Intuitive Eating: Everything You Need To Know - Women's Health UK

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Intuitive eating is a buzz term being dropped into conversations more than clean eating was in 2016.

But you’re not alone if you’re wondering what it actually means.

In short, it’s an approach to eating that removes restriction and eating within a set food framework. As nutritionist Jenna Hope (@Jennahopenutrition) puts it, it’s “a form of attunement to the mind, body and food, the idea being that you learn to identify and respond to your own subtle hunger and satiety cues.”

Think of it as re-tuning your body to recognise what it wants to eat, when, without imposing any restricting ‘zero carb’ or ‘low sugar’ rules that just tempt you further into face planting all the cakes/chocolate/both.

Sounds simple enough, right? Not so. You think you’d be a natural at eating what you want, when you want, but in reality, nutrition experts warn that coming to terms with your actual hunger cues is much harder than you think.

WHAT IS INTUITIVE EATING?

It may seem basic, but for women who have struggled with diet culture or healthy eating, knowing what to eat to nourish your body and when to stop can be confusing. The health food market is saturated with products and differing opinions and it’s all too easy to get lost amongst the noise and date bars.

So where does intuitive eating come into this? Whilst the notion has been around for centuries, dieticians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch are acknowledged as the originators of the approach. Their website encourages you to “distinguish between physical and emotional feelings” to “gain a sense of body wisdom.”

The ten core principles encourage those aiming to eat intuitively to:

1. Reject the diet mentality
2. Honour your hunger
3. Make peace with food
4. Challenge the food police
5. Respect your fullness
6. Discover the satisfaction factor
7. Honour your feelings without using food
8. Respect your body
9. Exercise to feel the difference (aka feel good)
10. Honour your health.

SO DOES INTUITIVE EATING WORK?

You may be wondering, “If I eat what I want, when I want, that’d be stone baked Margherita pizza, Maryland cookies and Merlot on repeat….”. But intuitive eating is much more than an internal food monologue as nutrition psychologist Kimberley Wilson (@foodpsych), points out.

“People often say, ‘If I eat what I want, I won’t be able to stop.’ They are so used to ignoring their cues, fighting themselves and trying to be in control that the alternative feels like ‘chaos’”, she says. “The reality is that it is not chaos, it is freedom.”

So that nagging fear of eating all the pizza, cookies and red wine—in other words, not being able to trust yourself to eat what you truly want—is a dangerous headspace sadly so many are stuck in.

In her opinion, many women subconsciously override what their body craves eating to stick to a set diet plan. She said: “Most don’t realise that what they choose to eat is often completely unrelated to what they want to eat.”

Think back to breakfast: did you really want zoats or did you just tell yourself you did?

INTUITIVE EATING: THE SCIENCE

Interestingly, studies have found that those who ate intuitively and managed to listen to exactly what their bodies wanted actually ended up eating less than their calorie counting or food restricting peers. As Hope points out, “Some research suggests that intuitive eating is associated with a healthier relationship with food, a lower BMI, a reduction in chronic dieting and reduction in food-related anxiety.”

Several studies published in 2016 pointed positively towards intuitive eating: one published in Appetite associated women who ate intuitively with less disordered eating, a more positive body image and greater emotional functioning and another found that women who ate intuitively avoided internalised weight stigma or negativity. And a 2015 study published in Eat Weight Disorder found that intuitive eaters had a lower BMI than disordered eaters, and finally a 2014 study from found intuitive eating to be more effective than weight loss programs to decrease problematic eating behaviours.

Finding your healthy balance isn’t easy, but swapping the week-long salad nibbling and weekend chocolate inhaling for longer-term healthier decisions—in other words, figuring out what (and if) your body wants to be eating right now—may be a good place to start.

WHY MIGHT INTUITIVE EATING BE BEST FOR ME?

If you’re unhappy in your current eating habits and are looking for a less calorie, macro or diet plan focused alternative, Wilson believes there are many reasons why intuitive eating may be the right choice for you.

1. ELIMINATION OF FOOD ANXIETY

You know, the black and white establishment of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods in your brain and the nagging “Should I order the pasta? Or should I get the courgetti?” when you really, really fancy carbonara. Wilson acknowledges that there is no one size fits all approach to dieting or nutrition but believes that satisfying cravings can only be good for you.

She says: “If you eat the foods that your body wants, when you want them, in the quantities that leave you satisfied you will, by definition, be eating the right diet for you. It makes deciding what to eat much, much simpler.”

2. BETTER MIND AND BODY CONNECTION

If you can’t trust yourself to make a good decision about what to eat for breakfast, then when can you trust yourself?

Watson believes eating intuitively can encourage a better sense of trust between your gut, hunger, mind and body. She says: “Intuitive eating increases your trust in your own body, mind and decision-making. Deciding what and when to eat is the first opportunity for us to learn how to assert our own minds and say what we want for ourselves.” Makes sense.

3. SAVING OF TIME AND ENERGY

If spending hours calculating the macros in your meal prep isn’t for you, then intuitive eating may just well be.

Watson encourages ditching the diet mentality and saving your energy for something more productive. “In my personal opinion, diets are an enormous waste of time and energy. They fail over 95% in the long-term, with most dieters regaining any initial losses.
“In spite of this two thirds of Brits are on a diet ‘most of the time’ and the average woman will spend 30 years of her life on a diet. This tells us that trying to follow an external eating plan doesn’t work. Think of all the things you could be focused on if you weren’t constantly thinking about calories, grams of sugar or macros…”

BUT…?

Intuitive eating is not a label to slap on a nutritionally light diet because you crave White Chocolate Creme Eggs. Rather, it’s an approach that requires genuine time, effort and dedication to getting to know your body and it’s hunger cues. It’s not for everyone—and it’s certainly not easy. As Hope points out, “Some nutritionists even argue that intuitive eating promotes a worse nutritional profile. There are plenty of hurdles you have to overcome before you learn how to truly utilise intuitive eating and so it’s recommended that you seek expert advice if you’re curious.”

It could be rewarding if you’re the type of person who functions well by responding to their bodily signals, however for others who function better from a routine, counting macros or planning meals may eliminate stress and help to promote a healthier, more balanced routine. If you’re genuinely looking to start eating more intuitively, an expert run course, such as the ones run by Rooted London, are a great place to start.

Remember, as with any lifestyle choice, it’s entirely up to you as an individual and your individual preference, which is the theory that, in essence, lies at the heart of intuitive eating. Remember to choose what works best for your body.

Cooking tonight? Try these easy vegan recipes or prep these yummy overnight oats.

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