Yes, intuitive eating is a thing. No, really.
It’s something we should all be doing a bit of actually.
This intuitive eating business is not a new idea at all. It was founded in the U.S in the 90’s by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Basically, intuitive eating means breaking away from the on-off cycle of dieting and learning to eat mindfully and without guilt. (Which we have all done at some point in our lives I’m sure). There’s no calorie counting or restrictions on certain foods, but there are some guidelines that make up the core principles of this method.
- Reject The Diet Mentality
As we all know, ‘dieting’ isn’t sustainable. You eat really well for a period of time, then fall off the wagon or just smash through an entire chocolate cake because you’ve had a bad day. Then feel crap about yourself when you’ve put on a few lbs. A bit of a vicious circle.
So, the first principle of intuitive eating is to stop dieting and also to stop believing the constant messages via social media and society in general, that quick-fix plans can deliver lasting results. If they did, everyone would have the body they want, wouldn’t they.
This principle also includes throwing away diet books and magazine articles that promise fast weight loss, and rejecting any generic meal plans that dictate what or how much you can eat. Obviously if you are omitting things from your diet for health reasons, such as gluten or dairy, then please continue to do that!
- Honour Your Hunger
One reason standard dieting doesn’t work is because it can leave you feeling deprived and more importantly physically hungry, which can trigger binging and overeating. So instead of counting calories or watching portion sizes, simply pay attention to your body’s hunger cues. In the U.K in particular, most of us have been brought up to ‘clear our plate’. This can obviously cause issues as you may be full already but feel pressured into eating more.
Honouring your hunger means eating a sufficient amount of calories from all sources to keep your body “fed” and satiated. Once you learn to recognize these signals in your own body (and this will take practice) it becomes much easier to trust your instincts and repair unhealthy relationships with food.
- Make Peace With Food
When you’re on a strict diet, certain foods are promoted as being forbidden – which tends to make them even more tempting, right?
Then when you finally eat those foods, you probably binge and feel guilty, which creates an emotional downward cycle. That’s why one principle of intuitive eating is to give yourself “unconditional permission to eat.” Now, this may sound like a recipe for disaster but apparently it almost never turns out that way.
One of the founders of intuitive eating says “A wonderful thing ends up happening when you give yourself permission to, say, eat doughnuts for breakfast,” she says. “You stop and ask yourself, ‘Do I really want this now?’. Not just, ‘Will I enjoy it in the moment,” but also “Will I feel good when I’m finished?” And often, people realize they don’t really want that food that was forbidden before; they just got caught up in society telling them they couldn’t have it.”
This is obviously going to require a little bit of logic and willpower. You can’t just say every time ‘Yes I really want it and I don’t care what I’ll feel like in the 5 minutes after I’ve eaten it’. That kinda defeats the object! The message here is just be more aware of your actions rather than jumping in.
- Challenge the Food Police
Intuitive eating describes the ‘food police’ as those voices in your head that tell you it’s a good thing to eat less calories and it’s bad to eat any form of dessert. So in other words, it’s your mind’s way of monitoring all of the dieting rules you’ve heard again and again over the years and making you feel guilty for not following every one of them. Not only is it unrealistic to adhere to the ‘rules’ you’ve heard since you were 16, its not good to continually deprive yourself.
However, food police aren’t just in your head, they can be real people, too. They may be friends, family, and acquaintances who offer up judgment and ‘advice’ about what and how you’re eating. In either case, reminding them that you’re doing isn’t a diet but a lifestyle change is an important step in embracing intuitive eating.
- Respect Your Fullness
This goes hand-in-hand with principle #2. Yes, you should eat when you’re hungry, but it’s also important to stop when those hunger cues are no longer present. This is what most people struggle with. So it’s really important to eat slowly and chew your food at least 20 times before swallowing. This not only helps your digestion but it also gives your body time to register how much you’ve eaten.
It can help to pause in the middle of your meal or snack to assess your current state rather than mindlessly shovelling it in! Ask yourself how full you feel. Are you still eating to feed your hunger, or are you eating out of distraction, boredom, or stress? “We all have the power to listen to our bodies in this way, but many people don’t realize it,” says Tribole, one of the Founders.
