Intuitive eating is a self care eating framework. Contrary to a diet where we follow food rules or set weight loss goals, intuitive eating removes control allowing us to connect with our body to adopt food and self care behaviours which are enjoyable as well as beneficial for our health.
Food rules are often used to counteract a lack of trust in our ability to eat in a way that supports our health and wellbeing. However, what if these rules around food are what is driving us to feel out-of-control in the first place?
The 1944 landmark study, The Minnesota Starvation experiment, which included a calorie allowance greater than most modern day diets, was one of the first to show the severe psychological consequences of dieting including bingeing, constant food thoughts and a reduced interest in other areas of life. Even without physical restriction of food, simply the thought that certain foods are “off-limits” can invoke the obsessive and out-of-control feeling we associate with needing these food rules in the first place.
By removing rules around food, many of our uncomfortable eating behaviours will naturally reduce. But, without rules to guide us, how do we know what to eat? This is where intuitive eating fits in.
Intuitive eating counselling removes guilt and restriction around food while improving body attunement so eating becomes more natural and less about control. Eating is an interplay of instinct (hunger and fullness signals) emotions (social eating and comfort) and rational thought (our knowledge about food). Intuitive eating combines all these aspects of eating through 10 key principles that all come together to support a peaceful and easy relationship with food and body.
Intuitive eating has been shown to not only support eating a healthier variety of foods (without the stress) but also improved emotion regulation, positive body image and an overall improved quality of life.
The principles of intuitive eating all work together so it is important to work through all of them for food to become easy, enjoyable and supportive in life. Here’s a snapshot of the areas explored as you create a peaceful relationship with food and your body.
To make peace with food we must have awareness as to where our food and body ideals come from and reject rules and ideals that cause us harm. This principle goes much deeper than simply stopping dieting.
Biological hunger is one of the key drivers of obsessive food thoughts, bingeing and even emotional eating and having enough brain fuel is key to being able to develop connection with our bodies. Learning to tune in, trust and honour our hunger early on is key to reclaiming our intuitive eater.
This includes ALL foods, meaning fruit is akin to sweets and vegetables are on an even playing field with pastries. There is a fear that when we allow all foods unconditionally we will want to always eat the foods we currently try to avoid. Although intuitive eaters take those avoided foods off the pedestal so they lose their power. Over time, these foods will fit into your life in a way that is supportive of your health and your taste buds.
The language we use to think about and describe food fuels our feelings of worth about ourselves. Thinking a food is bad leads to feelings of being “bad” for eating it and the guilt and shame that accrues is not supportive of our health or wellbeing, often fueling an out-of-control eating cycle. Intuitive eaters change the language and ditch the guilt.
Just as getting nutrients from food is required for good health, so too is getting pleasure from the eating experience. If we deny ourselves the pleasure and satisfaction that comes with choosing food we really feel like, we will keep craving and obsessively thinking about food. Finding satisfaction in the eating experience is one of life’s most basic gifts.
If we are used to periods of restriction and uncomfortable eating, we may not understand or be attuned to our body’s fullness messages. Just as our body signals hunger, it also guides our fullness. Importantly though, we must develop trust that food is unconditionally available before our body will feel comfortable allowing us to stop at a comfortable fullness.
Eating IS emotional. There is no shame in emotional eating, whether for pleasant or difficult emotions. But, if using food to cope with emotions has become a main coping tool or is no longer supportive, it may be helpful to curiously explore the emotional support food is providing and expand our coping toolkits so food is not so dominant.
You cannot look after a body you wish to have in the future. You can only look after your current body. Our culture has a way of shaming us into “healthy behaviours” but self-hate and judgement makes us less able to include supportive behaviours that care and respect our body’s basic needs. Intuitive eaters practice body respect so taking care of themselves is a natural priority.
The physical and mental health benefits of movement are too often swallowed by a cultural focus on weight loss which in turn leads to rigid, unenjoyable exercise regimes. When weight loss is the goal of exercise, movement is less likely to be continued long term and more associated with guilt and shame (which is not supportive of health). Switching the focus to enjoyable movement means we will feel the benefits, want to move our bodies and continue for the long term.
Once we have developed attunement with our body’s internal signals, we can bring back our external knowledge to support our food decisions. Intuitive eaters learn to make food choices based on health and satisfaction while learning how to let go of unhelpful food and body messages so as not to become overwhelmed around food.
Learning to become an intuitive eater is a marathon, not a sprint. It can feel tempting to use selective intuitive eating principles as rules to cover up the deeper issues surrounding food and body. But, intuitive eating is not a diet. We must give ourselves permission to non-judgmentally explore so we can create peace and acceptance. A powerful starting point is to shift the focus from judgement to curiosity whereby every eating experience is a chance to learn something new about ourselves.
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Emma Townsin is a registered dietitian and a certified intuitive eating counsellor. She believes every one of us deserves to be at peace with food and enjoy our life free from unrealistic ideals and weight stigma. Emma supports women to ditch dieting and find peace and connection with their bodies through her Empowered Women Academy, online courses and private counseling. Learn more about working with Emma here.
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