What is intuitive eating?

intuitive eating

Intuitive eating is a food methodology that encourages you to trust your body’s signals – eat what your body tells you it needs and stop when you feel full. It is based on the belief that we are born with the innate wisdom to know what and when to eat.

“It’s about knowing when you’re hungry and full, what taste preferences you have and how your body feels after making food choices,” says nutrition therapist Elyse Resch, co-author of Intuitive Eating.

In an era in which so-called foods are sold in 100-calorie packs and even wine comes in low-cal guises, many of us have become distracted from this wisdom. The foodie culture has also encouraged eating for many reasons other than hunger.

Intuitive eating simply relies on feeling hungry and responding appropriately, says accredited practising dietitian Lisa Renn, owner of Body Warfare Nutrition and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia. “You’re removing every other reason that you’re eating – you don’t eat as a coping mechanism, you don’t eat because you’re bored, you don’t not eat because you’re too busy. These are things that undermine intuitive eating.”

Eat less without trying

According to psychologist and neuro-linguistic programming therapist Dr Heidi Heron, naturally ‘thin’ people don’t think much about food, weight or their body, while paradoxically, overweight people generally do. Focusing on losing weight can create unconscious efforts that invite the opposite outcome. “If a person is constantly thinking ‘I’m fat’, the mind will take that as an order to fulfill. And if a person thinks ‘don’t have a biscuit’, they inevitably just thought of a biscuit because the mind has to see and think about a biscuit in order to not choose to eat it. And, if it’s in the mind, a person will be more likely to crave it and then give in and eat it. ‘Thin’ people are not generally thinking about what ‘not’ to eat,” Dr Heron says. The unconscious mind “follows orders, takes everything personally and is unable to process negatives directly”, she adds. Therefore, even where weight loss is a goal, the optimal focus is on behaviour patterns themselves to achieve lasting change.

Find your best weight

The notion that we need to engineer elaborate diet and exercise regimens is an illusion according to medical doctor, healthy weight expert and author of If Not Dieting, Then What? Dr Rick Kausman.

“The focus should be on looking after yourself…this is a trap that unfortunately many people around the world have fallen into – thinking that, if only they try hard enough, that this is somehow going to help them be healthy, when in fact the evidence is clear now that the opposite occurs,” Dr Kausman says. In fact, he says that focusing on weight loss is wont to work against a healthy body and diet. “The more we do things to try and lose weight, if that’s our focus, the more likely it is that we’re going to end up going up and down, cycling up and down in terms of our weight, because we’re not focusing on the behaviour.”

Speaking more gently to yourself, eating mindfully, and checking with your body before you have something to eat are among his recommended strategies. “Ask yourself the simple question, ‘I can have this if I want, but do I really feel like it?’ This is key to helping people be more aware and mindful, without feeling deprived.”

Re-establish self-trust

If you think intuitive eating sounds like a recipe for a week-long binge, au contraire. Dr Kausman says that allowing all food is likely to invite the opposite effect. Eating with awareness, he says, diminishes the risk of losing control. “People are able to trust their body more and become more in control from within, and therefore less likely to eat more than what their body feels like.”

The key is having enough attention and awareness to identify true feelings of hunger and satiety, and to tell them apart from other cues to eat – like stress or boredom. A healthy understanding of the principles of good nutrition (vegetables – good, doughnuts – not
so good) helps, as long as it’s a loose underlying guide rather than
a mandate.

“There can be a lot of fear involved because everyone is always wondering if they are doing it ‘right’,” says Carrie McHugh, who founded blog-turned-program The Fuck It Diet after spending a futile decade on myriad pop diets. After abandoning her fastidious food paradigm, McHugh didn’t look back. “It really is about just paying attention, being curious about what your body wants, how eating that food feels, how you feel after, and being in touch with your different levels of hunger.

“The idea of intuitive eating is to eat to satisfaction or pleasant fullness as many times as you need to during the day. The idea is to be able to let go of all of the ‘shoulds’ that dieting entails.”

This article was originally published in Women’s Health and Fitness magazine.

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