The backlash against the dieting industry is (thankfully!) becoming increasingly louder and hard to miss. In January and the summer months, we're bombarded with messages about slimming down, dieting and sculpting abs. But if you look past all of this usual twaddle, you'll see a growing number of bloggers and health professionals speaking out in the media and on social networks about the damaging affect diets have on our physical health and mental wellbeing. Many of them will speak of Intuitive Eating and Body Positivity as alternatives to dieting and diet culture.
What does Intuitive Eating mean?
Put simply, in a nutshell, Intuitive Eating is about listening to your body's cues for hunger, fullness, satiety, taste and emotional needs - i.e. your instincts. When you're eating according to your instincts, you're not adhering to external 'food rules' and instead, you're giving yourself unconditional permission to eat. It's how we all would have eaten in the years BD (that's 'Before Diets').
Toddler Vs Adult
Young toddlers are a brilliant example of this, in that they know exactly what they want, and they know exactly when they've had enough. Around his Grandma (who speaks of chocolate as a reward or treat), my two-year-old son thinks chocolate must be the best thing in the world and will ask her for it, yet when he's given some, he takes ages to eat a small amount and rarely finishes it. He's eating intuitively because so far, his instincts are all he knows at this age. He's eating mindfully, instead of scoffing it down and giving his body time to communicate satiety and fullness. He then stops of his own accord, regardless of how much is left, simply because he's satisfied and full.
Me, on the other hand, an adult with a complex history of dieting, emotional eating and body issues, would have devoured the whole lot in 5 seconds flat, regardless of how hungry or full I may have been. In the past, when I was ingrained in diet mentality, I would have then felt guilt, self-hatred and tried to compensate for it by eating less at the next meal or exercising off the calories.
It's not about learning how to eat intuitively, it's about unlearning diet mentality
Of course, for many people, Intuitive Eating is hard to put into practice. I think the reason for this is that they're approaching it very much in the same way as a diet, in that they view the principals of Intuitive eating as a new set of unbreakable rules to follow and turn it into what Isabel Foxon Duke calls the 'Hunger and Fullness Diet'.
Intuitive eating is not about only ever eating when you're hungry and always stopping when you're full. These are just guidelines. The main point of intuitive eating is to have an awareness of how your body is feeling, both physically and emotionally when you're eating or considering eating. It's about trusting your body to communicate what it needs, and giving yourself unconditional permission to meet these needs, even if it goes against conventional diet rules.
This is incredibly hard to do without first acknowledging the failings of dieting and addressing your body issues and urgency to change your body.
If you've ever been pregnant or close to someone who has been, you'll already be familiar with cravings and the enormous intensity of these cravings. This is an example of how our bodies are more than capable of driving us to meet our needs. Our signals only become confusing and 'untrustworthy' when they become entwined with the dieting mentality.
To use an example, let's imagine there's a chocolate cake in the office...
An intuitive eater giving themselves permission to eat may approach this as: 'That looks very tasty, sure I'll have some cake'. They'll eat a piece, really enjoy it, with not an ounce of guilt and then get back on with their work not giving the cake another thought. "I've already had a piece, thanks, Julia. It was very nice!". Chances are, they'll probably decide later on to eat their dinner a little later or a smaller portion as they're not feeling all that hungry later on. Not because they're compensating for the calories in the cake, but simply because they don't feel all that hungry.
Now a dieter would see the cake sitting 'temptingly' on the desk in the office and tell themselves to walk past it. They'd curse themselves for wanting it when they're 'not allowed it'. They'd curse their colleagues for trying to sabotage them ("that Julia from accounts is just jealous that I've lost 5lbs at this week's weigh-in!"). They'd think about this cake all morning. Walking past it each time they go to the printer. It's staring back at them. "Fine, I'll have some!" they finally tell themselves. "I'll cave in". Then the anxiety begins: How many points/syns/calories was that? Oh god, I've fallen off track now! I'll have to get some more steps/exercise in to burn that off. Maybe I'll skip dinner. I'm such a fat cow. How could I be so weak? I'm addicted to sugar! Maybe I'll just start again tomorrow; get back on plan, get serious. I'll take a look at my before photo and remind myself how far I've come. Fuck it, I've ruined today now, I may as well have another piece of cake."
These approaches are clearly very different. In both cases, the cake was eaten, but the intuitive eating just took enjoyment from it and moved on. Listening to their body's cues for the rest of the day. The dieter, on the other hand, experienced a barrage of guilt and anxiety both before and after eating the cake. They'll even think about the cake the next day when they curse themselves for not following their plan or food rules and have to 'start over'.
Furthermore, the dieter may have experienced a 'trigger' to binge on the food, going back for seconds because of a feeling of scarcity (No more cake tomorrow or ever!").
Intuitive Eating helps you make peace with food
Some people are fortunate in that they've never succumbed to dieting and therefore have always had an easy going relationship with food - the kind that eats food without giving it a second thought, apart from perhaps to reflect on how delicious something was. Some of us will have a long history of dieting and therefore along the path we completely forgot how to eat without tracking or following food rules. And then there's a third group: former dieters who have re-learned how to eat intuitively.
As we can see from the cake example above, and intuitive eater doesn't base their food choices on their weight or impact on their health. They just eat. They enjoy any item of food without feeling pangs of guilt or to the other extreme, virtuous halos for eating something 'healthy' that may not even like. An intuitive eater stops eating if they're not enjoying a food instead of forcing it down because somethings perceived to be healthy. They don't label particular foods 'good' or 'bad. It's a simple, enjoyable and peaceful relationship with food, instead of a tool for weight control and self-punishment.
We have to ask ourselves where the feelings of guilt and virtue came from, along with the diet rules and good/bad food lists embedded into our minds. Diet culture and a hatred of our own bodies are the usual culprits.
Becoming an Intuitive Eater
In the video below I share some action steps you can start implementing right now in order to re-learn how to eat intuitively. Be sure to download the free workbook so you can note down your own action plan and watch the other videos in my free 6 day series.
Want more help with intuitive eating?
In the Health Mindset Programme, we have an entire module dedicated to Intuitive Eating, including an overview of the principals of IE, how to implement it and the pitfalls to look out for.