought I was addicted to food, but now I realize that I never was.”

A story about bagels (sort of)

Another client, “Jill,” was trying really hard to be a healthy eater, but she felt that if she didn’t do this perfectly, then she was a failure. Unfortunately, this would sometimes lead to binging when life felt really stressful and she wasn’t eating enough food, or enough food she enjoyed, because of the pressure she put on herself.

Jill started working on nourishing herself regularly throughout the day with foods that would satisfy her. One day she told me this story: She’d eaten breakfast early, so by the time she got to work, about four hours had elapsed and she was hungry again. She really wanted a bagel with cream cheese. She gave herself permission to buy one, and she said it was completely satisfying.

Her lunch was unexpectedly delayed until 2 p.m., but the bagel and coffee fueled her enough that she was manageably hungry when she had a chance to eat the lunch she had packed for herself. She felt happy and energized when she left work and looked forward to cooking dinner.

But perhaps more importantly, Jill told me that she could see clearly what would have happened if she had denied herself the satisfaction of the bagel. She would have been PRIMALLY hungry at 2 p.m. and rejected her packed lunch. Instead, she would have headed to a nearby restaurant, ordered a ton of food, eaten it all, and returned to work feeling guilty and physically uncomfortable. Those feelings would have followed her home, where she would have binged again, then felt horrible the entire next day.

She continued to enjoy bagels for a few weeks, when she realized one day that she was actually craving salads. Bagels became just one of many foods she enjoyed, and she could take it or leave it. They were no longer a “forbidden” fruit that had a hold on her.

So, the key element in this story is a humble bagel, which seems like a small thing, but turned out to be a very big thing. Of course, it’s not JUST about the bagel…it’s about the mindset shift that allowed the bagel to happen. But this shift had a lasting positive effect. Food satisfaction…it’s a good thing.

Regaining the pleasure and in eating

When you’re trying to regain the pleasure in eating, start by asking yourself what you REALLY want to eat. You gain the most satisfaction from your food when you take the time to figure out what you really want to eat, do your best to meet those food preferences given what’s available, then eat in a relaxing, enjoyable atmosphere.

If you have trouble identifying what you want to eat (perhaps because you’ve used a set of food rules dictated by someone else to guide your eating choices) try paying attention to your senses. Consider all the sensory aspects of food (taste, texture, aroma, appearance, temperature and how filling the food is).

For example, what’s a better choice, an apple or a cheeseburger? The answer is not that simple. If you’re only a little hungry, maybe you’re in between meals and you need a little something to get you through, and something cool and crisp and crunchy sounds appealing, then the apple is an excellent choice.

However, if it’s mealtime, and you’re really hungry, and you need something that’s filling and satisfying, and it’s going to be a while before you eat again, AND maybe you’re specifically wanting something savory and hot, then in that scenario the cheeseburger would be the better choice. Or, maybe you want something hot and comforting but only moderately filling. Maybe a bowl of soup and some bread would fit the bill.

Make your eating experience more enjoyable.

Food satisfaction comes from our food choices, but the environment in which we eat our chosen foods also affects satisfaction. To make your eating experience more satisfying and enjoyable:

  • Savor your food by taking time to appreciate it, sitting down to eat rather than eating while walking or standing in the kitchen, pay attention to the sensory aspects of your food.
  • Eat when gently hungry. When you wait until you are overhungry or primally hungry, you’ll find it hard to slow down and actually taste your food. When you eat when you aren’t really hungry, it’s hard to be satisfied by the food you’re eating.
  • Eat in a pleasant environment when you can. Again, eating when walking, standing or driving diminishes satisfaction.
  • Avoid tension. Arguments or heated discussions during a meal makes it virtually impossible to stay in touch with your food and your hunger and fullness levels.
  • Provide variety. When we eat a variety of foods, we give ourselves a variety of nutrients and a variety of sensory experiences. Limiting how many foods we allow ourselves to eat or even keep in the house can lead to feelings of deprivation, and it’s hard to ask yourself what you really want to eat if the answer can’t be found in your fridge or pantry.
  • Check in mid-meal. Are you starting to feel like you’ve had enough? Is the food is still tasting as good as when you started. The first few bites often taste the best, so if you notice that your pleasure is dimming as you eat, this means you’re getting less satisfaction and it probably means that you’re starting to get full. So if the answer to “does it still taste good” is “no,” that may mean it’s time to stop eating.
Progress, not perfection!

Keep in mind that we’re all going to have meals sometimes that take care of hunger but don’t really offer much else, whether it’s because we’re at the home of a friend who isn’t the greatest cook, or we’re stuck at an airport that doesn’t have very good food offerings. Just do the best you can.

Knowing what you like to eat and believing that you have the right to enjoy food are key factors in a lifetime of enjoyable eating for health and wellbeing. It also helps prevent the phenomenon of “chasing the phantom food.” This is what happens when you won’t let yourself have the food you really want (say, cookies), so you eat other foods (an apple, rice cakes, etc.) in an attempt to find satisfaction. That rarely works…just some food for thought!

Next post: Principle 6: Feel Your Fullness!

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Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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