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Nutrition

Why Intuitive Eating Works

Why Intuitive Eating Works

The recent popularity of intuitive eating in the wellness world has meant that more and more people are starting to realize that dieting simply doesn’t work as a long term solution. 

Studies have found that restricting calories increases our levels of cortisol (also known as the stress hormone) and monitoring calories increased perceived stress. This increase in cortisol and stress levels may lead to both overeating, emotional eating, and weight gain. 

Further a peer-reviewed study, cited on Biomed Central showed that 8 years of dieting resulted in almost no weight change in over 20,000 women, “and average waist circumference, which is a measure of abdominal fat, had increased (0.3 cm).”

When people learn to give up on dieting and embrace an intuitive eating approach, they often wonder if it can still be part of a healthy lifestyle. Many assume that if you eat whatever you want, whenever you want, it could be a recipe for overeating and unhealthy choices. Some of us fear that if we allow ourselves permission to eat anything it might mean we will eat everything.

The truth is, it isn’t so black and white. Unlike rules and restrictions that lead to feelings of deprivation and unhealthy attitudes towards food, intuitive eating offers us the chance to connect more deeply to our bodies. 

In this blog post, we’ll explain: why intuitive eating works, how it can be part of a healthy lifestyle and how to incorporate nutrition in a gentle, non-restrictive way.  

What does intuitive eating mean?

The term intuitive eating first came about in the late 1980s stemming from a movement toward a non-diet philosophy. As it became more and more evident that dieting for the purpose of weight loss was leading to failed attempts, increased weight gain, and lowered self esteem, two Registered Dieticians laid down 10 principles of Intuitive Eating in a book by the same name.

The principles of this new, anti-dieting, movement addressed how people could move away from restrictive thinking and move back toward their intuitive wisdom about eating.

This philosophy toward building a better relationship with food is based on the belief that all people are born with an intuitive wisdom of how to eat. This includes knowing when they are hungry and full, knowing their taste preferences and how their bodies feel after they eat. One of the reasons we’ve lost this innate ability is because of dieting. Dieting, in large part, does not allow us to be in tune with our desires, needs and wants as the diet tells us what to eat and when. It has diminished our ability to tune into our own hunger and fullness cues, a main component of intuitive eating. 

What intuitive eating is

Intuitive Eating is an evidence-based mind-body health approach. It is comprised of 10 principles. It has a validated assessment scale with over 90 studies to date. It is a personal process of honouring health by listening and responding to the direct messages of the body in order to meet your physical and psychological needs. 

What intuitive eating is not

Unfortunately, intuitive eating can oftentimes be misconstrued as another diet, where the philosophy behind it becomes another set of food rules. Intuitive eating is not another diet or food plan and, as such, does not have a pass or fail system. There is no counting calories, points, tracking macros or weighing food. 

Because our society is often very prescriptive about food and eating, many people have come to rely on outside rules and advice when it comes to how and what they eat, which tends to breed mistrust of their own willpower and resolve to get healthy. Dieting is at the root of this mistrust as it sends signals to our body and brain that we cannot be trusted around food. 

Learning yo trust our body

Why intuitive eating works

When we first step away from dieting and start to embrace intuitive eating, we may experience some overeating. It becomes exciting to let go of the tight controls we placed on our food. This is an adjustment period and is completely normal.

When you’re not feeling in “control” of your eating, it can be tempting to want to start restricting and dieting again, especially if it is accompanied by weight gain. However, when it comes to intuitive eating, learning to trust the process and your body is essential. 

Our bodies are innately intelligent and will not feel optimal on a steady diet of pizza and fast food. If you can start to pay close attention to your energy levels, digestion, aches and pains, you may be able to notice you’re not feeling your best. 

If you can start incorporating more nutritious foods while maintaining this level of body awareness, you will start to notice how much better you feel. Naturally, over time, your body will start to crave other foods that make you feel good and provide energy. 

Making peace with food

Why Intuitive Eating Works

This is all about learning to make peace with food, which is one of the 10 principles of intuitive eating. When you tell yourself you shouldn’t have a certain food, subconsciously you are setting yourself up for feelings of deprivation, cravings and binges. When you allow yourself to eat the food you once deemed ‘forbidden’, you remove a lot of the appeal around that food, and are less likely to overeat and binge. 

How to incorporate nutrition into intuitive eating

Nutrition is still a very important part of intuitive eating. We all know how good it feels when we fuel our bodies with nutrient-dense, whole foods. It is only when we obsess over eating healthy all the time that we can create problems. Once we have been able to make peace with food and learn to let go of a lot of the “food rules” we can move towards incorporating good nutrition. 

Intuitive eating helps you get in touch with your own hunger and fullness cues and gives you permission to eat both satisfying and nourishing foods.  

If you are still choosing not to eat certain foods because you fear them (as is still the case for a lot of people around good fats and complex carbohydrates), then there is work to be done. Fear comes into play when you worry that a certain food will cause weight gain instead of trusting there is inherent value in healthy, whole foods. If you choose not to eat certain foods because you truly don’t like them or want them (or have an intolerance or allergy), that is obviously a-ok. 

A lot of people assume they will never crave vegetables, smoothies or salads after giving up on dieting and food restriction. But, I beg to differ! It may take a little while to start craving healthier foods, but eventually it will happen.

Intuitive eating teaches us to be more mindful when we are eating. Overall, “mindful eating” is a process of paying attention (on purpose), to your actual eating experience without judgment. While this sounds straightforward, the process can be quite complex, especially for those inclined to multi-tasking.

Intuitive eating provides you with the freedom to enjoy both satisfying and nourishing foods without the guilt. Intuitive eating puts the pleasure back into eating by providing you with the flexibility to, truly, enjoy food and find what works for you without the “all or nothing” attitude. 

How intuitive eating can be part of a healthy lifestyle

When we regain freedom around food we can create more mental clarity and can even help improve our mental health. The less focus and attention we give to overplanning our meals and food choices the more at ease we can become in other areas of our lives.

Overall, intuitive eating is a healthy choice for many reasons. It reduces food anxiety, helps us connect to our bodies, improves our mental health and helps us understand our food choices better. If you want to learn more about intuitive eating and how it can be part of your life, I encourage you to check out the Intuitive Eating Organization.

Jaclyn Irwin

Jaclyn Irwin

Holistic Nutritionist
Toronto based Holistic Nutritionist, Jaclyn Irwin, aims to help women end years of yo-yo dieting and develop a healthier relationship with food. As founder of Holistic Foodie, a food and lifestyle blog filled with delicious recipes, wellness tips and green beauty, she is blending her love of food and showing you how to enjoy both kale and cocktails. It's wellness without obsession and you can learn to love food again by following her on Instagram and be sure to check out all the goods at holisticfoodie.com.