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Yogurt parfait with oats and orange slices.

Better Than a Diet: Intuitive Eating

In today’s current culture, society places a huge emphasis on appearance. It’s not a new phenomenon, but the internet and social media have exacerbated the pressure. There is an obsession with aesthetics that has led to an out-of-control issue for people young and old. We can’t stop thinking about the way we look and subsequently, what we eat.

Our obsession with looking a certain way has led to an unhealthy focus on dieting to achieve the desired body type. We place too much emphasis on eating minimal calories to shrink the number on the scale and not enough on what food does for us.

Food contains daily essential macro and micronutrients, such as: 

  • Calories
  • Proteins
  • Fats
  • Carbohydrates
  • Vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants

Many factors contribute to eating problems and disorders, including other mental health issues, extreme satiation of processed foods that make it more challenging to enjoy real food from nature, and physical addiction to food.

To be clear, you don’t have to be clinically diagnosed with an eating disorder to struggle with food. This document does not serve as a diagnostic tool. If you suspect you are battling disordered eating, you should consult your primary care physician or a therapist specializing in eating disorders.

Dieting is Not the Answer to Lose Weight

Society has become utterly obsessed with dieting in order to combat our addictions with food and the weight gain that often comes with it. The problem with that is dieting doesn’t work. No matter what diet you try, you’re highly likely to gain the weight back, and potentially even more.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with tracking things like your protein, carbs, and fats or even keeping a general log of your calories. The problem arises when we become so preoccupied with our eating habits that it takes away from our lives. Dieting mentality can be a slippery slope, and when you’re obsessed with tracking every morsel of food for the protein, vitamin, and antioxidant count, it becomes a daunting, massive task.

The time and effort that goes into tracking everything from your protein intake to your vitamins will, over time, feel restrictive; a restriction-based lifestyle is not sustainable.

When diets fail, several negative things happen to your mind and your body:

  1. Self-blame and self-doubt
  2. Frustration and desperation that leads to binge eating
  3. Gut microbiome changes and contributes to rapidly regaining weight when the diet relapses.

Your body grows accustomed to the foods you regularly consume. When you go on a diet and begin consuming higher amounts of whole foods, proteins, vitamins, and other nutrients, your body adjusts. Inevitably, people fall off the diet wagon and binge on highly processed foods. Each time you make these drastic changes, your body will struggle more.

For these reasons and many more, people engage in what’s called yo-yo dieting, a vicious, hard-to-break cycle of restrictive dieting, losing weight, diet failure, and gaining weight. No one actively tries to yo-yo diet, and each time they begin a diet, they likely think of it as a change they will make for the rest of their lives. By the time a person realizes that restrictive dieting and counting every protein gram and vitamin cannot create lasting change for them, they have established a messy relationship with food often tied to their mental health.  It can require serious untangling to heal from this cycle.  

So, what is the answer to healing our diet culture and, in turn, our relationships with food? As with other complex issues with multiple influencing factors, the answer is not a simple one. We can’t just quit counting calories and grams of protein and expect everything to be as it should. What works for some people might not work for you. However, intuitive eating might be an excellent place to begin, and, at the very least, a guilt-free way to enjoy food as a part of your life. After all, you’ll be eating food for the rest of your life. Do you really want to carry guilt surrounding an activity that is necessary for survival? When you feel guilt and shame, it isn’t easy to feel free. When you don’t feel free, it is challenging to be genuinely happy. Actual well-being includes both physical and mental health.

Woman cooking and focusing on intuitive eating.

What is Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive eating is an approach to food and nutrition developed by two registered dieticians in 1995. Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch created a framework for non-dieting as a means of achieving optimal health and wellness.

The idea is that from birth, humans are intuitive eaters. Young children are great examples of savoring food yet stopping when they feel full, but something happens as we age. Influences from the adults in our lives and society weigh on us, teaching us to use restrictive measures and food rules.

  • “Clean your plate” teaches us to eat the food that’s in front of us instead of what our body tells us we need.
  • “No dessert if you misbehave” teaches us that food is a reward and gets taken away if we don’t act a certain way.
  • Certain foods are “good” or “bad” for us leads to internalized feelings of regret and shame or pride surrounding food.

All these factors can lead to messy relationships with food that make us struggle to maintain healthy body weight and optimal overall health. Intuitive eating is about getting back to that natural state of truly hearing your body when it tells you that you are hungry and need vitamins and antioxidants. On the flip side, intuitive eating also acknowledges when your body tells you it has had enough.

