RELATIONSHIP WITH FOOD
What is Intuitive Eating?
KATHERINE KIMBER, Registered Dietitian
Whether it’s a detox, counting calories, fasting or “healthy eating” where you only consume “clean” fruit and vegetables, it is well established that restrictive eating (aka dieting) does more harm than good.
Robust studies show that restrictive eating can increase disordered eating, make us gain weight, binge eat, become totally preoccupied with food, lower our self–esteem and decrease our overall mental health (1). You will likely have experienced some of these yourself.
So why do we do it?
Because we live in a world where it is considered normal to diet and pursue weight loss to be healthier and better. Stopping dieting can be hard, but I promise that there is a way you can stop … and that is through Intuitive Eating.
So you’ve heard about this Intuitive Eating … but what is it really?
Intuitive Eating is not a diet. It does not pursue weight loss and it does not control or restrict food intake. It’s an approach to help you get out of your head, and more into your body, removing the should / shouldn’t voices that constantly sit on your shoulders.
Intuitive Eating includes mindful eating practice, where we eat in a ‘present’ state, free from distraction. That means putting away our phones and laptops, which can be hard I know! By fully tuning in to what we’re eating means we can listen to our hunger and fullness cues which is another important part of this practice.
This practice is also about honouring our body’s physical and psychological needs. Ask yourself, what do I really want to eat NOW? If you feel like a slice of cake, eat the cake. If you feel like a Caeser salad, order the salad. By honouring your body’s needs and not depriving yourself of the thing you really want to eat means you’re more likely to feel satisfied! Hurrah.
Finally, this practice is about taking weight out of the equation and allowing our body to settle at its natural weight once eating patterns normalise. This practice is all about learning how to enjoy food and feel satisfied, and therefore decrease binge eating and increase our overall health and wellbeing.
Some 70 published studies have confirmed that many psychological and physiological benefits can arise through this practice (2). As such, Intuitive Eating has become a buzz term in the social media world as many people discover it can help stop dieting and reduce binge eating episodes. But sadly, it has been misinterpreted by some as being yet another potential tool for weight loss, which it is NOT.
So how do you actually do this?
Developed by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995, Intuitive Eating is evidence-based with 10 principles underpinning it (3). The principles and how you can get started include:
1. Reject the Diet Mentality
Unfollow any social media accounts that promote weight loss and push unrealistic body standards. Toss out diet plans, magazines and books that once graced your bookshelf. It’s time to break up with diet culture for good so you can allow Intuitive Eating to become part of your life.
2. Honour Your Hunger
Nourish your body with the right amount of energy to avoid going into starvation mode. Allowing yourself to become excessively hungry triggers a natural intense desire to eat, often leading to unintended binge eating. Try not to skip meals or have long gaps in between eating which can leave you feeling ravenous!
3. Make Peace with Food
Give yourself permission to eat ALL food! No single food is going to make you healthy or unhealthy, and restrictive eating can often lead to extreme feelings of deprivation. This often leads to binge eating which can fill you with guilt. No food should be “forbidden”.
4. Challenge the Food Police
Stand up to the Food Police in your head who create unrealistic food rules (e.g. no sugar, dairy, gluten, eating after 6pm, counting carbs). The Food Police often let you think that only healthy eating is good and eating cake is bad. It’s time to give these guys the flick!
5. Respect Your Fullness
When was the last time you stopped eating when you were comfortably full? Feeling BETTER for eating? When stuck in the diet mentality, we can often swing from being overly hungry (through restriction) all the way to being stuffed.
With intuitive eating, no foods are off limits and there are no rules. You can therefore feel safe in the knowledge that you can eat as much as you need to feel comfortable right now, and eat again when your body is ready for it.
6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Eating rice cakes, kale crisps and low-calorie cereal bars probably aren’t going to leave you feeling satisfied. If you’re out at dinner and feel like ordering the chips, order them! If you deprive yourself of the thing you really feel like most, you are fuelling the restrictive diet mentality, which at some point will likely lead to feeling out of control around food.
7. Honour Your Feelings Without Using Food
Emotional eating is perfectly natural and is usually an act of self-care. It should not fill you with guilt. As you move through the intuitive eating journey, honour your hunger and remove the forbidden of foods, emotional eating can dissipate. However, if food is still your only or main coping mechanism, we can work together to identify other ways to soothe your emotions that aren’t just with food.
8. Respect Your Body
It’s time to accept that your body shape and size is special and unique. Your genes are set in stone, so being critical about something that you can’t change is not a helpful exercise. Focus on all the wonderful things your body can do or has done to help rediscover self-love.
9. Exercise – Feel the Difference
Find movement that you love and do it as much or as little as you wish. Ditch rigid exercise plans and certainly don’t pursue activities that you don’t enjoy. If you find movement that you makes you feel good, you’ll automatically want to do it more often without even realising!
10. Honour Your Health
There is no such thing as eating perfectly. It is about making progress to consuming a variety of foods that make your body feel well and also satisfy your tastebuds. It turns out that most people find eating a nutritious balanced diet feels good! And it is about doing this consistently over time.
So you are ready to give Intuitive Eating a go, but feeling scared?
Embracing Intuitive Eating can be more of a challenging process than just being given a diet plan or set of rules. But it’s a way to find true freedom so you never have to go back to diets again. Of course, diets and the scales will always be there to go back to…
Here are some answers to common fears:
Fear that you may never stop eating
As a result of years of chronic dieting and under-eating it can be hard to trust that you will ever stop eating. As you move through intuitive eating there may be a short period of time where you eat more than you desire. This is totally normal, and a natural response to restriction. When you start learning to trust that food is ALWAYS available, and there are no weird conditions on this, you will start to trust that you will only eat as much as you need.
You don’t know what or how to eat
When you actually stop and pay attention to what you are eating, you may realise that you don’t even enjoy those foods! But rather than being concerned about what to eat, use intuitive eating to explore different kinds of foods and flavours. This is a great opportunity to figure out what you like to eat rather than what you think you should eat.
Fear of loss of control
Imagine if I said you can eat whatever you want all day, every day. You may think you would never stop yourself eating chocolate chip cookies, wine, cheese, crisps and all the foods you consider ‘bad’. Let’s see what happens if I give you an endless supply of cookies.
- Day 1, you would eat a lot.
- By Day 2, you may still eat a lot, but less than Day 1.
- Day 3, you’d most likely eat less than Day 1 and 2.
- After a few days, you will start to crave other foods.
This process is called habituation and is another key part of the Intuitive Eating practice.
At the end of the day, the most important thing to remember about Intuitive Eating is that it is not about eating a perfect diet – there is no such thing! The goal is to eat a variety of nutritious food with some ‘play foods’ that truly satisfy you. To remove the noise in your head and make peace with food and your body, so you can move on with other things that matter more in life.
For more on how to get started with intuitive eating, check out my FREE online nutrition course. This will guide you through some of the first steps of intuitive eating to help resolve your food problems.
This article is not intended to provide individual advice, and it’s important that you seek support from a qualified professional.
- Bacon L, Aphramor L. Weight science: evaluating the evidence for a paradigm shift. Nutr J. 2011;10:9.
- Tribole E, Resch E. The Intuitive Eating Workbook: Ten Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications; 2017
- Tribole E, Resch E. Intuitive Eating, 3rd ed. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press; 2012
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