Most people are starting to accept the idea that “diets” — the kind you go on and then off of — don’t work in the long run. In fact, reports now show that about 90 to 95 percent of all diets fail! (1) One of the ironies behind failed diets and yo-yo dieting is that, ultimately, some diets make you fat.
Meanwhile, people tend to blame themselves, feeling like a lack of willpower, no self-control and bad genetics are the reasons they can’t lose weight. Sometimes they blame themselves so much that they stop eating and enter into a dangerous starvation mode rather than adopt a more healthful approach like mindful eating.
Along the lines of more healthful approaches to eating comes “Intuitive Eating”: an emerging approach to sustainable healthy eating and body acceptance. Intuitive eaters believe that the blame shouldn’t be put on “dieters” themselves, but instead on the flawed process of dieting. According to dozens of studies, this approach seems promising and a “realistic alternative to address overweight and obesity than conventional weight-loss treatments.” (2)
The authors of the book Intuitive Eating, registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyze Resch, call their approach a “180-degree departure from dieting.” Instead of a strong focus on weight loss, deprivation, cutting or counting calories and writing off certain foods, their goal is to teach people how to eat in a way that supports a healthier relationship with food. In essence, the goal of Intuitive Eating is to practice health on every level — both physically and mentally.
The Core Principles of Intuitive Eating
Researchers have put together several different general guidelines for Intuitive Eating which include:
- Mostly Intrinsic Eating (mostly eating based on your inner cues for fullness and hunger)
- Sometimes Extrinsic Eating (at times eating based on your mood, social situation, time of day or food availability without feelings of guilt)
- Anti-Dieting (eating that’s not determined by any specific diet, like counting calories or following a risky low-fat diet plan, or purely just for weight loss)
- Self-Care and Body Acceptance (regardless of current size)
Just the opposite of most quick-fix diet plans, Intuitive Eating proposes a way of eating that allows for any and all food choices. Essentially nothing is off limits and there is no cap of how many calories, fat grams or carbohydrates can be eaten in a day. Of course, nutrition and exercise are important pieces of the puzzle, but first and foremost the priority is to “reject the diet mentality” that causes many people to feel guilty, chronically stressed and out of touch with their own bodies.
Since it removes stress, deprivation and mistrust from the weight loss equation, Intuitive Eating relies on a better mind-body connection. This helps most people to make good food choices more often than not, to get better in touch with their body’s signals of hunger versus fullness, and to respect and appreciate their unique body at any size.
Intuitive Eaters feel that a lack of knowledge about general nutrition isn’t one of the main reasons that many adults can’t lose weight — rather it’s the emotional reasons behind eating that are hardest to overcome. Initially some people are highly skeptical about how any eating plan that allows for all foods and zero calorie-counting can really help bring about weight management and better mental health. But numerous studies show that downright rejecting most “diets” results in better body acceptance, healthy weight control, less yo-yo dieting, mostly well-rounded and nutritious food choices, and even lower incidences of eating disorder symptoms. (3)
While “anti-dieting” (4) alone doesn’t necessarily help someone lower health risks and make smart dietary decisions, Intuitive Eating hopes to encourage healthy eating in a radically new way: reconciling forbidden food issues, unleashing the common shackles of dieting (deprivation, rebellion and rebound weight-gain) and helping people to get back to trusting their body’s own natural signs and preferences.
Proven Benefits of Intuitive Eating
Rates of obesity and being overweight continue to climb, yet more and more people report being on “diets” than ever. It’s finally clicked with the public that we need another way to approach healthier eating. Many studies have found positive implications for Intuitive Eating, including lower body mass indexes, healthier mindsets about food, lower cortisol levels and better body images. (5)
Ohio State University published a large study on over 1,300 college women that focused on several key features of Intuitive Eating, including:
- Unconditional permission to eat when hungry and the types of foods that are desired
- Eating for physical rather than emotional reasons
- Reliance on internal hunger and satiety cues to determine when and how much to eat
The women first completed the Intuitive Eating Scale (IES) to measure if they self-identified as Intuitive Eaters. Compared to women scoring low on this scale, Intuitive Eaters were found to have higher self-esteem, body acceptance and satisfaction; lower stress levels about being thin and fitting cultural ideals; more satisfaction with life and positive feelings including optimism and proactive coping with emotions; better awareness of physical sensations originating from the body (hunger, fullness, fast heartbeat, heavy breathing, etc.) and overall healthier body mass indexes. (6)
Many other studies have found that people who eat intuitively are less likely to yo-yo diet (losing and gaining weight over and over again, which can damage the metabolism) because they engage in fewer behaviors that lead to emotional eating or weight gain — or to what I call the “metabolism death foods.” Intuitive eaters are less likely to eat in the absence of hunger, eat to soothe stress, eat due to situational or social factors like peer pressure, to restrict certain food groups, and to binge due to deprivation.
