What is Interoceptive Awareness?

Interoceptive awareness

By Jenny Anttonen MS, RD, LD

Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor


What is interoceptive awareness?


Interoceptive awareness is the ability to perceive internal bodily states. It involves feeling what

is stable within your body experience and what is changing. The changing signals can be more

obvious, “I am feeling more cold now”. Or, a sensation that requires more practice to observe “I

am a level 3 on the hunger scale.” Interoceptive awareness integrates motivations, emotions,

internal organ sensations and associated thought patterns and reactions. This is complicated

stuff that our body is always doing, but you may not have awareness of it.


For example:

To apply interoceptive awareness to hunger signals, one person may feel hunger coming on and

eat something because they know they won’t be able to eat again for awhile. Another person

may feel an early hunger signal, combine their emotions (guilt), motivations (to change their

body size) and their associated thought patterns (their mother always said to wait until the

meal to eat so they don’t spoil their dinner) and choose not to eat. This is how interoceptive

awareness becomes complicated in regard to your relationship with food.


How is interoceptive awareness helpful?


Interoceptive awareness is one of the main components in research to support the

effectiveness of intuitive eating. Intuitive eating is often described as, eating when you’re

hungry and stopping when you’re full. This can be a quick and easy way of describing this

process to people who are curious, but truly intuitive eating involves interoceptive awareness.


For example:

Hunger signals should be coming to you way before it is a painful and sick feeling of hunger (if

you are not feeling these signals ahead, this is worth discussing with your dietitian to determine

the cause). With interoceptive awareness, you can determine the early stages of hunger for

you. This could be a sign like a stomach growl, but unfortunately hunger cues aren’t always that

obvious for most people. Other early signs of hunger could be feeling distracted, anxious,

thirsty, yawning, weak, “hangry”, nauseous, etc. So now you have this information and can look

at (with trial and error, based on your experiences on your intuitive eating journey) how much

time you typically have until that hunger starts becoming stronger and can determine “If I eat

now, I can prevent my hunger from dropping to painful hunger at a level 1.”


How do I get better with my own interoceptive awareness?


You could start with a short exercise of sitting still, closing your eyes and perceiving your

heartbeat/pulse. Our heart pumps to keep us alive, and yet, we do nothing consciously to keep it going. Our body does that for us! Taking the time to perceive your heartbeat is a way to slow down, feel what your body is doing for you every day and connect with those internal sensations. Over time, you can start to connect this physical feeling to other emotions. If you are frustrated, happy, angry or sad, you could slow down with breathing exercises and connect the emotion to your heartbeat. This is an early stage of pairing your emotions with your physical sensations.


To apply to your relationship with food, you can track your hunger/fullness cues (physical

sensations). Some clients may record the time they eat, how they physically and emotionally

feel before and after the meal and tie this to how they feel physically and emotionally in the

following hours.


Interoceptive awareness with your relationship to food does not come easily if you still have

rules around food and body. Setting times to eat, rules of what kind of food you can/can’t eat,

predetermined quantities to eat, carrying beliefs and thoughts about food that aren’t serving

you, etc. all inhibit the mind and body connection of giving your body what it truly needs. But

the good news is, you can bring the above challenges to the surface and work through them!

With journaling, following accounts that are more about intuitive eating and mindfulness,

reading the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, listening to podcasts that

discuss topics around intuitive eating and body liberation (Food Psych with Christy Harrison)

and meeting with a registered dietitian (specializing in eating disorders and/or intuitive eating).

It is fascinating to see your mind and body become a connected and well-oiled machine,

working together to give you what you need!


Resources:

Stevenson, R. et al. (2015). Individual differences in the interoceptive states of hunger, fullness

and thirst. Appetite, 95, 44-57.

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