What is Intuitive Eating?
Intuitive eating is the reliance on physiological hunger and satiety cues to guide your eating habits and has been proposed as a healthier, more effective, and more innate alternative to current weight management strategies. (1) By focusing on these cues, you can give your body the nutrition it needs and pay attention when the body has reached a level of fullness.
Compared to dieting or other weight loss strategies like intermittent fasting, the goal of intuitive eating is to eat for physical rather than emotional or environmental reasons or to achieve a goal to change your weight.
In scientific literature, it has been defined as a style of eating that focuses on eating motivated by physical reasons, with an individual relying on their connection with and understanding of their hunger and satiety cues. (2)
This acceptance model of intuitive eating has been studied well, especially with its effectiveness in coping with food cravings. With acceptance-based strategies have better outcomes in coping with cravings and consumption. (3)
This type of effectiveness in coping with cravings may be key to avoiding the yoyo effect of being so deprived that a dieter is driven to overeating and consumption during cheat days or worse yet, yo-yo-ing between diet cycles instead of maintaining a moderate consumption all throughout. Although a diet can result in weight loss that may produce a short-term gain, it is at a long-term cost. One review concluded that “diet-induced weight loss resulted in long-term changes in appetite gut hormones which tended to favor weight gain. (4)
Mindfulness in eating appears to work because of the increased internal awareness of the cues to eat like hunger and satiety. So it has the potential to address problematic eating behaviors like overeating and binging. The mindfulness approach to eating may lead to a better relationship with food among the general public while still maintaining a healthy fitness outlook. (5)
Of course, while Intuitively Eating, doesn’t mean that you eat anything and everything you get your hands on, one can still stick to the same standards for food, for example, prioritizing nutrient-dense food, eschewing saturated fats, going for whole grain foods and eating natural fruits and vegetables, and overall avoiding, but not eliminating processed foods and minimizing the consumption of sugars and other empty calories. These are still staples of a healthy diet, but with intuitive eating, you get to make those decisions instead of having to consult a strict meal plan of when and how much to eat. With intuitive eating, you just pay closer attention to how your body is responding to the food that you eat.
Benefits of Intuitive Eating
Intuitive eating has been found to reduce emotional and uncontrolled eating. (6) Of course, emotional eating is when you eat not for its nutritional benefit but because it is a comforting act, or to relieve stress or anxieties. Some people call it stress eating. Uncontrolled eating is binge-eating or compulsive overeating which many people tend to engage in and is a problem among dieters who feel very restricted in their food choices due to being deprived of their favorite or preferred foods, which sometimes leads to a cycle of intense dieting, followed by falling off of the diet and binge eating, then returning to another cycle of intense dieting in order to make it up, if at all. Intuitive eating can help those with disorders from engaging in unhealthy binging and bad food habits as well as improve their relationship to food in general.
In a study of 382 men and women who self-reported their weights, compared rigid diets and intuitive eating. It was found that intuitive eating was helpful and correlated with weight stability in men and women with eating disorders. (7)
Aside from anecdotal evidence regarding people participating in Intuitive eating, a study that included 94 female university students found that a non-dieting approach is feasible and may result in improvements in eating and weight-related behaviors in young adult women. It also found that there were some overall improvements over time in food choices as well as mental health quality of life improvement after follow-up interviews. (8)
Intuitive eating is associated with better physical health, having lower body mass index, cholesterol, and blood pressure, as well as better emotional and psychological health, higher levels of unconditional self-regard and body satisfaction as well as lower levels of depression, and a lower incidence of disordered eating behaviors. (1).
It appears that having an acceptance-based psychological approach combined with intuitive eating appears to promote the best result, so instead of attempting to reject and suppress our cravings, we accept that we have these cravings and that we have limited control over them. This yielded better outcomes for weight loss and maintenance strategies. (3)
With intuitive eating, you are not eating under caloric restrictions any longer, and nor are you prevented from eating any particular food group. It promotes a healthier outlook regarding food as well as having stronger body acceptance for and by others. (9)
It is still important to note that size acceptance and reduction in dieting behavior still do result in improved health risk indicators for obese women. (10)
How is This Different from Other Diets?
Intuitive eating is definitely different from other strict diets or even mindful eating. It does not conform to the typical, calorie-counting diet. Or even other diets that severely restrict the consumption of a particular food group. It’s not a fancy new diet like Keto, Paleo, or Paleo. It’s not time-sensitive like intermittent fasting either. With other, more rigid diets, you are paying strict attention to your Total Daily Energy Expenditure needs, your Proteins, Carbs, and Fats as well as any calorie restrictions imposed. So, counting calories may be beneficial in order to stick to those diets to reach goal weights. (11)
While it is possible to maintain or lose weight on it, Intuitive eating is not likely to be touted as the next weight loss craze. Though it is possible to lose, gain or maintain weight with an Intuitive eating diet. That simply isn’t the goal of intuitive eating.