Wondering about how “healthy” this way of eating can really be when it comes to nutrition to weight? Higher Intuitive Eating scores have been tied to healthier weight management and healthier BMIs and improved physical health indicators other than BMI (like blood pressure or cholesterol levels). This suggests that listening to your body’s signals for determining what, when and how much to eat is one of the best ways to prevent weight gain long-term.
Eating intuitively can also result in lower stress levels and lower cortisol, the primary “stress hormone” that is tied to weight gain, mood disturbances and trouble sleeping. People who focus on health before weight tend to experience more pleasant emotional states in general, according to studies. Intuitive eaters report feeling upbeat, happy, appreciative, more socially integrated, effective and resilient. They’re even more likely to be physically active on a regular basis, perhaps because they value their bodies more and have more energy. (7)
The American Psychological Association identified an additional benefit of Intuitive Eating: better self-trust and reliance on the body’s innate hunger and satiety cues. Intuitive Eaters primarily rely on their bodies to tell them when and how much to eat, instead of what food is in front of them, the time of day, portion sizes being served in restaurants, or what others are eating. Studies also show that better trust in one’s own body leads to more self-appreciation (despite size and perceived imperfections), being more attentive to the body’s basic needs, and having a lower risk for eating disorder symptoms (like bulimia, binge eating disorder or anorexia) or negative body image. (8)
6 Steps to Becoming a More Intuitive Eater
1. Acknowledge That Quick-Fix Or Fad Diets Don’t Work
It’s tempting to believe that there’s a way to lose weight quickly, easily and permanently by taking drastic measures, eliminating entire food groups, radically cutting calories or going on a low-carb diet. But in reality, most people can’t override their body’s natural biology and cravings for extended periods of time. Instead of trying diet after diet only to feel like a failure every time you “fall off the wagon,” stop dieting all together.
Give up the idea that there’s new and better diets lurking around the corner and return to what has worked for people for centuries: eating real foods, practicing moderation and moving your body! Aim for a nutrient-dense diet that supports a healthy body, stable mind and steady energy levels, all without trying to be “perfect.” Make food choices that honor your health and satisfy your taste buds, while also making you feel good.
2. Fuel Yourself with Enough Calories
Most Intuitive Eating experts believe that the goal of weight loss shouldn’t take center stage, but rather it should be “put on the back burner” in order to focus on general health and feeling good. The motivation of simply wanting to lose weight to look better, especially for a specific event, can be temporary and fleeting — but even more importantly, it causes many people to deprive themselves of enough calories and rest, which has damaging effects on the metabolism.
Recognize that it’s important to give your body the calories it needs, otherwise you’re likely to deal with feelings of chronic fatigue, deprivation and resentment, or the urge to overeat or binge due to biological changes.
3. Avoid “Good/Bad” or “Black/White Thinking” About Certain Foods
It’s true that some foods are more nutrient-dense than others, but vowing to 100 percent eliminate certain foods or food groups from your diet forever can just increase stress and feelings of pre-occupation with “forbidden foods.” Intuitive eaters aim to “make peace with food, call a truce and stop the food fight.” Of course, you want to prioritize eating all types of healthy foods over highly processed foods, but don’t expect perfection and assume you’ll never have your favorite comfort foods again.
