Intuitive eating (IE) is often talked about in eating disorder and diet recovery, but the ideas and attitudes associated with it are helpful for most people. IE is an excellent goal no matter your history.
For example, if you are losing weight right and tracking your calories, you will eventually reach a plateau. This is supposed to happen. This might be a great time to practice IE and get familiar with what it feels like to be auto-regulated when it comes to food, instead of needing to count and track calories forever (which is not sustainable for most people).
You should also have scheduled breaks in your training and nutrition plans. A deload week or while traveling are also great times for IE. Then when you return to a training/diet plan where you track calories, you’ll track like a boss, or a zen master, or simply a less-stressed you. You could call this intermittent IE.
On a 36-hour train ride through West Bengal when I was 21, I met an inquisitive older gentleman and we ended up talking about everything, literally everything, from the micro to the macro. One notable tip he gave me was to chew my food 32 times before swallowing. So I tried it, a simple experiment that would deepen my awareness, easily allowing me to tune into satiety signals, honor my body, and lead to other good habits. I slowed down, began to appreciate the aromas and tastes of my meals more.
I certainly don’t chew that much each time I eat now, but that incident inspired me to slow down and tune in, which is a victory that would similarly support a lot of people today seeking to enhance their health.
Humans & Our Relationships With Food
Why do we do the things we do? There are many reasons why people eat the way they do. There are complex systems of hormonal feedback, social pressures, genetics, epigenetics, environmental factors (accessibility), personal beliefs, self efficacy, stress, health (gut health, hormones like leptin), and habits.
Healthy eating is not simply about ‘discipline’, ‘willpower’, ‘positive thinking’ or ‘eat less, move more’. There are too many factors influencing it for those ideas to be very useful. But it can be as simple as learning a few new concepts and practicing eating intuitively. There is freedom in letting go.
Focus On The Right Things
Let go of guilt and shame associated with food. Release your grip on impulsive or superficial reasons to diet (restrict calories) and the ‘detox’ mindset. There is no moral value attached to food choices.
- Lighten up on rules & regulations – no, I did not say “go hog wild.”
- “Chill out” doesn’t mean careless; rather it’s mindful, relaxed and enjoyable.
- Stay mindful, use ‘how you feel’ after you eat and your overall results as a guide, rather than what you think you ‘should be doing’.
- Base your diet not on the advice of a NY Times Best Seller, but around preferences, what you tolerate and your goals.
- Focus on foods you enjoy, not a list of ‘bad vs. good’ foods.
- Focus on health, not weight.
- Take your time when eating, chew your food well.
- Don’t undereat or skip meals, which can lead to cravings, overeating or binges.
- Don’t eat for emotional reasons; eat for nourishment, to support your metabolism and for pleasure, for energy to fuel your life.
- Honor your body – know when you’re hungry and when you’re sated/satisfied.
- Walk every day – not just for exercise, to clear your head, and gain perspective, but also for creativity: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/april/walking-vs-sitting-042414.html
- Make room for creative & contemplative time, seek a flow state.
- Be consistent with training, movement, exercise, play.
- Seek social support/community.
- Be accepting of all body types and sizes, including your own.
- Stop policing others for not fitting into social norms.
- Focus on the process of habits that lead to your goal, and being slightly detached from the outcome goal itself. Learn to enjoy the present moment more than eating to achieve something in the future.
Honor Your Satiety or Hunger
One area where many people struggle is being able to recognize when they’ve eaten enough – not too little, not too much. The disordered diet ideas that tend to push people into a restrict/binge cycle can really mess up satiety signals. When we’re told it’s healthy and virtuous to feel hungry, that fewer calories is always better, then we can get desensitized to those sensations of hunger and not recognize them for what they are. It’s important to honor our calorie needs, because deep down, our bodies know when we’re not eating enough, and this results in reactive cravings and binges. When we binge, we override our satiety signals, not stopping when we’re full but instead continuing to eat far beyond our calorie needs, in reaction to long periods of restriction.
The ideas above about mindfulness and paying attention to your food, really appreciating it, can help you get back in touch with those satiety signals. Slow down, be more aware while eating. Eat moderate servings to start with, don’t eat in a hurry, and give yourself time to notice if you feel satisfied. If you still feel hungry, give yourself permission to eat a little more. Remind yourself you can eat more when you’re hungry. When you give yourself that permission, it can go a long way to removing the urgency to eat it all right now because you can’t have it later.
Ditch the Fear
Most people in the health-conscious community promote fear-based food ideas, even in the seemingly awesome ‘clean eating’ movement. For many people, this incites anxiety, hypervigilance, and can lead to disordered dieting. This excess mental and metabolic stress you really don’t need. There is a loud majority of these communities who are creating more confusion and problems for people with real food allergies. I demonstrated this same phenomenon in my sugar addiction articles. I talk about the science, as well as the consequences of the psychological traps we fall into when on this journey.
Developing hypochondria and/or orthorexia is a real problem for people seeking health who get sucked into these disordered ideas. And it starts with Food Rules.
Adopting rigid rules and unnecessary, fear-based food avoidance sets you up for ‘failure’ and never feeling good enough. This creates a strain on you mentally and physically, and your quest for health becomes a rabbit hole of disordered diet ideas. There is a fine line between mindfulness and hypervigilance based on pop food fears. Cross that line too often, and the consequences are brutal.
Health is resilient, not fragile. A healthy mind and metabolism is flexible, not rigid & dogmatic.
