What is Intuitive Eating?

What is Intuitive Eating?

With January in full swing, and the abundance of discussions of diets and resolutions, we wanted to hear more about different ways to approach healthy eating.

We spoke to Sarah Moore, an Eating Psychology Coach helping people develop a healthy relationship with food.

Intuitive Eating is a concept that you might want to know more about if you feel that you are out of control around food. It is for anyone that overeats, binge eats or emotional eats. It is for anyone that feels once they start eating a certain food, that they can't stop. It is for anyone that has fallen on and off diets, and doesn't think they can face another one. It is for anyone that has a poor body image and doesn't feel they will ever love their body. It is for anyone that wishes they just knew how to eat normally, how to eat in moderation and balance.

Intuitive eating is a flexible style of eating in which you get in touch with your interoceptive (internal body) awareness, and respond to your internal cues of hunger and fullness.

It is called Intuitive, because we are relearning instincts that we were born with. We were born with the ability to recognise when we are hungry and when we are full (this is why babies or young children don't overeat.)  As we become affected by the outside world, "diet culture" becomes a barrier to us being able to read our own body's signals.

Diets have made us lose trust in our own bodies. Instead of following our own instincts, we outsource our eating to a diet. That diet tells us what to eat, how much and even when to eat. Therefore, we are ignoring our own hunger and fullness, and after years of being on and off diets, it is no wonder that we are no longer in touch with what our own body wants. Intuitive Eating puts you back in touch, and helps you identify and separate biological hunger (physical need) and psychological hunger (desire in the absence of physical need.)

The concept of Intuitive Eating was only introduced as recently as 1995, by Evelyn Tribole (an award-winning registered dietician) and Elyse Resch (a nutritional therapist) both based in California. There have been over 60 studies on Intuitive Eating from around the world, which have shown health benefits such as increased well-being, lower risk of eating disorders, improved blood sugar and cholesterol. Intuitive Eaters enjoy a variety of foods and have better interoceptive awareness and psychological resilience. 

Their premise includes 10 principles of Intuitive Eating which are designed to help normalize your relationship with eating and your body. Weight loss is not a focus, though it may be a side effect. The concern is that a focus on weight loss interferes with the decisions you make around food and therefore won't help you to learn to trust your own body. There has been a body of research which has shown that weight, namely BMI is not a good indicator of health (Lavie 2014; Ross et al. 2015; Friedemann Smith, Heneghan, and Ward 2015; Tomiyama et al.2016) and that the pursuit of weight loss alone is linked to diminished health (Tylka et al. 2014.) However, placing focus on healthy lifestyle behaviours, provides health benefits with or without weight loss (Ross et al. 2015; Bacon and Aphramor 2011.)

The intuitive eating process is based around 10 principles.

Principle One is about Rejecting the Diet Mentality. From an intuitive eating perspective, the main issue with diet mentality is that your eating decisions are directed by the diet, regardless of your own hunger, energy needs and food preferences. This all triggers feelings of deprivation which can result in rebellious eating. It means that you eat with the mandates of "should I" or "shouldn't I" in your head, instead of "would I" or wouldn't I?" This first stage encourages you to look at your dieting history and how it has affected you physically, psychologically and behaviourally. It looks at the rules you place upon yourself in relation to eating that might have come from previous diets and encourages you to let those go. 

Principle Two is about Honoring Your Hunger. It helps you to recognise your own body's hunger cues. It helps separate biological hunger (the physical sensations) with psychological hunger (the desire without physical need.) It helps you realise that hunger is an important biological signal that you need to eat, and that avoiding it will only end up in overeating at a later point. It helps you look at your self care practise to ensure you are meeting your basic physical and emotional needs, so that they don't interfere with your biological signals. For example, bad sleep and lots of stress with no relaxation, no boundaries in your relationship and not being challenged mentally. These are all needs we have which can't be met with food. 

