“How do you decide what to eat?” This is a question I commonly ask a new client. Feeding ourselves may seem so basic, but for many people, deciding what, when, and how much to eat can become quite complicated. Eating issues can stem from disparaging comments from peers or family members (“Should you be eating that?”), a new life change (moving to a new city, developing independence, etc.), or going through a difficult situation where food manipulation gives a false sense of control. To make matters stickier, our culture idolizes thinness and dieting has become a socially accepted norm.
So, how does a person make sensible food choices that nourish the body to maximize health without becoming overly regimented? The answer - Intuitive Eating! Intuitive eaters: give themselves unconditional permission to eat, are able to perceive and trust their hunger and fullness cues, and eat for physical needs, not emotional needs. Every person is actually born an intuitive eater, but life experiences can deviate some people from this intuitive wisdom. For example, if a person has been on multiple diets, follows certain “food rules”, or copes with life events by restricting or turning to food, then he or she is likely no longer an intuitive eater.
Principle 1. Reject the Diet Mentality
A team of UCLA researchers reviewed 31 long-term studies on dieting and concluded that dieting is a consistent predictor of weight gain - up to 2/3 of people later regain more weight than they initially lose from dieting! To make matters worse, the result is cumulative - the more diets a person has followed, usually the further he or she is from his or her biological weight. While many people diet for health reasons, the paradox is that dieting usually creates more harm than benefit. As long as a person is engaging in some form of dieting, he or she will never be free from food and body worries.
Principle 2. Honor Your Hunger
The first part of honoring your hunger is being able to identify what gentle hunger feels like to your the body since hunger feels different to each person. Not everyone experiences a growling or aching stomach when their body needs fuel. Instead, some may experience hunger in the form of a headache, low energy, irritability, or poor concentration. Keeping the body fed with adequate nutrition will help prevent overeating as a result of excessive hunger.
Principle 3. Make Peace with Food
By giving yourself unconditional permission to eat, food deprivation is prevented which reduces intense food cravings. Viewing all food in a neutral light will help take the morality and judgment out of eating “good” or “bad” foods, which eliminates post-food guilt. Once this stigma is removed, you will be free to identify satisfying foods that feel good inside your body.
Principle 4. Challenge the Food Police
The food police consists of the distorted beliefs, thoughts, and negative self-talk you might have about eating, dieting, and body image. Challenging these myths and reframing them with truth will assist in making beneficial eating choices.
Principle 5. Feel Your Fullness
Often, hunger is easier to perceive than comfortable fullness. By paying attention to your fullness signals and giving yourself unconditional permission to eat, overeating is less likely to occur. Incorporating a brief “time out” during a meal to assess your appetite level can give a better indication on how much more food, if any, needs to be eaten to achieve comfortable fullness.
Principle 6. Discover the Satisfaction Factor
Eating should be a pleasurable, joyful experience. The more satisfied you feel, the less food you’ll need to eat (quality over quantity). Food choices are based upon what you want that will be satisfying, as opposed to what you think you “should” eat. Taking time to taste, chew, and appreciate your food during mealtime will result in a more satisfying experience.
Principle 7. Cope with Your Emotions without Using Food
Using food as a way to distract yourself from an uncomfortable feeling will not pacify the situation after the meal is over. Also, turning to food as a reprieve or “vacation” when self-care needs are not being met will only intensify the problem at hand. Regularly meeting your basic needs and coping with uncomfortable emotions without using food will help prevent emotional eating.
Principle 8. Respect Your Body
Being overly critical of your body image takes you further away from knowing what your body needs. The more respect you have for your body, the more likely you will take care of it and the better you will feel about yourself. Your body deserves respect!
Principle 9. Exercise - Feel the Difference
Instead of focusing on the number of calories burned, notice how it feels to move your body. Choose physical activities that you find enjoyable and they will be more likely to become part of your lifestyle.
Principle 10. Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition
Health is not determined by 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. Nutrient-dense foods nourish our body, while allowing some “play food” nourishes our soul!
The Proof is in the Pudding ...
Intuitive Eating is an evidenced-based model. To date, over 32 research studies have been conducted on the specific process of Intuitive Eating. These studies show that intuitive eaters: have more trust in their body in determining what to eat, select a greater variety of foods, have a better sense of well-being, are more connected with their bodies, and have a lower BMI without dieting. Also, intuitive eaters are less likely to engage in behaviors that may lead to weight gain than dieters (for a list of the studies, refer to Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD and Elyse Resch, MS, RD, FADA, CEDRD). When you look at the research, it is very compelling!
It is important to emphasize that a person cannot become an intuitive eater if he or she has an urgent, primary motivation to lose weight because this will interfere with the process, and the principles can be turned into rigid rules, as opposed to productive guidelines. Body weight is an outcome of our beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors. By becoming an intuitive eater, a person’s choices will result in achieving his or her natural weight.
Intuitive Eating is a research-proven method for finding satisfaction in your eating and body image, while promoting health. The result is positively empowering, and I have witnessed this in my life, as well as my clients who have decided to work on becoming intuitive eaters!
-Crystal Witte, RDN
Be sure to visit Crystal's website and learn more about the services she offers! Working with a dietitian is not just about learning WHAT to eat, but digging deeper into how we relate to food and how different aspects of our lives affect our daily food choices.
And as a final thought, this is my question/ challenge for you: What principles are you currently practicing? What areas of improvement can you identify after reading this post?
Kristen Chang is Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) and triathlete residing in southwest Virginia with her husband and dogs. Follow along as she shares favorite fueling recipes, general wellness and sport nutrition tips and stories from her athletic endeavors.
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