Weight loss and dieting comprise a multibillion-dollar global industry. Yet, as the World Health Organization reports, “worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975” and “in 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults, 18 years and older, were overweight. Of these over 650 million were obese.” Something is not working here. In fact, some research has shown that dieting may work against our goals of maintaining healthy bodies.
On the one hand, a 1999 study found that dieting “is the most important predictor of new eating disorders,” in adolescents. Adolescent girls who severely dieted were found to be 18 times more likely to develop eating disorders than those who did not. On the other hand, a 2015 study based on an Australian sample found that the odds of obesity were actually higher for those who had dieted in the past year than among those who hadn't—and in fact increased the more regularly a person dieted.
In the face of the failure of diet culture, the philosophy of intuitive eating has gained increasing popularity in the last thirty years.
Intuitive eating is a holistic approach to nutrition developed by two registered dieticians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, who published their findings and philosophy in their 1995 book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works. The widely acclaimed dietician authors call the concept a “self-care eating framework rooted in science and informed by clinical experience.”
The guide is billed as “a recovery book for chronic dieters” that explores “a whole new way of eating and making peace with food” by focusing on “nurturing your body rather than on the biology of starvation, and encourages natural weight loss, helping you find the weight you were meant to be.”
Part of what makes Tribole and Resch’s approach different than dieting is how it is relaxed when it comes to implementation. While it steers clear of strict rules, the philosophy offers some general guidelines about how to approach eating in a balanced, soul-serving way.
Tribole and Resch themselves designate ten principles for reshaping one’s attitude toward the role of food in a balanced lifestyle. If you’d like to take a step in a balanced direction this National Nutrition Month, consider some of the principles behind this healthy lifestyle.
Reject the diet mentality
Christy Harrison, an anti-diet registered dietitian, certified intuitive eating counselor, and journalist describes the diet mentality or diet culture as an often unconscious belief system that “demonizes certain ways of eating,” thus promoting hyper-vigilance and shame regarding issues of health and nutrition.
The first step in learning to practice intuitive eating is to consciously reject diet culture. As Resch explains, rejecting the diet mentality is part of “the process of rediscovering their inner wisdom that helps them make decisions about eating.” This inner wisdom begins with listening to our bodies when it comes to hunger.
Honor your hunger
This step, according to Tribole, is about keeping your body “biologically fed with adequate energy” and avoiding “excessive hunger.” Not only does excessive hunger lead to “weight gain over time,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it also increases the likelihood of negative emotions like “feeling deprived and distracted or distressed.” Hunger likewise causes blood sugar problems, brain fog, nutrient deficiencies. grumpiness, weakness, headaches, and difficulty concentrating. Honoring your hunger, then, is about giving “yourself unconditional permission to eat.”
Brigitte Zietlin, nutritional counselor and founder of a wellness retreat, advises ranking your hunger “on a scale from 1 to 10” so you never get too hungry. “If you’re feeling something between an 8 to 10, you’ll overeat . . . . At five to seven, you’re feeling hungry enough to eat but still in control of how much you’re eating.”
Make peace with food
Related to the idea of rejecting diet culture is the practice of making peace with food. The fact is, each new dieting trend has its own list of “good” and “bad” foods, and after decades of diet culture almost no food groups have been spared some censure. As Virginia Sole, author of The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image and Guilt in America, observes, “Our catalogue of ‘bad’ foods has been getting bigger and bigger—gluten! red meat! anything in a package!—until we’re apologizing for eating, period.”
Colleen Christensen, a registered dietitian nutritionist and “food freedom” expert, details her own battle to make peace with food, sharing: “I was over my head in diet culture madness (all of that low carb, low calorie, don’t eat after 8 p.m. madness) I knew I couldn’t live the rest of my life that way.”
But how, exactly, do you make peace with foods that diet culture has been making war on for decades? Christensen used “mantras, affirmations, and journaling” to rewire her attitude toward certain foods like bread and pasta. Among her recommended affirmations are “I will treat my body with respect and nourish it with what it asks for,” and “I give my body permission to change.” Another practice Christensen recommends is working to get past your own personal food rules in a systematic fashion. She focused on letting go of one “food rule” at a time, so as not to trigger her desire to restrict her eating—and because it helped her truly appreciate the food she had previously labeled as “bad.”
Challenge the food police
The “food police” according to Resch and Tribole, are stationed deep in our psyche. They “monitor the unreasonable rules that diet culture has created. They shout “negative barbs, hopeless phrases, and guilt-provoking indictments.”
Resch frames these automated rules and mental blocks from the lens of neuroscience, reminding her audience that “our brains are the masterminds of our behavior.” The brain’s survival instinct sends messages of “hunger, fullness, and what tastes good.” The neocortex, meanwhile, enables “rational thought, which can comfort any emotions we have about eating, override physical or emotional factors that have to do with appetite, and ultimately change our relationship with food and eating, in positive ways.” By growing in awareness and intentionality with our relationship with food, we can work toward healthier behaviors.
Discover the satisfaction factor
Perhaps the most enjoyable principle in intuitive eating, the satisfaction factor is about making the act of eating a pleasurable and sensory experience. As Resch and Tribole explain, “When you eat what you really want, in an environment that is inviting, the pleasure you derive will be a powerful force in helping you feel satisfied and content.”
Discovering the satisfaction factor requires careful attention the experience we create for ourselves when we eat. Resch and Tribole point to the culinary culture of Japan, as an example of how food and eating can be a form of ritualized pleasure—even an art form. Mukimono, for instance, is the art of carving vegetables, fruits, and other foods into interesting shapes. Moritsuke is the art of dish presentation. Both practices emphasize and contribute to eating as celebratory experience.
