Intuitive Eating During Pregnancy: What It Is & Why You Should Do It
Eating during pregnancy can be stressful, right?
Learning how you should eat is pretty easy. After all, there’s millions of articles about the nutrients you should be getting for your baby.
But actually following dietary advice is a little more complicated—especially when those cravings kick in.
Intuitive eating can guide you on how to eat during pregnancy. The best part is that your body gets both what it wants and needs without having to beat yourself up for it.
In this post, we’ll outline what intuitive eating is, its benefits during pregnancy and how you can get started.
What Is Intuitive Eating?
Before we jump into why intuitive eating can be helpful during pregnancy, let’s discuss what it is and isn’t.
First off: Intuitive eating is not a diet and doesn’t have the strict rules that you may be used to.
Some people follow diet plans that tell them when and exactly how much to eat. With intuitive eating, you let your body “tell” you what food and how much is right for you.
It involves getting in touch with your inner cues of hunger, fullness and satisfaction.
To put it simply, someone who eats intuitively pays attention to their body’s need for and response to food. They eat what they want, but they do so mindfully.
Some people naturally eat intuitively—including babies. You’ll notice that your baby knows when she’s hungry and stops when she’s full. She doesn’t starve herself to be skinny or overeat to calm her stress. She doesn’t think about how healthy or unhealthy the milk is. She simply follows her body’s cues.
However, many people lose this natural way of eating over time. Our body’s cues get messed up as we start to ignore them. We do this by:
- Going on fad diets
- Following even healthy diets but being really strict with ourselves
- Skipping meals to fit into a dress
- Stuffing ourselves to numb our feelings
- Eating when we’re not even hungry
- Beating ourselves up when we mess up our diet or give into cravings
If you’re someone who has been on diets or who’s concerned about her weight, pregnancy may be particularly stressful. On top of the pressure you already put on yourself, you’ll be gaining weight and dealing with food cravings.
Intuitive eating takes practice, but you can use it to heal your relationship with food so you can start enjoying your pregnancy.
By now, you might be thinking, “If I eat what I want, then I’ll be really unhealthy and gain even more weight.”
However, the opposite is true.
Intuitive eating, and similarly, mindful eating, has been associated with lower gestational weight gain and improved glucose control.
Please note: Consult your doctor before changing your diet, especially if you have any pregnancy complications. Conditions such as gestational diabetes may require you to follow a specific diet for the safety of you and your baby.
Benefits of Intuitive Eating During Pregnancy
In general, intuitive eating has been linked to lower BMI, weight maintenance and improved self-esteem and mental health.
Using intuitive eating during pregnancy can be especially helpful. A 2018 New Zealand study found that it was healthy for pregnant women to use an intuitive eating scale.
Another study suggested that pregnancy could be a useful time for women to learn about how satiety (an aspect of intuitive eating) feels. Researchers suggested that this may lead to higher levels of intuitive eating postpartum.
Let’s take a look at a few other reasons why intuitive eating may be helpful during pregnancy.
Calm body image issues. Some women are stressed out by the weight they gain during pregnancy—especially if they have a history of body image issues. Following your body’s natural hunger cues will allow you to gain the right amount of weight. And, making peace with food for good will make it easier to accept your baby belly.
Flexibility. If you’re someone who follows a strict meal plan, it can be difficult to do during pregnancy. When you have a bun in the oven, your hunger levels tend to be far less predictable and they often change from week to week. Intuitive eating can be adapted to any situation, so you don’t need to stress out about “messing up.”
Registered Dietician Emily Fonnesbeck wrote a blog post about how intuitive eating has helped her during pregnancy. “For many people, when life gets chaotic, food gets chaotic. Intuitive Eating creates a flexible dynamic that can be applied to whatever situation you find yourself in,” she wrote.
Cravings. Cravings are also unpredictable during pregnancy and you shouldn’t blame yourself for them. If you’re used to beating yourself up for eating “off limit” foods, pregnancy cravings can be more difficult. Intuitive eating will allow you to listen to what your body actually wants to eat. If that means “junk” food, practicing intuitive eating will show you how to eat just until you’re satisfied, which usually isn’t the full bag of chips or even the full cupcake.
Guilt. Since you’re eating for two, you may feel guilty that you’re not eating enough vegetables or not getting enough of a certain nutrient. While we can gently guide ourselves with nutrition, intuitive eating teaches us to take the guilt out of food.
How To Start Eating Intuitively During Pregnancy
Since intuitive eating isn’t a diet plan, there is no strict step-by-step that you need to follow. The process may vary per person and their own experiences and relationship with food.
Some dietitians may recommend that their clients eat whatever they want, unrestricted for a while. The idea is that once your body can trust that it won’t be deprived of food (even “junk” food), you’ll lose the need to binge or overeat. Then, you can start recognizing your hunger cues and pinpointing what kind of food will satisfy you at that moment.
To get a full grasp on the concept of intuitive eating, it may help to read the Intuitive Eating book.
Below are some intuitive eating principles and tips you can follow.
- Recognize and rate hunger. Use this scale to rate your physical hunger levels. The hungrier you are when you eat, the more likely it is that you’ll overeat. For this reason, try to start eating at a 3 or a 4. Instead of ignoring your hunger, honor it.
- Recognize and rate fullness. As you eat, check in with yourself to see how full you are. Stopping around a 6 or a 7 means that you’ll be satisfied but won’t feel too stuffed.
- Recognize emotional vs. physical hunger. If you want to eat but don’t feel physically hungry, it’s probably driven by an emotion. If this is the case, try to pinpoint what is bothering you or try some relaxation techniques.
- Before you begin eating, ask yourself what would make you feel satisfied. Maybe it’s a healthy salad. But it’s okay if you have a sweet craving, too. Eating what you desire means that you’re more likely to stop when you’ve had enough.
- Be mindful while eating. It will be a lot easier to notice when you’re full when there’s no distractions. If possible, aim to eat without the TV on, without reading or without your phone. Pay attention to the taste of the food. You’ll probably notice that the first few bites taste amazing. But, as your hunger subsides, the food will become less tasty. This is a good hint that you’re hitting your fullness level. Sometimes, it may take a sandwich to hit your satisfaction level, while other times it may only be a few bites of a cupcake.
- Pay attention to how food makes you feel. This can be particularly helpful during pregnancy when you may react to foods differently. Does the food you just ate make you feel energized? Or is it giving you heartburn? Could the scent have triggered your nausea? As you begin eating intuitively, you can use nutrition to gently guide your decisions, too.
- It’s okay not to eat perfectly. Try to stop labeling foods as “good” or “bad.” If you ate a balanced diet before pregnancy, intuitively honoring pregnancy cravings isn’t likely to hurt your baby. It’s normal for your preferences to change during this time. Taking a comprehensive prenatal vitamin ensures that you’ll be getting the necessary nutrients, even on days where your diet may be lacking.
- It’s okay that your hunger levels change. One month, you may feel hungry every hour, while the next your appetite may decrease. Regardless of how your hunger changes, you can use the intuitive eating scale to help guide you on the best times to eat.
- Exercise doing what you enjoy. Instead of seeing exercise as a way to restrict your baby weight gain, see it as a way to energize yourself. Even some gentle yoga, pilates or walks count.
- Respect your body. Stop criticizing the way your body looks, no matter where you are on your pregnancy journey. Try to recognize that your healthiest self is different from others. Instead of being upset about the weight gain, shift your focus to being thankful because it means that you’re growing a healthy baby.
Have you tried eating intuitively during pregnancy? If you have, share your experience below. If you have any pregnant friends, share this post with them, too!