What is Intuitive Eating?

intuitive eating

It’s safe to say that we all know someone who is constantly “dieting.”  Always trying the new trendy diet, eliminating something from their diet, obsessively counting calories, tracking this, tracking that. Why are our friends, family members and coworkers seemingly torturing themselves with ultra-restrictive diets and, quite frankly, unhealthy and unrealistic ways of living?

Fad diets are here to stay.

When I say “fad diet,” I’m referring to diets such as the Atkins Diet, South Beach Diet, Keto Diet, and Raw Food Diet. This short list barely scratches the surface. They are diets that are not sustainable long-term and some could even have negative health implications. 

Take nutrition back to the basics.

Focusing on ditching the diet mentality and implementing healthy and sustainable lifestyle changes instead will lead to a more balanced life.  Practicing intuitive eating, rather than restrictive eating, and building a new relationship with food will help us get back to the basics.”

Michael Pollan, a well-respected author and nutrition guru, said, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” He has the right idea. These are tried and true, simple nutrition guidelines that everyone can follow, with modifications, of course, if food allergies are an issue.

A well-rounded diet should include: a variety of many fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy products, lean proteins, nuts and legumes and healthy fats and oils.

Chronic dieting is detrimental to our well-being.

We NEED food to survive. We need a VARIETY of foods to survive. When we deprive ourselves of certain foods/food groups, we’re putting ourselves at risk for nutrient deficiency, slowed metabolism, and possibly even psychological problems such as anxiety and depression.

The National Eating Disorders Association says that “Dieting forces your body into starvation mode. It responds by slowing down many of its normal functions to conserve energy. This means your natural metabolism actually slows down.” Which is the opposite of what you want if you’re trying to lose weight. Chronic dieting puts us at war with food…and who wants that? Food is social, it’s fun, and it’s expressive.

There are 10 principles to intuitive eating:

  1. Reject the Diet Mentality –  Say no to fad diets that offer quick fix solutions that lead to permanent weight loss. Fad diets set you up to feel as if you’ve failed when you stop the diet, go back to your “normal” eating habits, and inevitably gain the weight back.
  2. Honor Your Hunger – Simple, eat when you’re hungry.  Keep your mind and body nourished and energized with whole foods. 
  3. Make Peace with Food – Don’t punish yourself for eating something that you’ve deemed “bad.” When you tell yourself you can’t have something, what are you most likely to crave?  Give yourself permission to eat the foods you enjoy without overindulging. 
  4. Challenge the Food Police – We all have that voice in our head telling us we’re being “good” or “bad” based on the foods we eat. Challenge that. It’s okay when it’s telling us we’re being “good,” but don’t let it win when it tells us we’re being “bad.” 
  5. Respect your Fullness – Pay attention to the signals your body is giving you. Eat slowly, pause during the meal, be aware. If you’re comfortably full, stop eating.
  6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor – When you learn to appreciate and enjoy each bite of food that you eat, you won’t necessarily need to eat as much of it to be satisfied. Mindless eating causes overeating, so when we pay attention to our food and are intentional about each bite we take, we’re less likely to overeat.
  7. Honor Your Feelings Without Using Food – Many people use food as an emotional support. Comfort food may do just that, comfort you, in the short term – but for chronic dieters, or individuals with unhealthy eating habits, “eating your feelings” could cause you to feel worse and potentially lead to more dangerous behaviors. When you feel stressed, anxious, or depressed, and you’re thinking about reaching for a snack, try to train your brain to reach for something else like a book or a puzzle.
  8. Respect Your Body – We are who we are because of genetics. We can only control so much about our bodies. If you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet, exercising, and enjoying your life, you’re doing GREAT!  Try not to be unrealistic about body shape/size.
  9. Movement – Exercise does the mind and body SO much good. Not everyone will do CrossFit or run marathons and that’s okay.  Try different things and figure out what makes you feel your absolute best – whether that’s a brisk walk, an exercise class with friends, or a mind-clearing solo hike.
  10. Honor Your Health – The website intuitiveeating.org says “Remember that you don’t have to eat a perfect diet to be healthy. You will not suddenly get a nutrient deficiency or gain weight from one snack, one meal, or one day of eating. It’s what you eat consistently over time that matters, progress not perfection is what counts.”

These principles are a guide and a way for chronic dieters to heal and recover and get on the path to an overall healthier lifestyle. It’s all about getting back to the basics, figuring out a balance, and learning what works for you. Dieting is stressful. Intuitive eating doesn’t have to be.

Abbi Bailey is an Employee Wellness Health Coach at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

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