How Intuitive Eating Can Make You Happier And Healthier
Learn to listen to your body and better health will follow
For the uninitiated, the concept of intuitive eating can seem a little counterintuitive; if you let your body do the deciding, it’s going to just want pizza for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, right? And how is that going to set you on a path to better health? But here’s the thing: Your body is smarter than you give it credit for. Intuitive eating is all about trusting your internal body cues over external diet rules, and when you listen to those cues, just the opposite happens: You give yourself freedom.
One of the keys to understanding intuitive eating is understanding how it’s different from dieting. A diet is a restriction of food triggered by many things, but often by self-doubt or insecurity. For a timely example: bikini season. You see an ad, social media post, etc. urging you to get your body bikini ready (but seriously, what does that even mean? My body is always ready for sand, sun, and rosé!) and you're supposed to take action. Cut the carbs! No more sweets! Less wine!
Are you mentally adding to that list of foods you shouldn’t eat if you want to be “healthy”? This is a sign of being told for years and years what you shouldn’t eat. We’re told what we must cut out, and so we vow to stay away from bread or dairy or bacon or whatever. And then we never think about those foods again, right? Riiiight.
Close on the heels of restriction comes craving, followed by obsession. You stop eating pasta and the next thing you know, you are dreaming of Mario Batali in his Crocs whipping up fettuccine in your kitchen (no? Is that just me?). Dieting is a vicious cycle of restriction, binging, and guilt, and I don’t use the term “vicious” lightly. Essentially, we just follow a list of rules outlining what you should and should not eat, and these restrictions create short-term habits and change. Then comes the guilt if you have a cheat meal or indulge in “bad” foods. You feel like a failure and start the process all over again. It’s no surprise research shows chronic dieting is actually a predictor of weight gain, disordered eating, and increased consumption of processed foods (like diet shakes and bars).
Intuitive eating, on the other hand, is just the opposite.
This nutrition philosophy isn’t a new idea, whether you tie it to Susie Orbach's groundbreaking book Fat is a Feminist Issue or Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch’s Intuitive Eating, a trusted resource used by dietitians and nutrition therapists for two decades. However, with the growing body confidence and health-at-every-size movements, the philosophy is finally starting to reach a larger audience. Technically, eating intuitively is nature. As babies, we didn’t know about low-carb, low-fat, no-sugar-added foods. We just cried when we were hungry and stopped whenever a bottle or boob arrived. However, dieting is the obnoxious frenemy that complicated this conversation.
Internal dieting dialogue goes something like this: What are the macros in this? Is this low-carb? How much sugar is in this? I can’t eat that, I’m trying to eat healthily.
But hen your stomach and brain chat, these things don't come up. It's more like:
Stomach: I'm hungry.
Brain: OK, cool. Let's eat something.
It's supposed to be simple. Your body wants to trust that you will fill it with balanced fuel. When you restrict calories and cut out entire food groups, your body freaks out. Your metabolism slows down because your body is convinced there is a famine and it thinks it’s saving your life. It’s not going to waste energy burning calories when it thinks you’re not going to be eating anytime soon; it wants to save all the fat for high-energy expenditures and so it’ll actually break down muscle first. It doesn’t understand that you are waiting to munch on your allotted 100 calorie pack in order to fit into a swimsuit. Thus, people who start diets may lose water weight initially, but they find that they plateau quickly.
So, what happens when you let go of all the external diet rules? Freedom. Freedom from food. Becoming an intuitive eater is an understandably overwhelming journey. You have to throw out everything you've ever been taught, address your relationship with food, and learn your body's hunger/fullness cues. You come out on the other side understanding how food makes you feel, how much food you want and need to eat, and what foods you actually enjoy. Yes, intuitive eating allows you to eat all the foods. Even the ones you’ve labeled as junk food. It is indeed a free-for-all. But it’s all in an effort to reset the mental stigmas created by the diet industry and rebuild a strong, positive relationship with food. Because your body is smart, food is good, and you definitely deserve to eat it.
-Alexandra Reed is a registered dietician and nutrition coach