If you tell yourself that you can’t or shouldn’t have a particular food ever again, it can lead to intense feelings of shame along with uncontrollable cravings. Experts believe that “all or nothing” thinking about foods can increase the likelihood for bingeing because when someone finally “gives in” to their forbidden food, they are very tempted to eat very large amounts, to feel like it’s their “last chance” and then to feel overwhelming guilt.
Remember that it’s what you eat consistently over time that matters and that “progress, not perfection” is the goal. Try your best not to view certain foods (or entire food groups like carbohydrates, fats or animal proteins, for example) as “bad”; instead, just aim to have them less often and focus your attention on adding in more of the things that support your health and make you feel good.
4. Learn to Eat When You’re Hungry, and Stop When Full
“Feeling your fullness” and “honoring your hunger” are two key concepts of Intuitive Eating. Many people find that when they don’t categorize any foods as totally off-limits or deprive themselves of enough calories, they can finally start to eat in line with what their body really needs. Learn to listen to your inner body signals that tell you that you are starting to get hungry, and when you’ve had enough to feel satisfied.
Get to know what it feels like to be “comfortably full” without being overly stuffed. Also, try to eat before you feel “ravenous,” which can easily lead to overeating before reaching satiety. Many people find it helpful to slow down when eating, chew food well, eat un-distracted (not emailing, watching TV, driving, etc.), and to pause in the middle of a meal or snack to take note of how full they feel.
Practice mindful eating and ask yourself if what you’re having is actually satisfying you, or if you’re simply eating it because it’s there. One principle that many intuitive eaters love to follow is: “If you don’t love it, don’t eat it, and if you love it, savor it.”
5. Find Ways to Handle Stress and Emotions without the Use Of Food
For many people, Intuitive Eating opens the doors to finding new ways to destress, comfort, nurture or distract themselves, and resolve emotional issues, without overeating or turning to comfort food. We all feel tough emotions from time to time like frustration, anxiety, loneliness or boredom, but it’s important to realize that food can’t actually fix any of these feelings or solve problems in your life.
Emotional eating might feel good in the moment, but it actually usually winds up making the initial problem even worse, because then you have to deal with feelings of shame or discomfort, too. Wondering how to be happier everyday and to find appropriate outlets for uncomfortable emotions and stress? Try exercising in a fun way, meditation or healing prayer, writing a journal, massage therapy, acupuncture, or spending time with people you love.
6. Practicing Body Acceptance and Be Realistic About Your Goals
We all have unique genetic blueprints, and for many people reaching their “ideal weight” is unrealistic, unsustainable and possibly even unhealthy. Just because you’re carrying around a little extra weight than you’d like to doesn’t necessarily mean you’re unhealthy and that you need to force yourself to be smaller.
Ask yourself if your goals are realistic. Are you setting the bar too high? Is your current diet or exercise routine causing more stress and harm than it’s worth? Are you accepting of your natural body or constantly fighting your genetics and beating yourself up? Respect your body, drop the guilt as much as you can, and start feeling better about who you are so you can take better care of yourself long-term.
- U.S. News & World Report, “No, 95 Percent of People Don’t Fail Their Diets”: http://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/2014/11/17/no-95-percent-of-people-dont-fail-their-diets
- Nutricion Hospitalaria, October 2014, “Intuitive eating: an emerging approach to eating behavior”: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25726186
- Nutrition and Health, April 2012, “Assessing the effectiveness of intuitive eating for weight loss – pilot study”: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23139388
- Huffington Post, December 2013, “How One Woman Is Ending Her Body Image War”: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/05/anti-diet-project-intuitive-eating_n_4391023.html
- Public Health Nutrition, August 2014, “Relationships between intuitive eating and health indicators: literature review”: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23962472
- Journal of Counseling Psychology, January 2011, “The acceptance model of intuitive eating: a comparison of women in emerging adulthood, early adulthood, and middle adulthood”: http://u.osu.edu/tracyltylka/files/2015/02/Augustus-HorvathTylkaJCPArticle-2buggx0.pdf
- American Journal of Health Promotion, January-February 2015, “Intuitive eating: associations with physical activity motivation and BMI”: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24459999
- Journal of the American Dietetic Association, June 2005, “Size acceptance and intuitive eating improve health for obese, female chronic dieters”: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15942543
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