In this day and age, it seems like there’s a new and trendy diet every day. Unfortunately they just don’t work. Last week we discussed the principles of mindful eating, this week I’d like to follow up with intuitive eating.
Mindful eating is defined as “using all your senses in choosing to eat food that is both satisfying and nourishing to your body and becoming aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your decisions to begin and end eating.”
Intuitive eating encompasses these principles but goes a step further, also addressing the importance of rejecting the dieting mentality, respecting your body (regardless of your weight or shape), coping with emotional eating, and gentle movement and nutrition without judgment. Both mindful eating and intuitive eating can be useful tools in reaching a healthy balance with food. Intuitive eating is an approach that was created by two registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, in 1995. Intuitive eating is a non-diet approach to health and wellness that helps us to tune into our body signals, break the cycle of chronic dieting and heal our relationship with food. Intuitive eating is a framework that helps to keep nutrition interventions behavior-focused instead of the more accepted restrictive or rule-focused.
Intuitive eating means breaking free from the on-and-off cycle of dieting and learning to eat mindfully and without guilt. There’s no calorie counting or restrictions on certain foods, but there are 10 guiding principles that make up the core philosophy of this method:
1. Reject the Diet Mentality: Where has focus on weight loss gotten us? What has it done to our bodies and minds? It’s not about lack of willpower or being a failure. As already proven, diets are a set up for failure. If dieting is the problem, how can it be part of the solution? Get rid of books and magazines that tout diets and easy or quick weight loss. Unfollow social media accounts that propel the dieting myth and diet behaviors (especially those that make you feel bad about yourself) and instead follow accounts that share positive food and health messaging.
2. Honor Your Hunger: Hunger is not a four-letter word – it is a normal, biological process. Our bodies need to know, and trust, that they’ll consistently have access to food. If we try to override feelings of hunger and don’t eat enough calories and carbohydrates, our bodies will react with cravings and binges, triggered by a primal drive to overeat. Once that moment of excessive hunger is reached, all intentions of moderate, conscious eating are fleeting and irrelevant. Learning to honor this first biological signal sets the stage for rebuilding trust in yourself and in food.
3. Make Peace with Food: Allow all foods into your diet and give yourself unconditional permission to eat. Stop categorizing foods as “good” or “bad.” No specific food has the power to make us healthy or unhealthy. Telling yourself you can’t have or shouldn’t have a certain food, eventually leads to feeling deprived; this deprivation builds into uncontrollable cravings and overeating. When we finally “give in” to that food, we’re likely to overeat. This overeating triggers guilt, which starts the cycle all over again: deprivation or restriction –> cravings and overeating –> feelings of guilt.
4. Challenge the Food Police: The food police are the thoughts in your head that declare you as “good” for eating a salad for lunch and “bad” because you ate dessert/carbs/sugar/etc. These rules were created by diets to cause guilt. These rules are housed deep in the brain and pop up on a daily basis to govern food decisions. It’s impossible to view eating as a normal, pleasurable activity when the food police have a hold. Challenging the food police is an important step towards becoming an intuitive eater.
5. Feel Your Fullness: Dieting causes us to feel like we “have” to eat at meal times -when it is deemed acceptable- so leaving food behind can be difficult. Listen for those signals that tell us we’re feeling full and satiated. Pause partway through a meal or snack and check in with your body. How does the food taste? How full do you feel? Bring more consciousness and awareness to your meals. Let the bodies natural cues kick in.
6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor: It’s possible to be physically full but not satisfied. If unsatisfied we often keep looking for that one thing that is going to make us feel satisfied and content. That’s when we’re likely to overeat. When we eat what we really want, the feelings of satisfaction and pleasure help us to feel content and often just a bite or two will suffice.
7. Cope With Your Emotions Without Using Food. Emotional eating is very common. We often eat for reasons other than physical hunger and food is often used to cover up unpleasant feelings and emotions. While food can certainly be used to sooth or cope with emotions, it can become a problem if a) it’s not working to help and/or b) it’s the only coping mechanism you have. Building up several different coping skills is an important part of intuitive eating. Try exercise, talking to a friend, reading, a hot bath.
8. Respect Your Body: We’re so quick to judge ourselves and criticize our bodies. Accept your genetic blueprint. Just as a person with a shoe size of eight would not expect to realistically squeeze into a size six, it is equally futile (and uncomfortable) to have a similar expectation about body size. But mostly, respect your body so you can feel better about who you are. It’s hard to reject the diet mentality if you are unrealistic and overly critical of your body size or shape. All bodies deserve dignity.
9. Exercise and Feel The Difference: Instead of focusing on the exercise you think “should” be performed shift your focus to what types of movement feel good. Forget about the calorie burning effect of exercise and think about how it feels after working out. More energized? Sleeping better? If exercise is used as a way to lose weight or eat more food, it’s not going to be something anyone can stick with in the long term.
10. Honor Your Health With Gentle Nutrition: Being healthy doesn’t mean eating perfectly. Consider how certain foods make you feel, in addition to how tasty and satisfying they are. It’s the consistency of what we eat over time- it’s not all or nothing. Make food choices that not only honor your health and taste buds but also feel good. We don’t have to eat perfectly to be healthy. It’s what we eat consistently over time that matters. Progress, not perfection, is what counts.
Multiple studies show that intuitive eating is associated with:
Better body image
More satisfaction with life
Optimism and well-being
Proactive coping skills
Lower body mass indexes
Higher HDL cholesterol levels
Lower Triglyceride levels
Lower rates of emotional eating
Lower rates of disordered eating
I have never been a fan of counting calories or keeping a food diary. That’s why I developed the G.R.A.D.E. diet. There’s no question focusing solely on weight loss and body image doesn’t accomplish our goals. We all have to find a healthy and positive balance with food and how we see ourselves. Punitive measures never work over time, only positive ones that encourage and reinforce beneficial habits do. If intuitive eating can be part of the solution it’s worth investigating.