What is intuitive eating and is it right for you?

8 February 2019

AXA PPP Registered Associate Nutritionist (ANutr), Gina Camfield, lifts the (biscuit tin) lid.

The diet struggle is real

Two thirds of UK women are on a diet at any one time. That’s more than 20 million women. With obesity figures rising faster than you can say donut, it’s not surprising that women (and men) are deciding to improve their health by starting to take a good look at the food on their plates. But 20 million women aren’t obese (classed as having a BMI higher than 30), so this stat is probably more indicative of the aesthetic standards many of us have come to accept as the new norm, when people who aren’t overweight feel the need to be on some sort of ‘diet’.

For anyone who knows what it’s like to repeatedly try and ‘fail’ to shift ‘excess’ weight, unwanted ‘wobbly’ bits (fact – we all wobble, it’s what skin and flesh do) it can be a minefield of conflicting ‘do’s and don’ts’, cycles of restriction, emotional eating and irrational self-loathing. Add to that the well-meaning bombardment of messages about what constitutes ‘good’ and bad’ foods and it’s no surprise that many of us are overwhelmed with what we can/should/best not put in our mouths.  It’s not unusual to find ourselves going around in circles, avoiding foods we enjoy, using punishing exercise to ‘earn’ meals and then despairing when our attempt to reach the Promised Land of another unsustainable diet falls flat.

It needn’t be like this…

Science tells us that fad diets aren’t the best solution. Even if we succeed in losing weight in the beginning, we often end up piling it back on further down the line, affecting our physical and mental health as we start to build an unhealthy relationship with food.

So what if we could stop fretting about every meal? What if we could avoid the associated guilt that comes with eating what we enjoy but is classed as ‘bad’? What if we ditched the notion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, of trying to ‘out-exercise’ what we’ve eaten, and instead, learn to eat according to our body’s natural appetite and physiological cues? This skill, which can be learned over time, is otherwise known as ‘intuitive eating.’

What does intuitive eating mean?

Intuitive eating is the ‘anti-diet’ approach to nutrition – learning to trust your body, knowing your hunger cues, recognising when you’re full, and taking the time to enjoy your food without any restrictions.

It originated in the 1990s and was coined by dieticians Evelyn Tribole, RD, and Elyse Resch, RDN, after watching their patients’ constant struggle with dieting. In Tribole’s words: “We were sick of the insanity they were going through: they’d restrict themselves and lose weight, but then they’d gain it back and they’d blame themselves.” Since then, they have written several books and participated in numerous research studies on their method, which encourages followers to do away with any rules or restrictions around food, instead tuning in to what and why you want to eat and how it makes you feel. Essentially, they wanted to show it’s possible to rebuild a healthy body image and make peace with food.

Intuitive eating is about regaining control of our health. A rebellious stand, if you like, against the fads that only serve to feed our inadequacies and negative body image. It’s a simple approach, but intuitive eating takes dedication and it may not be for everyone, but we’ll come to that.

With intuitive eating, there’s no ‘nailing’ it, you just find what works for you. Equally, there’s no ‘failing’ it, either. The basics of what constitute good nutrition are well established – a balanced diet (as in what you eat, not a regime) with plenty of variety, paying attention to how food makes you feel. It’s one aspect of many other important aspects of your life, rather than the be all and end all.

Is intuitive eating right for me?

Intuitive eating encourages you to “distinguish between the physical and emotional feelings” to “gain a sense of body wisdom”. If you’re getting bogged down counting macros, micros and calories in your meal prep, then intuitive eating is a good way of taking a step back and thinking about why it is that you’re holding yourself hostage to the food police.

It takes time, effort and dedication to get to know our hunger cues, but once you do, intuitive eating can help us learn to love food and be gentler on ourselves, which can be a game-changer for anyone who’s susceptible to disordered eating (food restriction, binging, missing meals).

But that’s not to say it’s for everyone.

For those who have specific weight loss goals or a desire to lose weight to benefit health, intuitive eating might not offer the routine or ‘order’ that some of us may benefit from. Intuitive eating is an approach to establish a positive relationship with food that over time can help  build trust in our bodies’ signals and break the dieting pattern.

10 principles of intuitive eating

1.    Reject diet mentality

Nutritionists agree that diets simply aren’t effective over the long term and just make us feel bad when we don’t keep them up.

2. Honour your hunger

Trust your instincts and eat when you’re hungry. Learn to feel when you’re full – eating slowly and pausing in between mouthfuls can help.

3. Make peace with food

If you fancy a slice of cake, eat a slice of cake. If it’s part of a balanced diet, you’re less likely to feel like it’s ‘naughty’. Telling yourself you can’t or shouldn’t have a certain food can lead to feelings of deprivation, making you more likely to binge. Give yourself unconditional permission to eat any food.

4. Challenge the food police

Ignore your negative voices that tell you what you ate today was ‘bad’. That also goes for anyone else who comments on the food you’re eating.

5. Respect your fullness

Many of us carry on eating even when we’re full – out of politeness to a host, because we don’t want to waste food, or just because we’re really enjoying the taste of something. Intuitive eating encourages us to tune in to how food makes us feel – it’ll help determine when to finish your meal feeling satisfied.  

6. Discover the satisfaction factor

What makes you feel good? Pay attention to how you feel after food. After a while you’ll start to gravitate towards food that makes you feel good and that feeling of being just pleasantly full, not like you have overeaten.

7. Honor your feelings without using food

It’s easy to turn to food to comfort us during emotional times, but there other ways to ease anxieties, lift sadness or manage anger. Go for a walk, call a friend, or do something else you enjoy to resolve your problems.

8. Respect your body

Comparison is the thief of joy and this could not be more true when you start wishing your body was like someone else’s. We’re all different shapes and sizes. Learning to accept your body and embrace your genetic blueprint will help you make the right food (and exercises) choices for you – not the unattainable body that belongs to someone else.

9. Exercise–Feel the Difference

People who eat intuitively enjoy physical activity because it makes them feel strong, happy and promotes self-efficacy. What exercise do you find most fun and energising? If it’s something we enjoy we’re more likely to stick to it as a part of our lifestyle. Our attitude toward food and exercise go hand in hand.

10. Honour your health–Gentle nutrition

Choose food that’s nutritious, satisfying and tasty. Forget the calories, macros and micros and remember that it’s okay to have the odd day that might not be as balanced as others – it’s called being human.

Sources of information

Rothblum E. (2018). Slim Chance for Permanent Weight Loss. Archives of Scientific Psychology:6, 63–69. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/arc0000043

O’ Hara L and Taylor J. (2018) What’s Wrong with War on Obesity? A Narrative Review of the Weight-Centered Health Paradigm and Development of the 3C Framework to Build Critical Competency for a Paradigm Shift. SAGE Open: Apr-June: 1-28. doi.org/10.1177/2158244018772888

Tribole E. (2017). Intuitive Eating: Research Update. SCAN’s Pulse. 36(6):1-5.Tribole E and Resch (2013). Intuitive Eating, 3rd ed. St. Martin’s Press: NY, NY.

Tribole E and Resch (2017). Intuitive Eating Workbook: 10 Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food. New Harbinger: Oakland, CA.

London Centre for Intuitive Eating

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