How Will I know I’m Meeting Protein Goals with Intuitive Eating?

Suppose we can get back to listening to what our bodies are telling us. In that case, we don’t have to worry about counting macros to ensure we hit our protein goals, taking vitamins and minerals, and consuming antioxidants to combat the damage from processed foods.

Intuitive eating focuses on re-learning our body’s internal cues for hunger, fullness, and satisfaction. Our bodies are smarter than we give them credit for, and if we can genuinely tune in, our bodies will tell us through our cravings when we require more protein, more vitamins, or even more antioxidants.

While the science of food cravings is a complex one, there is evidence that certain vitamin deficiencies are linked to food cravings. For instance, people have reported an ability to recognize if they need more protein or other macro or micronutrients. Even if you’re not in tune with your cravings, you might suddenly find yourself craving fruits or a beverage rich in antioxidants and other vitamins and minerals. 

Benefits of Intuitive Eating: The Science

Intuitive eating might sound like living in la-la land. How can one eat whatever he or she wants and still be healthy? How can you be sure you’re getting adequate protein, carbs, vitamins, and antioxidants if you don’t keep track of what you’re consuming? The proof is in the pudding, and there are over 100 scientific research studies that prove intuitive eating is associated with:

  • Improved self-esteem
  • Improved body image
  • Increased overall happiness and satisfaction
  • More optimism
  • Better coping mechanisms
  • Lower BMIs (body mass index)
  • Better cholesterol levels
  • Less emotional eating
  • Less disordered eating habits

Ten Principles of Intuitive Eating

There are ten guiding factors for intuitive eating, and they’re relatively straight forward.

  1. Reject Dieting Mentality

Dieting culture and the dieting industry are not permanent solutions, but of course, they present themselves as such. In reality, diet culture presents short-term solutions in a way that makes you believe that failure is your fault. These feelings of failure are entangling and create a messy relationship with food. Diets take us farther from being able to naturally and intuitively listen to our bodies.

  1. Honor Your Hunger

Your body uses food for fuel. Feeling hungry should be as emotionless as your car needing gas. Ignoring hunger cues triggers a primal survival instinct to overeat to pack on extra weight for a pending famine. Your brain, cells, and organs cannot understand you’re just trying to lose weight. Their only goal is survival.

When you ignore hunger cues and wait until you’re excessively hungry, there is no more moderation and no more mindful eating. Instinct takes over, and you overeat. Once you’ve overeaten, you feel shame and frustration with yourself for not following your diet plan or for not having enough “will power,” when really, your mission is doomed from conception. Thus, the cycle deepens.

By beginning to learn and honor your body’s first hunger cues, you resolve to make peace with your body and the food that sustains it.

  1. Make Peace with Your Food

Resolve to begin thinking about food as food. Food is not “good” nor “bad” for you. Food is just food, and you are not good, nor bad, for eating certain foods.

Telling yourself that certain foods are wrong, and you shouldn’t eat them often, leads to feeling deprived. Deprivation then builds to an irresistible craving, and when you finally submit, you binge and then suffer from extreme guilt.

When you give yourself permission to eat and enjoy all food, you are offering yourself the freedom you might never have experienced before. Let go of the shame and guilt that surrounds food.

  1. Challenge and Ignore the Food Police

The “food police” are the voices that live within your mind telling you you’re right for eating one thing and bad for eating another. Actively correcting the thoughts that pop into your mind about what you should or shouldn’t be eating is the best way to chase away the food police and get back to your freedom surrounding food. This step will take time and practice to master.

  1. Rediscover Food Satisfaction

Diet culture has transferred so much food shame that even when we do “give in” and binge on the foods we’ve been restricting, we can’t even fully enjoy the moment. We’re too consumed by guilt in the back of our minds. Too often, we don’t truly taste and enjoy our foods, but that is a part of the experience! Instead of shoveling food down, set aside all distractions and mindfully eat and enjoy your foods. Tasting and enjoying the foods you enjoy comes hand in hand with noticing when you’re full, satisfied, and content.

  1. Feel and Honor Your Fullness

Feeling your fullness and respecting it comes with rebuilding your trust in your body and yourself. Your body needs your trust that you will give it the foods it desires. Listen and observe the signs that you are reaching a comfortable level of fullness. Mindfully eating allows for pausing and considering how each bite tastes and how full you are. If it helps, remind yourself that you can have more tomorrow.