Fortunately, you don’t need to relocate to Japan in order to enjoy the sensory pleasures of the art of eating. There are practices you can implement every time you sit down to eat to make your meal a more enjoyable experience. Cookbook author, and registered dietitian, Ellie Krieger advises: “Slow down instead of shoveling it in mindlessly. Employ all of your senses to fully experience it and how it makes you feel. Before you eat, take in the food with your eyes, appreciating its colors, textures and presentation, and inhale and enjoy its appealing aroma. When you take a bite, chew well, allowing all the flavors to unfold.”
Another easy way to help you appreciate your food is to take time to set your table before you sit down to eat. It literally sets the scene for your meal. And that little act of time and intention also puts you in the right frame of mind to then eat with intention.
Feel your fullness
Tribole and Resch write that, “in order to honor your fullness, you need to trust that you will give yourself the foods that you desire. Listen for the body signals that tell you that you are no longer hungry. Observe the signs that show that you’re comfortably full. Pause in the middle of eating and ask yourself how the food tastes, and what your current hunger level is.”
If you want to be more precise about it, psychologist Susan Albers, author of Eat, Drink, and Be Mindful: How to End Your Struggle with Mindless Eating and Start Savoring Food with Intention and Joy, commends the Japanese maxim hara hachi bu, meaning “Eat until you’re 80 percent full.” This approach is helpful, according to Albers, because it instructs you to stop eating when you feel only slightly full. The goal is to feel “satisfied and not hungry anymore, rather than full.”
She offers simple pointers on how to go about this (many of them also applicable for discovering the satisfaction factor): “Slow down while eating, and give your body time to register how much you’ve eaten. If you eat quickly and stop at what you think is 80 percent full, you may actually be 100 percent full and not know it since your body hasn’t caught up yet with your mind. . . . Aiming for 80 percent full should avoid triggering the ‘too full’ sensation.”
Cope with your emotions with kindness
The phrase eating your emotions is one that hits home for many women. We turn to ice cream and pizza and other favorite comfort foods when the going gets tough: a painful menstruation, a sad breakup, an exceptionally hard day at work or with the kids. So how does one reconcile intuitive eating with the problem of emotional eating?
Tribole and Resch warn readers that emotional eating “may comfort for the short term, distract from the pain, or even numb you. But food won’t solve the problem. If anything, eating for an emotional hunger may only make you feel worse in the long run.”
As a safeguard against perpetuating a cycle of overeating in time of duress, nutritionists commonly advocate for increased self-awareness, urging health-minded people to consider possible aggravating factors that can lead to emotional eating. For example, do you retreat from social support during times of emotional need? Do you not engage in activities that might otherwise relieve stress, sadness, and so on? Do you not understand the difference between physical and emotional hunger? Do you use negative self-talk? Learning to eliminate patterns of behavior that increase negative emotion, and implementing other healthy practices to deal with negative emotions and stressful situations will make you less reliant on food as a source of emotional comfort.
Respect your body
It’s hard to reject diet culture and embrace the inner wisdom of intuition when plagued by body image issues. Nutritionist Brenna O’Malley offers advice for how to realistically respect one’s body, noting that “it’s unrealistic to think we will love every single thing about our bodies.” Instead, one should focus on dressing in clothes that fit, feel comfortable, and make you feel good, as well as talking to oneself with “compassion and kindness” and “moving your body in a way that feels good to you.”
Movement: feel the difference
Movement is an essential building block of a healthy, balanced lifestyle. The benefits of staying active are virtually endless: improved health, heightened productivity, mental well being, weight control, better sleep, to name but a few. But you don’t need to take up running or kickboxing to reap these benefits. You just need to not be sedentary.
Our historically new sedentary lifestyles, says the World Health Organization, “increase all causes of mortality, double the risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity, and increase the risks of colon cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, lipid disorders, depression and anxiety.”
Luckily, there are simple ways to incorporate movement into one’s daily routine without disrupting one’s routine. Some highly effective techniques include using a standing desk when possible, taking walks during free time, parking far from entrances, skipping the elevator, walking on treadmill while watching TV, and taking up hobbies like gardening. As Resch and Tribole refreshingly put it, “just get active and feel the difference.”
Honor your health
This final principle is a long-term big picture view of nutrition and balance. It’s about not getting caught up in calorie counting or meal tracking. Instead, it is about remembering that “it’s what you eat consistently over time that matters.”
Indeed, the practice of intuitive eating shuns quick-fix mentalities, as it is meant to be a building block of a holistic, balanced lifestyle rather than a tactic to achieve fast results. Still, clinical science, though still relatively new, supports the benefits of intuitive eating, with about 200 studies and counting, including one 2017 review showing that intuitive eating results in weight control, improved psychological health, possibly improved physical health indicators like blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and improved eating behaviors.
The research on intuitive eating is promising, showing clear indicators of improved physical and mental health, both of which make leading a balanced, nutritious lifestyle. By making health about feeling good, rather than abiding by strict rules, one’s attitude toward the role of health in daily life can actually become enjoyable. Employing intuitive eating in my own life has proved incredibly rewarding.
Speaking for myself, I now look forward to daily walks and yoga as ways to recharge. I put on my noise-blocking headphones, listen to my favorite music or catch up on podcasts, and enjoy the feeling of winter sunshine on my face. As far as food is concerned, I now like to make a kind of game out of learning about nutrition, exploring a different food item each week, and incorporating it into recipes. For me, intuitive eating is less about results and more about the art of living—enjoying nutrition and movement as a means to foster a happier, more balanced lifestyle.