Reject the diet mentality and look to intuitive eating

Mindful eating

Sarah McMahon, Eating Behaviour Expert, looks at the importance of natural eating known as ‘intuitive eating’ and embracing our imperfections.

Most of us will relate to having specific goals with eating, particularly in the context of dieting for weight loss or pursuing eating trends such as ‘clean’ or ‘raw’ eating. Even without an active diet plan, a framework for eating goals is evident in most of us, with moral associations to food (read ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods) or basic food rules (e.g. gluten-free and ‘no carbs after 5pm’) governing our eating decisions. As a cruel by-product of these edicts, most of us will relate to feeling disenchanted with our relationship with food due to inevitable, perpetual ‘failures’ in our pursuit of these goals. What’s been lost in all of this is the reason we eat in the first place – survival and fitness – and the mechanisms that have been finely tuned to assure it. Not only have we lost sight
of the fact that feeling energetic and powering through a big day at work attest to ‘successful eating’, we have trained ourselves to doubt our appetites. No matter how well our body has guided us – to reaching a certain age, playing three sets of tennis, keeping up with kids, solving a calculus equation and outsmarting a car salesman – we want to override its intuitive arbitration with ‘shoulds’. Cravings are construed as an attempt by our body to lead us astray; make us eat the wrong thing, the wrong way. The betrayal!

I propose that successful eating is the opposite of compliance with a plan – whatever it may be. What if we redefined ‘success’ as attending to our bodies’ signals and trusting them to tell us what they need (even if it is a special edition Tim Tam)? What if we didn’t eat everything on our plate because we’re allowed to stop when our bodies let us know it’s had enough – knowing we could eat again when we feel hungry rather than stocking up because we don’t get another snack until four o’clock? Perhaps the most difficult part of this shift is trusting that our weight will ultimately settle in a healthy place for us – especially if we’ve clung to a ‘happy weight’ through careful eating.

The formal term given to this ‘natural’ eating is ‘intuitive eating’ – coined by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch’s 2003 book of the same name. Its principles are as follows:

  • Reject the diet mentality
  • Honour your hunger
  • Make peace with food
  • Challenge the food police
  • Respect your fullness
  • Discover the satisfaction factor
  • Honour your feelings without using food
  • Respect your body
  • Exercise – feel the difference
  • Honour your health

Of course it’s not quite that simple. The rule-based way many of us eat has made hunger and satiety cues unfamiliar and if your eating is restrictive – that is, if you’re eating less than you need to maintain homeostasis – there are physiological factors that will make energy-dense foods more appealing in your body’s bid to do the very thing it’s supposed to: survive and thrive.

So successful intuitive eating does demand some groundwork, including establishing structure so that eating is regular (long breaks cause excessive hunger, which is not going to help you to trust your body). It also includes the not-so-easy task of permitting all food groups and rendering them morally neutral, replacing ‘good’ and ‘bad’, with ‘everyday’, ‘sometimes’ and ‘occasional’ food. It will all feel strange at first, but when we do this consistently and somewhat mechanically for a period, often just a week or two, we notice that our body starts to send us signals. It starts to tell us when we are hungry and when we are full. It also tells us which foods we might feel like. Intuitive eating is about listening to those signals, trusting them and responding to them. For those who have been on diets for years, it’s befriending the enemy.

It’s important not to let intuitive eating become another prescriptive regimen. There will be times when we can’t eat exactly what we feel like and times when we engage in non-hungry eating. Sometimes we will skip a meal and eat occasional food two days in a row. That too is part of successful ‘normal’ eating.

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