The practice of intuitive eating and why it might just change your relationship with food

Let’s face it, if you’re reading this article then the chances are you have been on a diet. It’s only human to want to improve ourselves in any way possible, and one of the more common changes we want most is weight loss. If you’ve been on any type of diet, whether that be keto, Atkins, Dukan, paleo, no sugar, vegetarian, low fat, protein, pescatarian or whatever, it’s also highly likely that this diet was unsuccessful in helping you reach or maintain your weight goals. Even if it was initially successful, if your experience with dieting is anything like mine, you probably fell back into old habits and gained the weight back on shortly after completing the diet program.

Diets can prescribe strict and often harmful rules around the food you are supposed to eat. In order to lose weight, you are told you can only consume very specific and limited foods, and that you need to avoid the food you love and crave. You might be told you can only eat an extremely low amount of calories and that you shouldn’t eat past a certain time. A combination of limiting the foods you eat and the low calories nearly always leads to reduced energy, irritability, tiredness and general life dissatisfaction. By categorising certain foods as “bad” and banning them completely, it is only a matter of time before your willpower dwindles and you say “stuff it”, and eat the banned food in excessive amounts. We do often lose weight on these diets, but change is only temporary once we resume old eating habits, and the yo-yo nature of dieting can be chaotic, confusing and exhausting, At its most dangerous level, the diet mentality can lead to the development of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia.

Arguably another significant limitation of diets (besides from the fact that they often make you feel like shit) is that they do not target the actual problem causing the weight gain. Rather, diets focus on the symptom of the problem and merely address the issue with a surface-level approach, resulting in only a temporary solution. For example, over-eating can be considered a symptom of underlying stress, so it is not until this stress that is causing this over-indulgence is addressed that true change can occur. A diet provides a narrow and simplistic solution, whereby in order to lose weight, we are told to simply eat less through various different dietary approaches. But as you can see, the actual problem that is causing the over-eating (e.g. stress) is not explored, and therefore we set ourselves up for failure time and time again.

This is where intuitive eating might provide a solution to our diet woes. So, what exactly is intuitive eating? The term itself was formulated by two American dieticians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in their 1995 book “Intuitive Eating”. The book explores 10 fundamental principles of intuitive eating as a way of ditching diet culture altogether and developing an improved relationship with food and a complete overhaul of our perceptions of weight loss. This approach emphasises the need to reject the diet mentality which enforces rigid rules around eating habits, and instead promotes an approach to eating that focusses on attentional awareness to what the body might feel and need.

Embedded in this approach to nutrition is the concept of “mindful eating”. To eat mindfully means to pay attention to our bodies hunger and fullness cues, to eat slowly, and to focus on how the food makes you feel emotionally and physically. The difference between mindful eating and intuitive eating lies in the rejection of the diet mentality as the basis of intuitive eating. Whilst mindful eating can be utilised as a tool alongside dieting to help people achieve their weight-loss goals, intuitive eating is arguably more radical as it encourages a complete rejection of diet-culture and encourages a fundamental acceptance of who we are. That is not the say that mindful eating is not complementary of intuitive eating, as mindfulness is a key facet of intuitive eating. If you have been yo-yo dieting for years, seeing weight-loss results and then becoming disheartened as soon as you inevitably put that weight back on, it might be worth exploring the benefits of intuitive eating.

The ten principles of intuitive eating are as follows:

  1. Reject the diet mentality – stop trying a new diet every few weeks, and don’t allow yourself to have strict rules about eating.
  2. Honour your hunger – listen to your body’s hunger cues instead of ignoring them and over-eating later.
  3. Make peace with food – don’t restrict certain foods because of their stigmatisation in popular culture. Restricting certain foods can often lead to over-consumption later on, so allow yourself to eat all foods.
  4. Challenge the food police – food isn’t inherently “good” or “bad” – some foods have more nutrients and make you feel better than others, and just because you might eat a big mac doesn’t mean your self-worth diminishes.
  5. Respect your fullness – pay attention to how your body feels as you are eating. You want to slowly consume your food until you feel satisfied, and not go beyond this point where you feel incredibly full or stuffed.
  6. Discover the satisfaction factor – in my opinion, food is one of the best parts of life to be enjoyed in the company of others. Rather than worrying about the amount of calories in the cake you might be eating, focus on the delicious tastes and enjoy and appreciate the moment.
  7. Honour your feelings without using food – importantly, this approach targets the cause of the over-eating as it encourages a means of addressing your problem without resorting to covering up the issue with over-eating. If you are feeling stressed or sad, look at other ways you can explore and overcome these emotions. Instead of using food as a coping tool, perhaps try journalling, mediation or talking to a friend. This will be more effective in alleviating the negative emotion and most likely won’t have any negative consequences, unlike overeating where you might feel regretful and physically unwell.
  8. Respect your body – appreciate it for all that it can do and experience, as opposed to just perceiving it as inadequate and a source of your pain. Remind yourself that your worth is not based on the number on the scales, but rather how you treat others and the impact you leave behind.
  9. Exercise – feel the difference. Focus on the feelings of enjoyment and satisfaction that arise from exercise, whether that be during or after. Appreciate your ability to move and be grateful for what your body can do. Find out what exercise makes you feel the most fulfilled and satisfied and make this a part of your routine.
  10. Honour your health through gentle nutrition – importantly, intuitive eating does not support the consumption of a vast array of unhealthy foods and eating whatever food you want. Rather, this framework asks us to honour our health by eating nutrient dense foods the majority of the time, whilst allowing for guilt-free indulgences and treats. We know our bodies and minds feel better when we eat healthy majority of the time, but that it is also totally okay for us to eat some delicious “treats” occasionally.

By adopting all these principles, the idea is that we completely reframe our approach to eating. It is contended that currently in our western culture, our approach to food consumption is categorically flawed. We focus on scoffing food down without truly appreciating the tastes. We are conditioned to like certain foods and don’t think about the overall picture, like how we truly feel before, during and after our meals. We often eat to the point of painful fullness because we fail to be truly aware of our body’s needs. Then we feel terrible about ourselves and attempt to lose weight through calorie-restricted diets that make us feel lethargic, starving and unsatisfied with life. Intuitive eating allows us to truly get the most out of our eating experience – to eat the foods that we actually enjoy, that make us feel satisfied and energised as opposed to tired and regretful. Moreover, it encourages us to focus on what our body can actually do, as opposed to constantly berating it for looking a way that you have deemed unappealing.

Critics of the intuitive eating approach might argue that the method is incompatible with the common goals of weight loss and ‘self-improvement’. As mentioned before, intuitive eating is not a diet and therefore does not encourage weight loss by any means. Whilst individuals who adopt this approach to nutrition may lose weight as a by-product of paying attention to their bodies needs and moving their body more, weight loss is not a key aspect of the framework. In fact, some might say that intuitive eating is perhaps too radical in that it focusses too much on self-acceptance and disregards self-improvement. This isn’t overly appealing, particularly in the fitness industry which is focussed around changing our bodies to suit our desires and goals. Moreover, to fully launch yourself into the intuitive eating approach requires consistent effort and time, and it can be extremely difficult for people who lead busy lives. We have long-standing and rigid perceptions about food and weight loss, and it takes a lot of hard work to undo our learned behaviours and attitudes.

Personally, these principles look very promising as a way forward out of the confusing and disordered approach we have to eating. Unlike dieting, this framework seems to address the specific cause of the weight-gain or over-eating. Popular diets merely “cover up” the issues, focussing only on behavioural change and caloric intake as opposed to psychological drivers of behaviour. These drivers include factors such as attitudes and perceptions, self-esteem and a lack of insight into why we might be engaging in certain behaviours and their effect on our physical and mental health. By not having rigid and strict rules around eating, you give yourself permission to eat the foods you enjoy and would otherwise be craving excessively if you were depriving yourself of them. Important to note in this article is that over-eating and binge eating as well as the presence of psychological symptoms may be indicative of an eating disorder. If this is the case, it is important that individuals are aware of what these symptoms are, and to contact medical professionals, as opposed to solely relying on these principles as a basis of treatment.

If you have any experience with intuitive eating, I would love to hear about it.

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