Just the other day I found myself talking to someone in a coffee shop about how to start Intuitive Eating. She was not a client or someone I knew, but just a very nice lady who wanted to know more about my work as an Intuitive Eating Counsellor, and how I help people break up with dieting. This lady had experienced firsthand, that diets don’t work. She asked me quite simply, “so how do I start Intuitive Eating?”
It was a simple enough question, but it caught me off guard because usually I have a little more time to answer this in detail during my 1:1 consultations with clients.
As there are 10 principles that guide Intuitive Eating, I wasn’t about to go through each one detailing the research and theory behind it (our coffees would have been cold by that point!)… so instead I discussed with her five practical steps she could take on how to start intuitive eating.
And now I’m sharing these with you too in a little more detail.
Step 1: Detox your social media feeds
As we already know, we live in a world where thinness is preferred and as such, our social media feeds are usually dominated by thin, white, privileged people perpetuating the thin ideal.
Research tells us that we need to avoid or challenge this type of imagery because of the association between being exposed to unrealistic, thin-idealised images and body dissatisfaction (Tiggemann, 2015).
So, it’s time to get ruthless and unfollow anyone who:
- Promotes a balanced diet but say they need to “burn off the calories” after eating pizza
- Gives nutrition advice but does not have appropriate qualifications
- Talks about “tracking macros”
- Tells us that sticking to a diet just requires “willpower”
- Categorises food as good and bad
- Uses terms like “eat clean” or eating “whole foods”
Now that those people are no longer popping up on your screen, it’s time to start following body positivity superstars who are changing the conversation.
Accounts like @bodyposipanda @themilitantbaker @yrfatfriend @mskelseymiller @isabelfoxenduke @thelindywest @calliethorpe @nerdabouttown @bodyimagemovement@sofiehagendk @bodypositivememes @glitterandlazers
Step 2: Stop labelling foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’
This can be really hard to do when we live in a diet culture where food is given a moralistic value.
That is, foods that are seen to be associated with thinness and guiltlessness = good.
And any food that doesn’t fall in this category = bad.
And that’s where we start restricting and forbidding the “bad” foods … which ultimately leads to deprivation.
This leads to biological cravings for said forbidden food.
Which leads to a bingeing episode, guilt and starting another diet to be “good”.
And so, the cycle continues.
To create a healthy relationship with food, we have to stop describing food in moralistic terms. Because you know what? There is not one food that will make us thin or fat, healthy or unhealthy.
Does this sound familiar?
Step 3: Stop trying to control your weight
We know what the evidence says about this. It says that dieting and restricting food for the purposes of controlling weight does not work long term. There is not one scientific study that shows this.
Why? Because of the set point weight. This is the weight that our body works very hard to maintain (usually within a range of 4-5kgs) to carry out all the necessary functions to keep us alive. When we’re not swinging between doughnut land (i.e. being bad), and diet land (i.e. being good), our weight settles at it natural set point. This weight range is already pre-determined, largely by genetics. In fact, it’s estimated that our weight is about 70% determined by our genetics.
If we start messing with our set point weight through dieting, it starts to put a strain on our body and impact on how well it can do its job. Lynda, a lifestyle coach, explains this analogy really nicely in a short 3-minute video here.
There are a few ways your body does this:
- We have internal body cues that tell us when we’re hungry and full to ensure that we eat according to our needs.
- Our metabolism slows if our body senses starvation to conserve muscle and energy stores
- Biological chemicals (Neuropeptide Y & Ghrelin hormones) are released more rapidly to drive us to eat when our bodies are in famine.
So, as you can see, when we try to lose weight in a restrictive manner (and drop below the set point weight range), our body works damn hard to put that weight back on asap.
In essence, diets make us work against ourselves and paradoxically, we end up achieving the exact opposite of what we wanted in the first place. Argh!
Step 4: Find movement that you love and that makes you feel good
It’s time to ditch the rigid exercise plans and start moving your body because of how great it feels! Now it doesn’t matter if you’re not immediately jumping out of bed wanting to strap your joggers on again.
If exercising has never been joyful, it may be for a few reasons:
- It was often associated with dieting. And when the diet failed, so too did the exercise.
- You had bad experiences as a child being made to exercise when you didn’t want to; and/or
- You were always pushed by others to exercise and therefore have always rebelled those people.
To help you get back out there, here are a few things you can do to change your mindset:
a. Focus on how exercising makes you feel, rather than thinking about the calories that are being burned.