Principle Three is all about Making Peace with Food. This looks at all the foods we restrict or deny ourselves because we perceive they are "bad." Intuitive Eating is all about putting all foods on an even playing field, and not letting them have a moral value, i.e. you are not "bad" because you ate a certain food. It rejects thoughts of perfect eating that can be overturned by the introduction of a "bad" food which then throws all eating out the window. (The "What the Hell" effect of the restraint-overeating cycle Herman and Polivy. 1984.) It tries to avoid the diet cycle of denying certain foods, breaking the restraint, overeating and then feeling guilty which leads to restricting the foods again. This is done via the habituation effect, allowing yourself to eat these foods. The more familiar they are, the less power they have. The more normal they feel. the more they are consumed in a normal and balanced way. 

Principle Four is about Challenging The Food Police. This principle looks at all the external factors that could be affecting your intuitive eating voice. Our self imposed food rules and beliefs, our critical and rebellious self talk, our need for perfectionism in how we eat. This challenges and questions all of these factors so that you learn to trust your own voice, and not the voice that comes from our cultural or family beliefs, diet or food trends and our own self imposed criticism. It is a path to finding food freedom.

Principle Five is about Feeling Your Fullness. It looks at the barriers in which you can be distracted from feelings of fullness, and essentially encourages mindful eating. It not only concentrates on gaging the physical sensations of fullness, but also the ability to leave food (not finish everything on your plate or that is left in the packet,) and to say no to food if you are not hungry (including being able to turn down food offered to you from other people, which is hard for people pleasers.)

Principle Six is about Discovering the Satisfaction Factor. This is about realising that satisfaction and pleasure in eating are important. You need to be both emotionally and physically satisfied in order to feel full. You are emotionally satisfied by eating the food you feel like eating, so it asks you to question which texture, taste and type of food you want. You can feel physically full from eating a huge bowl of soup, but if it is the food you felt you ought to eat, instead of the food you truly felt like eating, you will feel dissatisfied. 

Principle Seven is about Coping with your Feelings Without Using Food. This looks at the triggers to emotional eating and then helps you become more aware of and able to recognise your feelings. It looks at self care, nurturance and compassion to ensure you are aware of and meeting your emotional needs, so that you are not using food as an outlet. 

Principle Eight is about Respecting Your Body. This is about accepting and showing gratitude for your body. It helps you to avoid body negativity and putting yourself down, and to stop comparing yourself with other people. It encourages you to take care of and look after your body, regardless of its size or imperfections. It encourages you to feel good and respect your body regardless of the narrow standards of beauty and size perpetuated by the media.

Principle Nine is about Exercise and Feeling the Difference. This is about enjoying moving your body for the pure pleasure rather than with a weight loss focus. It presents all the benefits and barriers to physical activity and encourages you to find a love for an exercise that is therefore sustainable.

Principle Ten is about Honoring Your Health with Gentle Nutrition. It encourages you to think about how food makes your body feel, and how both nutritious and non-nutritious food can be balanced in your diet. It helps you to get to a place where variety, moderation and balance is possible, and again helps you to avoid trying to attain "the perfect diet"

The process of re-learning how to eat intuitively is not often a quick-fix, and can be a long process, but it's always a rewarding one. You can never unlearn the principles once they are embedded, and the process is all undertaken with a position of self-compassion. One of the biggest benefits of finding food freedom is losing the dialogue in your head that comes with obsessing over what to eat, and the critique around your body. 

It makes you realise how much time, money and energy you have spent in the pursuit of the perfect diet and the perfect body, all to find that if you truly trust your body you can reach a healthy and happy place. The emphasis moves more onto what feels good for you. What foods do you enjoy, what foods make you feel good. What movement do you enjoy, what movement makes you feel good. By constantly making the motive about you feeling good, you cannot help but feel more positive and make healthier choices for you and your body. The overall effect is moving from a place of critique and negativity in trying to obtain an impossible body, to embracing and finding joy in looking after the body you have. It is truly liberating and also possible to find the peace and balance that you have always sought. 

Kale and Cake offers one to one consultations and a self-led online course which takes you through six modules of intuitive eating with video and workbooks.

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