- Discover The Satisfaction Value
Satisfaction is to do with noticing and appreciating the taste and texture of food, but also the environment in which you’re eating. There have been various studies which show where you eat is just as important as what you eat. If the environment in which you’re eating is associated with stress then you won’t digest the food properly.
Getting satisfaction from your food is about understanding what feels good and what doesn’t. Most people have never asked themselves well, what do I actually like to eat? Or what feels good in my body? Once you can bring the pleasure and joy back to eating, you can actually feel satisfied after a meal and enjoy the rest of your day rather than continuing to eat for other reasons.
If you are unsure how you would go about doing this, start with just one meal a day. Make sure you eat without any distractions. Which means for that 20 minutes or so, try to keep the kids amused, and the tv off /phone away etc. Then place your awareness on one aspect of the food. So that could be the texture or the taste, or even the visual aspect. If you can’t quite manage that to start with, concentrate on just the first bite, one in the middle and the last bite.
- Honour Your Feelings Without Using Food
People often overeat because of anxiety, loneliness, boredom, anger, or stress. That’s why it’s important to get to the root of these problems and to find ways to nurture yourself and resolve those issues without turning to food. Something the majority of us would benefit from.
It’s not always serious, extreme emotions that are causing overeating, but it could well be because you’re trying to get the comfort from food you are lacking in other areas of your life. Sometimes it can be as trivial as eating while distracted.
Yep, you start the ‘share bag’ of M&Ms (I mean, why do they even call it a share bag) and before you know it, you’ve got to the bottom. “How did that happen?” you ask yourself.
But being more mindful in all aspects of life—with your food and with your emotions—can help you reduce the need to emotionally or mindlessly eat.
- Respect Your Body
Intuitive eating is also about body acceptance: That means feeling good about your “genetic blueprint” and the body you were meant to have—not striving for unrealistic expectations about how much weight you can lose or what size jeans you can squeeze into. Now don’t get me wrong, if done properly people can drop numerous dress sizes and sustain that but the key here is done properly. It’s good to have goals and it doesn’t matter if others think they’re unrealistic, it matters what YOU believe and you persevere.
It’s also important to understand that intuitive eating is not a weight-loss plan, although it’s been advised that many women do lose weight (and keep it off) once they leave behind their unhealthy history with dieting and food restriction. Which goes to show that weight loss is only partly about what you eat and how much you exercise but mainly about your thoughts and actions.
You don’t need to go to the gym every day (or even 3 times a week) while following an intuitive eating approach but it is important to move your body on a regular basis. It’s not about finding the exercise that burns the most calories, that’s not what is trying to be achieved. It’s about finding something that’s sustainable, appropriate for your body and you enjoy. This may be as simple as taking a 30 minutes brisk walk or doing some yoga.
As we know, exercise has many benefits that eating plans can’t do by themselves. It boosts mood, strengthens the cardiovascular system, and increases lean muscle mass, to name a few—all things that can help you feel more confident in your own skin.
- Honour Your Health With Gentle Nutrition
Just because this principle is last, doesn’t mean it’s not important. Evelyn Tribole says “We’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater: We still encourage healthy eating, but we know that comes naturally when you embrace the other principles first.” In fact, their final word of advice is to make food choices that honour your health, as well as your taste buds.
In other words, eating “intuitively” should still involve more fruit and veg than ice cream, and more fats and protein than ready meals. But at the same time, a diet doesn’t have to be perfect to be healthy, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up every time you make a poor meal or snack choice. Just tell yourself it’s ok, you’ve had that now and you can eat healthily going forward.
There are certainly benefits to intuitive eating. People have to take responsibility for what they choose to eat. They learn to listen to their bodies so they eat until satisfied rather than stuffed. However, it can be confusing for some people to know what ‘balanced’ means and what is right for them as individuals which can lead to issues further down the line.
Because it can be hard to sort out which messages are coming from our bodies versus our brains or outside sources like peer pressure or the media, the best approach still has to be education about balanced meals, food quality, and when you eat your meals. So I guess a combination of intuitive eating and some structure is probably the best option for everyone.
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