With the anti-diet movement gathering momentum, you may have heard about intuitive eating?
Is it really the answer to getting off the diet train for good?
Intuitive eating is an entirely different approach to what you may have tried before, to change your eating habits. In some ways it’s easier because there is no plan to follow. No forbidden foods, no rules of what to eat and when. But this is also exactly what can make the journey that much harder.
Intuitive eating (IE) is about getting back in touch with your body. You know when you’re trying to make a decision about something – it could be anything – you get a gut instinct? That’s your intuition. You should listen to it!
IE involves paying attention to your body’s signals and messages. Learning how to hear them, interpret them and THEN DO SOMETHING if needed so that you can better meet all of your physical and emotional needs.
IE helps to change your eating mindset. It involves a lot of self-reflection, it’s a very personal process. If you’ve followed diets before, you may feel confused and conflicted with your body. I speak to many women who don’t trust their bodies, don’t know what they enjoy eating or feel like eating and simply don’t know how to eat anymore.
If you think about the headlines you read, food looks bloody frightening! The media make our health (and food) very black and white. It’s do or die. And quickly, as if we are one dessert or one bite away from exploding.
Evelyn Tribole, who created the IE model in 1995 talks about “the fork being akin to a loaded gun – just one wrong move pulls the trigger”. She’s totally right! It’s no wonder we are petrified of eating but we are also becoming (which is a good thing) very wary of diets. What are we supposed to do?!
We get driven towards clean eating (another can of worms I’m saving for later) and fads that are promoted in the name of good health. But that ends up creating more problems because they are not sustainable – disordered eating, preoccupation with food and our bodies, reduced body confidence and self-esteem, distraction from other personal health goals and ironically, weight gain.
There are officially 10 principles of IE, though you may come across more or less as these key principles are adapted by different practitioners and authors. They are designed to work in two ways:
1. Those that help you tune into your biological cues like hunger and fullness; so you learn to recognise what hunger feels like, distinguish physical hunger form emotional hunger and learn to stop eating when you feel comfortable full. They also give you the ability to appreciate and respect your body in terms of sleep, rest and other self-care practices, which forms a strong thread throughout the model.
2. Those that breakdown the barriers to change. These are much more mindset related – your thoughts; beliefs and rules about what you should and shouldn’t eat; what makes us categorise food into ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and what your body should look like.
These are the 10 principles of IE
1. Reject the diet mentality. This is critical to finding inner peace. Nothing to do with Kung fu [panda] I promise but it’s important to realise much of what you’ve read, watched and listened to about weight loss in the past was a lie. It gave you false hope and when you failed, they told you it was your fault. You will learn how dieting harms both your psychological and physical well-being. Challenge your beliefs and assumptions about what makes you healthy.
2. Honour your hunger aka eat when you’re hungry. This may sound obvious but feeling hungry is so much more than a rumbling belly! I’ve worked with so many people who have gone to bed hungry and wondered why they couldn’t sleep, or have never allowed themselves to get hungry because they are constant grazers. Hunger ratings help you assess your own subjective hunger level. Then you’ll be a more ‘tuned-in’ place so you can start to explore how to find your stop eating button.
3. Make peace with food This is about letting go of food rules; to give yourself permission to have a particular food; that you don’t need to (unnecessarily) rule out gluten, sugar, carbs or fat to get healthy. You will learn how to trust your body and yourself around food – a scary thought but a vital skill you can develop.
4. Challenge the food police Learn how to silence your inner bully – the one that says ‘why did you eat that?’ ‘you know you can’t have that!’ ‘you are weak’. Eating should be about pleasure not guilt! You can learn the power of self-compassion, how to be non-judgmental and get rid of those unhelpful, unreasonable rules, whether you created them yourself or the people around you did.
5. Find Comfortable fullness Do you struggle to know when to stop eating before ‘it’s too late?’ Are your eyes bigger than your belly? Are you deaf to your body’s emerging fullness cues? Find out how to respond to your body at the right time and create more pleasant and meaningful eating experiences.
6. Find the Satisfaction Factor Carb free rice and bread and other diet foods will often leave you wanting more. You probably already know you will eat more of a product if it says low cal or sugar free. Learning about the different properties of foods that satisfy you as well as fill you up (these are very different things) you will learn the meaning of true nourishment.
7. Cope with emotions without using food – anxiety, stress, boredom, loneliness, anger; we all experience these emotions in life, but food (although a useful self soothing tool) won’t fix them. If anything, frequently eating in the absence of hunger will leave you feeling even worse. Learn the power of self-care, compassion and nurture to cope with your emotions; fill your own toolbox with techniques that ensure food takes it’s proper place – a source of nourishment and pleasure.
8. Body respect. Do you accept your body? like it? love it? or do you hate it? Comparing ourselves to others and having unrealistic expectations about what’s possible to achieve creates disdain. Speaking to yourself in a harsh and critical tone only lowers self esteem. Learning to treat your body with respect and kindness is vital if you are to truly reject the diet mentality and make the lifestyle changes you want to make.
9. Exercise The key to long term lifestyle change is to find things you enjoy. Viewing exercise as an opportunity to burn Calories is most likely to lead to demotivation, boredom and resentment. Understand your blocks to exercise and work on discovering activities you are more likely to enjoy and how you can make moving a non-negotiable and enjoyable part of your life
10. Life skills Upon reaching the end of the programme, you need to feel secure and confident you can cope with the ever-changing world of health and nutrition. Now that you have challenged the food police, made peace with food and rejected the diet mentality, you are in a position to appreciate all food and apply the basic principles of nutrition through a ‘gentle nutrition’ approach. There is no good and bad food you see, so you can ignore the harmful and hyped up messages about eating that you will no doubt continue to see.
IE helps you create self-compassion. Have you experienced negative self-talk, feelings of guilt and disappointment when dieting before? Women particularly, have a strong tendency to self-berate. IE helps you develop a more nurturing mindset and positive path that will enable you to move forward.
Nearly 25 years on from its creation, there have since been numerous studies that have clearly shown the benefits of adopting an IE approach. In America, it’s included in the academic curriculum of many health courses; I would love to see IE included in nutrition and psychology degrees over here in the UK!
IE is not for everyone though. You need an open mind to try different approaches. You need some courage to step out of your comfort zone.
I often get asked ‘will I lose weight by doing IE?’ My answer is following these principles will help you normalise your relationship with food and yourself. IE is about creating positive relationships that do not hinder or harm you. Weight loss may be a secondary effect but not guaranteed. Sadly however, IE is being used to ‘sell’ weight loss which is completely contradicts the non or anti-diet movement.
The most important thing we can do is focus on our health behaviours; let go of weight because it really is such a poor indicator of health. The pursuit of weight loss alone is linked to reduced health outcomes.
Honestly, I can’t say it’s going to be the answer for you; we have to find our own way but in my personal and professional experience it’s the only solution.
I created the Anti-Diet System so you can learn the principles of IE yourself and heal your relationship with food and yourself.
Happy New Year 💖