Mind & Body

What is intuitive eating?

Adapting your approach to food (where you think less about what you eat and more about how you feel) can be transformative, improving your body image, self-compassion, mood and overall wellbeing. So, forget about dieting – it’s all about intuitive eating, says FIORELLA VALDESOLO

Beauty

In 1995, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch – two dietitians frustrated by seeing the harm traditional diet culture inflicted on their patients first-hand – penned the bestselling book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works. Now, more than 25 years later, their anti-diet approach is experiencing a resurgence; on TikTok there are almost half a billion hashtags marked ‘intuitive eating’. Social media has certainly helped stoke interest in intuitive eating and a wave of research validating the pair’s theory has helped too, but, even more significant in driving its new popularity, may be that people are simply feeling fed up. “They’re sick of dieting, they’re sick of the toxicity of diet culture, and they don’t want to live that way anymore because it interferes with their quality of life,” says Tribole.

Intuitive eating, which is sometimes also referred to as mindful eating, is, first and foremost, not about weight loss. Rather, the path is about connecting, or reconnecting, with your body; learning to trust it, and formulating a healthy relationship with food. The approach is, as Tribole and others since her have laid out, rooted in the notion of listening to your hunger and emotional cues. That may sound simple, but it can pose a challenge for many. “It’s an easy concept to grasp but harder to master because we are bombarded by dietary rules to follow – some of which teach us not to trust our hunger cues,” explains functional medicine nutritionist and cognitive behavioral therapist Dana James. “We are also hijacked by environmental, cultural, emotional, and societal influences, all of which can detract from real hunger.” Developing an awareness of those influences is, says James, the foundation of intuitive eating.

Rather than the focus being on what you are eating, intuitive eating encourages you to focus on how you are connecting to – and enjoying – your food

It’s about deciphering, for example, between actual hunger and mindless snacking based on boredom, stress, or certain social situations – and zeroing in less on the actual food you’re eating, but how you’re eating it, explains James. “Rather than the focus being on what you are eating, intuitive eating encourages you to focus on how you are connecting to – and enjoying – your food,” adds Amanda Carney, a health coach at The Well in New York, where the perspective is integrated into many of the guests’ personalized health plans. Carney advises her clients to ask themselves simple questions when navigating their food options: What do I feel like eating? What feels most nourishing to me? How can I relate to this meal with pleasure? The process is one of interoceptive awareness, adds Tribole. “That’s our ability to perceive physical sensations that arise in our body, and it keeps us in balance, both biologically and psychologically.”

The first rule of intuitive eating is that there are no rules. “The goal is to enjoy the food you choose and be gentle with yourself,” adds Carney. And that enjoyment is personal – what satisfies one person may not bring any joy to another; what your body needs to feel nourished on a hot summer day may not be the same as it might need in the depths of winter; what is deemed a filling meal is not universal. Tribole’s book breaks down intuitive eating into 10 principles: reject the diet mentality; honor your hunger; make peace with food; challenge the food police; discover the satisfaction factor; feel your fullness; treat your emotions with kindness; respect your body; and movement – feel the difference, and honor your health with gentle nutrition. The principle she often encourages people to start with is aiming for satisfaction when you’re eating. “The truth is it’s really not satisfying to under-eat, and it’s not satisfying to eat past the point of comfort where you’re feeling physically ‘not good’,” says Tribole. “It’s a way to begin the balancing process. We need to bring pleasure back into our eating.”

The psychological benefits of intuitive eating are an improved body image and appreciation, as well as more self-compassion, better moods and a more positive overall wellbeing

Following Tribole’s advice has measurable benefits not just for our physical, but also for our mental health. The dietitian specifically refers to a recent meta-analysis study of more than 90 papers highlighting the positive psychological impact of evolving our attitudes around eating. The results pointed to improved body image and appreciation, as well as more self-compassion, better moods and a more positive overall wellbeing. Much of the work that Tribole and others do with intuitive eating is, because of its growing popularity, now being co-opted by diet culture – don’t be fooled. “The bottom line is, the moment you start counting things and eliminating foods, you are in diet culture,” insists Tribole. And with the current barrage of messaging around post-pandemic weight loss, making a shift that eschews the traditional diet mentality seems that much more pressing. “It’s understandable that people want their lives back and they want control, and it’s understandable that they look at dieting as a coping mechanism because it’s giving you very specific directions and a fantasy,” says Tribole. “The problem is not only does it not work, it creates more problems.”

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