Think about how you feel after exercise – Energy levels? Confidence? Stress levels? Sleep? Note how you feel when you exercise and when you do not exercise. The positives you feel after exercise is often enough to get you back out there, because why would you not want to do something that makes you feel so wonderful!
b. Separate exercise from previous weight loss attempts
It is well established that physical activity provides positive health benefits over the long term. It has positive impacts on metabolism and preserving lean muscle mass, yet doesn’t really have much of an impact on weight loss. So, if you’re attempting to lose weight solely by exercise, it can be easy to lose motivation when you don’t see “progress”. It’s time to start viewing exercise as beneficial for improving quality of life and stave off disease, rather than as a weight loss tool. It increases bone strength, improves heart and lung function, decreases blood pressure, increases metabolism, improves cholesterol levels, improves satiety cues, improves mood, reduces chronic disease risk and delays cognitive decline associated with ageing (Chaput et al, 2011).
c. Make exercise fun
Find something that you enjoy and start out slowly. There is no need to follow a rigid exercise plan that forces you meet certain physical activity targets. You just move when you have the time and when you feel like it! Whether it’s going for a walk around the block while listening to your favourite music or podcast, walking to a bus stop that’s one stop further away from your destination or dancing around the house. Whatever it is, it all counts towards exercise. And when you start your joyful movement, also remember to have rest days if your body feels tired. The last thing you want to is to experience burnout, which is another side effect from dieting world.
Step 5: Honour your biological hunger
One of the most important steps to break free from dieting and food worry, is to recognise when you’re hungry. To really start listening to your inner body signals, get into the habit of asking yourself, “am I hungry?” each time you go to eat. You could even keep a little diary like the one below.
If you’re allowing yourself to get to a point where you’re simply too hungry, of course you are going to have the urge to want to binge, or eat past the point that feels comfortable. At this point, we think we can’t stop binge eating, or that we need emotional eating help, when in fact, it’s just biological hunger.
Think about on a scale of 0-10 how hungry you are, with 0 being starved to 10 feeling completely stuffed (aka Christmas lunch, need-to-loosen-belt stuffed). If we’ve been victim to previous dieting attempts, it’s highly likely that you were told to mask your hunger by drinking coffee or diet coke. Well now it’s time to pause and tune in to where you sit on the scale which looks something like this…
1) Beyond Hungry (not even hungry anymore)
2) You would eat anything put in front of you.
3) Hungry – the urge to eat is strong
4) A little hungry. You can wait, but need to eat soon.
5) Neutral. Not hungry, or full.
6) No longer hungry. You sense food in your stomach, but could definitely eat more.
7) Comfortable, could quite easily stop here.
8) Not too uncomfortable, but definitely very full.
9) Moving into uncomfortable.
10) Very uncomfortable – Christmas dinner stuffed.
As a starting point, see if you can figure out what a 3, 4 or 5 level of hunger might feel like. It might be more than just tummy rumbling, as hunger can affect energy levels, cognitive function and mood (we don’t use the term ‘hangry’ for no reason!)
In fact, you could feel one or a combination of the following:
- Stomach growling
- Mild gurgling or gnawing in the stomach
- Feeling lightheaded or faint
- Foggy brain – difficult to focus on work
- Uncomfortable pains in the stomach
It usually feels good to start eating at a 3 or a 4, but explore for yourself, keeping a little diary like the one below.
Well that’s my top 5 strategies on how to start Intuitive Eating. It’s not about getting any of these things perfect, but instead chipping away so that barriers start to come down. Be kind to yourself and allow plenty of time to see how you can apply these steps each day. This is about making progress towards healing your relationship with food, not striving for a perfect diet (which by the way, doesn’t exist).
If you would like more information on how to stop binge eating, how to stop food obsession, how to stop emotional eating, and how to start intuitive eating, check out my free audio recording. It provides you with 7 actionable steps on how to start intuitive eating, with an actionable workbook.
Chaput, J., Klingenberg, L., Rosenkilde, M., Gilbert, J., Tremblay, A., & Sjödin, A. (2011). Physical Activity Plays an Important Role in Body Weight Regulation. Journal of Obesity, 2011, 1-11. doi:10.1155/2011/360257
Tiggemann, M. (2015). Considerations of positive body image across various social identities and special populations. Body Image, 14, 168-176. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2015.03.002