Intuitive Eating — Dieting Reprogramming

When was the first diet you went on?  Did you lose weight?  How many diets have you been on since then?  

Diets, in effort to lose weight, often result in increased cravings and urges for food.  95% of people who go on a diet, regain the weight back within 5 years and many result in weight higher than they started.  

Diets teach the body to retain more fat, slows the rate of weight loss with each attempt (hello biology), decreases metabolism, and increases cravings and binges. 

The practice of Intuitive eating (IE) is a non-diet approach to eating that can repair our guilt-ridden relationships with food and our bodies.  It was developed by two registered dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995.  

Intuitive eating emphasizes internal cues over external diet rules.  

Non-diet is far from non-health (remember the side effects of dieting).  It means that the focus is NOT on the scale, but instead it is on promoting health-enhancing behaviors, a healthier relationship with food, and better body image.  Health is not about your weight, it is really about well-being.

Intuitive eating is evidence-based, with over 100 research studies, indicating positive physical and mental health attributes of IE including;

  • Increased self-esteem
  • Increased well-being and optimism
  • Increased positive body image
  • Increased HDL (“good”) cholesterol
  • Lower triglycerides
  • Lower rates of emotional eating
  • Lower rates of disordered eating (restrictive and binge eating)

We are all born intuitive eaters.  Babies cry,  they eat and won’t stop until they are full.  What if they only nursed a short time or didn’t finish their bottle?  If they are full, they will move their head away and respond in a way to tell you “no, I’ve had enough”.  They may not take in the exact same at every feed or every day.  Kids are the same!  They may eat more one day and less the next, or have 1 big meal a day.  But, it all balances out!  As we grow older we are introduced to food rules — forced to clean our plates, told certain food are off limits, dessert is an award, only eat at certain times, told certain foods are “good or bad”.  We also learn that certain bodies are more valued than others, and told if we change our body (diet) we can make our bodies more valuable. We begin to lose touch with our inner intuition and get away from using internal cues about what, how much, and when to eat, and rather let external cues decide that for us.  This can set off a great deal of unwanted food behaviors including restricting, binging, emotional eating and obsessive thoughts about food and body.  

When we move toward IE, we begin negating the negative health effects (physical and mental) associated with dieting, including: 

  • Weight cycling 
  • Food and body preoccupation
  • Lower self-esteem
  • Eating disorders/disordered eating

Any diet that negatively affects your mental health is NOT making you healthier.  

What intuitive eating is NOT:

  • It is not only for people with eating disorders.
  • It is not anti-health
  • It is not anti-nutrition
  • It is not only for those without dietary restrictions (allergy, sensitivity, celiac dz, diabetes)

So, how does one goes from years of dieting to IE?  It can be extremely daunting to let go of all the diet rules and restrictions.  When working with my clients, we take a step approach to ditch the diet mentality by developing an individualized plan to provide and meet their nutrient needs, and eat based on a schedule with balanced nutrition to help regulate their appetite hormones. Then learning how to put focus on their internal cues (aka your intuition) like hunger, fullness and satisfaction, while moving away from external diet rules and restrictions.  

We move on to the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating.  

  1. Reject the Diet Mentality.  How has dieting helped you so far?  You are not the reason diets have failed.  Diets only have a 5% success rate of keeping off the weight after 5 years!  Diets are a flawed paradigm.  Diets set us up to fail.  Reject the idea that there are any good diets out there.  Unfollow social media accounts that encourage dieting and make you feel bad about yourself and begin following positive food and health messaging.  

  1. Honor Your Hunger.  This principle is about learning to feed your body adequately throughout the day.  Underfeeding and ignoring hunger signals often result in primal hunger that fuels a drive to overeat (hello biology), as well as make impulsive choices around food.  Years of suppressing hunger through dieting and restriction can make hunger cues less noticeable.  IE practices getting back in touch with those hunger cues.  

  1. Make Peace with Food.  Stop categorizing food as “good” or  “bad”  and begin giving yourself unconditional permission to eat what you want.  If you tell yourself you can’t have something, you will eventually have uncontrolled cravings and overeat.  No one food can make you unhealthy, just as no one food can make you healthy.  Challenging the food police is an important step towards becoming an intuitive eater.  It allows for you to experience habituation.  Therefore,  foods that were often off limits, but often resulted in binges with an all or none attitude or guilt driven – will begin to lose their special appeal. 

  1. Challenge the Food Police.  This is about giving yourself the emotional permission to eat all foods.  Challenge the inner voice that tells you that you are good or bad for eating certain foods.  Take the morality out of eating. By challenging the food police, you will be able to look at nutrition with self-care versus punishment. 

  1. Respect Your Fullness. When we don’t honer our hunger, it is extremely difficult to respect our fullness.  Dieting leaves us feeling like we need to eat it all when it is allowed or guilt of eating off your plan, so keep eating it now as you will never eat it again!  Mindfulness skills are extremely important to notice when you are satisfied and stop eating before you are uncomfortably stuffed.  

  1. Discover the Satisfaction Factor.  You can be physically full, but not satisfied (mentally).  Finding a balance of foods that fill you physically but are also satisfying is helpful with the above principles.  If you are unsatisfied with what you are eating, you will most likely keep eating other food until you are satisfied, which will likely lead to overeating.  Intentionally choosing pleasurable food, you’re less likely to binge or overeat.  Eat enjoyable food more mindfully.  

  1. Cope with Your Emotions without Using Food.  We often eat for so many reasons other than hunger and emotional eating is a common coping strategy to unpleasant feelings and emotions.  Food can provide comfort, but it is not the most effective coping mechanism, as it rarely help us deal with the root cause.  Emotional eating can often leave you feeling worse, especially if it leads to guilt, judgment and shame.  IE teaches you how to identify the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger, as well as how to cope with emotions without using food.  

  1. Respect Your Body.  Treat your body with more kindness and respect.  Feeding your body adequately and appropriately, engaging in frequent movement, getting adequate rest and sleep, and managing stress — your weight will settle in the range it is supposed to be in.  You cannot force your body into a size it isn’t meant to be in and be healthy, no more than you can force your feet into a smaller size shoe and feel good.  

  1. Exercise – Feel the Difference.  Instead of focusing on exercise to change your body, exercise FOR your body!  It’s not about burning calories to lose weight or permission to eat.  It’s about moving your body for self-care, de-stressing and NOT punishment.  Forget about the calorie burn and focus on how you feel during and after you exercise.  Do you have more energy?  Do you sleep more soundly?  Does it help release stress?  Find movement that you enjoy.  

  1. Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition.  Consider how certain foods makes you feel in addition to how tasty and satisfying they are.  Eating healthy does not mean eating perfectly.  

Interested in learning more about Intuitive Eating?  

Building Better Nutrition works with clients 1:1 with individuals who are diagnosed with eating disorders, disordered eating, or are frustrated with dieting and their relationship with food.  Insurance often covers the cost of nutrition sessions.  

Suzanne Iovanni, RDN, CSSD, CLT

Building Better Nutrition 

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