Make no mistake, people with real food allergies have to be vigilant, and some people losing weight can be attentive with portions and tracking calories. Those promoting the trendy alt health ideas like ‘clean eating’, paleo, GAPS, plant-based – all of them – spread exaggerating claims, fears and hyperbole. This makes the problem worse for all of us: stress for many, confusion for most.
Undoubtedly when I talk about IE, someone will interject ‘…but I must lose this fat now!’ or “I have rules to follow for celiac or diabetes,” etc. Even if you use insulin pumps or have a food allergy requiring a special diet, these IE ideas can serve as mindful management tips and may still be relevant, just applied in newer, different ways.
Embrace Food Freedom
The freedom of IE and not having rigid, unnecessary dietary rules can be the foundation of a relaxed, accepting relationship with yourself. With this freedom, you can:
- Eat what you like, when you feel hungry.
- Know you can eat what you want, anytime, always, so there’s no compulsion to binge now in case you never get it again.
- Focus on other things, since you’re not obsessed with a ‘perfect’ diet or hating yourself for failing at it.
- Appreciate your body for what it is now.
- Resist the deceitful messages flung at you every day by the diet industry telling you that you must follow their rules to be healthy and happy.
- Think for yourself and honor your own biofeedback without second-guessing because some diet guru says different.
Studies have found that rigid dieting is associated with less-healthy outcomes, both mental and physical, compared to flexible dieting or IE. Those who follow rigid diet rules (or try to) are more prone to eating disorders, mood disturbances, and excessive concern with appearance. Those with flexible eating practices were less likely to have those problems, had lower levels of depression and anxiety, and yet were also less likely to overeat and were not prone to higher BMI. Relaxing about food didn’t make them “fat and lazy” along with being happier; they were also leaner.
A recent review of dietary interventions found that those which encourage people to consciously restrict calories are largely counterproductive. However, those which were nonrestrictive and instead focused on health, body acceptance and mental well being had more positive outcomes overall.
Cultivate Healthy Body Image
Most people include some aesthetic goals in their quest for a healthy lifestyle. There’s nothing wrong with this. However, much of what is promoted as a standard of attractiveness, as ‘looking fit’, actually has nothing to do with health. Our society has a very narrow range of size and shape that’s promoted as attractive that doesn’t allow for much natural variation in body type. It’s easy to get wrapped up in chasing an aesthetic ideal that really wouldn’t be healthy, if it’s even possible (considering most photos in media are photoshopped, and most fitness models are genetic outliers who prep relentlessly and go to unhealthy lengths for photo shoots).
It’s helpful to think critically about those standards when you set goals for yourself. One powerful tool for this is to appreciate the way other people look. Let yourself recognize the beauty in all body types, and soon you may find yourself truly appreciating your own as well. Try not to base your sense of your own attractiveness on comparisons to models or celebrities.
Some people may benefit from therapy/counseling. Some may benefit from meditation, yoga and other restorative, mind/body practices. Some may benefit from waking up a bit earlier, others may benefit from sleeping in a bit more. You really have to know yourself, discover your rhythms and maybe practice a bit to dial it in.
When it comes to losing weight or restoring your health, for most people with gut issues, ‘adrenal fatigue’ or ‘metabolic damage’ the first order of business is to relax. No trendy, restrictive diet will fix you. Results will come when your body is ready and is getting everything it needs, not at the time your mind demands it. For weight loss, don’t focus on a hard date for a certain 10 pounds, rather build habits that will allow that to happen with ease. Weight loss will happen slower than you expect. For those restoring your gut/metabolism, it’s probably easier than you have heard. Here’s a good article on understanding and managing your expectations:
Meditation can help many, and it doesn’t need to be attached to any religious or spiritual ideas. It can be a simple practice that helps you keep your cool. Ultimately, you may find better focus, tolerance and react less to the spontaneous stressors or turbulence that shows up in all of our lives. It may help you get into the flow state that you hear about athletes or zen masters achieving. You don’t have to be a zen master to benefit from a little meditation practice. It can be a very simple, easy addition to your routine, and support a wellness lifestyle and IE.
Are you on Facebook or surf the Internet? You’ll see all sorts of fake, photoshopped images, all the time. You’ll be surrounded by ideas and memes that idealize a body image or size, or shame others. Some may trigger anxiety. Some of the stuff online is beyond absurd, some memes are harmful. Spend your time online wisely. If you have a bunch of health, fitness or nutrition pages that promote these disordered ideas, start deleting. Instead, read up on Centenarians who live all over the world or learn about old school physical culture. The beauty and simplicity about food, training and lifestyle will inspire you.
August 2014, Leandra Lumbreras (born Aug. 31, 1887) turned 127. She is believed to be the oldest person who ever lived. “Leandra eats everything, but has a weakness for chocolates and sweet drinks.”
Read more about IE: http://www.intuitiveeating.com/content/what-intuitive-eating
“Nondiet approaches shift the focus away from weight outcomes to the improvement of health outcomes and psychological well-being. One such approach, intuitive eating, promotes dietary intake based on internal cues of hunger and fullness, body acceptance, and making behavior choices based on health as well as enjoyment.”
A review of interventions that promote eating by internal cues.
When weight management lasts. Lower perceived rule complexity increases adherence.
‘Reilly, G. A., Cook, L., Spruijt-Metz, D. and Black, D. S. (2014), Mindfulness-based interventions for obesity-related eating behaviours: a literature review. Obesity Reviews, 15: 453–461. doi: 10.1111/obr.12156
“The effect of food consumption on ghrelin may be psychologically mediated, and mindset meaningfully affects physiological responses to food.”
Mind over milkshakes: mindsets, not just nutrients, determine ghrelin response.