  1. Give Yourself Grace and Kindness without Relying on Food

Unfortunately, anxieties, loneliness, anger, and boredom are all a part of life. Whether you have an anxiety disorder or not, everyone can benefit from learning coping mechanisms to handle complex emotions without soothing ourselves with food.

Food does not fix our anxieties and emotions; it merely offers a very temporary band-aid and often adds guilt and shame to whatever you were experiencing beforehand. Allow yourself to feel your emotions but not be controlled by them. You owe it to yourself to heal the sources of your emotional pains, and with healing, you will experience more freedom around food.

  1. Respect and Accept Your Body

Accept and respect your body as it is. Rejecting diet culture means realizing and understanding that you are worthy of love and respect, especially from yourself, regardless of your body’s size or shape. Society’s standards of beauty and what your body should look like are irrelevant. Just as you must accept your hunger and your fullness, you must accept your body.

This is challenging work, but regularly practicing positive self-talk can slowly build up your respect and love for yourself. 

  1. Feel the Benefits of Your Movement

Begin to shift your focus from “having” to exercise to burn calories to exercising for the positive physical and mental effects. Moving your body makes you feel energized and releases feel-good endorphins.

Just as forcing yourself to eat with rigid guidelines leads to feeling restricted, so does forcing yourself to exercise to change your body. Move because it feels good, it’s healthy for you, and you enjoy it. Experiment with different activities and find something you enjoy doing that keeps you active.

  1. Honor Your Health and Wellbeing Through Your Food Choices

Lastly, honor your health and your body by making food choices that are nutrient-dense and that you genuinely enjoy. Let go of the idea that having an “unhealthy” meal or snack is somehow detrimental to your plans. Consistency is what matters, and it’s easier to maintain when you’re not restricting yourself.

Intuitive eating lunch spread.

Is Intuitive Eating the Same as Mindful Eating?

Mindful eating is often a term that people use interchangeably with intuitive eating. Mindful eating is also about paying attention to your body’s cues, honoring your hunger, and savoring your food.

Through mindful eating, you will be able to pick up on your body’s cues that you require more protein, vitamins, minerals, water, or antioxidants.

Eating mindfully is very much a part of intuitive eating; however, intuitive eating embodies more than just eating. The active rejection of diet-culture and warm acceptance of appreciating your body is the main distinction between mindful eating and intuitive eating.

Protein Supplements, Vitamins, Antioxidants: A Note About Supplements and Intuitive Eating

One of the main goals of intuitive eating is to trust your body and stop thinking about foods as “good” or “bad.” However, it’s important to point out that there are differences in nutritional profiles of real, whole foods, and processed food. Focusing on nutrient-dense foods with macro and micronutrients like proteins, carbs, vitamins, and antioxidants is essential.

Supplements are not a one-size-fits-all fix to nutrition and eating habits. Supplements are helpful tools to reach nutritional goals that people sometimes struggle with. For example, for people who don’t enjoy eating protein from meat, protein supplements are a helpful replacement.

There are many protein supplements to choose from, each from different sources. The king of protein supplements, whey protein, derives from animals, but there are vegan protein supplements, too.

Even an intuitive eating master may struggle to eat the seven servings of fruits and vegetables a day and, therefore lack specific vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Vitamin supplements and antioxidant supplements can bridge those gaps.

Multi-vitamins are a great place to begin when looking to buy something affordable and convenient for proper vitamin and antioxidant consumption. Another excellent supplement to take to get vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants is a greens supplement. Greens supplements are created by dehydrating foods rich in nutrients and antioxidants, then grinding them to a powder to mix with water and enjoy the benefits of antioxidants and micronutrients in one convenient beverage.

Antioxidants are tiny molecules that fight free radicals in your body at a cellular level. Free radicals are linked to various illnesses and cancers. Antioxidants naturally occur in foods like fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods. They are an important micronutrient.

How to Get Started with Intuitive Eating

Many  free online resources will help you get started on your intuitive eating journey, along with many books available at your local library or for purchase. It can also help to learn some basics about nutrition to learn which foods are rich in protein, carbs, vitamins, antioxidants, etcetera. You might also be interested in learning in general how much protein you require, daily recommended amounts of vitamins, and what antioxidants do for your body.

Through intuitive eating, you will find peace and freedom in food, and you will naturally reach a happy and healthy body weight and composition. You will give your body the nutrients like proteins, carbs, calories, vitamins, antioxidants, minerals, and more that it desperately needs and craves. More than that, you will feel much happier and have a better overall feeling of well-being.

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