So, how does a person make sensible food choices that nourish the body to maximize health without becoming overly regimented? The answer - Intuitive Eating! Intuitive eaters: give themselves unconditional permission to eat, are able to perceive and trust their hunger and fullness cues, and eat for physical needs, not emotional-driven eating. Every person is actually born an intuitive eater, but life experiences can deviate some people from this intuitive wisdom. For example, if a person has been on multiple diets, follows certain “food rules”, or copes with life events by restricting or turning to food, then he/she is likely no longer an intuitive eater.
What is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive Eating is based on 10 core principles, which should not be embraced as a diet, but rather serve as a framework for developing a healthy relationship with food and body appreciation. In other words, it is not merely based on knowledge or a systematic step-by-step checklist like many diets, but what you learn from your personal experiences as you become aware of your behaviors, thoughts, and experiences regarding your food choices. The brief summary of the principles below is not a substitute for reading the book and/or working with a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, but gives a general overview of the Intuitive Eating philosophy.
Principle 1. Reject the Diet Mentality
Despite the media's obsession and focus on dieting, scientific research proves that dieting is counterproductive. A team of UCLA researchers reviewed 31 long-term studies on dieting and concluded that dieting is a consistent predictor of weight gain - up to 2/3 of people later regain more weight than they initially lose from dieting! To make matters worse, the result is cumulative - the more diets a person has followed, usually the further he/she is from his/her biological weight. While many people diet for health reasons, the paradox is that dieting usually creates more harm than benefit. As long as a person is engaging in some form of dieting, he or she will never be free from food and body worries.
Principle 2. Honor Your Hunger
The first part of honoring your hunger is being able to identify what gentle hunger feels like to your body since hunger feels different to each person. You might not have a growling or aching stomach when your body needs fuel. Instead, you may experience hunger in the form of a headache, low energy, irritability, or poor concentration. Keeping your body fed with adequate nutrition will help prevent overeating as a result of excessive hunger.
Principle 3. Make Peace with Food
By giving yourself unconditional permission to eat, food deprivation is prevented, which reduces intense food cravings. Also, viewing all food neutrally will take the morality and judgment out of your food choices. Because food is neither "good" or "bad", post-food guilt is less likely to occur. Once this stigma is removed, you will be free to identify satisfying foods that feel good inside your body without having to battle food temptations.
You may be wondering, "If I give myself unconditional permission to eat any food, I'll binge on ice cream, candy, chips, (fill in the blank) all day long!" It is true that if you have restricted certain "forbidden foods" for a long time, you might initially overeat on these foods because they seem new and exciting. However, the novelty will diminish and when you give yourself full freedom with your food decisions, it enables you to non-judgmentally discover that your body does not feel well without nutrient-dense foods making up the foundation of your food choices.
Principle 4. Challenge the Food Police
The food police consists of the distorted beliefs, thoughts, and negative self-talk you might have about eating, dieting, and body image. Challenging these myths and reframing them with truth will assist in making beneficial eating choices. This can be difficult process since our thoughts are influenced by our beliefs about ourselves, but over time the food police can be conquered with intention and repetition!
Principle 5. Feel Your Fullness
Extreme hunger is usually easier to perceive than comfortable fullness. By responding to "gentle hunger" and giving yourself unconditional permission to eat, overeating is less likely to occur. Incorporating a brief “time out” during a meal to assess your appetite level can give you a better indication on how much more food, if any, needs to be eaten to achieve comfortable fullness. Also, fullness is easier to identify if you are connected to the eating experience, as opposed to multitasking during mealtime or engaging in mindless eating.
Principle 6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Eating should be a pleasurable, joyful experience. Ironically, the more satisfied you are with your food choices, the less quantity of food you’ll desire to eat. Food choices are based on what you want that you find satisfying, as opposed to what you think you “should” eat. Taking time to taste, chew, and appreciate your food during mealtime will result in a more satisfying experience.
Principle 7. Cope with Your Emotions without Using Food
Using food as a way to distract yourself from an uncomfortable feeling will not pacify the situation after the meal is over. Also, turning to food for a “vacation” when self-care needs are not being met will only intensify the problem at hand. Conversely, avoiding food to feel "in control" when your life feels out of control is also allowing emotions to dictate your food choices. Regularly meeting your basic needs and coping with uncomfortable emotions without manipulating food will help take the emotionality of your eating decisions.
Principle 8. Respect Your Body
Being overly critical of your body image takes you further away from identifying what your body needs. The more respect you have for your body, the more likely you will take care of it and the better you will feel about yourself. Your body deserves respect, regardless of your body composition!
Principle 9. Exercise - Feel the Difference
Instead of focusing on the number of calories burned, observe how it feels to move your body. Choose physical activities that you find enjoyable and they will be more likely to become part of your lifestyle. Our bodies were designed to engage in regular movement, and by doing so, you will honor your body in the process.
Principle 10. Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition
Health is not determined by one snack, one meal, or one day of eating. It’s what you eat consistently over time that matters. Progress, not perfection, is what counts. Nutrient-dense foods nourish our body, while allowing some “play food” nourishes our soul! If you are an intuitive eater, sensible nutrition advice can be beneficial without slipping into the dieting mentality that is damaging - physically, mentally, spiritually, and even socially.
Intuitive Eating is an evidenced-based model. To date, over 32 research studies have been conducted on the specific process of Intuitive Eating. These studies show that intuitive eaters: have more trust in their body in determining what to eat, select a greater variety of foods, have a better sense of well-being, are more connected with their bodies, and have a lower BMI without dieting. Also, intuitive eaters are less likely to engage in behaviors that may lead to weight gain compared to dieters (for more insight on these studies, refer to the book Intuitive Eating, 3rd edition by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD and Elyse Resch, MS, RD, FADA, CEDRD). When you look at the research, it is very compelling!
It is important to emphasize that a person cannot become an intuitive eater if he or she has an urgent, primary motivation to lose weight because this will interfere with the process, and the principles can be turned into rigid rules, as opposed to productive guidelines. Body weight is an outcome of our beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors that affect our food and physical activity choices. By becoming an intuitive eater, a person’s choices will ultimately result in achieving his or her biological, natural healthy weight.
Intuitive Eating is a research-proven method for finding satisfaction with your eating and body image, while promoting health. The result is positively empowering, and I have witnessed this in my life, as well as my clients who have decided to work on becoming intuitive eaters! What is one thing you can do today to combat the dieting mentality?