It is also different from rigid and restricted diets in that those diets often are linked with weight instability, whereas the Intuitive Eating model helps maintain weight stability instead. (12)
Intuitive eating goes hand in hand with body acceptance, Intuitive eating is a healthy way to satisfy your hunger not to change your weight. The concept is relatively simple. Be mindful when eating and pay attention to how sated your hunger is. With Intuitive eating. You respect your hunger and give yourself permission to eat as you get hungry.
It is an option to consider if you think you would enjoy it more than your current diet or if it would work for you because it may not be for everyone. Some people even experience that once they gave themselves permission to make their own food choices, they made better health choices for themselves without the mental guilt of indulging every once in a while.
For many that have tried intuitive eating after years of being on a variety of strict diets, it has become the first time they started to get in touch with their hunger and satiety cues. After years of perpetually starving themselves and depriving themselves of foods they enjoy eating, intuitive eating can be a liberating experience even though there has been anecdotal evidence that people who transition from strict diets still have trouble letting go of the food restrictions.
A study done on male and female college students found that self-weighing and calorie counting was associated with eating disorders. On the other hand, Intuitive Eating included in health promotion efforts may lead to healthier food choices that relate to more holistic health outcomes. (13)
However, this doesn’t mean that you have to totally abandon counting calories. (11) Intuitive Eating can still be done and you can still continue to log your daily calories consumed, if only for the knowledge of what you are putting in your body.
Just because it is intuitive does not mean that you have to abandon all measures for fitness.
Who is This For?
Many people who have flocked to intuitive eating are ones coming from very restrictive diets or have been maintaining caloric deficits for a long period of time. Some have developed eating disorders because of this, and others yet have had an unhealthy relationship with food in general, holding a lot of guilt and anxiety about overindulging.
It may be for people who have struggled with maintaining weight and those who have had experiences falling off a diet after initially losing some weight.
How Much Preparation Does Intuitive Eating Need?
Intuitive eating does not take too much time to prepare and is not dissimilar to other diets in that way. When practicing intuitive eating, it does help to have some pre-cooked meals for convenience and ease of access, however, meal preparation is not required. For many people who are starting out, it might be convenient to just order in or there might be a temptation to over consume processed foods that are readily available instead of whipping up a home-cooked meal. In order to avoid the potential problem of overconsumption and overreliance on takeout and processed foods, it may be a good idea to have food ready in case hunger strikes.
How to Start Practicing Intuitive Eating
If you are currently on some form of diet but want to try out or transition to intuitive eating, it’s not recommended to suddenly shift and drastically change your diet. What might be more effective for you to try is to simply attempt intuitive eating during the weekends first, this will help you get used to the idea more and not have to make such a drastic change from the rigor of a strict diet.
Even after you fully transition, you will need to become more conscious and give yourself permission to eat the food that you want, whilst still paying attention to your satiety and hunger cues. One reason why people gain weight after adopting intuitive eating is that while they easily felt and were in tune with their hunger cues, they were not really feeling their satiety cues.
Remember, Intuitive eating is not about dieting and losing weight quickly. It may not give you immediate weight loss results, but it frees you from the anxiety, stress, depression, and deprivation of a strict diet.
You have to honor your hunger and respect your body’s ability to let you know when you are full and satiated. Listen to your body, eat when you are hungry, and have whatever you are craving but pay attention to both your hunger cues as well as your satiety cues, you don’t want to overeat for emotional or mental reasons. We eat as much as our bodies tell us to, which means we have to listen to our body when it tells you are full. Pause in the middle of eating and be mindful of how hungry you still feel.
Cope with your emotions by processing them instead of eating until they go away. Food does not solve any of our problems or mental issues, such as anxiety, loneliness, boredom, or anger. They are part of the range of emotions you will feel on a daily basis but they cannot be treated by eating yourself away. You can try a simple change in perspective, by seeing food not as a way to release stress but as a way to provide nourishment to your body is key.
Making good food choices is part of respecting your body. Though we want to eat food that tastes good, our bodies are not made only to need delicious tasting food. It requires nutrients and balance in our diet. Part of respecting our bodies is making sure it has the building blocks to repair themselves and the energy to sustain our daily needs.
Intuitive eating is not just about losing food and calorie restrictions. It is all about having a healthier relationship and outlook on food so that we can be freed from the anxiety and stress of maintaining a diet. You can choose healthier alternatives every step of the way. But at the same time, you can also choose to partake in food that on stricter diets would be absolutely forbidden to you.
With intuitive eating, how, when, and why you eat is just as important as the food choices you make. The rise of Intuitive eating in recent years speaks to the growing desire in people to seek more holistic and healthy relationships with food.
Let your own internal cues of hunger and fullness inform your eating habits so you can have a healthy relationship with food.
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